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Monday, October 24, 2011

Brooklyn is the Cool Borough

I was born in Brooklyn, and while it might be true, as Thomas Wolfe once wrote, that "only the dead know Brooklyn," it is also true the living are getting to know Brooklyn.  Recent pop media are referring to Brooklyn as the "cool" borough.  Maybe.  I've been retracing my roots to some extent in Brooklyn while walking what can be found of the Revolutionary trail.


Take Prospect Park.  My mother spent her girlhood here, and now joggers brave the hill that was Porte Road, separating the hills of Flatbush from Brooklyn and Gowanus.  The road across which the American line of defense formed, as noted by the plaque on this boulder and the rock across the road, just near the trail lit up by the morning sun.  We are looking from the north towards the south, from which came the Hessian attack.  The Americans retreated from here to fight desperately at the Stone House.

The geography of Brooklyn and the sense of place makes mental time travel difficult.  Here, though, the terrain retains, or so it seems, a verisimilitude.  We are in Brooklyn, that mystical (and now cool) borough, known to the dead and the living.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Battle of Long Island and Battle Hill

     At Greenwood Cemetery, south of Prospect Park, lies Battle Hill.  Here we look towards the Gowanus Canal and the American right flank.  In the distance we see the Statue of Liberty marking New York harbor.  The British suffered heavy casualties on Battle Hill, which began the battle as a skirmish.  The fighting here remained a diversion as Howe's troops swung around the Jamaica Pass and the American left flank.


          Continuing the theme of the last post, it is perhaps fitting that this scene of the battlefield remains a cemetery.  It remains sacred ground, and again enables one to get a sense of the geography and the breadth of this battlefield.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Geography of the Battle of Long Island




            Also often referred to as the Battle of Brooklyn, the Battle of Long Island began with General William Howe’s forces landing 4000 troops at Denyse’s Ferry, and another 5000 at Gravesend Bay. 

            Today, you can stand at the overlook at Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island, the area of launch by the British, and see the geography of place.  To the left, as we look across, of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, we note the location of Denyse’s Ferry (a plaque on the Brooklyn side provides some detail).  Also in this area is a small park, in Bay Ridge, where another plaque identifies the scene of the first engagement between American and British forces in New York.  To the right of the bridge we find Gravesend Bay.  We are just about six weeks after the Declaration of Independence.


             The Narrows is the main channel for the Hudson River to empty into the Atlantic Ocean.  It formed an important entrance to New York Harbor. Take away the bridge and the ship, and we can imagine the British soldier looking across and thinking about what lay before him.  It is one thing to look at the tidy maps that show red and blue arrows; it is another thing to look at the water and land, think about the ferry ride across, and landing on hostile territory.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Concluding Comments on Lexington and Concord


     So here we are. Captain John Parker, captured for as long as we stand as a nation, in bronze, on Lexington Green. The quintessential American, the minuteman, the patriot, the freedom fighter. An iconographic image of a mythology bounded by reality and time. It is an image of America we have nurtured for two and a half centuries. It is an image of an individual and individualism. To a large extent these men were manipulated by the propagandists of their time. Captain Parker stood on the green with some seventy-seven men knowing he could not stop the British. Why else was he there? To provoke. There was an inevitability to what was unfolding.
     It is interesting that today we are engaged in a great debate over the extent of that individualism. Our national discourse relates to the very nature of our society, and whether it is best served by individual activity, where the whole exceeds the sum of the parts, or whether we are better served with a much broader governmental control. The men who mustered at Lexington Green, and who stood at the bridge at Concord, and who stood behind trees and walls, from many towns, stood in defense of their homes, their families, their property. They had grown up with a frontier mindset. They supported themselves, worshiped as they chose, built their towns. Sympathetic and objective descriptions of the time demonstrate that the American economy of 1775 was in good shape, that Americans were not being overtaxed, were not bearing disproportionate shares and, in many cases, were openly flouting laws and engaged in wholesale smuggling. They were intent on going further into Indian lands than the British government wanted. They despised Catholics and resented the Quebec Act as one of the “Intolerable” Acts, which recognized the Catholic Church in Quebec and granted land to Quebecois citizens. The Revolution was not fought by saints in a pure cause. It was fought by men from a mixture of motivations. It was fought as a civil war, neighbor against neighbor, and it was fought against a background of multiple entities vying for authority and legitimacy. And it was fought against an enemy that, in certain respects and personalities, was empathetic.

     So standing on the Green at Lexington and looking at John Parker, I wonder what he would make of America in 2011.  He would not have had patience for the politicians’ talk, nor would he be pleased with politics and the political process as an end in itself. He was a man who did his duty, who adhered to his notions of integrity, and stood his ground. His was a kind frontier justice; his revenge was act of affirmative commission. He neither asked permission nor forgiveness. In the most Biblical of moments, his activity on the Battle Road in Lincoln had nothing to do with Sam Adams or John Hancock, with great political ideas or philosophy. It was an eye for an eye.  Perhaps from such things are nations made.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Lexington, Concord and Revenge

     At the time of the “battle” of Lexington, John Parker was forty-six years old—not too far distant from my own age. Deep in middle age, as some would say, then and now. In 1775, significant portions of the population were eliminated from infectious disease. More American soldiers died from disease in the Revolution than in combat. Parker himself had tuberculosis and would die five months after the battle on September 17, 1775. Captain of the militia (the Lexington Provincial Company) he served in the French and Indian War and participated in the capture of Quebec. The statue of him on the Green at Lexington shows a healthy-looking man in rolled up sleeves, rifle at the ready. He is looking east, towards the British advance. In Parker’s own deposition of the battle, written out four days later, he states that he “immediately ordered our militia to meet on the common in Said Lexington, to consult what to do, and concluded not to be discovered nor to meddle or make with said Regular Troops, (if they should approach) unless they should insult or molest us; and upon their sudden approach I immediately ordered our militia to disperse and not to fire.”   

