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No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.-- General George Patton Jr
The Federal occupation army used Jackson primarily as a quartermaster depot in 1862, sending supplies to its lead armies farther south. Situated around the city, along critical points of the railroad line and at important bridges and river crossings, were isolated detachments of Union soldiers. Their mission was to guard against forays by Confederates against the Union supply line, and to give early warning of an attack on Jackson. When Federal outposts sent word to Jackson on August 28th that a Confederate General by the name of Armstrong was marching north from Mississippi with 10,000 men, the secessionists in Jackson were elated; and the Federals and their sympathizers began scurrying about like ants to fortify the city.
The commander of all Confederate cavalry in the West, Major General Sterling Price, had indeed ordered Colonel Frank C. Armstrong to take his cavalry brigade north from Holly Springs, Mississippi into West Tennessee. Despite the exaggerated reports, Armstrong never had more than 3,300 troopers, and his mission was not to liberate Jackson. Armstrong's mission was classic for cavalry - raid north along the Mississippi and Tennessee Central Railroad, harass the enemy, stir-up the Federal detachments, interdict and disrupt the enemy's supply line, and do not become decisively engaged.
The man that Sterling Price chose to command the mission, Frank Crawford Armstrong, had only a year before been a Federal officer at the Battle of Bull Run. Having reconsidered his allegiance in the fall of 1861, Armstrong had earned his commander's confidence by performing well at the Battle of Pea Ridge in Arkansas, and received command of his own brigade.
On the 22nd of August, Acting Brigadier General Armstrong left Guntown, Mississippi with the core of this brigade, stopping in Holly Springs to pick up three more regiments. When he left there a few days later (August 27th), his command was 3,300 strong, including:
Col. McCulloch's 2nd Missouri
Col. Slemmons' 2nd Arkansas
Col. Pinson's 1st Mississippi
Col. Jackson's 7th Tennessee
Col. Barteau's 2nd Tennessee (commanded by Maj. Morton)
Col. Wheeler's 6th Tennessee (four companies)
Col. Wirt Adams' Regiment (Mississippians)
Col. Saunders Battalion (Alabamians)
Forest's old regiment (commanded by Ltc. Balch)
In the August 1922 issue of Confederate Veteran, C.Y. Ford of Company G., 2nd Missouri Cavalry describes this group as "a magnificent body of fighting cavalry, ready and eager to measure arms with the Federal." They camped the night of the 27th of August within four miles of LaGrange, Tennessee on a branch of the Wolf River, and remained there on the 28th, resting an extra day in anticipation of an arduous campaign.
While they rested, word of their approach spread among the Federals. On the following day, Colonel Elias S. Dennis, who would later figure dramatically in the battle at Britton's Lane, informed Colonel M.K. Lawler, commander of the post of Jackson, that Confederate General Bragg was at Guntown, Mississippi with an army of 6,000 cavalry, and that the soldiers at LaGrange were only the lead element.
After riding to within a few miles of Bolivar, Tennessee on Friday, the 29th of August, the Confederates were to taste their first battle when they encountered a Federal garrison the following day. After some seven hours of off-and-on skirmishing, the Federals drew back into Bolivar at nightfall on the 30th and prepared for a renewed attack the next day But at daylight on the 31st, Armstrong's brigade had disappeared - bypassing the enemy and again moving north, gobbling up isolated groups of Federals in blockhouses guarding the railroad. They pressed on until encountering another fortified position at Medon Station. After driving several detachments into the center of the community, Armstrong came upon some 150 Union soldiers barricaded behind cotton bales in the train depot. He sent a force to reconnoiter the enemy position, and was considering an attack when six companies of Federal reinforcements began arriving by train from Jackson. The Union commander at Jackson, M.K. Lawler, claims that the reinforcements sent to Medon Station formed in line and "charged the enemy, driving him from the town and inflictin~ considerable loss upon him." The 2nd Tennessee, which seen' to have had the lead in this affair, did take some casualties, but William Witherspoon, a private in the 7th Tennessee Cavalry, and author of Reminiscences of 61' and 65', says the skirmish Medon Station "amounted to not much damage on either side." John Milton Hubbard of the same regiment, in Notes of a Private (1911), claimed "nothing was accomplished by the attack and several Confederates were either killed or wounded."
