Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Geology of Texas Part IV - Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods

This will mark the fourth in a series of writings on the Geological History of Texas. Part IV will cover the Triassic, Jurassic and the Cretaceous periods within Texas.

Triassic period (208-245 million years ago)
By Triassic time, colorful shales and sandstones were still being deposited, although in more restricted areas of the Panhandle. The Dockum group is well exposed at Palo Duro Canyon and Caprock Canyons State parks and in the breaks along the Canadian River west of Amarillo. A wide patch or Triassic rocks also occurs east of Big Springs. However, rumbles of change in the configuration of continents are seen in Texas as the supercontinent of Pangea begins to split apart during the Triassic. The Gulf of Mexico begins to shudder open, and red shale, siltstone and sandstone are first the deposits to be shed into the down-warping south-east and east side of the Ouachita Mountain line. On land, ferns being anew, and there is a reawakening of the bryozoans.

Jurassic period (144 to 208 million years ago)
During Jurassic time the breakup of Pangea began in earnest. The Rocky Mountains were rising and the Gulf of Mexico occupied the new gap between North and South America. At the beginning the Gulf was a shallow sea not well connected to the other oceans. It dried up often leaving vast salt plains. The Louann Salt, the motherlode of salt domes in the Gulf Coast was thus born. Limestones of the subsurface Smackover formation were deposited when deeper marine water conditions prevailed. The dinosaurs were in full force by the Jurassic period and the first kinds of flowering plants and early rodent-like mammals also appeared. Jurassic rocks are virtually absent at the surface in Texas though Jurassic limestone, sandstones and shale beds can be seen along I-10 west of Sierra Blanca in westernmost Texas.

Cretaceous period (66 to 144 million years ago)
Texas Cretaceous rocks are fascinating! Lower Cretaceous rocks virtually blanket the center half of the state. Limestone cliffs, caverns, canyons, springs, abundant fossils and dinosaur tracks are all part of the scene. Upper Cretaceous rocks are found in a band from the Red River southward through Dallas/Fort Worth, to Austin, San Antonio and westward to Del Rio. The I-10 Interstate from San Antonio to Fort Bend runs entirely on Cretaceous rocks and wonderful canyon outcrops and roadcuts are seen along the road. The continents continues to pull apart in Cretaceous time. The Rocky Mountains underwent their major push and shallow seas on the continent's margins advanced and retreated repeatedly. Some sea advances filled the trough in front of the Rocky Mountains, creating a connecting seaway all the way from the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. The shallow Cretaceous seas over Texas were filled with calcareous shelled organisms, and thick deposits of limestone were laid down. On the sandy shorelines and mudflats of these seas dinosaurs roamed freely, leaving evidence of their passing in fantastic fossilized footprints and trackways all across Texas. Many formation names are applied to descrive the complex suite of Texas Cretaceous rocks. The Lower Cretaceous portion is divided into Washita, Fredricksburg and Trinity groups from top to bottom, while Upper Cretaceous rocks are assembled into Navarro, Taylor, Austin, Eagle Ford and Woodbine groups from top to bottom. Cretaceous rocks form impressive cliffs at Santa Elena and Boquillas Canyons in Big Bend Park. The Hill Country around San Antonio and Kerrville is carved in Cretaceous rocks, as are the Colorado River Canyon north of Austin and the Devils River-Rio Grande Canyon west of Del Rio. While marsupials and bats arose in Cretaceous, and though dinosaurs and flowering plants proliferated, the winds of major change blew for life on Earth. At the close of the Cretaceous, the dinosaurs and many of their relatives disappeared forever. But strangley plant life marched across the Cretaceous boundary and into the Tertiary period virtually unchanged, as did the birds. Though the picture of dinosaurs choking to death from the cataclysmic dust of a meteor impact is a commonly touted idea, it does not explain why flowering plants or birds survived the holocaust. More work needs to be done on the geologic causes of the so-called mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous.

