Because life is often unfair, great fame and great recognition do not always go hand in hand with great accomplishments. History is chock full of figures who played oversized roles in shaping key events in their days – events that influence our very lives to this day – but who are widely unrecognized or are greatly underappreciated. Following are forty fascinating things about some of history’s underappreciated people.
40. The Serb Who Came to America With Four Cents and Big Dreams
In 1884, Nikola Tesla (1856 – 1943), a Serb from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, arrived in America with four cents in his pocket, some poems, and blueprints for making a flying machine. The flying machine was never built, but by 1900 Tesla had revolutionized the world by effectively harnessing the power of electricity.
Electricity had been around for some time, but it took Tesla to make the things that made electricity an everyday part of everyday life. Among other things, he invented fluorescent lights, electric generators, the FM radio, spark plugs, remote controls, robots, and the Tesla Coil that is used to transmit radio and TV broadcasts. He was also a… character, one could say, with quirks that made him the epitome of a made-for-Hollywood mad scientist.
With a record of 1093 patents to his name, Thomas Edison, “The Wizard of Menlo Park”, is often described as the world’s most prolific inventor. In reality, most of Edison’s inventions were either by people he hired and whose inventions he then patented in his own name, or by strangers who had nothing to do with him, but whose inventions Edison simply stole.
Nikola Tesla was among those in the former category. Shortly after Tesla’s arrival in the US, Edison hired the brilliant but naïve new immigrant to redesign his electrical generators and perfect his light bulb, promising him $50,000 if he did so. Tesla did so, but when he asked for the $50,000 he had been promised, Edison laughed it off, telling him: “Tesla, you just don’t understand our American humor. When you become a full-fledged American, you will appreciate an American joke“.
After Thomas Edison screwed him over, Nikola Tesla took his talents to Edison’s greatest business rival, George Westinghouse. Nowadays, alternating current (AC) lights up our homes and workplaces, and powers up our appliances through wall sockets. By contrast, direct current (DC), is relegated mostly to batteries.
In the nineteenth century, however, the issue was undecided, and powerful interests fiercely competed to decide whether AC or DC would dominate the world. AC was supported by Westinghouse, who pushed it as the best means to bring electricity to the masses. On DC’s side was Thomas Edison. There was serious money at stake, and in hindsight, considering that Tesla’s talents settled the issue in favor of AC, Edison might have had cause to regret screwing his former employee over.
Direct current (DC) is crappy when compared to alternating current (AC), because DC is weaker and can only be transported short distances. However, Thomas Edison had already invested millions in DC, and he was not about to let the upstart AC flush that investment down the drain if he could help it.
Unfortunately for Edison, the former employee whom he had screwed over and in whose face he had laughed, ended up playing a key role in flushing that DC investment away. Nikola Tesla, working for AC advocate George Westinghouse, basically designed the modern AC electricity supply system that ensured its easy delivery and use. In so doing, Tesla ensured the defeat of Thomas Edison and his DC plan in what came to be known as “The War of the Currents“.
In his personal life, Nikola Tesla was an… “unusual” character. In addition to being a celibate, he hated human hair, jewelry, and anything that could not be divided by three. He had to count his steps to make sure that they were divisible by three – otherwise, or if he lost count, he would have to do his journey all over again.
Tesla also had a phobia of round things. So powerful was his fear of round items, that he once got a fever from looking at a peach.
Tesla also claimed to have invented a death ray that could explode or vaporize things at a considerable distance. Many suspected that he was responsible for the 1908 Tunguska Event, which flattened thousands of square kilometers of Siberian tundra with an explosion 3000 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped over Hiroshima.
In reality, Tesla had nothing to do with the Tunguska Event, and there is no evidence that he had ever invented a usable death ray. However, after Tesla’s death, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had all his papers seized, out of fear that others might use them to develop weapons of mass destruction.
In addition to his key role in developing readily usable alternating current – a scientific contribution that by itself revolutionized the world – Nikola Tesla had a long list of other major inventions. He had over 700 patents in 26 countries, that included: X-ray devices; electric generators; electric arc lamps; fluorescent lights; spark plugs; robots; remote controls, bladeless turbines, the Tesla Coil; and FM radio.