     At Lexington died Jonas Parker, John Parker’s cousin. He had fired, put his ammunition in his hat at his feet, and while attempting to reload, was killed by British soldiers, run through with a bayonet. This was a personal, up close combat, an evolution of the older pike and spear combat, adapted to the new weapons. Captain Parker had his revenge against the British on their way back to Boston from Concord. In 1825, fifty years later, Elias Phinney’s book The History of the Battle of Lexington on the Morning of the 19th April 1775 was authorized by the citizens of Lexington to put right the then-circulating conventional wisdom that “first blood” was shed at Concord. As Phinney describes it, “Capt. Parker turned aside into the fields, and, as the enemy passed, they were exposed to a most galling and deadly fire from his greatly exasperated men.”


     This is the site of Parker’s Revenge, on the Battle Road between Lexington and Concord. The plaque by the pole identifies the site; go up a trail a bit on the hill and you can see what they saw. The British passed here on their march back from Concord to Boston. Here John Parker and his men lay in ambush the Regulars. Colonel Smith was shot in the leg; Major Pitcairn assumed command. Two British regulars were killed; either one or two militiamen were killed at this site.

     Parker and his militia were encouraged to attack here, following the losses at Lexington, by Reverend Jonas Clark. This cleric wrote the inscription for the monument that today stands, and among other things, said: “The Blood of these Martyrs In the Cause of God and their Country Was the Cement of the Union and these State, then Colonies, and gave the spring to the spirit, firmness, and resolution of their Fellow-Citizens. They rose as one man to revenge their Brethren’s Blood, and at the Point of the Sword, to Assert and Defend their native Rights.”

 

     

Friday, October 7, 2011

Concord and My Lai

     In General Thomas Gage's April 18, 1775 order sending forth Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith, the rotund senior ranking officer selected by Gage lead several companies of grenadiers and light infantry, and a company of marines, to destroy a magazine of military stores at Concord, he specified: "But you will take care that the Soldiers do not plunder the Inhabitants, or hurt private property." At Lexington, no one knows for sure who fired the first shot, but the record remains well documented that the British commanders moved expeditiously to bring their troops under control.

     The Americans were on the hill overlooking the bridge. When they advanced on the bridge, the British crossed to the eastern side of the river, now marked by the memorial obelisk (and graves of two British soldiers). The Americans saw smoke and thought the town was burning. They moved down to the North Bridge. Panicking, the British officers moved back across the bridge, crowded on the east side of the river. Parsons was abandoned. This time there is no disagreement. Some British Regulars fired first. The Americans returned fire. The British fled, bumping into the late-arriving Smith. The Americans crossed the bridge and pursued. Parsons arrived, crossed the bridge undisturbed. Saw a soldier whose head had been split open. He had been wounded, and one Ammi White saw him, butchered him. The British soldier took an hour to die. The word spread among the British: the Americans were scalping the wounded.

     Here is the scene. The North Bridge, where the Americans made their stand and Ammi White hatcheted the wounded Regular.
     Look at the photograph again and think about that ebbing life. Then think about My Lai, during the Vietnam War.  On March 16, 1968, Lieutenant William Calley, around 25 at the time and not much older than Ammi White, ordered the killing of 175-200 villagers, according to the Peers Report, the official inquiry made by General William Peers on order from General William Westmoreland and the Scretary of the Army, in 1969. Calley's defense of following orders of his immediate superior was rejected. Why did Calley do it? He testified at his trial:

"I was ordered to go in there and destroy the enemy. That was my job that day. That was the mission I was given. I did not sit down and think in terms of men, women and children. They were all classified as the same, and that's the classification that we dealt with over there, just as the enemy. I felt then and I still do that I acted as I was directed, and I carried out the order that I was given and I do not feel wrong in doing so."

     My Lai raised, and continues to raise, age-old questions. Balanced, if that word is even appropriate, against the killings were suggestions at the time that some of the killings by some of the soldiers were “mercy killings,” ending the lives of those whom others had shot, who were mortally wounded and suffering. Was Ammi White a mercy killer? Other questions, as suggested by Calley’s statement, are that soldiers were just “following orders.” No one contends Ammi White was following orders. No one punished him.

     These are things to think about, amidst the reality and mythology, the heroics and the manipulations, standing on the bank of the Concord River, where Ammi White took his hatchet to the head of that defenseless, wounded man.

     

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Introducing the Blog


Place not only connects us to people from across the centuries, but also provides a physical location for us to meditate and reflect not only upon what occurred, but of the broader lessens from the particular event and even more broadly, as we let our minds wander in free association, to the bigger picture of the American Revolution and what we were, and became, as a people.  We read about the war, particularly from first-hand accounts, the letters and diaries, and we begin to understand that the iconization of the war and its participants is often removed quite a ways from the reality.  This was a brutal war on both sides.  Being in the places where events occurred helps us understand this.  Reflecting on what happened, and the personalities involved, allows us to make connections to other events in our history, and speculate on patterns and our inchoate character.

This blog is about personalizing the Revolution by visiting the places in which it was made, by listening as much as possible to the original voices, by seeing what they saw (through the lens of a camera) and discerning the unique lessons from the particular place.  This is a personal journey by 21st century American citizen in search of origins, of place, of the American character as formed in the 18th century war that led to the creation of the nation.  We are who we are.