Believing he couldn't defeat the Union garrison without a major or battle, Armstrong drew off to the west of Medon Station and camped that night on the Casey Savage farm. He must have realized that his encounters at Bolivar and Medon Station had alerted every Federal outpost for a hundred miles, and that the city of Jackson was bracing for an assault. In a dispatch to his boss, General Price, Armstrong seems to suggest that his mission has been accomplished.
". . .I have crossed the Hatchie; passed between Jackson and Bolivar; destroyed the bridges and one mile of trestle work between the two places, holding for more than thirty hours the road."
The fast and arduous campaign had taken its toll on Armstrong's soldiers. According to Leut. Col. Frank Montgomery of the 1st Mississippi Cavalry, in his Reminiscences of a Mississippian (1901),
"Early next morning we started on our return to camp in Mississippi, having accomplished all we could by our raid, and took a road leading towards a place or town called Denmark. The whole command was worn out, and decidedly hungry, since we had been out nearly a week, and away from our wagon trains... "
William Witherspoon confirms Montgomery's assessment from the private soldier's viewpoint.
"We were ordered not to make any big fires, we gathered the brush and started our fires, not that it was cold, but the corn in the field was getting hard, September 1st, and we wanted to make embers and ashes to roast the corn" "... Our supper, exclusively a parched corn diet, breakfast ditto. Early we mounted 'en route' to Denmark."
As they road toward Denmark, on Monday, September 1st, Frank Montgomery confided in a fellow officer that he thought "there would be no more fighting on this raid." But that soldier didn't share his belief.
"While marching along, it so happened I was riding by the side of Captain Beall, and I observed he was unusually quiet. He was always the life of the camp, a genial, jovial gentleman. At last he told me he was impressed by a presentiment he would be killed before we got back to Mississippi. I laughed at him and told him his presentiment would come to nothing and that he himself would laugh at it on the morrow... "
The conversation between Montgomery and his worried compatriot was scarcely finished before the Southerners entered into one of the most intense battles that many of them would experience during the war.
From the first news of Armstrong's soiree into west Tennessee, the Federals had made the defense of Jackson their priority. A sergeant of the 20th Illinois Infantry, who was hospitalized in Jackson, made the following entries in The Civil War Diary of Allen Morgan Geer:
"Sat. Aug. 30 tieth 1862-... a rebel force of 15,000 reported at LaGrange bearing on Bolivar & Corinth. Sunday, Aug. 31st 1862-Sharp skirmishing reported in the vicinity of Bolivar our forces hold their ground.. Medon's Guards dispersed reinforcements sent to aid."
"Monday, September 1st. 1862-. Jackson was deemed in danger of attack and the greatest activity prevailed in putting the city in a state of defense."
M.K. Lawler expected Armstrong in Jackson at any time, so on August 31st he sent a message to Colonel Elias S. Dennis who commanded a brigade stationed at Estanaula landing, some twenty-five miles from Jackson along the Hatchie River. Lawler ordered Dennis to strike tents, destroy what he couldn't carry, and double-time his infantry back to Jackson to help defend the city.
G.B. MacDonald, a musician with the 30th Illinois at Estanaula, writes in A History of the 30th Illinois Veteran Volunteer Infantry (1916),
"... our teams had been to Jackson for provisions, and two barrels of whiskey was in the supply. We hurriedly packed our knapsacks and loaded the wagons with camp equipage. The two barrels of whiskey was cumbersome for troops on a forced march. The heads were knocked in and the barrels upset and the whiskey went on the ground. The boys could not stand to see such a waste as that, and they got busy dipping it up in their hands and drinking it, and went on their way rejoicing. "
Elias S. Dennis had under his command his own 20th Illinois Infantry, the 30th Illinois Infantry, the 4th Ohio Independent Cavalry Company, thirty- four men of the 4th Illinois Cavalry, and a two~un section of Battery E, 2nd Illinois Light Artillery - all totaling some 1,500 men. As his brigade marched for Jackson, Dennis continued to hear rumors of a large Confederate force moving north. When he reached Denmark, he received new orders from Lawler instructing him to march toward Medon "to intercept the enemy near that point." Dennis camped that night near the Presbyterian Church in Denmark.