Indeed, the modern world as we know it would be impossible without Tesla. As the American Institute of Electrical Engineers put it: “Were we to seize and eliminate from our industrial world the results of Mr. Tesla’s work, the wheels of industry would cease to turn, our towns would be dark“.
In addition to his practical inventions, Nikola Tesla was a visionary who foresaw inventions that were beyond the state of science and engineering in his day, but which he predicted would become a reality someday. He foresaw cell phones, artificial intelligence, lasers, vertical-lift aircraft, the wireless transmission of energy, and radar. Take radar: its inventor Emile Girardeau credited his work to plans drawn by Tesla decades earlier, to transmit radio signals and receive their reflections on a fluorescent screen.
Unfortunately, while a great genius and inventor – vastly superior to the more famous Thomas Edison – Tesla was a poor businessman. An outsider who spoke with an accent, Tesla got taken advantage of repeatedly by shrewder entrepreneurs. So while Edison capitalized on his inventions and those of others to live and die in the lap of luxury, Tesla died in poverty in 1943, flitting between a series of NYC hotels, and leaving behind unpaid bills.
32. The Guy Who Saved Western Europe From the Huns
Few people have been as underappreciated as Flavius Aetius (391 – 454), and not just in contemporary popular culture, where Aetius is unknown to most, including many history buffs. He was also underappreciated by his contemporary government, which demonstrated its ingratitude in the most visceral way possible, rewarding his valiant efforts on its behalf by murdering him.
A Roman statesman and the last great general of the Western Roman Empire, Aetius was born into a military family, and spent part of his youth as a hostage of the barbarian Visigoths, and later the Huns. Living amongst the barbarians gave him valuable insider knowledge and insights, which came in handy. It helped Aetius stop Attila the Hun, ruler of a nomadic empire that spanned Eastern and Central Europe and known as “The Scourge of God” for his depredations, from overrunning Western Europe.
During his reign, 434 – 453, Attila the Hun menaced the civilized world, invaded Persia, terrorized the Eastern and Western Roman Empires, plundered the Balkans, and extorted vast sums of gold from the Romans. In 440, he crossed the Danube, plundered the Balkans, and destroyed two Roman armies. The Roman emperor admitted defeat, and Attila extorted from him a treaty that paid 2000 kilograms of gold up front, plus an annual tribute of 700 kilograms of gold each year. In 447, Attila returned to the Balkans, which he ravaged until he reached the walls of Constantinople, before recoiling.
In 450, the Western Roman Emperor’s sister sought to escape a betrothal to an old aristocrat whom she disliked, by begging Attila’s help and sent him her engagement ring. Attila interpreted that as a marriage proposal, accepted, and asked for half of the Western Roman Empire as dowry. When the Romans balked, Attila invaded, visiting his usual depredations, and Aetius was put in charge of organizing the resistance.
By the time Attila the Hun invaded Western Europe, the Western Roman Empire had been reduced to a shell of its former self, and lacked the military means to stand up to the Huns on its own. So Aetius formed an alliance with the barbarian Visigoths, promising them a homeland of their own in southwestern France in exchange for fighting off the Huns alongside the Romans. At the climactic battle of the Cataulaunian Plains in 451, Aetius and the Visigoths defeated Attila, bringing his devastating invasion of Western Europe to an end.
Aetius’ success aroused the jealousy of the Western Roman Emperor Valentinian III, who felt intimidated by his formidable general. On September 21st, 454, Aetius was delivering a report to the emperor when Valentinian leaped up from his throne, and out of the blue, accused the general of drunken depravities. Then, before the bewildered Aetius knew what was happening, the emperor and a co-conspirator hacked the startled general to death with a sword.
During the American Revolution, the Patriot’s most important spy network, the Culper Ring, owed a great debt to Anna Smith Strong (1740 – 1812) of Setauket, New York. The ring’s leader, Abraham Woodhull, frequently traveled to New York City under the cover of his occupation as a farmer delivering produce, or to visit his sister, who lived in the city. While in New York, he gathered information about British units in the city, their dispositions, and any news he overheard from talkative Loyalists and British officers.
Close questioning by inquisitive British soldiers during one of those visits drove home to Woodhull the deadly risks he was running. To reduce his exposure and the frequency of his travels, he began leaning more on recruiting spies in the city, and using their reports instead of his personal observations. Anna Strong helped speed up the transmission of the gathered intelligence.
