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Saturday, July 25, 2015

West Point, the Revolution and Contemporary Politics

I visited West Point for the first time, after all these years, and it was, to use the phrase, an awesome experience.  A variety of cadets were out and about in various exercises, and I saw them as a direct line reaching back to Henry Knox, whose vision of a military academy spawned West Point.  During the Revolution, it was a singular bastion for controlling the Hudson River.  Fort Putnam was the linchpin of the various forts, batteries and redoubts that comprised it.  Here is a view from Fort Putnam over the Point and the Hudson River:

Just to the left of the railing post on the right is a small white "dot" that is the Kosciuszko Monument that is at the location of Fort Clinton.  Just to the right of the middle railing post is another white spot, a boathouse on Constitution Island.  The Great Chain, one of several set across the Hudson to impede British naval traffic, reached from Fort Clinton to Constitution Island between those two white "dots." At this point, the Hudson River made a sharp turn, itself a challenge to navigation.

But I was struck by the cadets I saw.  I thought about Henry Knox and Nathanael Greene, who were among Washington's top generals and who learned military strategy from books.  Some, like Charles Lee and Horatio Gates, had had actual combat experience and training in the British army, but various of the Continental generals like Knox and Greene "played" at soldier in militias before the war, but essentially learned warfare from books.  It was Knox's vision to have a military academy, and as I watched these cadets--which seemed to be freshman, as I understood it--I was struck not so much by the Grey Line but the line back to Knox.

I also noted this from the Douglas MacArthur monument, quoting from his last address to the cadets: 

No rational being wants war.  The current Secretary of State, John Kerry, offers his Vietnam experience as a reason for signing a deal with the Iranians, claiming he does not want war.  No rational being chooses to go to war just to do it.  But irrational human beings do bring on war, and rational people need to defend.  Consequently, the current President, Barack Obama, is proud of "ending" wars by bringing troops home, regardless of whether victory--or the American goals--were achieved.  As a result, the Middle East is embroiled in wear with no end in sight.  In the Revolution, the British lost significant numbers of troops and had to make a decision whether to pursue subjugation and continue to fight France, Spain and Holland.  The Americans (with determinative French aid) won.  They achieved victory.  The goal was to sustain independence.  Today, at least under the administration in power as this is written, has no concept of victory in war.  It is all politics.  Meanwhile, real lives have been lost and continue to be lost, and the meaningless rhetoric continues as the current holocaust goes on.  Standing in West Point, looking at men and women who, in 30-40 years will be the leaders of the American military, I cannot help but admire them in the face of the political realities with which they will have to deal.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Seeing the Past

On May 10, 1780, on his return to America, Lafayette met with General George Washington and Colonel Alexander Hamilton at Washington's headquarters in Morristown to advise of the formal entry of France on the side of the Americans.  Washington's headquarters was a couple of miles from the center of the town, the Green.  On the Green was Arnold's Tavern, which Washington used as his headquarters in 1777 after the Battle of Princeton when his troops camped at Jockey Hollow.  An imaginative sculpture interprets the event on the Green:

In the middle of the picture you can see the blue square sign in front of the Charles Schwab building that marks the site of Colonel Jacob Arnold's tavern that was on the green.   It is intriguing to imagine this conversation looking like this on the Green.  Elsewhere on the Green is another sculpture commemorating the militia, which Washington often despised.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Thoughts on July 4

It seems the United States is becoming an increasingly neurotic society.  Every day some phrase or historical fact is under challenge as offensive to someone or another.  Read histories of the Revolutionary era, and see how "political correctness" is not new.  Loyalists and Patriots were, in numerous instances, brutal to each other.  The rhetoric went deep.  Still, I don't find it comparable to today, where one person writes a column and it is instantly on line, picked up and rallied around.  The counters may begin, but both sides seem to break along pre-disposition of viewpoint.  We are not left with any kind of rational discussion, let along debate.  That is because rational discussion is not a goal.  Hypocrisy of position in many instances exist, with a side taking one position that contradicts another in a different, but analogous context.  That doesn't matter any more.  All that matters is power, and beating down the other side.  Aggressive discourse is fine as long as it is meaningful and not purely destructive for its own sake.

What is disturbing is the degradation of any kind of sense of what it means to be an American.  This is not a call for knee-jerk flag-waving o the one hand, or the tear-it-down attitude on the other.  It just seems that few are interested in being an American in the same way they seek to be a Nationality-American or even just Nationality.

As Kurt Vonnegut wrote, "so it goes."

To participate in July 4, I usually go to the Princeton battlefield where a corps of reenactors demonstrate rifle and cannon firing.  It's a time for personal reflection, and while of course Princeton was not fought in July (but January), being there helps focus attention.  Note the touches of yellow flame in both rifle and cannon firing.

Battle of Richmond

     The Battle of Richmond on Jul 5, 1781 was more of a raid, much as the battles in Connecticut, in which an overwhelming British force entered the city, dispersed token resistance, burned buildings, and left.  Still, it is important to note this exchange in terms of the overall activities in the South at this time and as a tile in the mosaic of Benedict Arnold's new career as a British general.

     The British had a finite number of troops in the South, and had just suffered significant losses of favorable militia at King's Mountain.  Contrary to hopes, if not expectations, Cornwallis was not generating additional enlistments among the local population.  King's Mountain had not helped.  Clinton sent Benedict Arnold down from New York in December 1780 with 1600 troops, which included Lieutenant Colonel John Simcoe's Queens Rangers and Major General Thomas Dundas' 18th British Regiment (Scotch).  On January 4, they landed about 25 miles south of Richmond and marched on the city, taking position on January 5.

     American Colonel John Nichols set up with 200 Virginia militia on Church Hill to the east of the center of the city.  Church Hill is the site of St. John's Church, where Patrick Henry had delivered his famous "Give me liberty or give me death" speech.  Here is that location:

     The Americans withdraw with no casualties as the British advanced.  Arnold burned parts of the city and withdrew.

     As in Connecticut, this was less of a strategic operation than what today we might term a kind of terrorist attack.  It was hit and run and accomplished nothing militarily.  Given the events occurring that year in the Southern campaign and the result at Yorktown, it was not even a distraction.