Monday, December 29, 2014

The Special Relationship

At Sandy Hook, New Jersey is  the Halyburton Memorial:

Sandy Hook is a finger-like peninsula extending north towards New York City, separating Raritan Bay from the Atlantic Ocean.  Location of a lighthouse and several actions during the Revolutionary War, it was also the embarkation point for British General Henry Clinton in the withdrawal across New Jersey following the Battle of Monmouth.

As the British were evacuating American nation following the peace treaty, on December 31, 1783, Lieutenant Hamilton Douglas-Halyburton and twelve or thirteen British crewmen (sources vary) went in search of a group of deserters.  Reports indicate a blizzard enveloped them, and they all died.  They were buried in a mass grave on Sandy Hook, where Halyburton's mother caused a monument to be erected.  Their graves were vandalized; discovered years later, their bones were relocated to Brooklyn and in 1937 the present memorial was erected by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Like the grave of Cornet Geary in Flemington, or the grave of  Lt. Col. Henry Monckton, killed at Monmouth, the American landscape remains the final resting place for these tree British officers.  Each gravesite is marked and respected, despite the fact that the war was so bitter and desperate.

Those who doubt, or fail to understand, the deep links between the United Kingdom and the United States would do well to visit these places.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Washington's Crossing 2014

I attended the annual reenactment of the 238th anniversary of General George Washington' Christmas Day crossing of the Delaware River, which preceded the 9 mile march south to Trenton and the victory over the Hessian garrison there.  Here is one image of one of the Durham boats being ferried across, filled with soldiers, and oared by the Colonel John Glover's Marbleheaders (in the red caps).

The narrator's concluding remarks stated that with the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown in 1781, the war ended in 1781.  This, of course, was not quite correct; the war continued until 1783 and Washington remained concerned that it might still be lost.  People who think the entire British army surrendered at Yorktown forget that New York, Charleston and Savannah were still occupied by significant numbers of British troops.  While the British loss at Yorktown caused the downfall of the North government and seriously hurt the British army, both sides had lost significant armies to surrender earlier in the war--the Americans at Forth Washington (New York) and at Charleston, and the British at Saratoga.  I do not raise all this to quibble as such; Yorktown was a decisive victory and led to the political will on the British side towards peace.  But the headline style way that history is presented, and the less than superficial understanding of Americans, is problematic, even in casual contexts.  These things have a way of sticking.

The reenactors deserve great credit for making history accessible and visible.  Still, there remains no substitute for presentation of history with integrity and attention to facts.  I saw a trailer playing in the movie theater this week that highlighted the History Channel's forthcoming series that basically casts Revolutionary leaders as moving from rogues to rebels to heroes.  Perhaps good marketing strategy, but this constant recasting of historical figures to make them fit contemporary "understandings" or notions of "narrative" and "political correctness" is disturbing.  A photographer is always safest returning to the negative; when they work off prints they are working off edited information.  The more we move from fact to narrative, the more we lose history.  Like a jpeg file that ultimately loses information if it is opened too many times, so, too, does our understanding dissipate if we try to "retell" what happened on the basis of preset dispositions.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Sandy Hook and the Absence of Memory

I have not made an exhaustive study, but it would appear that Sandy Hook accounts for perhaps more action than any other sole place during the Revolution.  David C. Munn, in his 1976 Battles and Skirmishes in New Jersey of the Revolutionary War, identifies 29 separate naval actions in or around Sandy Hook, and 18 separate land actions.  Here is the lighthouse as it looks today, farther inland from the tip than it was at the time:

In his study of engagements during the Revolution and American casualties, Howard H. Peckham notes 1331 military (as opposed to naval) engagements.  The first listed land action in New Jersey in his The Toll of Independence was at Sandy Hook on April 23, 1776--prior to the Declaration of Independence--when, as he writes, "Americans captured 35 of a watering party from HMS Asia, Capt. Vandeput." A day later, "[a]nother British watering party fled into lighthouse and was captured by Americans." For a more comprehensive discussion of activity at Sandy Hook, see the article appearing in the U.S. Lighthouse Society publication 

I have noted throughout this blog that the Revolutionary War was a mosaic of many pieces, and that there were many smaller skirmishes and battles that were no less deadly--and in some cases, there were more killed than in some of the more famous actions.  When you look at a place like Sandy Hook and walk its grounds, it is worth thinking about those 18 separate land actions that occurred here.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Connecting with Place

My recurrent theme in this blog has been the ability to connect with place.  More importantly, in some sites, the terrain is little changed.  In such cases, we are able to "see" what the place looked like to those who walked the ground during the Revolutionary War.

One such place is Cattus Island, near Toms River, Ocean County, New Jersey.  It is not really an island so much as a peninsula, but it provided coves, such as Mosquito Cove, sheltered from the ocean by the barrier islands off the New Jersey coast.

Here is a view of Mosquito Cove from Cattus Island:

Various sources have identified Timothy Page, of the Page family that settled on Cattus Island, as a privateer who used this area as his base of operations.  With a view like this, with no discernible houses or other constructed objects, we can get a feel for what this country looked like.  

