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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.