The Commodore Who Fathered Our Navy
Tim McGrath journeyed from Pennsylvania through snow, ice and sleet to tell 40-50 equally weather-proof Round Tablers about his superb book, John Barry, An American Hero in the Age of Sail. Head one of the nation’s most successful executive recruiting firms, Mr. McGrath stumbled on a treasure trove of Barry papers and began writing the book 8 years ago. As an Irish-American, he fell in love with the brogue-tongued Barry almost instantly, and gave us a marvelous portrait of the man: six feet four, affable, witty – but also, when the situation called for it, as tough as the legendary Captains Bligh or Ahab. Again and again, Barry’s sailing skills and an ability to think fast eluded British flotillas and lethal storms. His courage never faltered, even when he was slugging it out with two or three enemy ships to his one.
Mesmerized Round Tablers traveled from France to America to the West Indies with the fighting Commodore, and after the war voyaged to China, where he all but tore out his hair dealing with canny merchants who said yes one day and no the next. We heard about Barry’s cool relationship with Ambassador Benjamin Franklin during the Revolutionary War, mostly because Barry declined to come to Paris and murmur compliments to the philosopher, who wanted his own way on everything. We chuckled at Barry’s good humor when he overheard some of his men telling each other: “Who told you to think?” This was the Commodore’s frequent reply to a sailor who stuttered “I thought etc” as an excuse for failing to perform. The men braced themselves for a tongue-lashing. Instead the Commodore burst out laughing.
Not surprisingly, there was a rush to buy copies of the book, and Mr. McGrath cheerfully signed them afterward, as all hands shrugged into their foul weather gear and headed into the storm raging on Lexington Avenue. It was another evening to remember as the Round Table’s 52nd year began in bravura – one might even say John Barry – style.
Dr. Joanne Grasso and Jon Carriel stirred not a little merriment by finding themselves reviewing different versions of the same book.
Joanne reviewed A Guide to the Battles of the American Revolution by Theodore P. Savas and J. David Cameron. She found the book “extraordinary.” It was something to have in one’s hand when you walked the battlefields. She praised the book’s organization and its detailed plans of battle. It is much more than a travel guide. For each battle it has the American perspective and the British perspective, the terrain, the fighting, the casualties and the outcome. It also has a solid introduction with information on ships and regiments. Each battle is “a great historical read” although Joanne thought the sections on the British perspective were a little too pro-British. “Someone should tell the authors that the Americans may have lost a few battles but they won the war,” she said. The maps are excellent and so are the overviews of the war’s different geographical areas. The book won the Military Writers of America Gold Star Book Award for History. There is information here, Joanne said in her summary, “for the amateur historian and the seasoned professional.”
Jon Carriel reviewed The New American Revolution Handbook: Facts and Artwork for Readers of All Ages, 1775-1783 by Theodore P. Savas and J. David Dameron. The book contains “tables, lists, maps, illustrations and very brief prose descriptions of people, events, battles and aspects of the Revolution” in a form that seems to want to be both referential and entertaining. There are items in this handbook that Jon found “unexpected and valuable” – a breakdown of the officers in a British regiment, for instance and details on the battles on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. But Jon confessed to “considerable impatience” with the final product. It is basically a cut down version of the author’s Guide to the Battles of the American Revolution and Jon found himself wondering why it has been published. The authors give the battle of Long Island seven pages – and skip White Plains and Fort Washington. Cowpens and Yorktown are each described twice but Kings Mountain and Guilford Court House barely get a mention. If you compare their list to Wikipedia’s, Wiki’s list is far more comprehensive and the battle descriptions are more thorough. Worse, there are errors. They have Bemis Heights on the east side of the Hudson, while the map puts it correctly on the west bank. Kosciusko’s surname is constantly misspelled. Jon could only sum it up with a wry: Better luck next time.
The 2010 Round Table Book Award
In February, Chairman Dave Jacobs was forced to break a continuous attendance record which encompasses upwards of 20 years. He is working overtime to became Dr. David Jacobs at the University of Connecticut. Tom Fleming filled in for Dave in his usual genial style. (He had the job from 1970-1980.) His most important task, besides introducing our speaker, was the announcement of the winners of the 2010 Round Table Book Award.