Abraham Woodhull gathered intelligence from NYC, and took it to Setauket on Long Island. He then delivered it to Caleb Brewster, a courier and smuggler who delivered it to Major Benjamin Tallmadge, who handed it to George Washington. It was a time-consuming process that was eventually shortened by using couriers to collect the information in New York, and speedily get it to Setauket, 55 miles away.
Anna Strong used her laundry as a code to coordinate between Brewster and Woodhull. When Brewster was ready to pick up Woodhull’s reports, Anna would hang a black petticoat in her laundry as a signal to Woodhull. Woodhull would then finish compiling a report, and stash it in a prearranged hiding spot in one of six coves near Setauket. Anna would then hang up white handkerchiefs to dry, their number corresponding to the number of the cove where Woodhull had stashed the report. Brewster would then go to the correct cove, pick up the report, and deliver it across the Long Island Sound.
Few states can rival Ancient Athens when it comes to routine demonstrations of ingratitude towards saviors and heroes. Miltiades (550 – 489 BC), who led Athens in defeating a Persian invasion in 490 BC at the Battle of Marathon, was one of the earliest examples. A decade before the events of the movie 300, Marathon was an upset victory against a numerically superior force, which saved Athens from Persian conquest.
Miltiades was born into a wealthy aristocratic family that owned a private kingdom in the Chersonese (today’s Gallipoli Peninsula), which Miltiades inherited in 516 BC. When Darius I of Persia invaded the Chersonese in 513 BC, Miltiades surrendered and became a Persian vassal. In 499 BC, the Ionian Greeks of Asia Minor revolted against Persian rule. Miltiades marched against the rebels, but secretly supported their cause and helped funnel them aid from Athens.
26. Athens’ Aid to the Ionian Rebels Leads to a Persian Invasion
Athens sent an expeditionary force which joined the Ionian rebels in marching to the Persian governor’s seat in Sardis, putting it to the torch. The Persians eventually crushed the revolt in 495 BC and discovered Miltiades’ betrayal. He was forced to flee to Athens, where he was elected one of its ten generals.
The Persians determined to punish Athens for aiding the Ionians, and sent a punitive expedition which landed on the plain of Marathon north of Athens, in 490 BC. The Athenians marched out with a force of about 10,000 hoplites – armored heavy infantry – with no cavalry or archers. They faced a Persian force of at least 25,000 infantry, plus thousands of archers and 1000 cavalry.
Faced with the Persians’ numerical superiority at Marathon, the Athenians, who had ten generals and a rotating command system by which each held command for a day, wavered. For over a week, they simply watched the Persians from heights overlooking the plain, until Miltiades’ turn to take command. He convinced a closely divided war council to give battle. Descending from the heights, Miltiades assembled the army with reinforced flanks and a weakened center, and advanced. Once they got within Persian archery range, Miltiades ordered his men to charge at a full run.
They rapidly closed the distance, and smashed into the more lightly armed Persians. The Athenians’ reinforced flanks pushed back their opposition. They then wheeled inwards to attack the Persian center, which panicked, broke, and fled in a rout to the safety of their beached ships. It was a stunning victory, with the Athenians and their allies losing about 200 dead to the Persians’ 6400.
Following his brilliant victory at Marathon, Miltiades returned to Athens in glory. It did not last for long. The following year, he led a strong expedition against some Greek islands that had supported the Persians, but bungled it badly, and suffered a severe leg into the bargain.
Miltiades’ defeat seemed so absurd to the Athenians, that they figured it could only be explained by deliberate treachery on his part. His fellow citizens, whom he had so recently saved, put him on trial for treason. He was convicted and sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted to a heavy fine. Miltiades was kept in prison while his family friends scurried to raise the money for the fine, and died in lockup when his leg wound became infected.
Ahhotpe I (flourished 16th century BC), whose name means “The Moon is Satisfied”, was a warrior queen of ancient Egypt’s Seventeenth Dynasty. She led armies in combat against the Hyksos – Semitic invaders who had conquered Lower Egypt. Ahhotpe took control of Egypt’s throne and military after her husband was killed fighting the invaders, and ruled as regent during the minority of her son, Ahmose I. She kept up the pressure against the Hyksos until her son was old enough to take over the fight.
