By Joe Craig, Park Ranger Check any news outlet, and you’ll be assaulted by the ongoing tragedies of the Middle East. Cruel civil wars, sectarian genocide, and ethnic cleansing have forced millions to flee. Many have sought refuge in Europe, and some seek entrance to the United States. The admission of even a small number […]
By Joe Craig “The better the novel the more dangerous it is, because readers are more likely to think it’s true.” Antony Beevor Richard Ketchum’s Saratoga, Turning Point of America’s Revolutionary War has been a continual best-selling item at Saratoga NHP. Not only is the story compelling about world-changing history but the often repeated verdict […]
By Joe Craig, Park Ranger There’s no other place quite like Colonial Williamsburg: a town filled with famous names from American History, a center for preservation of buildings, artifacts and traditional skills. Duke of Gloucester Street is rarely empty of visitors, all “experiencing the Eighteenth Century”. Thankfully, that experience is sanitized. The rank smells of […]
By Park Ranger Joe Craig Rangers love “kid mail”. School programs are quite a workout, but getting a bundle of thank you notes from students can make it all worthwhile. Often, there is a formula to the notes, probably dictated by their assignment: “Thank you for teaching us about the Revolutionary War and Battles of […]
By Joe Craig, Park Ranger On January 29, 2003, World War II veteran and cartoonist Bill Mauldin was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Mauldin’s cartoons championed the men with eyes that were “just too old for those young bodies” who were called upon to fight a savage war amid appalling squalor and (too often) neglect. […]
By Joe Craig, Park Ranger
Like devotees of crossword puzzles, those who read through the many letters, journals and other literature of the past develop a rather extensive vocabulary. On occasion, a new word will pop up and cause even the hoariest student of history scurrying for a dictionary. Words like “redoubt” and “abatis” are old stuff to most, but how often does “flagitious” come up in conversation?
Sometimes, it’s not so much the word itself as its use in a document that needs looking up. For example, Dr. John Cochran head of the Hospital [Medical Department] noted in a letter in 1781:
“This [letter] will be delivered by Doctor Young, a deranged surgeon, whom I recommend to Congress to fill one of the Vacancies of Hospital Physician & surgeon”
Lest anyone panic, Dr. Cochrane was not recommending an individual with mental problems to treat the sick and wounded. As far as can be determined, Dr. Young was as sane as anyone else. He was “deranged” in terms of having no position in the Hospital, not suffering from a “deranged mind”, a mind out of its place.
Derangement is not the only word whose usage has changed over the years. Perhaps the most changed is one used at Saratoga NHP almost daily: revolution. When most people use the word, they usually think of a great and enduring change to almost any system: something new, forward-looking and, well, revolutionary.
By contrast for most of the 18th century revolution was defined as something that was anything but novel. In Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language it is defined as “Course of any thing which returns to the point at which it began to move”, that is, a return to an original location or state. True, Johnson also defines revolution as “Change in the state of a government or country. It is used among us κατ’ ἐξοχὴν [super eminently], for the change produced by the admission of king William and queen Mary.”
The Glorious Revolution of 1688 to which Johnson alluded eschewed any notion of novelty. Right out of the gate, in his proclamation William of Orange made sure that all understood that his political action was not usurpation but a revolution bringing things back to the way they were supposed to be: “restoring of the laws and liberties of England, Scotland, and Ireland….” (King Billy, it must be noted, had to agree to a lessening of his royal powers as England became a parliamentary monarchy, but he was still the king.)
Not too surprisingly, we find other revolts in the years of the “Long Eighteenth Century” that are rarely accorded the name of “revolution”, but their intentions were as circular as those of 1688 and probably deserve the name.
In Russia, Ekaterina II (The Great) had assumed the throne by deposing her husband Tsar Piotr III in 1762. Piotr’s overthrow and murder apparently were not viewed as a bad thing, at least among the intelligentsia and ruling powers. However, there were elements in the Russian population that really wasn’t comfortable with the settlement or things in general for that matter.