Note we said winners. The plural resulted from a tie vote on the Board of Governors. Here they are:
Defiance of the Patriots, The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America by Benjamin Carp, Yale University Press.
Flight from Monticello, Thomas Jefferson at War by Michael Kranish. Oxford University Press.
A Heartfelt Farewell to a Round Table Friend
Tom’s next announcement made less enjoyable listening. Jim Davis is resigning after almost two decades as our treasurer because he is moving to Virginia.. Tom expressed Chairman Dave Jacobs’s regret about his inability to say in person how sorry he was to be unable to pay tribute to Jim. Tom admirably voiced Dave’s sentiments, in which all Round Tablers unquestionably joined, saying that if anyone came close to embodying the many-sided spirit of the Round Table, it was Jim. His wit, his scholarship, (demonstrated in his lively Tid-Bits columns) and his genial welcomes to old-timers and newcomers alike made everything flow smoothly and effortlessly evening after evening. Behind the scenes he was responsible for our arrangement with the Williams Club, and for our transfer to our latest home, the Roger Smith Hotel. He often opened his personal checkbook to buy a speaker’s books, enabling the Round Table to keep the full amount of the sale price.
Jim responded with warm words of his own. He said his departure was not a total farewell. He hoped to visit us from time to time. He talked of how much he had enjoyed his Round Table years and his many friendships, and thanked everyone for their best wishes.
A Jefferson Passaround
Tom Fleming also contributed an interesting passaround: A resolution from the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society, composed of descendants of our third president. It was in response to a program on the History Channel, which maintained that Jefferson had fathered children with his mulatto slave, Sally Hemings. The resolution reviewed the controversy, noting its source, a newspaper calumny by the infamous journalist, James Callender, and the unliklihood of such an affair being conducted at Monticello, “crowded with guests and family.” It ended by condemning the History Channel for having “omitted and withheld all evidence that would show Sally Hemings had no children with Thomas Jefferson.”
Tom made it clear that he was aware that there are two competing points of view on this question. He thought Round Tablers ought to be know that there are still many people who dispute Jefferson’s guilt. In the same issue of the Jefferson Heritage Society newsletter that contained the resolution, there was an ad for an article by John Works, former president of the Monticello Association, entitled: The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy, a New Critical Look. It appeared in Drumbeat, the Quarterly Publication of the Sons of the American Revolution. You can read it online at http:/www.tjheritage.org/DNA.html
There are some people in America who have no trouble spelling Kosciuszko. Many of them belong to the Polish American Congress. On February 5, 2011 they had a splendid ceremony to celebrate the 265th birthday of the Polish volunteer. The fete was held in the Betsy Ross Ballroom at the Holiday Inn Hotel in Philadelphia. “Kos” as the patriots of 1776 called him, was hailed as a “freedom fighter for Poland and an American Revolutionary War hero.” The Congress urged everyone in attendance, and friends elsewhere, to visit the national shrine to the General, the Kosciuszko House, at 3rd and Pine Streets in Philadelphia. The Polish-American Cultural Center at 308 Walnut Street also has an exhibit in his honor.
Can This Be True?
A week or two after he presided at the February meeting, Tom Fleming was the guest of a group of businessmen who gather once a month at the Lotos Club to discuss a selected book. They had read the 50th anniversary edition of Now We Are Enemies, Tom’s first book, and invited him to dinner to discuss it. Everything was very pleasant. The conversation soon extended to other aspects of the Revolution. One of the men said he was retired and was working as a volunteer, taking students to historic sites. A few days after Christmas, he escorted 15 seniors from a Bronx public high school to Washington’s Crossing to visit the site of the battle of Trenton. Going down on the train, he asked: “I assume all of you know who George Washington was?”
Not one of the 15 could tell him when Washington was born or what he had done to found the nation. Everyone at the table was staggered as was Tom. A few days later, there was a ray of hope. While visiting a friend, Tom told the story to the man’s son, a recent college graduate. “Mr. Fleming,” the young man said. “I’ll bet ten bucks those guys were putting him on.”
Tom suggested we tell the story in the Broadside and let other RTers draw their own conclusions.
