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Friday, November 30, 2012

The First Battle of Trenton

As we enter December we enter the critical month of the Revolution.  In December 1776, five months after the Declaration of Independence and over a year and a half into the war, Washington had lost New York City and retreated across the Delaware River.  On Christmas Day, he recrossed and next morning, December 26, 1776, won the political and military victory at Trenton.  The First Battle of Trenton--more a raid that lasted no more than an hour--boosted the morale of the new Continental Army.

Trenton today is a post-industrial city marked by loss of its industrial base and population.  As this is written, its mayor is under indictment for corruption.  We can look at this image of the reenactment of the battle, on the same ground (Warren Street, then King Street) where Washington's men fought, and reflect upon a city that held such historic importance two centuries ago, and to where it has fallen.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Millstone, Militia and Local Heroes

I've been to the major (and many less major) Revolutionary War battlefields from Quebec, Canada to Ninety-Six, South Carolina, but it's always interesting to look for the lessons in the smaller scale, lesser known engagements.  One such nearby battle is the Battle of Millstone in central New Jersey.  On January 20, 1777 General Philemon Dickinson led about 400 New Jersey and 50 Pennsylvania militia in battle, defeating about 500 British Regulars and Hessians under Lieutenant Colonel Robert Abercromby that were on a foraging mission, and captured some 40 wagons and 100 horses.

The precise location of Van Nest's Mills along the Millstone, where the battle occurred, is locally disputed but this is the area of the Millstone River where the battle most likely occurred, near the Weston Causeway in Somerset County.

The battle focuses attention on the thousands of small-scale actions, no less bitter or fatal than some of the more well-known ones, that marked the war and the role of the militia.  Ironically, at the same time he was praising Dickinson--whose house still stands in Trenton, New Jersey--to Congress, he was writing Dickinson to complain about another militia in a New Jersey county that was abandoning service.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Fort Washington, Fort Lee and Analog Warfare

     November 16 marks the anniversary of the defeat of the Continental Army at Fort Washington in Manhattan in 1776.  Fort Washington was constructed on the highest point on Manhattan island.  Today, you cannot see its counterpart in New Jersey, the area where Fort Lee was, standing in the site of Fort Washington.  Nonetheless, in 1776 Fort Lee and Fort Washington were considered essential by the Americans to control the North River (now the Hudson River).

     Nonetheless, we can gain an understanding of the nature of the American defenses and place from the batteries of Fort Lee on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River.

     The fort was a bit inland from this, but up here, on the Palisades, you can see how artillery from here and Fort Washington would control the Hudson.  Fort Washington was just to the north of where the George Washington Bridge enters Manhattan, on the left in this photograph.

     In an age of drone attacks, and when we can watch video clips on the internet of assassinations and missiles fired from unseen planes, this image and the Battle of Fort Washington remind us of the pre-digital age of analog warfare.    

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Chestnut Neck, Privateering and Terrorism

I had a prior post on Chestnut Neck, noting the role of foreign officers in the Continental Army.  This post takes a different look at the affair, which was the result of privateering activity by the Americans.  Jack Coggins, in Ships and Seamen of the American Revolution, notes that "[i]n a sense, a privateer was little more than a licensed pirate." Authorized by the Continental Congress, during the Revolution, privateers accounted for 800 commissioned vessels, far outnumbering the 198 commissioned vessels in the United States navy.

Here we see the view from Chestnut Neck across the Mullica River at the Jersey shore.

The Battle of Chestnut Neck makes us consider the rule of law and terrorism in the context of another time.    It has been suggested that the British deemed themselves, as we might put it today, to be fighting state-sponsored terrorism.  In an article on this topic, Professor Jesse Lemisch of John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York has written that "[p]rivateers were denounced by the British in ways that resonate with the denunciation of terrorists that we hear these days." 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Election 2012-Random and Revolutionary Thoughts

Here is the Rebelmen statue in Fort Lee, New Jersey.  Our remaining Revolutionary War landscape contains many such statues and memorials.  We have experienced what many have called an unprecedented campaign in terms of its ad hominem attacks.  We have also just experienced among the worst natural disasters along the mid-Atlantic, and people are still suffering from it.  As we go to the polls, in addition to a vote, we might also cast a thought back to those anonymous soldiers and civilians who supported, fought  and died for, the very system that we have now warped almost beyond recognition.  As we pay lip service to "democracy," it might behoove us to think about to what exact use we are putting it.  Our political dialog now is virtually non-existent; there is no conversation, only sound bytes, shouting and vitriol.  To those who say it has always been so, I do not recall that Thomas Jefferson and John Adams ever resorted to YouTube.  And despite their enmity, there was an abiding respect that is absent from much of the current scene.

Interpreting Battles

I mentioned the Battle of Monmouth in a June posting, as June marks the anniversary of the battle.  Returning to it, we can consider how we can meaningfully relate physically to battles long ago when we visit the place of battle.  A battle such as Monmouth, over such a broad area, involving tens of thousands of men and lasting as long as it did, is extraordinarily difficult to "recreate." However, reenactors such as those at Monmouth seek to interpret the battle.  Just as a few photographs can provide a window only into the place, details of reenactment can provide the beginning of a glimpse across the centuries.  I like this image for what it shows regarding the firing of a cannon like those used at the battle, and how those at the time might well have reacted, and looked, at the moment of firing.

The photographer must be selective.  Unlike film, only a moment can be captured.  Here, the detail of a unit demonstrating the loading and firing of a cannon provides a tile in the broader mosaic.  Did the artillerymen of Henry Knox cover their ears like this?