The concept of “American exceptionalism” is hardly exceptional. In Russia during the Early Modern Period, a number of people loathed westernizing efforts in “Holy Russia.” Called “Old Believers”, they eschewed all western influences (although with the invention of vodka, potatoes were eventually accepted), despised all religions except for the Orthodox Church and longed for a time when they were ruled by Russians (apparently they’d forgotten about Ivan the Terrible) and not that German, Sophie, who called herself Ekaterina.
Another group, Russian serfs (agricultural and industrial) were as free as slaves in the Americas, and we know how enviable their life was. For some reason the serfs didn’t enjoy their work or status and hoped that someone would ease their miserable existence.
Ignoring Piotr’s failings, these groups grasped at rumors that he had escaped, and was just waiting to return and set things right for Holy Russia. Piotr became an icon of what was right with Russia before what was wrong Ekaterina and just about anything from The West.
Enter Yemelyan Ivanovich Pugachev, a Cossack and one-time soldier, who managed to convince a mélange of Old Believers, serfs, factory workers and Cossacks that he was the deposed Tsar Piotr. How many actually believed his mythomania is impossible to say, but with enough charisma and lots of violence, Pugachev convinced others that he was their tsar and would bring back the Good Old Days to Holy Mother Russia.
Pugachev’s rebellion scared the willies out of Russia’s rulers. It commenced in 1773 and ranged many hundreds of miles, even briefly capturing the city of Kazan before being defeated at Tsaritsyn (present-day Volgograd). Betrayed by his followers hoping to save their own skins, Pugachev was shipped to Moscow in an iron cage, given several bouts of “ordinary” torture and beheaded in Moscow in January 1775. Any village that had supported his revolution, willingly or not, was subjected to horrifying official retaliation.
Where Pugachev was a no-soy-bean-filler impostor, José-Gabriel Condorcanqui in Peru had a slightly better claim to being above the riff-raff. Although one of the oppressed Indios, he had been educated by Spanish-run schools and even given a title: “Marquis d’Oropesa”. As a village cacique he was a man of some importance, if by trade a mule driver.
To say that the Native population was oppressed is an understatement and while they might have seemed impassive to European observers, there was an abiding resentment that was just looking for an avenue to express itself. Like Pugachev, Condorcanqui tapped into this and let on he was a direct descendant of The Inca and called himself Tupac Amaru (Resplendent Snake).
Besides general wrongs done to los Indios, Condorcanqui had a personal grudge or two against the Spanish. His status of cacique did not let him prevent the many outrages committed his villagers; particularly the wholesale kidnapping of men to forced labor in mines. He ran afoul of the corregidor (magistrate) Don Antonio Arriaga who wanted to erect gallows in Condorcanqui’s village to hang corpses of Indios who had tried to escape from the mines. In November 1780, he took action.
Tupac Amaru and other Indios captured the hated corregidor, who was horrifically and symbolically executed several days later. Amaru proclaimed himself “Don José primero, Inca del Peru” &c. the first Native ruler in over 200 years.
Although Amaru’s bands initially terrified the European overlords with attacks and atrocities, the rebellion was crushed. Amaru was brutally executed along with most of his family in 1781.
In all three instances, the Glorious Revolution, Pugachev’s and Tupac Amaru’s revolts the solutions offered (or violently inflicted) were returns to a perceived past by replacing the hated king (or tsarina) with another. Was America’s successful uprising a revolution that recapitulated the past, or something new and different?
Actually, it was a little of both.
Leaders of the Colonies (and later, States) exerted themselves to portray their goals as a return to liberty. This would be instinctive as most of the leadership had legal training of some sort, and Law is based upon precedence. The Rights of Englishmen were heralded as the goal before independence was declared. After declaring ourselves out of the British system “natural rights” were extolled, this essentially preceded and trumped any nationally ensured rights.