A stele records her deeds: “The king’s wife, the noble lady, who knew everything, assembled Egypt. She looked after what her Sovereign had established. She guarded it. She assembled her fugitives. She brought together her deserters. She pacified her Upper Egyptians. She subdued her rebels … She is the one who has accomplished the rites and taken care of Egypt… She has looked after her soldiers, she has guarded her, she has brought back her fugitives and collected together her deserters, she has pacified Upper Egypt and expelled her rebels.”
When Ahhotpe’s son came of age, he took the reins of power, chased out the Hyksos, and reunified Egypt. As Ahmose I, he went on to found the Eighteenth Dynasty, during which the Egyptian Empire reached its zenith, stretching from Syria in the north to Nubia in the south, and from Mesopotamia in the west to the Libyan deserts in the west.
Hyksos-sympathizing rebels attempted to seize the throne while Ahhotpe’s son was busy in the south warring with Nubians. So she rallied loyal troops, personally led them in fighting off the rebels, and foiled their attempt. For that, she was rewarded with the “Golden Flies of Valor“, Ancient Egypt’s highest military award for courage – the Pharaohs’ version of America’s Medal of Honor or Britain’s Victoria Cross. It was discovered in her tomb, along with weapons and jewelry, thousands of years later.
During the American Civil War, Mary Ann Bickerdyke (1817 – 1901) served as a nurse and hospital administrator for the Union army. She helped establish hundreds of field hospitals for the wounded and sick, and after the war, spent decades helping veterans and their families secure their pensions. Her deep concern for and tireless efforts on the soldiers’ behalf earned her the nickname “Mother Bickerdyke” from the men in blue, and won the admiration of many of their commanders, including US Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman.
Born and raised in Ohio, Bickerdyke was one of the first women to attend Oberlin College. She eventually settled in Illinois, where she made a living as a botanic physician and a provider of alternative medicines, using plants and herbs. That skill set served her well during the Civil War.
Soon after the Civil War began, a surgeon in an Illinois regiment and a friend of Mary Ann Bickerdyke wrote home about the abysmal conditions in military hospitals in Cairo, Illinois. Bickerdyke’s community collected $500 worth of supplies, and she was the only volunteer willing to deliver them.
She ended up getting appointed as a field agent for the US Sanitary Commission – a private relief agency created to support sick and wounded soldiers. A strong-willed woman, she was determined to let nothing stand in the way of her quest to bring order to field hospitals and improve a lot of the soldiers being treated in them.
When an Army surgeon questioned Mary Ann Bickerdyke’s authority, she retorted that she was acting: “On the authority of the Lord God Almighty. Have you anything that outranks that?” On another occasion, when members of US Grant’s staff complained to William Tecumseh Sherman of Bickerdyke’s defiance of some regulations, he threw up his hands and exclaimed: “She outranks me. I can’t do a thing in the world“.
In addition to running hospitals, Bickerdyke accompanied Union armies, braving shot and shell to scour the battlefields for wounded men missed by stretcher-bearers, who might still be saved. Those whom she personally rescued included General John “Black Jack” Logan, commander of XV Corps, who had been wounded and left on the field for dead at Fort Donelson. By the time the war was over, Bickerdyke had helped set up over 300 field hospitals, and had been the difference-maker in saving the lives of thousands.
Themistocles (524 – 460 BC) was a brilliant politician and admiral, whose strategy saved Athens and Greece from Persian subjugation with a victory at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC. Born to an aristocratic father and a non-Greek concubine, Themistocles was ineligible for Athenian citizenship, until democratic reforms made citizens of all free men in Athens. That made him a lifelong champion of democracy.
In 490 BC, the Persians sent a punitive expedition to Athens, in retaliation for Athenian support of Persia’s Greek subjects in Asia during a failed rebellion. The Persians were defeated at the Battle of Marathon, after which most Athenians thought the danger had passed. Not Themistocles. In the 480s BC, Athens’ state-owned silver mines struck a rich vein, and many Athenians called for dividing the windfall among the citizens. Themistocles, convinced that the Persians would return, called for investing the new riches in warships.