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Haunted Revolution

Perth Amboy, New Jersey, is an underappreciated place.  It has the Proprietary House, reportedly the only colonial governor's mansion still "intact." William Franklin, the illegitimate son of Ben Franklin, was the last British colonial governor for New Jersey, and lived here.  Its city hall is also reported to be the oldest in continuous use in the United States, its current version dating to 1767 in essential form.  There are those who contend that Franklin continues to "live" there. 

Nearby is St. Peter's Church, which graveyard was damaged in June 1776 by British cannon fire from its ships in Raritan Bay.

A municipal worker, helping ready the city hall for the holiday season, told me this is where the nation was born.  The city was the capital of the province of East Jersey, and in the city hall, New Jersey became the first state to ratify the Bill of Rights.  Across from the city hall is Market Square, a park that features an arch in honor of the Bill of Rights.  It was refreshing to find a spontaneous expression of pride from a local, and an appreciation of the this place's significance in the national story.  In a way, the ghosts of the past continue to live in such concourse.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Another View of Pulaski and Public Art

I've blogged in the past about Casimir Pulaski and commented on the way we memorialize Revolutionary War leaders.  On a recent visit to the Philadelphia Art Museum, I explored the statues of various Revolutionary War leaders who "reside" behind the museum, overlooking the Schuylkill River. Lafayette is one, about whom I recently blogged.  Here is the Pulaski statue:

It is a remarkable pose.  

The statue, along with the others here, were the result of the will of General William M. Reilly to acquire such monuments to Revolutionary War heroes.  More information may be found here.  Pulaski was one of four "foreigners" who devoted themselves to the cause and were actually specified in Reilly's will of 1890.  It was not sculpted until 1947, by Sidney Waugh.

We often take these statues for granted.  They seem to relate to another, more militaristic age.  Maybe they have simply become part of the environment.  Whatever.  It is good to stop and pause, and consider the person so memorialized.  Such were flesh and blood, not bronze and stone.  Perhaps, when we see such an expression on this one, we can get a glimpse into the mind of the person, and consider the reality, and not the image.  

Friday, November 28, 2014

Lafayette Sculpted

In the park behind the Philadelphia Art Museum are statues of various Revolutionary War officers: Baron von Steuben, Nathanael Greene, John Paul Jones, Peter Muhlenberg and Richard Montgomery.  Also present is Lafayette who, like some rock stars today, is generally known by his one name.

When viewed against the setting sun, he appears to be winged, giving fancy to the image of an angel.  There is no discounting his personal courage or conviction, but as to military prowess, his record on the battlefield cannot be said to have been dispositive.  To the contrary, he was almost destroyed at Barren Hill.  Nonetheless, there was (and remains) great affection for him; certainly Washington treated him as a favored son.  His "value" may also have been in the political connections with France that proved useful in cementing French support for the cause.  

It was a cold November evening when I wandered among the statues of these men.  Most jogged past without a glance, but one other person was captivated by the statue, and stood on a bench to take his picture of Lafayette. 

We read and hear constantly about contemporary politicians doing this or that for their "legacy." True character comes from within, and those who are great do what they do regardless of whether others note it at the time or not.  Legacies are commanded, not demanded.  Perhaps that is why Lafayette's reputation and appeal persist today in the lay imagination: he did what he did from belief and conviction, not based on polls and narcissism.  

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Battle of Nassau and the Audacity of Audacity

The Battle of Nassau, it the Bahamas, occurred  March 2 – March 3, 1776, but was less a battle than an appearance.  The Americans came, they saw, they conquered and they left.  Nassau involved an amphibious assault and the first combined naval and marine operation of the war and American history.  On another level, it demonstrates an audacity that must also be recognized as part of the American character.

 The fleet was commanded by Commodore Esek Hopkins.  According to Samuel Eliot Morison in John Paul Jones: A Sailor's Biography, Hopkins was not directed to go to the Bahamas, so the decision to look for the ammunition and powder in the Bahamas was his.  Jones had been offered command of one of the ships, The Fly, but Jones had turned it down, deeming it not suitable for his level of office.  Although Jones later claimed to be Hopkins' planning officer, he was not, although he had knowledge of the Bahamian waters.  Hubris was a common theme to the American officer corps in the Revolution.

British Governor Montfort Browne secreted 150 barrels of gunpowder to St. Augustine.  After a council of war led by Hopkins, the decision was made to avoid the waters of the channel and land on the eastern side of the island.  There, on March 3 the Americans took Fort Montagu in an unopposed landing.  The Americans did retrieve a sizeable amount of arms.  The following day, March 4, they advanced on the town, the second fort (Fort Nassau) was abandoned, and the Americans remained two weeks, then sailed for New London, Connecticut.

Here is Fort Montagu today, still standing:

Also still standing is Graycliffe, originally built in 1740 by the pirate  Captain John Howard Graysmith; it was used as a prison by the Americans in 1776.  The building is a renowned restaurant and the prison is the third largest private wine cellar in the world.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Valcour Island, The Philadelphia, and the Artifacts of History

I previously posted on the Battle of Valcour Island.  This past week I had to be in Washington, DC for a meeting at 11, a few minutes from the Smithsonian American History Museum.  I dropped in and found the recovered Philadelphia, one of the gondolas that was part of the Patriot "fleet" opposing the British under Guy Carleton.  Here is a front view:

In Benedict Arnold's Navy, James L. Nelson described these gondolas "essentially large, open boats, sharp at the bow and stern, farmed and planed with white oak," and "propelled by oars or by a square mainsail and topsail set on a single mast." John R. Bratten, in The Gondola Philadelphia and the Battle of Lake Champlain, notes they were called by various names: gundaloes, gundalows, gun'low, gondela, gundalow, gundaloa gundeloe and gunlo.