There was a big difference between the backward looking revolts and the drive for American Independence: no one in the United States implied that King George III needed to be replaced. Certainly, George was reviled, loathed, hated, despised and hanged in effigy, but there was no pretender to his throne. As far as the United States was concerned, George could keep his job and all its perks (including dental benefits) we just wanted him to keep his Royal Nose out of our affairs.
When it came time to actually form a government, there was a great deal owed to the past. Britain’s Parliament certainly gave some important inspiration, and the new national capital gave more than a nod to the Roman Republic filling it with neo-classical architecture. But in that government, there was a system that neither William of Orange, Yemelyan Pugachev or Tupac Amaru would ever have thought of: an elected republic.
The ability to elect leaders took the “American Revolution” out of a cycle based entirely on the past. As a system of government, it has often proven unwieldy, but it affirms a belief that the future has unlimited potential, which is the real revolutionary ideal.
Post Scriptum: Flagitious [fləˈjiSHəs] (adjective) of a person: criminal, villainous. The Gentle reader is encouraged to use it in conversation at the next cocktail party when conversation lags.
“There is no problem about changing the course of history the course of history does not change because it all fits together like a jigsaw [puzzle]. All the important changes have happened before the things they were supposed to change and it all sorts itself out in the end.”
The Restaurant at the End of the Universe
Regularly, visitors arrive at Saratoga NHP hoping to learn “more about my ancestor, John Doe, who fought here”. Quite often the visitor knows more about their ancestor than we do, but they entertain hopes that the ranger will know about some heroic exploit of their ancestor.
Finding an heroic exploit at Saratoga can be a problem as much of the Army of the United States never came under fire in either of the two battles fought here. Private John Doe’s service here was most likely building fortifications, digging and filling in “vaults” (latrines) and manning the works while other guys slugged it out with Burgoyne’s forces.
This is not to disparage Private John Doe’s hard work, the fortifications certainly were decisive factors in the battles, and the cleanliness of the camps saved lives. Undeniably, discovering that Private John Doe single-handed captured a regiment of Hessians or a dozen cannons does makes for better bragging rights at the next DAR meeting than explaining how well he dug a latrine.
A few visitors discover that their family stories have inflated their ancestor’s rank in the army to the point that a standing joke among rangers holds that the entire Continental Army was made up entirely of “captains”. Indeed, one visitor (vigorously) insisted that his ancestor held a general’s rank and disabusing him of that notion took about a half hour on the telephone.
Nonetheless, it is rewarding when we can tell to a visitor that their ancestor was here even if he was using a spade or axe far more frequently than a musket. Even better are the times when a visitor brings in documents about their ancestor’s experiences which they kindly share.
To date none of these documents have changed the main story of Saratoga and the War for Independence: our side still won. But some have provided details that refocus what has been known and related over the years. Some of the details cause us to rethink some received wisdom.
Historians have often ranted about baneful influence and venial motives to Burgoyne’s campaign. As the record shows, the American abandonment of Fort Ticonderoga caused the British to shift their axis of advance from Lake George to the rough countryside east of Lake Champlain. Burgoyne’s options following the battles at Hubbardton and Fort Ann were to retrace his steps back to Ticonderoga, or continue south toward Fort Edward.
Received knowledge holds that it was the promptings of the Iago-like Philip Skene that made Burgoyne’s mind up to head due south. We are told that the military road necessary to make this move would benefit Skene mightily when British arms had triumphed and he could resume his position as top dog. Skene would be in the catbird seat thanks to a government-built road that linked the Hudson and Lake Champlain right by his home turf.
It’s a story accepted by many Americans as it depicts the time-honored stereotype of Loyalism based upon an elitist’s desire for private gain. After all, the same traditions hold that the Founding Fathers were entirely altruistic in their reasons for seeking Independence [ahem].
