Will 2020 be the ‘Darkest Winter in Modern History’?

The coronavirus pandemic has unleashed a tsunami of dire predictions, conspiracy theories, and fake news, but the worst example of hyperbole and fearmongering I’ve seen so far comes from someone we’re supposed to take seriously as a health expert. 

Multiple news outlets have reported that Richard Bright, a senior adviser at the National Institutes of Health and former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, planned to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health today that “Without clear planning and implementation of the steps that I and other experts have outlined, 2020 will be darkest winter in modern history.”

Um… has he ever read a history book? I’ve written before about the pitfalls of using historical analogies. It makes you look foolish when you try to claim something in the present is “worse than” or analogous to something in the past when you have no idea what you’re talking about.

I guess it depends on what you define as “modern history.” Most historians define the modern period as 1500 to the present, with ‘late modern’ beginning in 1815. Most people probably define ‘modern’ as much more recent, so I’ll be generous and say 1918 to the present. A lot of horrible events have happened over the past century. The 1918 Influenza Pandemic, the Holocaust, the Ukrainian Famine, the Cambodian genocide, the Hutu massacre to just name a few. I’m sure there were a few horrible winters in there.

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A Tragic Fate

Memorial to Maj. Gen. Emory Upton (1839-1881) and his wife Emily Norwood Martin (1846-1870) in Fort Hill Cemetery, 19 Fort Street in Auburn, New York. Emory Upton was a Union officer in the Army of the Potomac during the American Civil War. He had a brilliant tactical mind, and developed a plan that briefly broke through Robert E. Lee’s defensive fortifications during the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. He was brevetted Major General for his service.

After the war, he married 21-year-old Emily Norwood Martin, who died tragically of tuberculosis two years later. Emory was devastated by her loss, and never remarried. He committed suicide in 1881 after suffering severe headaches, possibly from a brain tumor. His biographer wrote, “History cannot furnish a brighter example of unselfish patriotism, or ambition unsullied by an ignoble thought or an unworthy deed.”

Maj. Gen. Emory Upton (1839-1881)
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Fox’s Gap Battlefield at South Mountain, Maryland

The deaths of two opposing generals underscore the fierce fighting that occurred in the shadow of southern Maryland’s idyllic mountain scenery.

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The battle for Fox’s Gap, part of the larger Battle of South Mountain, was fought on September 14, 1862 between Union forces commanded by Maj. Gen. Jesse L. Reno and Confederate forces commanded by Maj. Gen. D.H. Hill in Frederick and Washington counties, Maryland during the American Civil War. The battle was a Union victory, with Confederate forces abandoning the mountain pass and retreating toward Sharpsburg.

After General Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia destroyed the Union Army of Virginia at the Second Battle of Manassas, Lee saw an opportunity to invade Maryland, threaten Washington, DC, and possibly influence European powers to recognize Confederate independence. Lee divided his army and sent one wing to capture Harper’s Ferry, Virginia and the other into Maryland. A copy of his orders fell into enemy hands, however, and for once Union Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan acted swiftly to catch Lee off guard.

McClellan sent elements of his reconstituted Army of the Potomac to capture three strategic gaps in South Mountain, hoping to sever Lee’s army and destroy it in detail. The mountain passes were known as Turner’s Gap, Fox’s Gap, and Crampton’s Gap. Because of the distance between them, the Battle of South Mountain was actually three separate engagements, though they all took place in a single day.

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Released from Worldly Burden

This memorial to William Warner, Jr. (1818-1889), sculpted by Alexander Milne Calder, in Laurel Hill Cemetery, 3822 Ridge Avenue in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, depicts his soul ascending from his coffin. William Warner, Jr. was the son of William and Anna Catharine Warner, who founded a Pennsylvania coal business called Warner and Company. The impressive Warner Family plot contains several statues and sculptures.

William Warner, Jr. (1818-1889)

This sculpture has been misidentified on several websites and books as belonging to William’s father.

Sharon Springs Battlefield

New York’s Mohawk Valley was the scene of brutal fighting during the American Revolution. This obscure battle ended a particularly nasty raid that began with one settlement in ruins.

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The Battle of Sharon Springs was fought on July 10, 1781 between British and American Indian raiders commanded by Capt. John Doxtader and American forces commanded by Col. Marinus Willet east of Sharon Springs in Schoharie County, New York during the American Revolutionary War. The battle was an American victory and many of the British loyalist forces and their Native American allies were killed and the rest scattered.

During the Revolutionary War, the Mohawk Valley in central New York was the scene of brutal fighting between patriots committed to American independence and loyalists committed to remaining under the British Crown. Many settlements and homesteads were raided and burned. On July 9, 1781, John Doxtader and approximately 300 Iroquois Indians and Loyalists attacked the frontier settlement of Currytown, killing a number of people and taking nine prisoner.

That night, they retired to a camp in Sharon Springs Swamp. The next day, Col. Marinus Willett sallied forth from Fort Plain and attacked their camp with a force of approximately 150 men. Despite being outnumbered 2-to-1, the Patriots used the dense terrain to their advantage and lured the raiders into a trap.

The Patriots lost five killed and nine wounded, and the Loyalists suffered approximately 40 casualties. Unfortunately, they were too late to rescue the nine prisoners from Currytown. When the battle began, the raiders beat them with tomahawks and dumped them in shallow graves. One man survived his injuries and crawled to safety.

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