Spies in the Woodwork at Independence Hall and Everywhere Else
John Nagy took us on a mind-boggling tour while telling us about his third riveting book on Revolutionary War espionage, Spies in the Continental Capital. While there were many fascinating stories, the sheer number of spies—130— working for the British and for the Americans was amazing all by itself. Many of these people had remained invisible for 250 years, until John discovered them. At times it seemed like everybody was picking up some fast cash from King George, including the treasurer of Congress!
The story also has a chronological dimension. John filled us in on the French spies that Paris sent to America in the 1760s and 1770s to see if the colonists were serious about their talk of defying Parliament’s taxation. One name was familiar – Baron de Kalb, who stayed and fought heroically for the Americans.
Probably John’s most important discovery was documentary proof that Lydia Darragh, the Philadelphia Quaker undertaker, was a real spy. Her story, like many espionage tales, depended on testimony from descendants, who started bragging about her in the 1820s. They pictured Lydia eavesdropping from an upstairs room on British staff meetings held on the first floor of her house. Skeptics wondered if it were mostly fiction. No one could find a scrap of documentation. John decided to look in the archives for something written by William Darragh, Lydia’s husband. He transcribed Lydia’s notes into minute shorthand and she concealed them in the cloth buttons of their 14 year old son’s coat. The young man wandered into the countryside, and met his brother, a lieutenant in the Continental Army. Washington was soon reading Lydia’s latest revelation. Sure enough, John found a letter by William Darragh – so we can now hail shy, devout Lydia as the real thing in the dangerous world of espionage.
Toward the end of the war, all sorts of people began spying on Congress, including the Spanish Governor of Cuba, and the French ambassador, who had General John Sullivan on his payroll! Unquestionably, John Nagy has written another incredibly original book on our favorite war. The applause reflected this universal Round Table opinion.
Books Books Books
Our no-nonsense boss of the book reviews, Lynne Saginaw, first filled us in on some must-go-to programs on the menu of the New-York Historical Society and then announced with a glint of satisfaction in her eyes that she had three reviews for us. In June there had only been one – a number that had not pleased this demanding lady.
Dr. Joanne Grasso led the charge with a report on The Revolutionary Paul Revere by Joel J. Miller. Joanne began by noting how little most people know about Revere, beyond his famous midnight ride and his exquisite silver pieces in many museums including our own Metropolitan. The author starts by filling in the blanks about Revere’s French ancestors, who anglicized their name because “the [Boston] Bumpkins pronounce it easier.” A fifth of the book is devoted to the family’s prewar lives, before we get to the Revolutionary Paul. Also enlivening things are short chapters with titles like: “MOXIE, FOES, RIOTS, BOYCOTTS AND SKIRMISHES.” By the time we get to the famous ride, Paul is 40 and an accomplished engraver, goldsmith and dentist. The book closes with an engraving (one of many throughout the book) of the older Revere, respected and serene, with double chins. But the Revolutionary rider is the Revere that readers will remember and admire.
Next in the ring was our treasurer, Jon Carriel, with another Boston drama, As If In An Enemy’s Country: The British Occupation of Boston and the Origins of the Revolution, by Richard Archer. It is part of a series edited by David Hackett Fischer and James M. McPherson, “Pivotal Moments in American History.” The author shows us how the occupation of Boston from 1768 to 1770 was the straw that broke the back of the colony’s long connection and identification with the Mother Country. Archer does a good job of showing how the daily irritations and indignities of the occupation-- sentry challenges, moonlighting troops in search of jobs, catcalls, harassment of women created a general disgust. This led almost inevitably to the March 5, 1770 blast of British gunfire that became the Boston Massacre. Jon says the blow-by-blow buildup to the bloodshed is alone worth the price of the book. His only complaint was the book’s lack of a broader historical focus that would explain how Massachusetts came to be the leader of the Revolution. Otherwise, it’s a book that will hold your attention to the last page.