The next series of The Geology of Texas will cover the Tertiary and Quaternary periods to present day Texas.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Spanish American War - Teddy and the Rough Riders

After the sinking of The Maine , the Spanish-American War got off to a slow start. More than 250,000 soldiers rushed enthusiastically into the service. The army's quartermaster corps, however, had only fifty-seven men to supply the army with equipment. Soldiers gathered in Florida and waited impatiently for supplies and transportation. Some individuals organized and outfitted their own regiments. One such individual, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, resigned his post and formed a volunteer regiment of cavalry. Teddy Roosevelt did not intend to miss his chance at glory.

Roosevelt had been born forty years earlier to a wealthy New York family. He described himself as "a sickly, delicate boy" who "suffered much from asthma, and frequently had to be taken away on trips to find a place where [he] could breathe." Determined to overcome his physical limitations, Roosevelt embarked on a grueling program of body building. He practiced boxing, hunting, and riding, and after college he spent three years as a working cowboy in the wild Badlands of Dakota. "It was still the Wild West in those days," he wrote. "The West of the Indian and the buffalo hunter, the soldier and the cow-puncher." There he "led a free and hardy life with horse and rifle."

Roosevelt's political career political career began in the New York legislature. Next, after running unsuccessfully for mayor of New York, he served as that city's police commissioner. A loyal Republican, he campaigned tirelessly for McKinley in the 1896 election, and the president rewarded him with an appointment to the Department of the Navy. Now, seeking again the "hardy life with horse and rifle," Roosevelt waited in Tampa with his men. His regiment, which called itself the Rocky Mountain Riders, consisted mostly of cowboys from the West, although it contained a few Indians and wealthy polo players from the East as well. The papers called the regiment "Teddy's Terrors," but its commander was Leonard Wood, a physician who was also a colonel in the regular army. Roosevelt served as lieutenant colonel.

"Tampa was a scene of the wildest confusion," Teddy remembered. "There was no semblance of order." Thousands of men, horses, mules, and supply wagons were scattered about haphazardly in the tropical heat. Somehow the expedition reached Cuba. Still, "different parts of different outfits were jumbled together. . . . For instance, one transport had guns, and another had the locks for the guns. Soldiers went here, provisions went there, and who got ashore depended upon individual activity."

Roosevelt, always active, got his regiment ashore quickly. "We disembarked with our rifles, our ammunition belts, and not much else," he remembered. "I carried some food in my pocket, and a light coat which was my sole camp equipment for the next three days."

With the July temperature climbing above 100°, the soldiers plodded off through the thick jungle toward the city of Santiago. Wearing uniforms made of wool, the men struggled against the heat. Those who managed to obtain rations often discovered that their food had spoiled. Soon the ranks were riddled with malaria, fever, and dysentery. (Before the war ended, 5,200 Americans would perish from disease.) General Shafter, the army's commander, realized that if he didn't capture Santiago soon, he might not have an army left. After a few brief skirmishes, the armies confronted each other. The Spanish defended the San Juan hills, a long ridge east of Santiago. The Americans, arrayed in the valley below, sent up an observation balloon to study the city's defenses.

Roosevelt, who had managed to obtain a horse, rode up and down the lines anxiously. "I had come to the conclusion," he said, "that it was silly to stay in the valley firing up at the hills. . . . The thing to do was to try to rush the entrenchments." Never a man to stand on ceremony, Teddy took it upon himself to order the charge. With a pistol in one hand an a saber in the other, Teddy spurred his mount forward. His face grew flushed; his glasses clouded with steam; a wide grin covered his face. The rough riders followed on foot, and the Ninth Cavalry, an African American regiment, rushed forth beside them. As he reached the crest of Kettle Hill, Teddy saw its defenders fleeing before him. He fired at one of them, and later remarked that the man fell "as neatly as a jackrabbit."
Atop Kettle Hill, the soldiers dined on captured Spanish provisions. Later Teddy left his men and rode to the top of San Juan Hill, but the Tenth Cavalry, another African American regiment, had already stormed and captured it. That night the Americans repelled a Spanish counterattack. In the morning, General Shafter demanded that the Spanish commander surrender.