The next morning, Monday September 1st, while Armstrong's men finished roasting their corn and began marching toward Denmark, Dennis' command set out along the most direct route to Medon, a fourteen-foot wide, dusty country lane named for the wealthy farmer Thomas Britton, who owned property along the road. Dennis expected no battle until he reached Medon. Armstrong, now moving west along present- day Collins Road, seems to have anticipated no fight at all. At about 9:30 that morning, the advanced guard of both elements ran into each other where the Steam Mill Ferry Road intersects Collins Road and Britton's Lane today.
In front of Dennis' command was his one company of independent cavalry, and close behind them was at least a company of infantry serving as advance guard. Next came the 20th Illinois, his artillery section with assorted supply trains, and the 30th Illinois behind them. The column must have stretched some three or four miles back in the direction of Denmark when Foster's cavalry encountered Armstrong. According to C.Y. Ford of the 2nd Missouri Cavalry, it appears Dennis' men saw the Confederates first, for they had time to bring forward their two cannons from the center of their column, and deploy skirmishers before Armstrong's lead regiment know they were around.
"... we dismounted to rest a short time and were standing by our horses, when two pieces of artillery let loose two charges of grapeshot into our column at point-blank range. "
Sergeant Edwin H. Fay, in a letter written to his wife four days after the battle, called it an "ambush" and blamed local citizens loyal to the Union for "let us rush right into it."
This began the Battle of Britton's Lane.
The realization that his 1,500 infantrymen might be facing anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 well-armed Confederate cavalry (although there were never more than 3,300) forced Dennis to make an immediate decision. Actually, Dennis had little choice. If he turned and fled toward Denmark, he could not hope to outrun the cavalry that would pursue him, and such a move might lead to the wholesale slaughter of his brigade, or its capture at the very least. If he chose to fight, he'd be outnumbered and probably overwhelmed. Making a virtue of necessity, Dennis decided to take his chances with a fight, and quickly brought the rest of the 20th Illinois into line behind a wormwood fence to support his artillery. By selecting a strong defensive position along a ridge, covered on the flanks by rugged terrain that the enemy's cavalry would not be able to negotiate, he had effectively blocked Armstrong's route of march. Dennis initially deployed companies B and G of the 20th Illinois on the left of the road, and the remainder of the regiment on the right. Then after positioning his two cannon squarely in the middle of Britton's Lane, and dispatching a courier to order the 30th Illinois forward at the doublequick, he braced for an attack.
Immediately after taking fire, and more as a matter of reflex than that of planning, the lead regiment of Armstrong's brigade, the 2nd Missouri, along with Forrest's old regiment, made a hasty charge to silence the cannon. But the supporting Union infantry combined with the artillery to pour a heavy fire into their ranks and drive them back.
Frank C. Armstrong's decision to fight Elias S. Dennis along this country road in south Madison County has led to much speculation during the past century. Why did Armstrong, after declining to get heavily involved in two other battles - Bolivar, where he greatly outnumbered his opponent - and Medon Station, where a sudden, aggressive assault might have captured both the defenders of the depot and their on-rushing reinforcements - suddenly find it worth the price to fight at Britton's Lane? If Armstrong believed his mission was completed, as his report and the observations of his men would indicate, why did he not skirt west of Dennis' position and return to Mississippi unscathed via Estanaula? His command was full of Madison County men who knew every road and cowpath in that part of West Tennessee, and certainly he knew that by taking what is now called the Steam Mill Ferry Road he need not fight Dennis at all. Dennis' infantry were not going to catch him on foot, and given the Federals' situation, Armstrong moving on would probably have been a relief to Dennis. Instead he chose to fight his way through the Federals to get to Denmark. Many have advanced theories as to why it was so important for Armstrong to reach Denmark, suggesting everything from the need for supplies and ammunition to a quest for hidden gold. His reasons may never be known, but whatever they were, Armstrong began what amounted to a four-phase attack, and decisively committed his cavalry force against Dermis.
Hearing the artillery, Armstrong came galloping forward to the head of the column, just in time to meet the two regiments repulsed in their first attempt to silence the enemy cannon. It was almost ten o'clock now, and Armstrong immediately ordered the 2nd Missouri, with Forrest's old regiment (Ltc. Balch commanding) in support, to again charge the guns. A second time the Confederates drew sabres and galloped toward the enemy.
