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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.