Skene’s reputation is further sullied whereby by his advice, Burgoyne dragged his troops into a mess, losing irreplaceable time and eventually the campaign. Lt. Thomas Anburey, serving with the 24th Regiment of Foot noted:
“Camp at Fort Edward, August 6, 1777… The country between our late encampment at Skensboro and this place, was a continuation of woods and creeks, interspersed with deep morasses; and to add to these natural impediments, the enemy had very industriously augmented them, by felling immense trees, and various other modes that it was with the utmost pains and fatigue we could work our way through them. Exclusive of these the watery grounds and marshes were so numerous, that we were under the necessity of constructing no less than forty bridges to pass them and over one morass there was a bridge of near two miles in length.”
In some ways it’s a microcosm of a very American view of the British in the Revolutionary War. The redcoats founder about, clueless about the land they are trying to control or traverse. But for the lack of enemy gunfire, it’s the same mindless British obedience seen at Breed’s Hill. By inference Americans would have done the smart thing and gone around it, being ever so much cleverer than their British foes.
Which brings us to the experiences of Richard Flansburgh as related in his pension claim provided to us by a descendant. Flansburgh served in the Northern Department beginning in March 1777 as a bateau man and axmen and spelled out his duties quite simply:
“…to serve as Batteaux men to procure timber for bridges, to cut and clear roads, and to engage in any and every kind of service to advance the interests of the main army….”
After being employed to saw logs into boards for building barracks for about a month, Flansburgh found himself at Fort Ann building roads. He and his company were there for “…5 or 6 weeks engaged in making roads….” What is of interest was his note that
“[Flansburgh’s company] together with two other companies, one under Captain William Peterson, and the other under and the other under Captain Cole constructed a causeway through a swamp three miles of thereabouts between Fort Ann and Fort Edward….[emphasis added]”
A quick referral to a map will make it very evident that Flansburgh and his comrades were building their road in the same area and direction that the British would take later that same summer.
Whatever personal motives Skene might have harboured for building a roadway, it seems plausible that the British had some inkling of the American’s construction activities. It makes for a more rational explanation for Burgoyne’s move straight south was to link into that work and speed south to Fort Edward and military glory.
To be honest, Flansburgh’s account doesn’t change facts. The British were ultimately defeated, in part due to the delays they encountered during that rather unpleasant experience: hard labour replete with heat and humidity and the attention of the Upstate New York Air force of biting and stinging insects. Flansburgh’s account and those of other common soldiers help us to recognize that Big Events are made up of many minute ones.
By Joe Craig, Park Ranger, Saratoga NHP
“Having lost faith in sorcery…we assert that the sorcerers are wrong, that there is no kinship of harm between ourselves and an effigy of us, and nonetheless, we feel hurt if a single word of our name is joined by a single word of abuse….”
Jorge Luis Borges
Stories from Turkestan
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously noted that there are no second acts in American lives. If Benedict Arnold didn’t have a “second act” after his changing sides during the Revolutionary War, he certainly had an extended epilogue.
Arnold migrated to Britain after his betrayals and service against his former comrades in arms. Sadly for his hopes of preferment, Arnold proved a bit of an embarrassment to the British. Some were quite forthright in rating their new companion:
“…The Duke of Bolton rose [in Parliament], and recapitulated many national grievances…[including] the bad news from America, in the loss of Major Andre and the revolt of General Arnold, which his Grace called exchanging a good officer for a bad man….” [London Magazine, 1781]
Arnold’s name had come up in Parliamentary discussions about the ensuing campaign season , and it was evident that some members of parliament regarded him as rather toxic:
“[18 February, 1782] On this occasion, Mr.[Edmund] Burke wished the Secretary of State [for the Colonies] to inform the House who was to command the army in America [during] the ensuing campaign and whether General Arnold was to be employed? He spoke of the gallantry and spirit of that general in terms of high commendation; but could not help blaming administration , if by placing him at the head of part of a British army, the sentiments of true honour, which every British officer held dearer than life should be affected.