One of the Federals observed that "in front, and on the left and right were bare fields, swarming with rebels preparing to charge. At last on they came, the ground fairly trembling beneath their heavy tread Since the 20th Illinois had not yet fully deployed into line, this second charge was swift and determined enough to nearly succeed in capturing the artillery. Many of the Southerners rode up to within several feet of the enemy, who poured a murderous volley into them from behind the fence. But again they were turned back with considerable loss.
It was after ten o'clock now, and still the stubborn Federals held their grip on Britton Lane. But nearly losing their artillery in the last charge had caused them to limber-up and move the guns across a gully, some 300400 yards back in the direction of Denmark. Along with the guns, the line of infantry gradually gave ground until they reached yet another fence to offer them cover.
Colonel W.H. (Red) Jackson's 7th Tennessee, Colonel Pinson's 1st Mississippi, and Barteau's 2nd Tennessee Cavalry (Major Morton commanding) had been traveling in that order behind the two lead units when the firing began. They now rushed forward and were ordered to immediately assault the enemy position.
Ordering the 1st Mississippi to dismount and fight on foot, Armstrong sent them on the left of the 2nd Missouri, and then ordered the 7th and the 2nd Tennessee to charge mounted on the right. This third attack, which may have taken place before the Federals could re-establish their artillery in its new position, was also repulsed, but it is most likely during this charge that the Southerners captured several of the enemy's wagons and supply trains, seizing them before they could safely reposition. Still determined to drive the Federals from the field, the Confederate commander ordered all the above units to dismount, except the 2nd Tennessee, and to charge the enemy for a fourth time.
John Milton Hubbard of the 7th Tennessee described the scene:
"The Seventh Tennessee was ordered to charge on foot through a corn field, from which the fodder had been stripped, against a heavy line of infantry lying behind a stout worm fence and in the woods. A galling fire was poured into Company E, but some of its men reached the fence. Dr. Joe Allen of Whiteville mounted the fence and fell dead on the enemy's side of it... How so many men got out of that field alive is one of those unaccountable things that sometimes occur in war."
It was past eleven o'clock now, and Armstrong's quiet, uneventful march to Denmark and back to Mississippi had turned into a desperate two-hour battle that some participants said was hotter than S~oh. These men would know, for soldiers on both sides had fought on those bloody April days along the Tennessee River.
At last Wirt Adams' Regiment, which had been in the rear of the march column, and Colonel Slemmon's 2nd Arkansas which immediately preceded it, arrived at the scene of the fight. Finally Armstrong was able to mass enough force to strike a decisive blow against Dennis. The 7th Tennessee, 2nd Missouri, and Balch's men were now badly mangled, and were withdrawn. Armstrong sent Wirt Adams' men and company L of the 7th Tennessee (which had been held out of the action thus far) on a wild and daring charge directly into the mouth of the enemy guns. Ordering both units to form a column of fours and charge, Armstrong struck the decisive blow. He also sent Col. Slemmons and Col. Pinson dismounted in support. Frank Montgomery writes,
"Colonel Adams' charge was a brilliant one and as I write I can see him as I saw him then, charging at the head of his regiment straight at the guns; we were not one hundred feet apart. "
In October 1903 issue of Confederate Veteran, E.B. McNeil, a participant in the fight, quotes from a letter written only a few days after the battle:
"Col. Adams, mounted on a beautiful cream- colored mare, well to the front leading his men at racing speed, was a conspicuous target for the enemy, and every moment I expect to see him fall... The fire was awful, and under the withering blast, the head of our column went down. Those behind, unable to see for the blinding dust, with the notes of the bugle sounding the charge still ringing in their ears, spurred madly forward toward the sound of the guns, only to stumble and fall over their dead and wounded comrades and horses in front until the narrow lane was completely blocked. "
The confusion and bottleneck on the narrow lane is confirmed by William Witherspoon's statement that while riding toward the Federal artillerymen "the rear of the company became tangled." Yet even though the Southerners could see the enemy gunners desperately loading grapeshot and preparing at any second to discharge the lethal rounds into their faces, portions of Adams' regiment and the 7th Tennessee pressed forward, and "in a mad bound they were upon them." Using their sawed-off shotguns to clear away the gun crew (no Federal artillerymen were listed as killed, though several were captured), only about twenty of the attackers remained to occupy the center of the Federal line. The other cavalry charging in support were held up by the dead men and horses that choked the lane. Now the two cannons Armstrong had paid so dearly to possess were in danger of being lost, particularly since the 30th Illinois was making timely arrival on the battlefield, having doubl~timed at least two miles in the September heat. The fresh Federal troops wasted no time pouring a galling fire into the victorious rebels.