Captain Benjamin Rue and sixteen of his crew saved themselves and reached Fort Ticonderoga in safety. 

The Philadelphia was recovered in the 1930s and you can see the cannonball that finally sank it on the bottom left square of the photograph, according to the sign.  Nelson notes that The Philadelphia "was the only American vessel lost, though all the fleet had been severely mauled." 

It is extraordinary that we can look at this vessel, with so much of it intact, and be just one step removed from that momentous event.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Obama, the "Coffee Salute" and Washington

I registered for the draft in 1973, received my 1-A draft status.  Despite my lottery number somewhere in the 40s, I was never called up and did not serve.  Nonetheless, I had and continue to have respect for those who not only served, but were called into combat.  Significantly, those who serve follow orders--which have the force of law--and put their lives at risk based on the word of a superior officer.

Those who fought in the Revolution are mainly anonymous today, but followed the same obedience to orders of officers.  Indeed, there were times when Revolutionary War generals posted men at the rear with orders to shoot any soldiers who tried to run away during battle.  We find the veterans of that war throughout many churchyards up and down the East Coast, such as this grave of Matthew Reed at the St. Paul's burial ground in Norwalk, Connecticut:

With these thoughts in mind I was appalled at the cavalier treatment the current president of the United States, Barack Obama, gave to the two Marines saluting at the foot of Marine 1.  Descending the stairs, Obama gave a casual, dismissive "salute" by raising his coffee cup at the saluting Marines.  Meanwhile, we have been treated to many "public service announcements" by Michelle Obama and Jill Biden about how we need to honor our troops and veterans.  Obama might actually listen to the words those two are mouthing and show some modicum of respect.  He is the commander-in-chief and ought to understand the gravity of what that means.  Gestures are not just gestures; they are reflective of the core beliefs of someone.  For all his faults and restrained arrogance, you would not have found George Washington being so dismissive of his troops.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Battle of Norwalk and the Challenge of Place

Another one of the raids by Loyalist General William Tryon along the Connecticut coast was the engagement at Norwalk and the burning of the city.  Some 2500 men led by Tryon landed on Saturday evening on July 10, 1779 at Fitch's Point and the area now known as Calf Pasture Beach on the east side of the Norwalk Harbor.  On July 11, a force of Hessians and Loyalists attacked on the west side of the harbor, and Tryon moved northward into Norwalk on the eastern side of the river.  Tryon purportedly watched the burning of the city from a rocking chair on a hill on what is now East Avenue, marked by a stone:

You have to work to get a sense of this engagement.  A marker at Calf Pasture Beach, at least when I visited, required a $10 parking fee to get to it.  The marker for Fitch's Point, another landing spot, was on private property.  It would seem that the point of these historical markers would be to allow people to park nearby and absorb what happened.  Too few places, unless they are official parks, seem to take that into account.  So these spots, where lives were lost and significant things happened, are often inaccessible and ignored.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Punk Hill and the Might Have Been

Often overlooked in the common awareness of the Revolution were the Forage Wars.  New Jersey was a particularly intense battleground as British and Patriot forces maneuvered to take from the land needed supplies.  There were numerous skirmishes, and in some cases, much larger and decisive battles were narrowly avoided.

On March 8, 1777, one such battle occurred at "Punk Hill" in New Jersey, in the vicinity of Perth Amboy, Metuchen and Edison.  According to a letter published on March 17, 1777 from a correspondent claiming to have seen a letter from American General William Maxwell, "the enemy had brought out all their troops from Amboy &c. supposed to be about 3000 and posted themselves on Punkhill: They brought artillery and a number of waggons, as if to forage, 'tho there was none left in that neighborhood worth notice." Maxwell sent a diversionary force to the British left and another force towards Bonhamtown to the British right to evaluate their strength.  Somewhere in the middle the fores engaged; the British withdrew in confusion.  The letter reports almost 20 killed and almost 40 wounded by the enemy.  In General William Maxwell and the New Jersey Continentals, Harry M. Ward sizes the British force at 2000.  He observes that "despite not much being accomplished, the action of March 8 further gave evidence of Maxwell's combativeness."

Howard Peckham, in The Toll of Independence, reports "a large British force under William Howe was attacked by Americans under Gen. William Maxwell," and the Americans suffered three wounded.

There are no clear markings as to the site of the battle; Punk Hill was also known as Strawberry Hill.  As near as I can determine, this is the area of Punk Hill (looking up Strawberry Hill Road and showing the hill):

What would have happened if the British had stayed to fight? Would more American militia been committed? Would the British have reinforced? A small skirmish, barely legible in the urban sprawl of this part of New Jersey, and another Might Have Been moment in the history of the war.

