April 12th Holidays and Observances

The Union Jack Becomes Flag of Great Britain, 1606

I guess I’d never really thought too much about the Union Jack. I’ve lived in the United States all my life, and of course I’ve studied American History. I knew that our first flag, the Grand Union Flag, had incorporated the Union Jack in the upper left hand corner (known as a canton, in “flag-speak”). But I’d never really thought about where it came from.

All things have a beginning, of course, and the Union Jack came about when England and Scotland were united in the 17th century. James I of England and Scotland (previously known as James VI of Scotland) became king in 1603, and a mere three years later the now-united Great Britain had a flag.

To understand how the flag was devised, first picture the Cross of St. George — a simple red cross on a white background. The cross had been one of the earliest emblems of England, and had even been used in the Crusades. Next, picture the St. Andrew’s Cross, the national symbol of Scotland — a white diagonal cross on a blue field. Now put them together, superimposing the St. George’s Cross on the St. Andrew’s Cross. Look familiar?

Now, if you’re a Scotsman, and your sovereign’s just taken on the additional crown of England, there’s only one possible response to the new flag: Why is the English flag on top? That’s exactly what the Scots wanted to know, and they proposed their own version, with the Cross of St. Andrew superimposed on the Cross of St. George. A group of Scotsmen proposed just this to the new monarch. The flag actually was used in Scotland for awhile, but it never had official status.

To further complicate things, in 1801 the Kingdom of Ireland merged with the Kingdom of Great Britain to form the new United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Ireland had an emblem, too, the Cross of St. Patrick, which is a diagonal red cross on a white background. When you add St. Patrick’s Cross, you have pretty much the whole package — the flag of the UK as it looks today.

Now, of course, there hasn’t been any provision made for Wales yet, and some Welsh favor adding the Welsh Red Dragon to the mix. I don’t even want to speculate about how that’s all going to turn out.

Many flags of the world now display the Union Jack in the canton, as the US Grand Union Flag did. It makes sense, since the various countries were once British colonies. This also explains why the flag of the City of Baton Rouge includes the pre-1801 Union Jack, along with the French Fleur-de-Lis and the Castile of Spain — all three flags have flown over Baton Rouge.

Interestingly, the State Flag of Hawaii also incorporates the Union Jack into its design. The story is that the Hawaiian King Kamehameha asked a British naval officer about the piece of cloth flying from his mast. The mariner told him that it represented the authority of the King. Kamehameha didn’t understand that it represented a particular king, and started flying the Union Jack to represent his own authority.

Attack on Fort Sumter, 1861

The attack on Fort Sumter was the first major engagement of the American Civil War. It all started mildly enough. Who would have thought that the war would stretch on for four years and claim 1,030,000 deaths?

Six days after the secession of South Carolina, Union Army Major Robert Anderson decided to relocate two companies of the 1st US Artillery to Fort Sumter. He did it on his own authority, believing that it occupation of the fort would prevent an attack by the South Carolina militia. The fort was not quite finished and more than half of the cannons were out of commission.

Over the next few months, Confederate Brigadier General P. G. T. Beauregard repeatedly demanded that they abandon the fort. They declined to leave. The Confederate Army managed to cut off incoming supplies and personnel by preventing the steamer Star of the West from docking.

On April 12, Beauregard sent aides to Anderson to again demand surrender of the fort. Anderson again refused. The aides went back to tell Beauregard. Beauregard, after consulting with his Secretary of War, sent the aides back. Anderson considered his options for a few hours, while the aides patiently waited. Finally, at about 3 am, Anderson announced the conditions under which he would surrender. The aides informed him that the conditions were not acceptable.

With that, the aides left, and about an hour and a half later, the Confederates began firing on Fort Sumter from the nearby Fort Johnson. The Confederates would fire on Fort Sumter for 34 straight hours, but the Union soldiers didn’t return a single shot for the first two. They were short on ammunition, more than half of the cannons didn’t work, and they didn’t have fuses for their cannon shells — they could only fire solid balls. When they did return fire, it wasn’t particularly effective, partly because they didn’t use the cannons on the highest level — they were more exposed to fire from the Confederates.

Finally, on April 13th, the Armstrong surrendered. No Union soldiers had been killed during the battle. One Confederate soldier died, the result of a misfiring Confederate cannon. The Confederates gave permission to the Union soldiers for a 100 shot salute while the Union flag was lowered, which turned out to be the biggest blow for the Union — two soldiers were killed by the accidental igniting of some gunpowder on the 47th shot. The salute was changed to a 50 shot salute.

Broughton Bridge Incident, 1831

On April 12, 1831, the 60th Rifle Corps of the British Army was carrying out an exercise in Kersai Moor, near what is now Manchester, England. As part of the exercise, a detachment of 74 men crossed the Broughton Suspension Bridge.

The bridge was only five years old, and was considered a local marvel. It was one of the first modern suspension bridges, 144 feet of modern technology crossing the River Irwell.

The men were marching four abreast and, as they marched over the bridge, they noticed it vibrating in time to their marching. They thought the effect was sort of pleasant, and one man began whistling a marching tune. The men, according to a contemporary report, began to “humor it by the manner in which they stepped,” increasing the effect. Suddenly a loud sound was heard, a bolt snapped, and one of the columns holding the suspension chains collapsed, taking part of the pier with it. About 40 men fell into the river.

I don’t pretend to really understand the physics of bridge design, but apparently this is an example of mechanical resonance. The marching of the soldiers reinforced the natural frequency of the vibration of the bridge, causing it to collapse.

The occurrence at Broughton Bridge that day wasn’t catastrophic. The men fell only 16 or 18 feet into water that was only about two feet deep. None were killed, although 20 were injured, six seriously with broken arms and legs and severe bruising.

There was one other significant consequence, however. From then on, British soldiers were ordered to “break step” whenever crossing a bridge.

Sources: Chase’s Calendar of Events, 2011 Edition: The Ultimate Go-To Guide for Special Days, Weeks and Months, Editors of Chase’s Calendar of Events; en.wikipedia.org/wiki/April_12th; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Union_jack; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fort_Sumter; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Civil_War; Fort Sumter: The Civil War Begins, Sabrina Crewe, Michael V. Uschan; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Broughton_Suspension_Bridge#cite_note-Guardian-4; How It Works: Science and Technology, Marshall Cavendish Corporation.