Mr. [Wellbore] Ellis expressed his surprise, that being so lately promoted, he should be called upon to speak on subjects on the last importance the first day he had appeared in the character of a minister of that House. And he was no less astonished at the language of the hon. Gentleman, which though it well become a member of the American Congress, was, he thought very improper from a member of that House.
General [Henry Seymour] Conway gave great commendation to the military virtues of Gen. Arnold; admitted freely, that what he had done for us deserved reward; but still he did not think that the reward proper, was military honours…” [Gentlemen’s Magazine Volume 52, 1782]
Essentially, Benedict Arnold had some supporters, but he had not gained the rewards for which he’d hoped in terms of preferment and patronage. As has been noted, Arnold was a person for whom many felt contempt, a circumstance that seems to have bred at least one Arnold tale.
A story is told that Arnold, soon after his arrival in Britain was at a soiree and was escorted about by no less than George III. In their wanderings the King and Brigadier Arnold encountered the Earl of Balcarres, who commanded the Light Infantry in General Burgoyne’s army. Arnold was face to face with an old adversary, but now wearing the same uniform and serving the same guy. According to the tale the encounter went something like this:
King [to The Earl]: “Do you know General Arnold?”
Earl: “…You mean the TRAITOR Arnold?”
As might be expected, a remark like that resulted in General Arnold challenging the Earl to a duel, as his (Arnold’s) honor had been trampled on mightily. The Earl, unsurprisingly, accepted.
The antagonists met on the field of honor. Arnold fired first and missed, then stood to receive the Earls’ shot, which never came.
The Earl turned his back on Arnold and walked away.
Arnold called out: “Sir, will you give me no satisfaction?”
The Earl replied, without breaking step: “Sir. I leave you to the Devil.”
For a moralizing tale about the just deserts for deserting one’s cause, country and comrades, it just doesn’t get much better. In it, we have two former military opponents whose forces fought on the field of battle meeting face to face. Although they now wear the same uniform, they are now meeting upon a “field of honor” for a duel, one contestant is no longer “honorable”, and the professional soldier haughtily leaves Arnold to stew in his own guilt.
There’s only one small problem: it never happened.
Some individuals stoutly contend that the story is true, including the current Earl of Balcarres. However, the dearth of contemporary sources is notable. Our current time suffers from a surfeit of celebrity “journalism”, and so did the latter part of the 18th Century. Like today, there were many gossipy pieces about the well-known individuals to be found in print. An encounter like the supposed duel between Arnold and a titled Lord (with the King thrown in to the story as well) would never have been ignored, especially with the very catty ending.
More importantly, during the 1790’s the Earl of Balcarres was sent to Jamaica to end one of the most successful slave uprisings. In his retinue was a young man Benedict Arnold, Junior. Arnold the Younger died of a fever, and Arnold the Elder noted in a letter [20 February 1796]:
“I have the consolation to hear that he was much respected and beloved by the officers of his acquaintance and Lord Balcarres had promised him further promotion.”
If Arnold and the Earl had had such a negative encounter as related above, it is quite unlikely that the Earl would have on his staff the son of a despised individual, let alone do favors for him.
In short, no duel between Arnold and the Earl. However, Arnold did fight a duel of honor…sort of.
In 1792, Britain was involved with a war with France. Unlike previous conflicts between His Most Britannic Majesty and His Most Catholic Majesty, there was only one king in the fight. France had deposed Louis XVI and executed him, which to King George and his Royalist supporters was setting a Very Bad Precedent. Accordingly, to prepare troops for a possible invasion an armed camp was positioned at Bagshot Heath southwest of London. They were also posted there to cow the local populace if they started getting certain ideas from Revolutionary France about eliminating the British Monarchy.
Named to the post of command of these troops was the Charles Lennox, 3rd Duke of Richmond, who apparently had slid up and down the political spectrum in his career. According to a speech summarized in the Parliamentary Register (1792), James Maitland, 8th Lord Lauderdale noted:
“[the Duke of Richmond] had once been a great friend to parliamentary reform, and called on the people to assert their rights. Now he was at the head of a camp formed to overawe the country and the inhabitants of this metropolis….”