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Revolution and Canada II

Notwithstanding the failure to capture Quebec in 1775 and early 1776, the Second Continental Congress authorized further attacks into Canada.  In 1777, it directed a Canadian turncoat, John Allan, to lead a Massachusetts militia unit in an attack on Saint John (now New Brunswick; then part of Nova Scotia).  The goal was an American presence in the western part of Nova Scotia in an effort to ally that province with the American cause.  American privateering activity had already taken its toll in the area.  On June 2, 1777 Allan and about 43 soldiers, including Indians, captured two of the town's leaders and gained a foothold, to be driven out by the end of June.  Nonetheless, Allan succeeded in turning the Maliseet Indians into allies.

The British built Fort Howe by the end of 1777 to protect the area from further incursion.  Below is a picture of the recreated blockhouse that stood nearby.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Valcour Island and the Lessons of History

It is easy to see Valcour Island from the boat launch at Peru, New York, and from the campus of Clinton County Community College at Bluff's Point, but not from the vicinity of the New York State Marker along Route 9 that purports to identify the area of the action.  There is a conference center there (private property).  One wold think that such an important battle would not only not be so generally ignored in discussions of the war for the lay person, but would also have a small dedicated parking and viewing area by the roadside.

Anyway, here's a view of the strait near the sign that shows the vicinity of the battle.

There are those who credit Benedict Arnold with creating and commanding America's first navy.  It was here, in the straight between the New York mainland (shown in foreground) and Valcour Island (showing the island to its southern tip) that, on October 11, 1776, Arnold stopped the pursuit of Guy Carleton, commander-in-chief of the British forces in Canada, following Arnold's withdrawal from the siege of Quebec in spring 1776.

The only other plaque I found apart from the one by Route 9 was at Bluff's Point.  We should always recall the words of George Santayana that "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," although Edmund Burke far more contemporaneous to the Revolution, also reportedly said, “Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it.” The war might well have been crushed before it began but for Arnold's determined and heroic stand in these waters, yet you could not tell it from the minimal coverage here. 

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Revolution and Canada I

Among the histories of the Revolutionary War I have read, discussion of Canada is limited generally to the attacks on Montreal and Quebec, and the subsequent battles during the withdrawal of the Americans.  What may not be readily understood is the more global impact of the war on other regions in Canada--such as distant Newfoundland.

Here is the site of Fort Townshend in St. John's.

We can see in the middle distance the Southern Hills that forms part of the Narrows leading into the harbor.  Fort Townshend was built between 1773 and 1779 and headquartered the British garrison in Newfoundland during the Revolution.  

The Heritage Website of Newfoundland and Labrador notes the deleterious effect on the Newfoundland economy as trade was disrupted through political acts and the sea routes subjected to the effect of the war, privateers and naval action.  When Spain joined the American-French side, Newfoundland lost another market.  Nonetheless, Newfoundlanders did not sympathize with or join the American cause.  

IN 1778 the Newfoundland Volunteers was organized and constructed Fort Townshend; two years later, the Newfoundland Regiment was formed with 300 men to defend Newfoundland, under command of Captain Robert Pringle.

Today, Newfoundland is a 2 1/3 hour flight from Newark, New Jersey.  Despite that remoteness from the epicenter of the American Revolution, the economic and political effects of the war reverberated to the furthest reaches of colonized North America.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Noddle's Island Revisited

The plaque at this forlorn site tells us that on May 27, 1775 nearby was fought the Battle of Chelsea Creek.  It is also known as the Battle of Noddle's Island, on which now sits Logan Airport.  Colonel John Stark, who later proved pivotal at Bunker Hill and Bennington, according to the sign, "successfully engaged the British regulars in driving livestock from Hog and Noddle Islands."

We see Chelsea Creek (shown on certain maps as Chelsea River).  The plaque, at the far right of the image, tells us we are in the area of the engagement by Stark, and calls this "the Colonies' first victory of the American Revolution," including affording it the status of the first naval engagement of the war.

 A minor escapade involving foraging and the successful downing of one vessel continues in the public imagination as a military victory.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Fractured United States

     The Battle of King Mountain, fought October 7, 1780, was one of the key battles of the Revolution, in that it severely damaged the ability of Cornwallis to execute upon his strategy to secure the Carolinas.  He had maintained confidence that he could still raise support from Loyalist elements.  He was wrong.  Here is a view of the battle monument on top of the "mountain."

     The battle was a bitter and brutal affair in South Carolina. Among its distinguishing features was that it was a battle fought between Americans--Loyalists and Patriots. The only "regular army" officer was Major Patrick Ferguson, leader of the Loyalist forces. 

     Currently, we are in the midst of another civil war, being fought in the media and in the voting booths.  Without physical casualties, it is nonetheless an exceedingly destructive war.  It has become a fight to the death.  There is no political discourse.  There are positions.  There are no arguments.  There is shoutdown and protest.  What we were in 1780 we are now in 2014.  People should go to King's Mountain and think about things.

Friday, July 4, 2014

The Battle of Wyoming (Wilkes-Barre)

The Battle of Wyoming on July 3, 1778  exemplified the brutality of the war and the involvement of Native Americans in the conflict.  A string of American forts along the Susquehanna River served the settlers in the Wyoming Valley, but became the subject of bitter action following the British defeats at Oriskany and Fort Stanwix in 1777.  Loyalists, British regulars and Mohawk, Onondaga, Cayuga, Oneida, Tuscarora and Seneca warriors, in a 700-man force led by Connecticut native Colonel John Butler raided the valley. Colonel Nathan Denison and Colonel Zebulon Butler commanded the Americans.   A combined British and Native American force defeated the Americans.

