Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Continental Lane and Contemporary Political Arrogance

Although I have lived in central New Jersey virtually entire life and made many visits to Washington's Crossing State Park, I never actually walked along the Continental Lane, the road on which Washington's troops marched after the Christmas night crossing in 1776.  Here is a view of one segment in the park:

David Hackett Fischer, in his book Washington's Crossing, describes the road as "climb[ing] upward through a dark wood, similar to a sweep of woodland that stands there today." Some 2400 officers and troops crossed to this point; the troops split into two forces under Nathanael Greene and John Sullivan, with the former more inland and Sullivan closer to the river as they approached Trenton.

The troops were ill, poorly clothed, hungry.  We know there were soldiers with no shoes whose bleeding feet left paths in the snow.  We know that many who enlisted in the Continental Army were from the bottom of the economic ladder.  We know that many of Washington's soldiers were incapacitated  and could not make the crossing; many others had died before the battle from illness.  And yet, those that remained, made that march on that bitter, sleeting night.

To understand how this country survived the defeats of 1776 and how the war was saved, walk the Continental Lane, particularly on a cold day.  Listen to the sounds of your footsteps and be alone with your thoughts.

Today we have political leaders who treat $1,000,000 with less respect and concern than the rest of us treat a penny.  They fly with entourages around the world; a recently reported stay of the vice-president for one night in London came in at around $500,000.  The lectures and the rhetoric are belied by a political class obsessed with itself, with its power and preservation of same.  We barely finished the 2012 elections when literally the next day we were into the 2014 season and already planning not only 2016 but 2020 and beyond.  Meanwhile, real people in this country are living and dying, struggling to survive and get on.  The rhetoric is not enough.  Do we really remember where we came from?

Every representative and senator should be made to walk the Continental Lane as a requirement to service.  They should be made to feel the same ground beneath their feet that absorbed the blood of real people who made this country happen.  There is no better reality check than that, to restore a sense of proportion and remove the insulation and arrogance that seems now to mark an increasingly out of touch political class.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Kosciuszko: A Tale of Two Statues

Two posts ago I featured the memorial to Thaddeus Kosciuszko in Warsaw, Poland, and last post I featured his role as engineer.  I had occasion to be in Washington, DC this weekend and photographed the Kosciuszko Memorial in Lafayette Park in Washington.

This statue was sculpted by Polish sculptor Antoni Popiel and dedicated on May 11, 1910.  IN his right hand is a map of the Saratoga fortifications, and is the original.  The one in Warsaw is a replica of the Washington, DC one and was installed in 2010.  The American one was purchased with funds raised by the Polish National Alliance, which Congress agreed to accept in 1904. Although President Taft dedicated the statue in 1910, he declined to attend a banquet held by the PNA as it met for four days afterward to discuss the status of Poland.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Kosciuszko and Military Engineering

     Let's continue with Kosciusko, following up on the last post.  Here we see the American river fortifications  on Bemis Heights, identified as stop number 3 on the driving tour at the battlefield at Saratoga.

     This position was constructed under the auspices of Colonel Thaddeus Kosciusko, to help control the road to Albany and the Hudson River  The British were forced to attack here on September 19.  The area marked the eastern wing of the American defensive position.  We look out over the Hudson River and the mountainous countryside of New York.

     We often think of the war in terms of the mythologized image of the Continental soldier, and of the heroic persona of Washington and other generals.  It is good to stand here and think about the often unsung role of the military engineer, and the importance of that expertise in assessing the advantages and disadvantages present in battle, particularly here, in one of the most important battles of the war.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Kościuszko and Monuments

     We have had occasion to note other foreign leaders in the American Revolution, including Casimir Pulaski.  Here we go a bit farther afield, and look at the monument to Tadeusz Kościuszko in Warsaw, Poland.

    Kościuszko (1746-1817) graduated from the Corps of Cadets School in Warsaw; on the recommendation of Ben Franklin, joined the American forces in the Revolution as a colonel, rising to brigadier general at the end of the war. As an engineer he was responsible for fortification efforts in various places, including Fort Mifflin outside Philadelphia.  He pursued Polish independence, fought the Russians (and was imprisoned), and helped finance a school in Newark, New Jersey for freed slaves.

     It is interesting to think about who warrants a monument.  It is testament to the modest heroism of this man, whose efforts, noted Washington in a letter to Kościuszko dated August 31, 1797, were "so instrumental in establishing" the United States.  Today we name bridges after local politicians, buildings after senators, airports after presidents, often during their lifetimes.  Why? Here was a man who did not seek election or acclaim, traveled from his native land to the unknown, provided his engineering expertise to the Continental Army.  He did not stop there, and fought for his own country's independence.  He was one of those rare people who actually deserve the monuments erected to them.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Jockey Hollow: The Brutal Winter

     Washington took the Continental Army to Jockey Hollow, near Morristown, for winter encampment from      December 1779 through June 1780, where they endured the coldest winter of the war.  They had previously camped in the area following the Battle of Princeton in January 1777, notably constructing Fort Nonsense at Morristown.
     In the past several months we have endured significant and harsh weather conditions, particularly along the mid-Atlantic seaboard.  Dr. James Thacher reported in 1779 that: “We reached this wilderness, about three miles from Morristown where we are building log huts for winter quarters. The snow on the ground is about two feet deep, and the weather extremely cold.”

     Places like Jockey Hollow are a reminder to us of the reality of this war, beyond the platitudes and hype that often comprise the mythology.