Friday, February 15, 2008

The Battle of the Alamo

The Battle of the Alamo is full of myth and legend and is central to the creation of the State of Texas. This legend which continues to grow and capture the imagination of people not just in Texas but around the world as tourists flock to the site in droves.

The Mexican siege of the Alamo comprised of 13 days. Beginning Tuesday February 23 and culminating with the fall on Sunday March 6, 1836. The siege and final battle of the Alamo in 1836 constitute the most celebrated military engagement in Texas history. The Alamo is famous not only for the bravery and valiance of the stand but also for the large number of illustrious personalities among its combatants. These included Tennessee congressman David Crockett , adventurer James Bowie , and Mexican president Santa Anna . Although not nationally famous at the time, William Travis achieved lasting distinction as commander at the Alamo. For many Americans and most Texans, the battle has become a symbol of patriotic sacrifice. Traditional popular depictions, including novels, stage plays, and motion pictures, emphasize legendary aspects that often obscure the historical event.

To understand the real battle, one must appreciate its strategic context in the Texas Revolution. In December 1835 a Federalist army of Texas immigrants, American volunteers, and their Tejano allies had captured the town from a Centralist force during the siege of Bexar. With that victory, a majority of the Texan volunteers of the "Army of the People" left service and returned to their families. Nevertheless, many officials of the provisional government feared the Centralists would mount a spring offensive. Two main roads led into Texas from the Mexican interior. The first was the Atascosito Road, which stretched from Matamoros on the Rio Grande northward through San Patricio, Goliad, Victoria, and finally into the heart of Austin's colony. The second was the Old San Antonio Road, a camino real that crossed at the San Antonio Crossing and wound northeastward through San Antonio de Béxar, Bastrop, Nacogdoches, San Augustine, and across the Sabine River into Louisiana. Two forts blocked these approaches into Texas: Presidio La Bahía at Goliad and the Alamo at San Antonio. Each installation functioned as a frontier picket guard, ready to alert the Texas settlements of an enemy advance. James Clinton Neill received command of the Bexar garrison. Some ninety miles to the southeast, James Walker Fannin, Jr., subsequently took command at Goliad. Most Texan settlers had returned to the comforts of home. Consequently, newly arrived American volunteers-some of whom counted their time in Texas by the week-constituted a majority of the troops at Goliad and Bexar. Both Neill and Fannin determined to stall the Centralists on the frontier. Still, they labored under no delusions. Without speedy reinforcements, neither the Alamo nor Presidio La Bahía could long withstand a siege.

Bexar had twenty-one artillery pieces of various caliber. Because of his artillery experience and his regular army commission, Neill was a logical choice to command. Throughout January he did his best to fortify the mission fort on the outskirts of town. Maj. Green B. Jameson, chief engineer at the Alamo, installed most of the cannons on the walls. Jameson boasted to Gen. Sam Houston that if the Centralists stormed the Alamo, the defenders could "whip 10 to 1 with our artillery." Such predictions proved excessively optimistic. Far from the bulk of Texas settlements, the Bexar garrison suffered from a lack of even basic provender. On January 14 Neill wrote Houston that his people were in a "torpid, defenseless condition." That day he dispatched a grim message to the provisional government: "Unless we are reinforced and victualled, we must become an easy prey to the enemy, in case of an attack."

Soon after they had learned that Santa Anna's Centralist army had reached the Rio Grande. As Texans gathered in the Alamo, Travis dispatched a hastily scribbled missive to Gonzales: "The enemy in large force is in sight. We want men and provisions. Send them to us. We have 150 men and are determined to defend the garrison to the last." Travis and Bowie understood that the Alamo could not hold without additional forces. Their fate now rested with the General Council in San Felipe, Fannin at Goliad, and other Texan volunteers who might rush to assist the beleaguered Bexar garrison. Santa Anna sent a courier to demand that the Alamo surrender. Travis replied with a cannonball. There could be no mistaking such a concise response. Centralist artillerymen set about knocking down the walls. Once the heavy pounding reduced the walls, the garrison would have to surrender in the face of overwhelming odds. Bottled up inside the fort, the Texans had only one hope, that reinforcements would break the siege.