On July 4, the British demanded surrender of Forty Fort.  Initially signing terms of surrender, Denison later violated them and returned to fighting, only to lose.  Among the legacies of the battle was the rage that helped fuel General John Sullivan's campaign of devastation of Indian villages in the region in 1779.  Here is the scene today, of Forty Fort, lost on this day.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Battle of Monmouth Anniversary

Today, June 28, 2014, marks the 236th anniversary of the Battle of Monmouth, in New Jersey.  I have noted Monmouth in a couple of prior posts.  Today we look at the spot, marked by this sign, on Perrine Hill where General George Washington rallied and reformed Continental forces in view of General Charles Lee's retreat.

General Henry Clinton was moving the British forces from Philadelphia to Sandy Point to depart for New York.  Washington paralleled his movements to the north across New Jersey, and sought what he hoped would be a dispositive encounter with Clinton.  They came together at Monmouth.  A long battle, it resulted in the Americans retaining the field and Clinton continuing his withdrawal--in short, a draw, though often hailed as an American victory.

Putting all that aside, this is my favorite spot on the battlefield, because we are standing in the place where Washington took charge and regained control of the troop.  We can see him on his horse moving back and forth here, and we can see what he saw as he looked out over the battlefield.  It is one of those places that remains close to how it was then, and transports us across time to see and feel (and, on a hot day like today, especially) gain a sense of place.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Place, Things and Gaspee Point

I have focused often in this blog on the tangible pull of place, and the emotions and associations we make when physically standing on the site of an historic event.  Sometimes it is an artifact in a removed location that can have a comparable, if not the same, effect.

The Tribune Building in Chicago is a well-recognized Gothic structure.  At ground level, the building integrates stones, bricks and other components of famous sites.  On a recent visit, I noticed this:

Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island was the site of an attack on a British customs ship on June 10, 1772 as it was seeking to enforce the unpopular British customs laws with regard to the packet boat Hannah.  After the Gaspee ran aground.  The Gaspee's captain, Lieutenant William Dudingston, was wounded and captured.  For William R. Staples' 1845 account titled Documentary History of the Destruction of the Gaspee, click here.

So while it is not the same as standing on the bank of Narragansett Bay and imagining the scene unfolding, nonetheless, the observant Chicagoan passing by can touch this rock and have a "one step removed" experience from this critical event that became part of the mosaic of the Revolutionary War.

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Economic Revolution

On July 10, 1778, following the Battle of Monmouth, on route to Paramus, New Jersey, part of the Continental army camped at Paterson. Washington's then secretary, James McHenry, recounts how he, Washington, Lafayette and Alexander Hamilton made their way to the falls and had lunch.  As McHenry later related, "with the assistance of a little spirit we composed some excellent grog.  Then we chatted away a very cheerful half hour--and then took our leave of the . . . meek falls of Pasaic [sic]--less noisy and boisterous than those of Niagara, or the more gentle Cohoes or the waters of the Mohawk."

Hamilton, impressed with the industrial potential of the falls and the area, later formed the Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures in 1791 as a forerunner of today's public-private partnership.  A statute of Hamilton looking towards the Falls is seen here.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Battle of Spanktown

I have written previously of the confusion of history with regard to various Revolutionary War events. Another prime example of this is Spanktown.  This colonial village, now know as Rahway, was certainly the scene of action, but exactly what action, and specifically where things occurred, is not particularly clear, at least to me.

A marker stands on Route 27 at Rahway River Park, proclaiming the area was the scene of an action in "January 1777:"

Specifically, the plaque tells us: "In January, 1777, a sharp fight took place here between the British and Gen. Maxwell’s men." David Munn, in his list of Revolutionary War skirmishes and battles, lists a foraging raid on January 5, 177 (confirmed in Howard Peckham's The Toll of Independence) and another Spanktown attack by New Jersey militia on January 8.  Peckham notes a January 16 attack "near Bonhamtown." The Federal Writers Project's History of Metuchen refers to a "famous raid on Spanktown (Rahway), during which American troops captured a thousand bushels of salt from the British garrison," occurring on January 6, and then refers to a series of skirmishes occurring that began in March.  Munn also lists at least two other Spanktown incidents in March. The Crossroads of the American Revolution website,, states that "the Battle of Spanktown was fought on St. Georges Avenue in the vicinity of Robinson’s Branch and the North Branch of the Rahway River. The battle lasted twelve hours with the rebels getting the best of the British, who lost almost one hundred men." It puts the date simply as "early 1777." A New York Times article appearing on February 21, 1897 refers t the February 23 action and claims "the British dead numbered 500," clearly an implausible figure, being double the British killed at Bunker Hill; such a count would have made this battle among the costliest of the entire war.

One of the Spanktown battles might well be the Battle of Punk Hill, so called, between Bonhamtown, Metuchen and Amboy, d, on March 8, involving American General William Maxwell and significant British forces, that might have turned into a more serious engagement.

On the other hand, the main battle, so-called Battle of Rahway by some, occurred in Spanktown on February 23, purportedly lasted 12 hours, and was part of the foraging efforts of the British.  Maxwell interrupted a foraging raid by British Colonel Charles Mawhood and pursued the British back to Amboy.