Themistocles’ naval strategy faced strong opposition: a big navy meant higher taxes borne by the rich. It would also enhance the political clout of the poorer classes who would row the ships. A land strategy based on hoplites, such as those who had won at Marathon, would cost less. It also would not erode the monopoly of the middle and upper classes – the only ones who could afford to equip themselves as hoplites – on the prestige of being the city’s sole armed protectors.
Themistocles engineered the ostracism and banishment of his opponents from Athens, then won the Athenian Assembly’s approval for his ship-building program. By 480 BC, when the Persians launched a massive invasion of Greece, Athens had over 200 triremes – as many as the rest of Greece combined. The city also had a booming ship-building industry, and her shipyards were kept constantly busy, churning out new warships.
After overcoming a Spartan force at Thermopylae, the Persians marched on Athens, where many wanted to fight the advancing army. Themistocles convinced them it would be futile. Supported by a vague prophecy from the Oracle of Delphi, whom Themistocles had probably bribed, he argued that Athens should place her faith not on the city’s walls, but on her “wooden walls – her ships. Thus, when the Persians arrived, they found a nearly deserted Athens, whose citizens had been evacuated to the nearby island of Salamis. The Persians razed Athens’ walls, and put the city to the torch.
The war’s decisive battle was fought off Salamis in 480 BC. Athens’ Greek allies wavered and were about to take their ships and go home, when Themistocles forced a battle by tricking Persia’s King Xerxes into believing he had switched sides. He convinced Xerxes to attack the Greek ships in restricted waters, which had tricky tides and wind patterns with which the Greeks were familiar, but the Persians were not. The result was a decisive Greek victory.
When the Athenians returned to their destroyed city, their Spartan allies asked them not to rebuild the city’s walls as a sign of good faith. Themistocles led a delegation to Sparta to negotiate, and dragged out the negotiations while the Athenians feverishly rebuilt the city walls. By the time the Spartans caught on, the walls had already been erected.
In subsequent years, Themistocles’ political fortunes declined, and despite his heroics in saving Athens, his city screwed him over. Not given to gratitude for long, the Athenians ostracized and exiled him some years after Salamis. Nimbly, he went to Persia, and ended his days governing some Greek cities in Asia Minor on behalf of the Persian king.
Jamaica’s pioneering nurse and Crimean War heroine Mary Seacole (1805 – 1881) was a black woman, who overcame the double prejudices of racism and sexism to accomplish great things and save thousands. A businesswoman and adventurer, she set up what came to be known as the “British Hotel” for convalescent officers behind the Crimean War’s front lines, and cared for wounded soldiers on the battlefield.
She was born to a Scottish soldier and a black mother who used traditional African and Caribbean herbal remedies and passed that knowledge on to her daughter. Seacole and her mother ran a boarding house for invalid soldiers, that was viewed as one of Kingston’s best hotels. The precarious health of many of the guests meant that Mary grew up with firsthand knowledge of dealing with ailments and physical crises. An inveterate traveler, she visited much of the Caribbean and Central America, as well as Britain, and complimented her knowledge of traditional medicines with European medical ideas.
Mary Seacole was in Britain during the Crimean War. She approached the War Office, asking to be sent as a nurse to Crimea, where medical care facilities were scandalously abysmal. Her request was rejected. Undaunted, she founded her own way to Crimea, where she established the “British Hotel” near Balaclava to provide “A mess table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers“. She also trekked to the battlefields, sometimes under fire, to nurse the wounded. Her courage in the face of mortal danger earned her the affectionate nickname “Mother Seacole“.
History records Florence Nightingale as the Crimean War’s foremost nurse, but during the conflict, and especially among the soldiers on the ground, Seacole’s fame rivaled that of Nightingale. Seacole returned to Britain after the war, destitute and in poor health. The press highlighted her plight, and in 1857, a benefit festival was held for her. It was attended by thousands, including many grateful Crimean War veterans.
Soviet Marshal Georgy Zhukov (1896 – 1974) gets his props in Russia, but his remarkable WWII achievements are quite underappreciated in the US and the West. The USSR’s most important military commander during WWII, Zhukov was arguably the greatest military commander of the entire conflict. He played a greater role than any other single individual in ensuring the Soviets’ survival early in the war and had a similarly outsized role in securing final victory.