B. B. MacDonald writes,
"Just before we got to the front the rebs captured the two guns, and had the 20th pretty well demoralized, and was making another charge just as we were climbing a little hill, and the command was on right into line, and firing as we came into line, and with a yell drove the enemy back, and just had time to form a good line with the 20th when another charge was made. "
This last charge probably refers to the dismounted men from Pinson's and Slemmon's regiments who moved up in support of the captured artillery. A Lieutenant Dengel, who commanded the gun section, was captured along with ten of his men; but while the Confederates got the guns, they didn't get the caissons, thus they had no way to transport the weapons form the field except for dragging them into the immediate protection of their lines.
The arrival of the 30th Illinois probably prevented a complete rout of Dennis' command. Many Federals had already skedaddled, some of them not stopping until they reached Jackson. They carried with them wild reports of the capture or destruction of their regiment. The 20th Illinois had been steadily giving ground, and with the poor visibility, may have suspected they were being surrounded. Isolated defenders may have even tried to give up. This could account for William Witherspoon's curious observation.
"The Federals were whipped several times in that fight, had hoisted several times the white flag, certainly an index of defeat. ... citizens of Denmark told that over 200 of the Federals had returned there and were anxious to find some one to surrender to. "
Linking up with the exhausted 20th, the 30th Illinois, under command of Major Warren Shedd, formed a line from which the Confederates were unable or unwilling to drive them. When the 30th joined the battle lines, a cheer rose up among the weary defenders. A captured Federal prisoner, when asked by General Armstrong what the noise was all about, declared that his fellow soldiers were cheering the arrival of 'Logan's Division."
By 12:30 or 1:00 p.m., the Confederate casualties were heavy. Montgomery reports that the 1st Mississippi Cavalry alone lost fifty men killed and wounded. Losses were also heavy in the 7th Tennessee and Wirt Adams' regiment.
What happened next is another source of debate and speculation surrounding the battle. The Confederate cavalry had clearly and decisively driven the Federals from their position, captured their artillery, and had many of them demoralized and looking for an end to the fight. The next tactical maneuver would normally have been to pursue a weakened and disorganized enemy and capture or kill as many of them as possible. But Colonel Armstrong chose instead to consolidate his position and not to pursue the enemy. His actions were questioned not only by later historians and scholars, but by the very men he led at Britton's Lane.
"While Colonel Pinson and myself were consulting as to the advisability of renewing the assault on the enemy by a flank movement [against the 30th Illinois], which could easily have been done, as we believed, we were ordered back to the horses. To my surprise then and now, the attack was not renewed, for I am sure they were defeated... "
Colonel W.H. (Red) Jackson of the 7th Tennessee said, "I thought we had whipped the fight, and Gen. Dennis afterwards told me he was ready to surrender." That the majority of Federals wanted to surrender is doubtful. The battlefield was hot, dry and dusty, and it was hard to see more than a hundred yards. Several men in the 20th Illinois did surrender, but the 30th seems to have been ready and willing to continue the fight. Despite the shaky condition of the Federal forces, Armstrong chose not to press the engagement, but to march north and west through the woods, emerging near Denmark, where he took the Estanaula Road toward the Hatchie River. At one point in this withdrawal, Armstrong and his escort (Company E, 2nd Tennessee Cavalry) ran into a number of the retreating Federals - possibly skulkers or deserters - and was nearly captured. William Witherspoon characterized their return to Mississippi this way:
"We were certainly on the run, to say the least, a forced march, not halting or stopping until we were ferried across the Hatchie, sixteen miles distant, on a ferry boat."