Tom Fleming came next with George Washington’s Westchester Gamble, The Encampment On The Hudson And The Trapping Of Cornwallis by Richard Borkow. New Yorkers – and many other people -- are likely to find this brief briskly written book a fascinating read. It combines the story of Westchester County in the Revolution and its climax -- General Washington’s decision to march south from his encampment at Dobbs Ferry and nearby towns to trap Charles, Lord Cornwallis, at Yorktown.
The author does an excellent job of describing the war in Westchester, including the crucial battle of Stony Point. But he naturally focuses most of the book on the fighting that accompanied the creation of an encampment for the French and American armies in 1781 as they debated whether to attack British occupied New York.
Not a few people will be surprised by how much gunfire echoed around Dobbs Ferry when the British sent a fleet of warships up the Hudson to destroy American boats that were ferrying supplies to both armies. The allies had set up a redoubt at Dobbs Ferry, equipped with numerous cannon, and they blasted the British ships coming and going. One, HMS Savage, took a direct hit on a powder box that exploded, terrifying twenty sailors into jumping overboard.
Next come some graphic pages on the “Grand Reconnaissance,” the probe of the British northern defenses around New York along the Hudson and Harlem Rivers and the realization that the allies lacked the manpower to win a victory. That led to the decision to march South. It took four days to get both armies across the Hudson. One French officer expressed amazement that the British warships had not made another foray up the river. They could have inflicted horrendous damage. But not a shot was fired at the allied army and soon they were marching south. The rest was history in capital letters.
In a final chapter, the author narrates one of the last encounters with the British in Westchester County-- a 1783 winter foray by 50 Westchester militia on horseback. The horsemen penetrated deep inside the British lines in an attempt to capture one of their most courageous enemies, loyalist Colonel James Delancey. A battle exploded around Delancey’s house in West Farms, in the present day Bronx. It rapidly became apparent that Delancey had more than enough men to make capture impossible.
Soon the patriots were in headlong retreat, with the loyalists pursuing them. On the banks of the Croton River, they were about to be surrounded. It was every man for himself, and the rebels rode in all directions. One of them, John Odell, galloped onto the ice-covered river, pursued by two saber swinging loyalists. In a wild encounter, with the horses slipping and sliding beneath them, Odell managed to knock one man off his horse with a blow to the head, and the other man abandoned the pursuit. It was a symbolic final clash, dramatizing the bitterness and determination on both loyalist and rebel sides which persisted until the British evacuation of New York several months later.
Report on the Coffee House by New Customers
Satisfaction seemed to be the order of the day among the forty Round Tablers who came to the Coffee House Club for dinner before John Nagy’s talk. Our new quarters are roomy and (as predicted last month) full of interesting paintings and drawings on the walls. The lounge is comfortable and the drinks are significantly less expensive than those slurped at the Roger Smith Hotel or the Williams Club. The dinner was a feast – a yummy salad followed by a main course of delicious chunks of chicken in rice, with a lip-smacking gravy. This was followed by a superb apple cobbler with whipped cream, and all the coffee anyone wanted to drink. The repast was nicely served by an attentive staff. Jon Carriel tells us that the CH chef, Irene, has more taste-tempting surprises in store for December. By June we may be billing ourselves as the New York American Revolution Round Table of Gourmets!
Shock of the Month
We heard a rumor that the restaurant at our old home, Fraunces Tavern, had changed hands. We checked Zagat to see what they had to say and they reported in their usual terse style that the new owners were a BRITISH company! This was too much for our revolutionary sensibilities to bear, and we were planning a march to Occupy Ye Olde Tavern which would have made the Occupy Wall Street crowd look like shrinking violets. Before we could launch any mayhem, someone urged us to consult a section on the NY Times web page, called City Room, subtitled “Blogging from the Five Boroughs.” There we were informed that an IRISH outfit, the Porterhouse Group, had opened the Tavern after months of darkness and silence since last February. Three American micks, Mike Carroll, Kevin McAdams and Eddie Brady, were the first customers. “It means we’re here before George Washington,” one of them said.