On February 24 Travis assumed full command when Bowie fell victim to a mysterious malady variously described as "hasty consumption" or "typhoid pneumonia." As commander, Travis wrote his letter addressed to the "people of Texas & all Americans in the world," in which he recounted that the fort had "sustained a continual Bombardment and cannonade for 24 hours." He pledged that he would "never surrender or retreat" and swore "Victory or Death." The predominant message, however, was an entreaty for help: "I call on you in the name of Liberty, of patriotism and everything dear to the American character, to come to our aid, with all dispatch." On March 1, thirty-two troops attached to Lt. George C. Kimbell's Gonzales ranging company made their way through the enemy cordon and into the Alamo. Travis was grateful for any reinforcements, but knew he needed more. On March 3 he reported to the convention at Washington-on-the-Brazos that he had lost faith in Colonel Fannin. "I look to the colonies alone for aid; unless it arrives soon, I shall have to fight the enemy on his own terms." He grew increasingly bitter that his fellow Texans seemed deaf to his appeals. In a letter to a friend, Travis revealed his frustration: "If my countrymen do not rally to my relief, I am determined to perish in the defense of this place, and my bones shall reproach my country for her neglect."

On March 5, day twelve of the siege, Santa Anna announced an assault for the following day. This sudden declaration stunned his officers. The enemy's walls were crumbling. No Texan relief column had appeared. When the provisions ran out, surrender would remain the rebels' only option. There was simply no valid military justification for the costly attack on a stronghold bristling with cannons. But ignoring these reasonable objections, Santa Anna stubbornly insisted on storming the Alamo. Around 5:00 A.M. on Sunday, March 6, he hurled his columns at the battered walls from four directions. Texan gunners stood by their artillery. As about 1,800 assault troops advanced into range, canister ripped through their ranks. Staggered by the concentrated cannon and rifle fire, the Mexican soldiers halted, reformed, and drove forward. Soon they were past the defensive perimeter. Travis, among the first to die, fell on the north bastion. Abandoning the walls, defenders withdrew to the dim rooms of the Long Barracks. There some of the bloodiest hand to hand fighting occurred. Bowie, too ravaged by illness to rise from his bed, found no pity. Mexican soldiers slaughtered him with their bayonets. The chapel fell last. By dawn the Centralists had carried the works. The assault had lasted no more than ninety minutes. As many as seven defenders survived the battle, but Santa Anna ordered their summary execution. Many historians count Crockett as a member of that hapless contingent, an assertion that still provokes debate in some circles. By eight o'clock every Alamo fighting man lay dead. Currently, 189 defenders appear on the official list, but ongoing research may increase the final tally to as many as 257.

Though Santa Anna had his victory, the common soldiers paid the price as his officers had anticipated. Accounts vary, but best estimates place the number of Mexicans killed and wounded at about 600. Mexican officers led several noncombatant women, children, and slaves from the smoldering compound. Santa Anna treated surviving enemy women and children with admirable gallantry by not killing them. He pledged safe passage through his lines and provided each with a blanket and two dollars.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Christopher Columbus and the Lunar Eclipse

On Oct. 12, 1492, as every schoolchild has been taught, Christopher Columbus came ashore on an island northeast of Cuba. He later named it San Salvador (Holy Savior). Over the next ten years Columbus would make three more voyages to the "New World," which only bolstered his belief that he reached the Far East by sailing West. It was on his fourth and final voyage, while exploring the coast of Central America that Columbus found himself in dire straits. He left Cadiz, Spain on May 11, 1502, with the ships Capitana, Gallega, Vizca�na and Santiago de Palos. Unfortunately, thanks to an epidemic of shipworms eating holes in the planking of his fleet, Columbus' was forced to abandon two of his ships and finally had to beach his last two caravels on the north coast of Jamaica on June 25, 1503.

Initially, the Jamaican natives welcomed the castaways, providing them with food and shelter, but as the days dragged into weeks, tensions mounted. Finally, after being stranded for more than six months, half of Columbus' crew mutinied, robbing and murdering some of the natives, who, themselves grew weary of supplying cassava, corn and fish in exchange for little tin whistles, trinkets, hawk's bells and other rubbishy goods.