Zhukov was Stalin’s golden boy, and almost always came through. He played a prominent role in nearly all the Soviet Union’s greatest battles and campaigns: the defense of Leningrad; the defense of Moscow; Stalingrad; Kursk; liberation of the Ukraine; Operation Bagration; and the climactic capture of Berlin. He not only planned those operations, but often oversaw their execution. And when problems arose, Zhukov was often rushed in as a troubleshooter to take direct command and sort things out.
No other WWII general played as many varied roles at the planning and operational levels, strategy and tactical implementation, as did Zhukov. So ubiquitous was his presence in nearly all Soviet successes, that it is sometimes difficult to tell just how good other Soviet commanders might have been. Whatever they did, Zhukov had frequently played a part in planning it, was often present at their side to see that they carried it out correctly, and sometimes even took over when things got tough.
Soon as the war ended, the ever paranoid Stalin began seeing the immensely popular and highly respected Zhukov as a potential threat. He was too popular for Stalin to simply have him executed, so other means were used. Less than a year after the victory, Zhukov was accused of political unreliability and hostility to the Communist Party. He was sacked as commander in chief of Soviet ground forces, and effectively banished to command an insignificant military district far from Moscow.
Along with his demotion, Zhukov was also persecuted by the NKVD, the KGB’s predecessor. Because his prestige and public standing were too high for arrest and torture, the NKVD went after his subordinates, arresting and torturing them instead. A series of investigations were launched, in which Zhukov was accused of official corruption, embezzlement of war booty, and plotting to seize power. Under the mounting persecution, Zhukov suffered a heart attack, and was hospitalized for a month.
His fortunes revived temporarily after Stalin’s death. In the housecleaning that followed, Zhukov had the satisfaction of personally arresting the NKVD’s chief, who was subsequently executed. In the new regime, Zhukov joined the Politburo, and was made Defense Minister in 1955. His popularity eventually worried his colleagues, however. As a result, while away from the USSR on a foreign trip in 1957, they voted to relieve him of all duties, and forced him into retirement.
9. The Sherlock Holmes Fan Who Pioneered Forensic Science
Chicago society dame Frances Glessner Lee (1878 – 1962) had a hobby that was quite unusual for women of her day: solving crimes and helping advance the science of forensics. She ended up developing a training system for homicide detectives that she called Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Deaths, parts of which are still in use today. She is considered the godmother of forensic science.
The daughter of an industrialist who became fabulously wealthy from investing in International Harvester, Lee got hooked on Sherlock Holmes tales as a young girl. She dreamt of growing up to become a crime solver and wanted to attend college, but her family would not permit it. She was also discouraged from pursuing her interests in forensic pathology. Her dreams did not die, however, and after the death of her father and then her brother, she inherited the International Harvester fortune at age 52.
Frances Glessner Lee eschewed splurging her inherited fortune on lavish parties for debutants, tycoons, and other society types. Instead, she made a sizeable endowment to the recently established Harvard Department of Legal Medicine – the country’s first such institution. In addition to her financial generosity, Lee hosted week-long seminars for homicide detectives, prosecutors, and other investigators, to train them on crime investigation techniques.
Her methodology, Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Deaths, consisted of 20 true crime scene dioramas, that she personally reproduced in painstaking detail on a dollhouse scale. Her dioramas were complete with working doors, windows, lights, and minute details all the way down to tiny food cans and miniature mousetraps. Students were given 90 minutes to study the scene, then try and solve the crime based on their observations. For her efforts, she was made an honorary captain in the New Hampshire State Police. 18 of her dioramas are still in use for training purposes.
Paul Revere’s eighteen-mile nighttime ride, April 18th, 1775, to warn the colonial militia of the approaching British, cemented his place in history. Especially after it got dramatized by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in Paul Revere’s Ride. In 1777, Sybil Ludington (1761 – 1839) made a forty-mile midnight ride to warn the colonial militia of approaching British troops. That was more than twice as far as Paul Revere’s ride, and she did it when she was only sixteen.
