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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.