A hot dog truck is regularly parked next to the sign; I have been to the park twice and both times, the vendor was there.  At least we know today what is happening on the spot.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Second River and the Confusion of History

Just north of Branch Brook Park in Newark is a plaque on a boulder that commemorates the Battle of Second River in September 1777.  Here is a view of it.

At the time, the current town of Belleville was known as the Village of Second River.  Second River, which flows under the bridge in the image, is the Watsessing River, a tributary of the Passaic River.

The battle was part of a foraging expedition of British General Henry Clinton, and various sources, including at least one pension record, corroborate a stand made in this area by local militia that ultimately fell back when British reinforcements arrived.  Sources indicate two Americans killed and eight British killed, so as Revolutionary War skirmishes go, this was somewhat significant in terms of casualties.    And yet, there is no mention of this on these dates in Howard Peckham's The Toll of Independence.  In David Munn's Battles and Skirmishes of the American Revolution in New Jersey, there are two listings for actions at Second River--one on January 27, 1777 and one on June 1, 1779, but no mention of the September action.  

We do have the rather graphic description of one Nathaniel Broadwell who said that in 1777:

"this Deponant apprehends in the month of September of that year that a battle was fought between the British and the Americans in late War between them, at Second River in the County [of Essex] and State aforesaid that during the said Battle this deponent being in the advanced Guard under the command of Cap't Daniel Brown found Stephen Ogden of Morristown at Head Quarters at Ward Session after said Battle confined with a wound it was said he received in said Battle with a Bullet entering his left side and that he this Deponent saw Doct'r Bern Budd with his instruments cut and take out the Ball from the right side of the said Stephen Ogden's Body and that the said Stephen Ogden remained at his own house for some time afterwards Confined with the said Wound."

Other local historians put the action in September 1777 and note that the final action occurred in this area of the boulder.

Friday, April 18, 2014


Tomorrow, April 19, marks the anniversary of the "battle" of Lexington.  This was less a battle than an unintentional skirmish that grew into the battle of Concord.  Nonetheless, we grow up learning about the "Battle of Lexington and Concord."

Visitors to Lexington can observe markers showing the line formed by Captain John Parker and his 70 or so militiamen:

No one today knows who fired the first shot.  At the time, the Americans blamed the British and the British blamed the Americans.  The voice of American minuteman Sylvanus Wood, 23 reaches across the centuries: "[t]he British troops approached us rapidly in platoons, with a General officer on horse-back at their head.  The officer came up to within about two rods of the centre of the company, where I stood.--The first platoon being about three rods distant.  They there halted.  The officer then swung his sword, and said, 'Lay down your arms, you damn'd rebels, or you are all dead men--fire.' Some guns were fired by the British at us from the first platoon, but no person was killed or hurt, being probably charged only with powder.  Just at this time, Captain Parker ordered every man to take care of himself.  The company immediately dispersed; and while the company was dispersing and leaping over the wall, the second platoon of the British fired, and killed some of our men.  There was not a gun fired by any of Captain Parker's company within my knowledge."

British Lieutenant John Barker, also present, disagreed: "At 5 o’clock we arrived there and saw a number of people, I believe 2 and 3 hundred, formed on a common in the middle of the town; we still continued advancing, keeping prepared against an attack tho’ without intending to attack them, but on our coming near them they fired on or two shots, upon which our men without any orders rushed in upon them, fired and put ‘em to flight; several of them were killed, we could not tell how many because they were got behind walls and into the woods; We had a man of the 10th Light Infantry wounded, nobody else hurt. We then formed upon the common but with some difficulty, the men were so wild they could hear no orders; we waited a considerable time there and at length proceeded on our way to Concord, which we then learnt was our destination, in order to destroy a magazine of stores collected there."

     Voices from the past speak to us from the Green on this anniversary.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Revolution and Contemporary Secession

I've talked in other posts about the Patriot invasion of Canada during the Revolution, and the taking of Montreal and the assault on Quebec.  Here is a view of the St. Louis Gate that saw some action during the Battle of Quebec on December 31, 1775.

General George Washington, placed in overall command of the American forces after Lexington and Concord, attempted a direct outreach to the Canadian citizenry.  By letter dated September 6, 1775, he attempted to vilify the British and justify American action.  He minced no words, and indulged in his own inflamed rhetoric.  He told them that "the Great American Congress have sent an Army into your Province . . . not to plunder but to protect you." Ironically, the Southern slaveowner wrote to the Canadians that "[t]he cause of America and of liberty is the cause of every virtuous American Citizen Whatever may be his Religion or his descent, the United Colonies know no distinction, but such as Slavery, Corruption and Arbitrary Domination may create."

We of course then invaded Canada in an attempt to seize Canadian territory and make it part of America, as the fourteenth colony.