Sybil Ludington was born in Fredericksburg (now Ludington), the eldest of twelve siblings. Her father, Henry Ludington, was a New York militia officer, and later an aide to George Washington. On the night of April 26th, 1777, word reached the Ludington household that New York’s British governor, general William Tryon, was about to attack nearby Danbury, Connecticut, where the supplies and munitions for the entire region’s militia were stored.
Sybil Ludington volunteered (or was ordered by her father – accounts differ) to deliver the order for an immediate militia muster, and to rouse the countryside. In either case, the sixteen-year-old girl rode her horse, Star, throughout a rainy night on a forty-mile careen around the region. She traveled over unfamiliar roads, prodding the horse with a stick that she also used to knock on doors. The stick also came in handy to defend herself when a robber tried to waylay her in the dark.
By the time Sybil returned home, exhausted and soaked to the bone, most of the region’s 400 militia were ready to march to Danbury. They beat governor Tryon and his men, forcing the British to retreat. Sybil was praised by her neighbors, and even by George Washington. Unfortunately for her, no great poet took an interest in her exploits – or perhaps none could find anything good to rhyme with “Ludington”. Whatever the case, Sybil never garnered as much attention as Paul Revere, and her heroics were largely forgotten.
French revolutionary politician, general, and administrator Lazare Carnot (1753 – 1823), is another of those figure who played an outsized role in shaping history, but who is little known today. Despite valuable services to France, he got screwed over by his country.
A leading member of the Committees for General Defense and for Public Safety during the French Revolution, Carnot organized and oversaw the mass mobilization of French manpower. It came just in the nick of time to beat back foreign attacks from all sides, and to snuff out internal rebellions. Those accomplishments earned him the nickname The Organizer of Victory.
The son of a lawyer, Lazare Carnot attended a military school, and upon graduation in 1773, he was commissioned a lieutenant in the French royal army. He was a captain when the Revolution broke out in 1789. He entered politics, and by 1792, had been elected as a deputy to the National Convention. Assigned to the Committee for General Defense, Carnot exhibited a genius for administration.
He introduced mass conscription, known as the levee en masse, which put the entire French population at the disposal of the war effort. The French army grew from about 645,000 in 1793, to over 1,500,000 by 1794.
Carnot also reorganized the French military, upon realizing that the new revolutionary citizen armies lacked the training of the professional armies of France’s neighbors. Making a virtue out of necessity, Carnot changed French military doctrine to emphasize attacks by massed troops in dense columns. That required relatively little troop training, and when such columns were thrown at vulnerable points in enemy battle lines, they could overwhelm and break them with sheer mass.
The result was a series of stunning French victories that radically changed the war. France went from hard-pressed and on the edge of defeat in 1792, to victorious on all fronts, and on the offensive, fighting deep in enemy territory instead of on French soil. Carnot continued to serve the Revolution, and Napoleon thereafter, to France’s benefit. However, after Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815, the newly restored French Bourbon kings banished Carnot from France. He spent the final years of his life as an exile, until his death in 1823.
The US Army Nurse Corps was largely the creation of Dr. Anita Newcomb McGee. Born in 1864, Dr. McGee got her medical degree in 1892, and became one of the few female practicing doctors in Washington, DC. When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, she trained and organized volunteer nurses. Her organizing abilities led to her appointment as acting Assistant Surgeon General of the US Army, in charge of nurses, for the duration of the war. That made her the first woman authorized to wear an Army officer’s uniform.
During the conflict, McGee wrote a manual on nursing that was adopted by the American military and formed the basis for nursing practices for decades thereafter. Some parts survive as standard procedures to this day. After the war, she lobbied for the establishment of a permanent nurse corps, and wrote the section of the legislation that was subsequently enacted into law to establish the Army Nurse Corps in 1901.
After playing the lead role in establishing the Army Nurse Corps in the US, Dr. McGee went international, and took her expertise to Japan. In 1904, she led a contingent of volunteer nurses to serve in Japan during the Russo-Japanese War. She established a field hospital for the Imperial Japanese Army, and trained Japanese Red Cross nurses.
Given an officer’s rank by the Japanese government, she conducted inspections of field hospitals and hospital ships, and served as medical military attache with the Japanese army in Manchuria. Returning to America after the war, Dr. McGee resumed her medical practice, wrote about her war experiences, and lectured at the University of California. She died in 1940, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading