When the Winds Snatched Defeat from the Jaws of Victory
The Round Tablers who flocked to the Coffee House for our February meeting enjoyed a vivid talk on a new go-to book, The Rhode Island Campaign, the First French and American Operation in the Revolutionary War. It is the first book to be published about this amazingly dramatic 1778 struggle in a hundred years. Our speaker/writer, Christian McBurney, is the author of several other books on the smallest state's history. He combined vivid images in power point with a penetrating discussion of the major players, from Admiral Comte d'Estaing (whose sailors called him "Mon General") to the hot-tempered American general, John Sullivan, to his advisor/rival, the Marquis de Lafayette, to the tough British commander in Newport, General Robert Pigot. If things had gone as planned, and Pigot's 4,500 man army had been forced to surrender, Britain could have quit the war. The loss of another army after Burgoyne's surrender at Saratoga in 1777 might have produced a peace overture.
Alas, nothing went right, even though the French fleet achieved total surprise, forcing the British to scuttle all the warships in Newport's harbor. Mr. McBurney noted this was the biggest loss the Royal Navy suffered in the entire war. Meanwhile, John Sullivan landed on Aquidneck Island with 10,000 men — more than enough, he hoped, to overwhelm the British defenses around Newport. Unfortunately, most of this force were untrained militia. When the main British fleet under Admiral Lord Howe arrived from New York, Admiral/General d'Estaing sailed out to do battle, abandoning Sullivan and the Americans. A gigantic storm engulfed both fleets, doing severe damage to many French ships. D'Estaing decided to retreat to Boston for repairs, triggering a blast of disgust from General Sullivan which he worsened by issuing it to his army in general orders. The militia immediately started going home.
As his army dwindled, Sullivan decided to retreat. General Pigot emerged from his redoubts and attacked. A day of ferocious fighting left many dead and wounded on both sides. The Americans were buoyed when the fighting ended in a British-Hessian retreat, enabling Sullivan to withdraw his men from Aquidneck Island without further losses. The next day, Sir Henry Clinton arrived from New York with 5,000 fresh troops, making Sullivan's survival a very close call. The drama now shifted to Boston, where Sullivan's vituperation (for which he had by now apologized) led to riots between locals and French sailors, in which a French officer was killed. With that attention to detail that Round Tablers admire, Mr. McBurney noted that the Bay State legislature, apologizing for the officer's death, resolved to erect a monument to him. It went unbuilt until 1917, when America found itself allied with France in another war. By the time Mr. McBurney ended his riveting see-saw narrative, Round Tablers were mesmerized. Those who bought his superb book will be even more absorbed by a drama that has gone unappreciated for much too long.
Our Annual Best Book Award
As you will hear in more detail from our chairman at the April meeting, our award for the best book on the American Revolution in 2012 goes to Reporting the Revolutionary War by Todd Andrlik. It is a unique book, combining contemporary documents by the dozen with historical perspective by almost forty top historians. Congratulations, Todd!
Books Books Books
Fred Cookinham got things rolling on the review front with a report on Culture and Liberty in the Age of the American Revolution by Michael Jan Rozbicki. Fred summed it up in his opening lines. "The book is academic. It is not written to be read. Its purpose is to look good on the professor's curriculum vitae." Normally, reading an academic book is like wading in glue. But this one deserves a modicum of praise. "I've seen worse," Fred said.
The book discusses how the revolution's leaders created a culture of liberty that enabled those beneath the elite to wrest concessions over the next 200 years. At first Fred expected a Marxist travelogue through the decades. But he was pleasantly surprised to discover that Professor Rozbicki is tired of this 20th Century academic putdown of the founders. He calls for a new synthesis. It is time to see the founders in their 18th Century context. They were not hypocrites, hostile to equal rights. On the contrary, they built the biggest stepping stone between the Magna Carta and same sex marriage and other late 20th Century ideas. Unfortunately, Fred reports that Rozbicki never explains HOW this all happened. But he appreciated that at least Rozbicki is trying to do the founders justice.
Andrea Meyer took us on a trip through 1781: The Decisive Year of the Revolutionary War by Robert L. Tonsetic. It is a brilliant idea for a book, Andrea noted. Mr. Tonsetic tries to make it work, focusing on events in the New York area and the Morristown encampment and detailed accounts of the Virginia and Carolina campaigns. But the lack of footnotes soon became irritating. Also confusing were the omissions. The author has vivid details about Benedict Arnold's Virginia raid. But there is no mention of Jack Jouett's ride to warn Thomas Jefferson that the British were coming to Monticello without an invitation. For a Virginian, this is like leaving out Paul Revere in the story of Lexington and Concord. He does a good job with the mutiny of the Pennsylvania Line at Morristown and the movements leading to Yorktown. But he does little or nothing with Thomas Nelson during the siege, consigning most of the information on him to a brief biography in an appendix. Another problem is poor proofreading. John Graves Simcoe's name appears in different spellings in back to back sentences. The author had his sights on an important book - but this try fell short. Andrea found herself hoping for an improved second edition.
Rebecca Carriel, our secretary-treasurer's niece, who has been coming to our meetings since she was sixteen, told us about The Best Little Stories of the American Revolution by C. Brian Kelly. She began by praising the author's choice of topics and declaring herself fascinated by discovering things that were never mentioned in her history classes at Nyack High School - the rigorous behavior of determined generals, the ruthlessness of British soldiers toward colonial families, the importance of female advocates. The book flows through ten themes from Lexington to Yorktown, with stops at subjects like Founding Mothers. Rebecca found this section especially interesting. She was enthralled by Mercy Warren, Lucy Knox, and Katherine Greene. She also found the select bibliography very helpful. But the section that remained most vivid in her mind was Banastre Tarleton's no-quarter slaughter of a retreating Virginia regiment at Waxhaws. That brought home to her the terrible sacrifices the war exacted from the men who did the fighting.
Tom Fleming Talks About His New Book
On February 22, at the French consulate on Fifth Avenue, Tom Fleming spoke to the annual meeting of the New York Chapter of the Society of the Cincinnati — the descendants of the Continental Army's officers. His subject was a little known aspect of George Washington - his conversion to anti-slavery thanks to the courage of the free blacks he accepted in the ranks of the Continental Army in late 1775, ignoring the protests of southerners in the Continental Congress. Equally important was the influence of the Marquis de Lafayette, who shocked Washington when he told him: "I would never have drawn my sword for America if I knew I was founding a land of slavery!" Tom told the amazed Cincinnatians that in his new book, he calls Washington "The Forgotten Emancipator." He freed all his slaves in his will, and earlier declared that if slavery led to a rupture of the Union, he would sell Mount Vernon and move to the North. Tom's new book is titled: A Disease in the Public Mind: A New Understanding of Why We Fought The Civil War. It will be on Amazon and in the stores around April 25. The publication date is May 7, 2013.
All Aboard The Hermione!
On July 6, 2012, a replica of L'Hermione, the frigate that carried the Marquis de Lafayette to Boston in 1780, with crucial help for the struggling American war effort, slid down the ways at Rochefort, France, while a cheering crowd watched. You can enjoy the event on your computer by googling Hermione, which will take you to a vivid film of the launch. The reborn frigate is a large step toward recreating Lafayette's trip to America, which will take place at a not yet specified date. At the recent meeting of the Society of the Cincinnati, one of the members gave Tom Fleming a flyer, VOTRE NOM POUR L'HERMIONE. It asked if you would like to have your name on the Hermione's sails. The price is 10 euros, around $13.00. Tom will make copies of the flyer and distribute them at the April meeting. If you want to get a head start, check info.hermione.com. They will supply a copy of the flyer, which has the address to which you can send your money. In return you will receive un certificate d'authenticite personalised. Get aboard for the Marquis's return trip! It will do wonders to stimulate interest in the American Revolution.
You Never Know
For many decades, cannons from the HMS Hussar, a British warship that sank going through Hellgate in 1780, have roosted in Central Park. When the Central Park Conservancy workers arrived to clean one a few months ago, they found it was still loaded with gunpowder and a cannonball, ready to fire. The workers dialed 911 and the bomb squad was soon on the scene. They tilted the barrel of the cannon and the ball rolled out. Even more astonishing, 12 ounces of black gunpowder wrapped in wool was perfectly dry and ready to be ignited. "In theory you could have fired it," said a police spokesman. When and why the cannon was loaded remains a mystery. The cannon ball might have been in the barrel when the ship sank. But gunpowder would not have survived a bath in the East River two hundred plus years ago.
Young Princetonians Join the Fight For Their Battlefield
The fight to preserve the Princeton battlefield from seizure and desecration by the nearby Institute for Advanced Study has been featured in these pages. The struggle has shifted to the courts and continues. It is nice to report that we would-be preservers have just received an unexpected boost. Princeton students have filmed a 10 minute documentary that powerfully supports the good cause.
"They have done a remarkable job," says Jerry Hurwitz, President of the Princeton Battlefield Society. "It's only ten minutes long but it says a lot. Take a look at https://vimeo.com/58133034.
All Things Liberty.com
The title is the password of a new online news service, the Journal of the American Revolution. Founded by Todd Andrlik and a group of friends, they are committed to publishing at least one article every weekday, every week of the year. Interspersed will be a newsletter, in which historians such as Tom Fleming candidly discuss their careers. Typical of the articles they published during their startup month were: "John Trumbull, Art and Politics in the Revolution, "Tarleton, Before He Became Bloody Ban" and "James Monroe, Bona Fide Hero." They are wide open to suggestions for new articles. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fred Cookinham's In Depth Tours
Fame is accumulating around Fred Cookinham's marvelous tours, which give his customers a feel for history so vivid, they are like a time machine trip into the past. His tour of New York's own tea party was sponsored last year by the Fraunces Tavern Museum. Another winner is a Hamilton-Burr tour which gives everyone itchy trigger fingers. His Evacuation Day tour inspired the Legal History Committee of the Association of the Bar of New York to ask him to speak to them in January of this year. Meanwhile, libertarians airlifted Fred all the way to Las Vegas this past summer to hear what he had to tell them from a lifetime of studying Ayn Rand.
An Amazing Discovery By a Cop Who Loves History
Robert Barnes is a retired Newark policeman who has written several books, including a history of his city's force. When he bought a box of old books at an auction, he never dreamt he was going to find himself in the middle of the American Revolution. At the bottom of the box was a battered letter held together by adhesive tape. Dated Dec. 30, 1776, it was addressed to the General Assembly of Delaware, telling them "in the most urgent manner" to send soldiers and supplies to General Washington. It was written on the eve of the battle of Princeton. The signer, unmistakable from his elaborate signature, was John Hancock.
Mr. Barnes knew he had a chance to make a lot of money. Similar letters with Hancock's signature were selling for as much as $75,000. But Barnes took the letter to the Delaware archives in Dover and gave it to Public Archivist Stephen M. Marz. "That's where it belongs," Barnes said. The archive has 10.4 million documents. This will be the only one signed by John Hancock.
The archive sent the letter to the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts in Philadelphia. They removed the adhesive tape and bathed it in chemicals that added an alkaline preservation buffer. The tears were mended with wheat starch paste and mulberry paper. The process cost $2,005. The archive declines to estimate the value of the letter. They have no plans to sell it — ever. It is now posted on their website, with a transcript in print for those who have trouble reading Mr. Hancock's cursive writing. Public Archivist Marz says he hopes it will inspire other people to give documents to the archive. It's a safe bet that none of them will be as valuable as this one.
A footnote that may please Chairman Jacobs: In spite of his lofty title as president of the Continental Congress, Mr. Hancock signed the letter: "Your most obedient servant."
As for Robert Barnes, the Broadside is reminded of an exclamation by the novelist/historian James Michener, who was on a U.S. aircraft carrier during the Korean War, watching pilots risk their lives day after day giving close air support to the soldiers and marines fighting the Chinese communists on the ground: "WHERE DO WE GET SUCH MEN?"
Our Speaker(s) For April: Stephen Case and Mark Jacob The Subject: The Woman Behind Benedict Arnold's Plot
Stephen Case is a prominent New York attorney and a board member of the American Revolution Center in Philadelphia. Mark Jacob is a prize winning journalist. They will tell us all about their book, Treacherous Beauty. Its star is Peggy Shippen, Benedict Arnold's fascinating wife. The Philadelphia Inquirer has called it: "History with all the sex, suspense, knavery and bravery of a spy thriller." Our own Andrea Meyer did a lot of the research. We advise early reservations for this docudrama.
And a Word From Our Chairman
We will gather as usual at the Coffee House Club, at 20 West 44th Street, on the sixth floor, on Tuesday, April 2nd, at 6 p.m. to continue the Round Table's 53rd year. As usual, we would like everyone's reservation in advance. The stamp-deprived can email our treasurer, Jon Carriel, at email@example.com.
Your most obdt svt,
David W. Jacobs, Chairman