With famine now threatening, Columbus formulated a desperate, albeit ingenious plan. Coming to the Admiral's rescue was Johannes Muller von Kunigsberg (1436-1476), known by his Latin pseudonym Regiomontanus . He was an important German mathematician, astronomer and astrologer. Before his death, Regiomontanus published an almanac containing astronomical tables covering the years 1475-1506. Regiomontanus' almanac turned out to be of great value, for his astronomical tables provided detailed information about the sun, moon and planets, as well as the more important stars and constellations by which to navigate. After it was published, no sailor dared set out without a copy. With its help, explorers were able to leave their customary routes and venture out into the unknown seas in search of new frontiers.

Columbus, of course, had a copy of the Almanac with him when he was stranded on Jamaica. And he soon discovered from studying its tables that on the evening of Thursday, Feb. 29, 1504, a total eclipse of the moon would take place soon after the time of moonrise. Armed with this knowledge, three days before the eclipse, Columbus asked for a meeting with the natives Cacique ("chief") and announced to him that his Christian god was angry with his people for no longer supplying Columbus and his men with food. Therefore, he was about to provide a clear sign of his displeasure: Three nights hence, he would all but obliterate the rising full moon, making it appear "inflamed with wrath," which would signify the evils that would soon be inflicted upon all of them.

On the appointed evening, as the Sun set in the West and the moon started emerging from beyond the eastern horizon, it was plainly obvious to all that something was terribly wrong. By the time the moon appeared in full view, its lower edge was missing! And, just over an hour later, as full darkness descended, the moon indeed exhibited an eerily inflamed and "bloody" appearance: In place of the normally brilliant late winter full moon there now hung a dim red ball in the eastern sky.

According to Columbus' son, Ferdinand, the natives were terrified at this sight and ". . . with great howling and lamentation came running from every direction to the ships laden with provisions, praying to the Admiral to intercede with his god on their behalf." They promised that they would gladly cooperate with Columbus and his men if only he would restore the moon back to its normal self. The great explorer told the natives that he would have to retire to confer privately with his god. He then shut himself in his cabin for about fifty minutes.

"His god" was a sandglass that Columbus turned every half hour to time the various stages of the eclipse, based on the calculations provided by Regiomontanus' almanac.

Just moments before the end of the total phase Columbus reappeared, announcing to the natives that his god had pardoned them and would now allow the moon to gradually return. And at that moment, true to Columbus' word, the moon slowly began to reappear and as it emerged from the Earth's shadow, the grateful natives hurried away. They then kept Columbus and his men well supplied and well fed until a relief caravel from Hispaniola finally arrived on June 29, 1504. Columbus and his men returned to Spain on Nov. 7.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Geology of Texas Part III - Pennsylvanian to Permian periods

This will mark the third in a series of writings on the Geological History of Texas. Part III will cover the Pennsylvanian period and the Permian periods within Texas.

Pennsylvanian period (320 to 286 million years ago)
About 300 million years ago the Ouachita Mountain range rose to form a distinct feature across Texas, as the then North America continent collided with another continent to become part of the Pangea supercontinent . To the west of the uplifted Ouachita Mountains, the crust sagged in response and several basins formed. Seas and sediments found their way into the basins over time. Thick sections of Pennsylvanian aged marine limestones, along with shales and sandstones, underlie most of West Texas. The Cisco, Canyon, Strawn, and Bend are Pennsylvanian groups of rocks arranged in descending order of age.

Pennsylvanian rocks are found in roadcuts north and east of Marathon. From the Llano uplift northward to Jacksboro and Bowie lies a wide inclined belt of Pennsylvanian rocks arranged in bands, oldest to youngest, east to west. Marine fossil snails, clams, trilobites, bryozoans and ammonites are found in Strawn group rocks east of Mineral Wells. Canyon group snails, clams and crinoids are found along US 377 southwest of Brownwood. Cisco group brachiopods and clams occur northeast of Cisco. Fossils of fusulinids, one celled organisms that look like wheat, are very common and characterize rocks of Pennsylvanian and Permian age. Marble Falls limestone can be seen along the river on the east side of the Llano uplift.

