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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.

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