Mythinterpretations

“Contrariwise”, continued Tweedledee, “if it was so, it might be; and if it were so it would be; but as it isn’t it ain’t. That’s logic”.

Through the Looking Glass: and what Alice found there

Lewis Carroll

For quite a few years now the TV show “Mythbusters” has been trying to prove or disprove long standing myths and urban legends. In each episode, viewers are treated to the spectacle of a bunch of guys with a lot of monetary backing, an insatiable curiosity, big workshop and the judgment of adolescents, BLOWING STUFF UP!!!! Supposedly they are being scientific and analytical in their experimentation, but if there isn’t at least some sort of detonation, you’re probably not getting your money’s worth.

Often the volunteers and rangers at Saratoga NHP, and many of the lesser National Park Service sites find themselves playing the role of a “mythbuster”, but without pyrotechnics, of course. Probably every historical site and park has its share of myths and legends. These are tales that are often better known to the visiting public than what actually happened at said park.

Like history, myths are ex post facto, but usually tell more about the mythmakers than the people or events that they encrust. But why should these myths even be created, considering the actual stories in history need no embellishment?

Some of myths were part of the process of creating an “American Character”. Like one truly (in)famous myth­ Mason Locke “Parson” Weems’ tale of George Washington and the Cherry Tree­ is still well-known by many Americans, even if no longer believed.

Weems’ entirely fictitious parable was intended to teach parents in the New Republic to be patient with their children when the latter mess up. In Weems’ tale, Washington’s father makes the late Mr. Rogers look cruel, as he gets to the truth of the matter without resort to violence and gently corrects his axe-wielding offspring. Heck, his dad is so nice that George doesn’t even get grounded.

So when disciplining in a child in the American Republic parents now had a sterling and “virtuous” example to emulate instead of following standard operating procedures of blowing a gasket (“YOU DID WHAT????!!!!”) and lambasting the little blister. That corporal punishment and lots of yelling remained the norm in such situations is another matter: Weems was at least being optimistic­ if unduly so ­in his efforts to improve the American Character toward virtuous parenting.

Yes, the new republic in the 19th century was fertile ground for myths about the War for American Independence. Some seem to simplify and elide over the messiness of the war [“The Americans won the war by using tactics they learned from the Indians”]. Others were begun to increase the importance of one’s ancestor(s) [The story of Betsy Ross and the creation of the US Flag, as per her grandson]. Yet others can be marked down to exuberant civic pride.

Several of the last-mentioned “civic pride” myths associated with the Northern Campaigns of the Revolutionary War crop up regularly at Saratoga NHP. As dear as these tales are to the visitor, they sometimes become to interpreters as pleasant as biting down on aluminum foil. Not surprisingly, the spoilsport rangers at Saratoga NHP try to keep the historical record straight, and labor to point out the errors inherent in these beloved tales. The reaction by visitors to the debunking is similar to having acid reflux, so no one comes off too happy in such exchanges.

Three such myths are regularly related by enthusiastic town boosters. Visitors from Whitehall trumpet the claim to be the “Birthplace of the US Navy”. Folks from Fort Edward tout Jane McCrea’s death to have turned the tide in 1777 by “rallying the militia”.   Citizens of Fort Ann will tell all and sundry that the US flag flew for the first time on a battlefield.

The ranger sighs, shrugs and takes on the role of killjoy.

Sorry, folks, Whitehall­ Skeenesboro during the Revolutionary War­ couldn’t be the birthplace of the US Navy. Why? There is no United States Navy until the 1790’s when vessels like the USS Constitution and Constellation are commissioned. The Continental Navy of the Revolutionary War is a forerunner, but our armed forces lapsed after that conflict. In fact, it must be noted that the Continental Navy had ships in action before Benedict Arnold began constructing his inland fleet.

Poor Jane McCrea’s untimely and tragic demise near Fort Edward didn’t cause the state militias to turn out. The evidence is that her death and other atrocities committed by Burgoyne’s “savages” scared the willies out of most individuals. So much so that men were reluctant to serve even when called out by their state governors. Indeed, Colonel Daniel Morgan’s Corps of Riflemen were dispatched by General Washington specifically to deal with the crisis: “The people in the Northern Army seem so intimidated by the Indians….” [George Washington to Israel Putnam, 16th August 1777]

What did bring the New England militias into play was the fact that General Burgoyne’s army was heading south from Ticonderoga, not east as originally feared. Assured that Burgoyne wasn’t bound for New England, the states governors called out their respective militia for duty with General Gates’ army. (Oh yeah, they were happier to send troops to General Gates than to his predecessor, General Schuyler, whom they loathed.)

As for the claim that Fort Ann saw the “Stars and Stripes” in combat, the British captured all the American’s flags. These were regimental colors, not Stars and Stripes. Capturing one of the Rebels’ “national” flag would be a propaganda coup and lots to gloat about. There is no such gloating from His Majesty’s forces, which would never, never in a million years have allowed such an opportunity for being a sore winner to pass.

(Naturally, we rangers keep a low profile while in those respective towns, on the outside chance that the local historical societies might point us out to the constabulary as seditious individuals.)

Some might claim that the rangers are being unnecessarily harsh in working to correct these myths. After all, where’s the harm in a little local pride?

The unfortunate effect of these myths is that they overshadow the real importance of the amazing things that happened in each of these municipalities during the Revolutionary War.

Take General Arnold’s fleet at Skeensboro. He constructed a fleet only by enormous effort. An effort, it needs to be known that included assembling all sorts of materials, most of which were not available where he was working. Arnold also wasn’t blessed with a surplus of experienced watermen. Most of the crews who manned the fleet just about had to be told that the pointier end of the vessel was the front. It was not an encouraging situation.

Yet, Arnold did assemble a fleet, and got his landlubbers to sail the ungainly gunboats. The construction of this fleet delayed the British advance in 1776 as they had to respond to the frantic activity at Arnold’s boatworks. (That he shouldn’t have wasted this fleet at Valcour Island is another matter.) The “arms race” on Lake Champlain helped save the situation in the Northern Department.

A revolution is not a dinner party”, began an observation by Mao Dzedong in 1927. It certainly was true of the events 150 years earlier near Fort Edward, NY. The death of Jane McCrae, and similar horrid episodes in the summer of 1777 are stark reminders that this was a war beyond the “niceties” of regular armies.

Not only were the soldiers and officers affected by the conflict, but the everyday people who were trying to make a living and whose homes were in the way. The stakes were very high, and more real and immediate than abstract arguments about independence or loyalty. Choices made by these people were wrenching and, as Jane McCrae found out, sometimes fatal.

That the Stars and Stripes did not fly over the sharp engagement at Fort Ann, should not detract from the importance of that battle. A quick study of the battle there showed that the Americans, although ejected from Fort Ticonderoga, still had a great deal of fight in them. This the British discovered to their dismay as elements the 9th Regiment of Foot was getting the chicken soup beat out of them before the Americans retreated.

It should have been a wakeup call for the guys in the red coats that they might have underestimated the Rebels’ determination and fighting abilities. Certainly the American troops there were not over-awed by their British foes, but it is telling that the ruse employed by a British officer­ giving an Indian war whoop­ is what caused the Rebels to break off and scram.

There is no doubt that rangers in the future will still deal with these myths. The myths have been around longer than the National Park Service and continually show up in print. But that just may mean that we’ll need rangers to set the records straight.