There is a pending election in Quebec that will determine if a referendum on Quebec separation will be held, as well as in the United Kingdom, a pending referendum in Scotland on secession.   One wonders if the Patriots under Benedict Arnold and Richard Montgomery had succeeded in capturing and holding Quebec if "Canada" would have remained as part of colonies that signed the Articles of Confederation and then the Constitution, and if so, how the United States would react to such referendums.  We of course fought a civil war to preserve the union.  We now also have had some states that were independent nations, however briefly.  And there are certain counties in certain places that are seeking to establish themselves as separate states within the U.S.  Not necessarily new or unique thoughts to think about, but made topical as we watch Scotland and Quebec.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Haddonfield, Skirmishes and Loyalists

According to David C. Munn in Battles and Skirmishes in New Jersey, six episodes occurred in Haddonfield, including some skirmishes.  New Jersey militia units harassed British forces heading towards Red Bank (October 21, 1777) and were on the receiving end of British attacks prior to the Battle of Gloucester (November 24, 1777).  Later, in February 1778, General Mad Anthony Wayne and British Major John Simcoe were involved in separate foraging encounters.  On April 5, 1778, American Major William Ellis was captured in Haddonfield in a skirmish.  The British moved through Haddonfield in June 1778 on the way to Monmouth, and were set upon by General William Maxwell's brigade.

But Haddonfield also was where the New Jersey General Assembly met in 1777.  Here we see the Indian King Tavern, where it met.

Today in Haddonfield are two shops featuring the Union Jack and British food and objects, an interesting reminder of the Loyalist community in New Jersey. 

Thursday, March 6, 2014

A Fable Agreed Upon

On March 20, 2012 I blogged about the Battle of Short Hills in New Jersey, fought on June 26, 1777.  One of the very personal aspects of this near-illegible battlefield is the Frazee house, shown below.

There is a colorful story associated with this place and, if true, we can come closer to the enigma known to us as William Howe.  According to the Aunt Betty Frazee House project's website, the day after the battle, on June 27, General William Howe knocked on the Frazee door, supposedly smelling the aroma of fresh baked bread, and asked for some.  Believing she had no choice, Frazee said "I give this bread not in love but in fear." And supposedly Howe then politely declined the bread and left.  There is some indication that the Frazees (Gershom and Betty) made bread for local militia during the early part of 1777.

The Joseph Warren Monument Association, in a 1905 book on the monument, embellishes upon the story, and has the conversation going something like this, but with Cornwallis, not Howe, as the other speaker:

"Cornwallis is the name, Madam.  General Cornwallis.  And with me is General William Howe, my superior officer.  Passing by, we caught the odor of the bread you are baking and are tempted to ask for a loaf.  A rare delicacy for soldiers, I assure you, Madam."
"I give this to you, Sir, in fear, not in love."
"Then neither I or a solider of mine shall eat it, Madam."

As Napoleon observed, history is a fable agreed upon.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Alamance Revisited

I previously blogged about Alamance, that some have labeled the "first" battle of the American Revolution.  Regardless of that "debate," Alamance, North Carolina was the scene of its own real skirmish during the Revolution, which anniversary comes up on March 5.  Here is a view of the battlefield today.

A plaque on the site notes an encounter on March 5, 1781 between members of the Delaware Light Infantry under Captain Robert Kirkwood and some British units.  In the Journal and Order Book of Capt. Robert Kirkwood, the entry for March 5,1781 states: "Marched this Night to the old Regulation ground and attack'd the advanc'd picquet.  Brought off one of their Centinells & returned to Camp by morning." 

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Fort Billings

Three forts were part of a  matrix of defenses to protect Philadelphia and control the Delaware River.  Forts Mifflin and Mercer were just south of Philadelphia on both the Pennsylvania and New Jersey sides of the river.  The third, Fort Billingsport, was a few miles to the south.   General Thaddeus Kosciuszko was involved in the work on Fort Billingsport, his first engineering assignment authorized by the Continental Congress, but the full construction was never completed.

The British held Philadelphia following the American loss at Brandywine.  Seeking to free the river so that supplies could be transported to Philadelphia, occupied by the British on September 23, 1777, General Howe ordered assaults on the American positions.  Washington deemed the forts critical enough to urge they be held “to the last extremity.” On October 2, 1777, the 112 man garrison was evacuated, and the British took the fort.

What is significant is that it was a strategic move led by two of the early American marine officers, Dennis Leary and William Barney, memorialized by a plaque on this site.  Ultimately, both Forts Mifflin and Mercer fell, as did Philadelphia, but it did not mark the end of civilization. let alone the war, some were projecting. 

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Weather and the Revolution

Many are familiar with the suffering of the Continental troops at Valley Forge; in actuality, the winters spent by the troops in Jockey Hollow were worse.  On Christmas Day, 1776, Washington led his men across the Delaware River near the marker shown below.  We are looking across from New Jersey to Pennsylvania.

This was taken on February 16, showing the river frozen over.  Whether a river froze or not was a strategic consideration that affected a defensive posture or the possibility of attack.  On February 18, 1776, Washington wrote the Continental Congress of the possibility of an attack on Boston: "The late freezing Weather having formed some pretty strong Ice from Dorchester point to Boston neck, and from Roxbury to the Common, thereby affording a more expanded and consequently a less dangerous Approach to the Town, I could not help thinking, notwithstanding the Militia were not all come In, and we had little or no Powder to begin our Operation by a regular Cannonade and Bombardment, that a bold and resolute assault upon the Troops in Boston with such Men as we had (for it could not take many Men to guard our own Lines, at a time when the Enemy were attacked in all Quarters) might be crowned with success . . . "

It is always worth remembering in this age of remote control drones, and high tech weaponry, the role of weather in war in general and the Revolution in particular.  This was predominantly a land war, and even at that, mainly fought by foot soldiers, with limited cavalry involvement.  When a river froze, a significant defensive feature was removed and an offensive advantage presented.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Why We Need to Look at Public Monuments

I have focused on a variety of memorials to Revolutionary War military leaders; in Chicago is one to two of its civilian leaders who helped finance the revolution.  Sculpted between 1936 and 1941 is the Heald Square Monument to Robert Morris and Haym Salomon, together with Washington.  Its architects were Lorado Taft and Leonard Crunelle, and it was named a Chicago Landmark on September 15, 1971.