Lauderdale then waxed eloquent, and rather nasty:
“In giving the command of this camp to the Duke of Richmond, if apostasy could justify promotion, the Ministers were well justified; for perhaps, in the whole list of public apostates, there could be none found equal to the noble Duke, if the name of General Arnold be erased from it….“
The Duke, unsurprisingly demanded satisfaction for such an attack upon his character, but the affair was resolved before any bodily harm could be risked. The records do not indicate if the noble Duke was offended by the charge of political apostasy or being compared to General Arnold.
General Arnold was tipped off about the proceedings in Parliament wherein his name had come up in conversation. Needless to say, Arnold was not pleased to be called an apostate, and sent a message to Lord Lauderdale that an immediate apology was expected.
Lord Lauderdale apologized, however, the wording was not to General Arnold’s satisfaction, and the date was set for a meeting of “honour” for the morning of the 1st of July. Martin Hawke, 2nd Baron Hawke was to be Arnold’s “second” and Charles James Fox (parenthetically, the Duke of Richmond’s nephew) was Lauderdale’s. Apparently each brought along a surgeon as well…just in case.
The “meeting” took place at Kilburn Wells the morning of July 1st. General Arnold a few days later provided the following account written on the 7th of that month, quoted in The Life of Benedict Arnold, his Patriotism and his Treason by Isaac Newton Arnold, 1905:
“The parties met at 8 o’clock Lord Lauderdale with his friend Mr. Fox, and Lord Hawke as the friend of General Arnold. The parties agreed to fire together on a word given by Mr. Fox. Lord Lauderdale received General Arnold’s fire (which was without effect), and reserved his own. Lord Hawke told Lord Lauderdale that he believed his pistol had misfired, and desired him to fire. He was also called upon by General Arnold to fire (who kept his ground for that purpose), which his Lordship declined, saying that he had no enmity to General Arnold. Lord Hawke then observed that he supposed Lord Lauderdale would not object to say that he did not mean to asperse General Arnold’s character, which his Lordship declined, saying that he had formerly said he did not mean to wound General Arnold’s feelings: he should not explain what he said, and that General Arnold might fire again if he chose. This Lord Hawke and General Arnold said was impossible. Then Lord Lauderdale said he could not retract his words, but was sorry if any man felt hurt by them; on which General Arnold said it was not a proper apology such as he should make himself in a similar situation and again instead on his Lordship’s firing.
Lord Lauderdale, after some short conversation with General Arnold and the seconds, came forward very handsomely, like a man of honor and declared ‘that he had no enmity against General Arnold, that he did not mean to asperse General Arnold’s character or wound his feelings, and was sorry that General Arnold, or any other person should be hurt at what he had said.
General Arnold told Lord Lauderdale that he was perfectly satisfied with his apology, provided their seconds, as men of honour, would say that he ought to be so, which they both did….”
All told, it was a bit of a wet firecracker sort of encounter. Lord Lauderdale (mostly) backed down, and Arnold felt completely vindicated. Peggy Arnold smugly claimed in her letter to her father [6 July 1792]:
“It has been highly gratifying to find the General’s conduct so much applauded, which it has universally, and particularly by a number of the first characters in the Kingdom, who have called upon him in consequence. Nor am I displeased at the great commendations bestowed on my own conduct upon this trying occasion…”
In the end, everyone went home happy and in one piece, Arnold got his satisfaction as a gentleman, and Peggy received guests of the “first character”. But for all Arnold’s “satisfaction”, Lord Lauderdale’s snide reference points out that in 1792, and in the present day, Arnold is still the by-word for treason.
“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
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.
By Joe Craig, Park Ranger A major theme for Saratoga National Historical Park is “People at Saratoga: By Choice or by Chance”. This is a lovely catch-all category that allows the park to avoid taking sides while interpreting the Northern Campaign of 1777. It also helps us remind visitors that there were people here in […]