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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.