Well, sort of, the baffled blogger replied and then claimed that the tavern “once housed the administrative offices of the fledging nation,” which was news to us. After a rapid history of its acquisition by the Sons of the Revolution, the blog got to the Porterhouse Group, which brews its own beers and operates pubs in Dublin, London and other cities. Their Irish ancestry seems to be authentic and we hear their brew is very very good.
Forging George Washington
The latest issue of American Heritage has a wonderful article by Edward Lengel, editor in chief of the George Washington Papers, about the clever frauds who have made millions creating letters the Great Man never wrote. They range from British born Robert Spring, who flourished in the mid 19th Century to a man named Henry Woodhouse, whose real name was Mario Terenzio Enrico Casalengo. He was cleverer than most of his predecessors. They never caught on to him until after he had departed for Elysium. Ed Lengel ends the article with a fascinating page on how to detect Washington forgeries. One tip: he never signed his name “GWashington.” It was always “GoWashington.”
Did You Know When the U.S Navy Celebrated Its 236th Birthday?
We didn’t know the answer to this question until Glenn Williams of the Washington DC RT (who spoke to us about his book, Year of the Hangman, George Washington’s Campaign Against the Iroquois, a few years ago, told us -- and other RTs. The date was Oct. 13, 1775, when the Continental Congress voted to fit out two vessels with carriage guns and swivel guns, and crews of eighty, to prowl the seas to intercept transports carrying food and munitions to the British army in Boston. The Continental Navy was disbanded at the end of the Revolution and revived in 1798 as the U.S. Navy. But the admirals in today’s Pentagon consider October 13th its “real” birthday.
Glenn said he was a retired army guy but wanted to wish veterans of the sister service a happy birthday. As an ex-swabbie, WWII department, Tom Fleming sent him his thanks.
Atheists’ Billboard Slanders Thomas JeffersonA group of California atheists who call themselves Backyard Skeptics spent quite a lot of money to purchase a billboard in Costa Mesa, California that quotes Thomas Jefferson as a fellow nonbeliever. The message, beside a painting of Jefferson, reads in giant letters; I DO NOT FIND IN CHRISTIANITY ONE REDEEMING FEATURE. IT IS FOUNDED ON FABLES AND MYTHOLOGY. The local paper, the Orange County Register, called the Jefferson Library Collection at Monticello. The experts replied that the words were never spoken – or written—by Jefferson. Bruce Gleason, a leader of the Backyard Skeptics (BS for short?) replied that he should have done a bit more research before shelling out the shekels for the billboard. Asked what the goal of the BSers might be, he replied that they want to “expunge the myth that this is a Christian nation.” Too bad we can’t even say “Nice try, Bruce.”
Report on the First Congress of ARRTs
On May 14, 2011, in response to an invitation by Bill Welch, president of the ARRT in Richmond, 25 delegates from 11 Round Tables met in the Virginia capital to talk about their (and our) favorite topic. Few cities have a better claim to the word historic. (In some other war – what was it called? -- it keeps slipping our editorial minds – Richmond was reportedly the capital of some sort of confederacy????) In Revolutionary days Patrick Henry gave his famous Give me Liberty or Give me Death speech in St. John’s Church, with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson in the audience. The congress of Round Tablers paid the site a reverential visit.
Among the topics at the conclave was the importance of technology. Mark Groh, webmaster of the Richmond RT, talked about using electronic resources to announce meetings, send out historical articles for members to read, and share links to other organizations with interest in the Revolution.
Bob Yankle, webmaster of the American Revolution Association’s website, proposed using Facebook to create an open forum for discussions between meetings. He thinks each Round Table should have its own page. On this item the NY ARRT votes YES, thanks to Maria Dering.
Another sponsor of the congress was David Reuwer, founder of the superb new magazine, Patriots of the American Revolution, from which we have derived this report. The good news is that our 52 year old idea is suddenly sprouting descendants all over the place. Five new Round Tables have begun meeting in the last three years. There are now 15 groups in circular formation researching and discussing the days of 1776.
The meeting ended with a unanimous vote to hold another meeting in 2012, probably in Delaware. The NY ARRT was unable to recruit a represenative to attend the May meeting. We hope to correct this absence next year. Volunteers, anyone?