According to the National Park Service page on Salomon, he was arrested in 1776 as a spy, pardoned by the British and utilized as an interpreter, but he aided the American cause.  He was arrested again in 1778, when he escaped to Philadelphia.  A broker, his French connections helped with that financing, and he subscribed to the Bank of North America established by Robert Morris.  The Encyclopedia Britannica notes the debt at more than $600,000, and "[g]enerations of his descendants tried in vain to collect some portion of these loans, which had helped to impoverish Salomon in his last years." He died destitute at in his mid-forties.

I have read that the paperwork was conveniently "lost" by the United States when presented in the 19th century, with shades of anti-Semitism behind it.  Regardless, Salomon's story is not as well known as it should be.  It is another example of the mosaic of the Revolution and the "want of a nail" nature of so many pieces of the story.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Battlefields and Poems

The fierce and sudden snow of the other day that wreaked such havoc began to vanish as the temperatures again rose above freezing, so I went to Princeton Battlefield, looking for a sense of winter on the field of battle on January 3, 1777.  I have always been intrigued by the combined mass grave, shown here in the foreground.  We look through the remains of a mansion across the field and towards the American lines.

Alfred Noyes in May 1917 wrote a commemorative poem, a couple of lines which are on a grave marker shown here; the exact location may not be in this exact spot but we are told that 21 British and 15 American soldiers are buried together.  Part of the poem reads:

Through this May night, if one great ghost should stray
  With deep remembering eyes,
Where that old meadow of battle smiles away
  Its blood-stained memories,        
If Washington should walk, where friend and foe
  Sleep and forget the past,
Be sure his unquenched heart would leap to know
  Their souls are linked at last.

Noyes was the poet laureate of England, and wrote this poem for this battlefield years into the carnage of World War I.  It is, perhaps, hard to read the archaic lines from almost a century ago.  There is also something discordant about trying to express the horror of war in neatly rhyming and pseudo-soaring lines.  Still, what is interesting is the reference to the "linked souls" of enemies, buried together, and that they "sleep and forget the past." Such a lesson of forgiveness or forgetfulness is hardly reflected in the decades-old cycles of violence that circle the globe today.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Why We Honor Lafayette

The man who designed the Statue of Liberty, Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, is responsible for the bronze statue of Marquis de Lafayette in Union Square in New York.

This statue was cast in 1873 and dedicated in 1876, according to the NYC Parks webpage on it.  A gift from the French government, by way of gratitude for aid given by New York City to the French during the Franco-Prussian War.  When the American forces arrived in Paris during the First World War, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Stanton (not General John Pershing) uttered the words "Lafayette, we are here" before the French general's grave.  There are Fayette Counties around the country named for him.

While his courage under fire was demonstrated, his lack of real military experience almost led to disaster at Barren Hill.  Nonetheless, a favorite of George Washington, he also gave significant diplomatic service in maintaining French-American relations.  Still, the fascination and respect afforded Lafayette, like that to Pulaski, Kosciusko, von Steuben and other foreign figures that were generals and officers in the American Revolution, seems to attest to the universality of the philosophical underpinnings of the Revolution.  It also speaks to another time in which people literally put their money where their mouth was, and even more literally, their lives.  These were not the "hit and run" commentators of today's digital world, striking through 140 character comments in the ether.  

We wander our cities and see these statues as part of the landscape, but it is good to remember who these people were and why they continue to be in our consciousness today.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Western Frontier of the Revolution

Lieutenant Colonel George Rogers Clark established a camp on Corn Island at the Falls of the Ohio in 1778 in order to carry the Revolutionary War westward.  With no regular Continental Army soldiers, he relied on militia units.  We can see the sweep of the river by the statue to him in Louisville overlooking the falls and the area of Corn Island.

Corn Island became his base for action in the Revolution, which included his victory at Vincennes in Indiana in 1779.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Pulaski and Kosciuszko

Casimir Pulaski and Thaddeus Kosciuszko are honored in a unique park next to the Cooper River near Camden, New Jersey in the Polish American Congress Monument.

We see Kosciuszko in the foreground and Pulaski in the background in this view.  I have posted previously about these two; both are memorialized elsewhere in New Jersey and in other states.  The two of them are also part of the 14 statues comprising the American Revolution Statuary in Washington, DC.

The day I was there was somewhat cold and the park sparsely attended.  The two generals faced the road, their backs to the Cooper River.  Pulaski died at Savannah and Kosckiuszko survived the war, although he was wounded at the Siege of Ninety-Six in South Carolina.  I simply found this one of the more interesting sites memorializing Revolutionary War generals, and in particular, uniting the two Polish generals.  Their paths crossed in South Jersey, with Kosciuuszko engineering the Delaware River defenses and Pulaski seeing action with British Major Patrick Ferguson, though I do not believe they ever fought side by side.