Extensive forests of conifers, ferns, seedferns and horsetail trees in the Pennsylvanian period gave rise to coal deposits and reptiles first roamed these forests towards the end of the period. The Mississippian and Pennsylvanian are together called the "carboniferous" over much of the world because of the abundant coal deposits laid down during this time.

Permian period (245 to 286 million years ago)
Permian rocks are a geologic delight in Texas. Colorful red beds at the edge of the high plainsin the Panhandle are Permian, as are magnificent reef limestones on El Capitan in Guadalupe National Park, as well as oil-rich limestones in West Texas. Great climatic changes occured in the Permian as major grops of corals, bryozoans, brachiopods, fusulinids and crinoids became extinct along with the entire trilobite tribe. But the vertebrates such as mammal-like reptiles flourished. Land plants also changed, and the ferns, seedferns, and horsetail trees began to declineduring the Permian. But Plesiosaurus, lizards, thecodonts (precursors of dinosaurs and crocodiles) had their beginnings.

While marine reefs, and banks prevailed in shallow marine waters of West Texas, near-shore evaporation flatsin the Panhandle area produced deposits of bright red shales as well as salt and gypsum deposits.

Permian rocks at the surface in vast expanses of terrain in north Texas from the edge of the high plains eastward to Mineral Wells and Wichita Falls, southward past Abilene to San Angelo. Tracts of Permian rocks extend from northward from I-10 to Guadalupe National Park and westward to El Paso. There are dozens of formation names to describe various Permian-age rocks in Texas. some worth mentioning here are the upper Permian Quartermaster formation (red sandstones, shales, evaporite minerals) in Palo Duro Canyon. Others are the Capitan, Goat Seep, Brushy Canyon, and Bone Springs formations in Guadalupe National Park.

The next series of The Geology of Texas will cover the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Battle of the Bulge - World War II

On a wintery mid-December day in 1944, three powerful German armies plunged into the semi-mountainous, heavily forested Ardennes region of eastern Belgium and northern Luxembourg. Their goal was to reach the sea, trap four allied armies, and impel a negotiated peace on the Western front. Thinking the Ardennes was the least likely spot for a German offensive, American Staff Commanders chose to keep the line thin, so that the manpower might concentrate on offensives north and south of the Ardennes. The American line was thinly held by three divisions and a part of a fourth, while the fifth was making a local attack and a sixth was in reserve. Division sectors were more than double the width of normal, defensive fronts.

The Ardennes Offensive was planned in total secrecy, in almost total radio silence. Although Ultra, the Allies’ reading of secret German radio messages, suggested a possible German offensive, and the United States Third Army predicted a major German offensive, the attack still achieved surprise. Nowhere did the American troops give ground without a fight. Within three days, the determined American stand and the arrival of powerful reinforcements insured that the ambitious German goal was far beyond reach.

In snow and sub-freezing temperatures the Germans fell short of their interim objective - that of reaching the sprawling Meuse River on the fringe of the Ardennes. All the Germans accomplished was to create a Bulge in the American line. In the process they expended irreplaceable men, tanks and material. Four weeks later, after grim fighting, with heavy losses on both the American and German sides, the Bulge ceased to exist.

Battle Facts:
The coldest, snowiest weather “in memory” in the Ardennes Forest on the German/Belgium border.
Over a million men, 500,000 Germans, 600,000 Americans (more than fought at Gettysburg) and 55,000 British.
3 German armies, 10 corps, the equivalent of 29 divisions.
3 American armies, 6 corps, the equivalent of 31 divisions.
The equivalent of 3 British divisions as well as contingents of Belgian, Canadian and French troops.
100,000 German casualties, killed, wounded or captured.
81,000 American casualties, including 23,554 captured and 19,000 killed.
1,400 British casualties 200 killed.
800 tanks lost on each side, 1,000 German aircraft.
The Malmedy Massacre, where 86 American soldiers were murdered, was the worst atrocity committed against American troops during the course of the war in Europe.