Witherspoon's use of the phrase, "on the run," may reflect Armstrong's sense that the noose was tightening around his band of cavalry. The longer he tarried in West Tennessee, the more opportunity he provided the Federals to surprise and encircle him. His unexpected fight at Britton Lane had held up his march for almost a full day, and he may have believed the Union forces he bypassed at Medon were closing upon his rear. Perhaps he figured pursuing and routing the Federals was not worth risking his entire command in another protracted battle, particularly since his men were already weary and bloodied from the campaign.
The confusion about who won or lost at Britton's Lane did not wait to surface until aging veterans gathered for reunions years after the war. It began the day of the battle. Allen Morgan Geer was receiving mixed signals in Jackson on the very day of the fight.
Monday September 1st. 1862 - Prepared to go to the regiment 20th Illinois but could not be allowed to go since their fate or locality was not known. While at the depot news came that the 20th and 30th was taken prisoners. This at 2 p.m. At 6 p.m. while at supper stragglers began to come in from the scene of action. They all declared the forces gobbled up, heard the firing ceased: saw them surrounded, saw the wagons overturned, artillery & the general impression prevailed that the 20th & 30th were gone up except the skedaddlers who were shrewd enough to get away.
Geer and his fellow soldiers waited anxiously for more word from the vicinity of Denmark for the rest of the day; and his last diary entry late on the evening of September 1st offers this simple, yet revealing phrase: "rumors came that the 20th and 30th stood ground." The next day Geer records that "they had whipped the rebels and drove them from the ground," and that they had "buried 180 rebels on the field." but still uncertain about Armstrong's intentions or his whereabouts, the Federals in Jackson remained braced for an attack several days after the Confederates were back in Mississippi.
For over one hundred years, veterans debated and local historians pontificated about who won or lost the Battle of Britton's Lane and whether or not Armstrong's Raid was a success or failure. By the strict yardstick of a classic cavalry mission, Armstrong did effectively harass, interdict, and destroy the enemy's supply line. In his report to General Sterling Price, Armstrong states "my loss was small," and he enumerates the capture of 213 enemy prisoners and the killing or wounding of 75 others. Sergeant Edwin H. Fay writes that the command "marched some 300 miles in less than ten days, fought two battles and three skirmishes, [and took] 350400 prisoners." But from the aspect of his classic cavalry mission to not become decisively engaged, Armstrong was unsuccessful. After the fight at Britton's Lane, where the Confederates lost at least 100 men killed in action (as compared to Federal casualties of 8 killed, approximately 50 wounded and more than 50 captured), Armstrong's men were demoralized. John Milton Hubbard of the 7th Tennessee writes,
"The whole command was discouraged by the operations of this raid, and thought that, if we had gained anything at all, we had paid dearly for it. "
On the days after the battle, several citizens of Denmark, among them a free negro named Shedrick Pipkins and a Mr. William Henry, buried twenty-three slain Confederates in a mass grave on the battlefield. Others were interred separately, and one account indicated yet another mass burial trench was dug some three miles from the site of the fight.
The diary of a fourteen year-old girl, who lived near the intersection of Steam Mill Ferry Road and Collins Road, describes the horrible aftermath of the fight at Britton's lane.
"Very hot day. Papa got to Mr. Britton's house. Lot of soldiers been hurt... Papa went up road to see where fite was. Boys come here to get water for horses. Sade they won and yank run... awfull smell & boys hurting Papa says to Mama many died at end of lane at woods. Papa says many horses dead on top of Boys. "
"... many died last nite many was put in soil where they fell...it was to hot on bodies and many flies... awfull smel much sadness. Fences down, awfull flies new earth everywhere."
The Battle of Britton's Lane produced five men who would become general officers. Colonel (acting Brigadier) Frank Armstrong would shortly be made a full Brigadier General, and both William H. (Red) Jackson and Wirt Adams would rise to the rank of general during the war. On the Federal side, Colonel Elias S. Dennis would be promoted to general largely based upon his performance at Britton's lane, and his subordinate, Major Warren Shedd, who commanded the 30th Illinois at Britton's Lane, would also be a general before the end of the war. It is quite rare to find such a relatively small battle producing such a large number of general officers during the War Between the States.
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1913: The Balkan allies take Adrianople.
1918: On the Western Front, the Germans take the French towns Noyon, Roye and Lihons.
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1942: The Germans begin sending Jews to Auschwitz in Poland.
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1975: The city of Hue, in northernmost South Vietnam, falls to the North Vietnamese.