The Man Who Saved a Future PresidentMost Americans are not aware that a teenaged James Monroe participated in the battle of Trenton. Even fewer know that he was painfully wounded and a Prince William County Virginia man named John Sidebottom saved his life.
John Sidebottom was a black volunteer in a Virginia regiment. A man named Maurice Barboza is trying to get him and other blacks credit for their Revolutionary achievements. He is asking the Prince William Board of supervisors to pass a resolution, recognizing their contributions. Mr. Barboza is also working with two congressmen to pass a bill for the construction of a war memorial in Washington DC as a tribute to those largely forgotten African Americans.
Mr. Barboza is a fighter. He waged a long-running war with the Daughters of the American Revolution to win his aunt, who is black, membership in the storied organization. In 2008, in a DAR book entitled Forgotten Patriots, there was extensive recognition of black contributions to our victory. We have no doubt that Round Tablers are rooting for the black war memorial, his current project.
Was John Adams in Favor of National Health Care?
The uproar stirred by the Tea Party of 2010 continues. Now a writer who has minimal friendship for these misnamed small government advocates has come up with an argument that the Founding Fathers favored national health care. Forbes Magazine writer Rick Ungar points to a measure passed by Congress in 1798, An Act for the Relief of Sick and Disabled Seaman. The law authorized the creation of hospitals in various seaports and mandated that sailors still on a payroll should pay a tax to support it. Mr. Ungar has persuaded Adam Rothman, associate professor of history at Georgetown University to agree with him – though the prof admits it’s “a bit of leap” to go from this very limited venture to argue that it proves the founding fathers, including President John Adams, who signed the bill, were ready to support national health care. To which the editors of the Broadside are tempted to add: You can say that again.
South Carolina Rediscovers a Forgotten Battle
Every Revolutionary War buff knows about the battle of Sullivan’s Island which took place in Charleston’s harbor, on June 28, 1776. In the fort that was also named Sullivan (now called Fort Moultrie) 435 men under Colonel William Moultrie defied a British armada that bombarded them for hours, and they dished out plenty of punishment to the King’s ships in return. But how many people are aware that an even more crucial battle took place at the other end of the island?
Weeks before the bombardment, the British had landed 3,000 troops as well as artillery on Long Island (now the Isle of Palms). A narrow body of water called Breach Inlet separates the two islands. The British plan called for an amphibious landing on that end of Sullivan’s Island to attack the fort from the rear. The unfinished fort had no defenses worth mentioning on that side. Guarding the shore at Breach Inlet was Colonel William Thompson and about 800 men.
The British made their move, backed by artillery. But they got nowhere. Colonel Thomson, whose nickname was “Danger” stopped them with blasts of musketry, and not a man got ashore. If the redcoats had succeeded, Fort Sullivan would have fallen and Charleston would have surrendered. The entire state of South Carolina might have decided to make peace with the conquerors
A group of Charlestonians have created a website and are planning to develop a small park, appropriately called Thomson’s Beach, overlooking the inlet. For more information, visit thomsonpark.wordpress.com.
How George Got His Bridge
The New York Times recently rescued a local history gem from the murk of the past, while reporting on the fracas over whether to call the Queensboro Bridge the Edward I. Koch Bridge, in memory of the former mayor, who is still very much alive. The Times compared it to the huge uproar that erupted when the Port Authority announced in 1931 that the magnificent new bridge spanning the Hudson would be named after George Washington. Dozens of alternative names were flung about, and the PA decided to duck and let the voice of the people be heard. The Times kept track of the mail-in votes and George was never anywhere near the top. The favorite was “The Hudson River Bridge” but there was a minority that wanted it named after President Grover Cleveland. Other favorites were the Al Smith Bridge and the Charles Lindbergh Bridge. The Port Authority retired into the silence to count the ballots – and voted to go ahead with George Washington. The Times glumly reported the PA “declined to make public the nature of its decision.” The name quickly won favor and no one today would dream of calling the bridge anything else. But less famous figures have had their problems. The old names tend to stick. The Times suggested a possible solution to the current argument: They urged Mr. Koch to change his name to Edward I. Queensboro.