The Most Dangerous Spy In America
John Nagy sent chills down the spines of Round Tablers in October as he told us how Dr. Benjamin Church, a man who could easily have become president of the Continental Congress, secretly switched sides during the siege of Boston — and was caught by skillful decoders who broke the cipher he was using to send information on American plans to General Thomas Gage inside the city. In a cool unemotional voice — the result of his thousands of hours of research into the espionage of the Revolution — Nagy told us about Church's rise into the Bay Colony's establishment, thanks to his skills as a doctor and his readiness to serve on every committee in sight. He published a poem not long after he graduated from Harvard, in which he declared that his ambition was to achieve fame. He had literary as well as scientific talent. In a few years he was on the same leadership level as John and Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Dr. Joseph Warren, and a step above Paul Revere. When he gave a speech about the victims of the Boston Massacre, it was published as a pamphlet and went through three printings. When John and Sam Adams and John Hancock went to Philadelphia for the Second Continental Congress, Church was the de facto political leader of Massachusetts. Soon he was in Philadelphia, where the Congressional leaders were so impressed with his abilities, they appointed him director and chief physician of American army hospital in Cambridge, MA. It gave him unlimited access to American military facilities and knowledge of the readiness of the Continental Army. By now you can see why there was almost a sigh of relief among the listeners in the Coffee House Club when Nagy described how Dr. Church was caught before he could do fatal damage to the struggle for independence. The applause was thunderous and well deserved.
Books Books Books
It's time to play catch up with our talented reviewers. The editors had so much good info for the October issue, the June contributors got squeezed out. Apologies to all and sundry!
Let's start with Dr. Joanne Grasso, who told us her reaction to For Virginia and For Independence, Twenty eight Revolutionary War Soldiers from the Old Dominion by Harry M. Ward. The author has written many superb books about our favorite topic. In this one he gives us a series of short inspirational biographies and undertakes to help us understand why they are all heroes. He defines that much overused term as "a male or female who exhibits a willingness to take a risk to win an objective on a battlefield and makes a great effort to protect the lives and welfare of his comrades."
Dr. Grasso found the book vivid reading. Most of the names will be new, even to Round Tablers. There are black men and sailors and Marines in the group as well as soldiers. She urges everyone to read it as a way to learn more about a generation who really understand the cost of Liberty.
Jon Carriel entertained us with a report on Founding Gardeners, The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation by Andrea Wulf. The author concentrates on our first four presidents to sum up her insights. She tells how John Adams and Thomas Jefferson met in England in 1786 on a diplomatic mission which ended in frustration. They decided to console themselves by taking a "garden tour." It is soon apparent that the phrase means much more than beds of pretty flowers. It involves the whole range of agricultural endeavor. All four founders approached the task of farming as a challenge and a way of expressing meanings. For instance, Washington used only native North American trees and shrubs. He, Adams and Jefferson created landscape vistas facing west. The author not only knows her subject, she is also master of the history of the era. Jon summed it all up with "Very Highly Recommended!"
Maria Dering explored Inventing George Washington: America's Founder in Myth and Memory by Edward G. Lengel. She especially liked the early pages, where the author describes the various "whoppers" about the Great Man, including forged letters. Lengel goes on to the likes of Harvard's Jared Sparks, who "edited" Washington's papers by cutting them up and discarding what he didn't like to create a mythic titan. Then there is the supposedly religious Washington, portrayed by the likes of Parson Weems. Next , we meet 1920s debunkers, who were determined to cut the hero down to pygmy size. Later, Communists hailed him as a radical. James Thomas Flexner turned him into an everyman who became the star of a TV miniseries. For final touches there are stories of spiritualist communications with him and a claim that he visited Little Round Top as a ghost during the battle of Gettysburg. Maria obviously found all this very entertaining. So will you.
David Malinsky told us about Clothed in Robes of Sovereignty: The Continental Congress and the People Out of Doors by Benjamin H. Irwin. It's about Congress's relationship with the American public. It tells us how the lawmakers tried to form the culture of the new nation and how the people often reacted in ways Congress did not expect. They tried to create a national moral code by banning gambling, horse-racing, cock-fighting and the theater. These ukases were largely laughed at and ignored. As the war lengthened, the Army, its heroes and victories, became far more respected by the people. Eventually, Congress was chased out of Philadelphia, with very little regret for their departure. This is a demythologized look at Congress. But it is definitely worth reading for its many surprises.
Mike Harris sailed into 1812, The Navy's War by George C. Daughan. Like Korea, Mike notes, 1812 is one of the forgotten wars. Its best previous historian was Theodore Roosevelt, who wrote a first draft of his tome in his Harvard student days. This version by Dr. Daughan has 417 pages and 415 citations. The latter are the best thing about the book. He explains 19th Century nautical terms and thinking. Although the title indicates it is a sea story, well over half of the text is devoted to the tangled politics of the war. Here too Dr. Daughan does a superb job. This makes his conclusion all the more effective: 1812 created a new relationship between the U.S. and Britain — and a lot of the respect was won by America's sailors. Navy man Mike liked this summation so much, he ended his review with seagoing slang: BRAVO ZULU! For landlubbers, that means well done.
Overheard At The Table
Tom Fleming was talking to Allen Wahlberg about British atrocities in the Revolution. He recalled getting a phone call from a London newspaper editor, asking for his comment on a scene in the movie, "The Patriot," in which British soldiers incinerated several dozen Americans who took refuge in a church. In a rich British accent, the caller asked Tom to agree that neither this nor any similar atrocity was ever committed by "His Majesty's soldiers" in America. Tom agreed that the Patriot incident was fiction. Then he added: "But there's a plaque on the shore of Wallalbout Bay in Brooklyn that makes me hesitate to endorse your sweeping statement. It's a memorial to the ten or fifteen thousand men who died aboard British prison ships during the war."
"Thank you veddy much, Mr. Fleming," the editor said.
CLICK. He hung up.
(The editors of Broadside would like to publish similar overheards about reminiscences, new insights, recent research. We're a lively group. Let's tell the world about us!)
George Washington: Reader
In his grumpy old age, John Adams reportedly sneered that George Washington was "too illiterate, unlearned, unread for his station and reputation." Thomas Jefferson was more polite but also dismissed him as a book lover, declaring him a man of action who "read little." Currently at Mount Vernon in the new Fred W. Smith library is an exhibition "Take Note! George Washington the Reader," which suggests envy distorted the perceptions of these two gentlemen. There are 86 items, including Washington's books and letters, on touch screens that allow visitors to explore how often he wrote lively comments in the margins of the numerous books he read. In one room are 550 copies of books that were once part of his 1200 title library. Washington was a constant reader. "A knowledge of books is the basis on which other knowledge can be built," he told one of his overseers. He rode north to take command of the Continental Army in 1775 with William Young's "Manoeuvers, or Practical Observations on the Art of War" in his luggage. Perhaps the most interesting book in the exhibit is James Monroe's 1797 "View of the Conduct of the Executive" — a nasty attack on Washington's presidency. In the margins are dozens of notes written by the ex-president, many sarcastic and all very pointed. You can read these too on a touch screen. The exhibit will be at Mount Vernon until January 12, 2014.
News From Our Fredericksburg Outpost
Our man in Fredericksburg, former treasurer Jim Davis, recently sent us some satisfying news about his success in establishing a foothold for an ARRT in this headquarters of the Civil War. As their second season begins, the ARRT of Fredericksburg has 70 members. They will be meeting in October, February, April and June. Historians of the Fredericksburg-Spotsylvania National Military Park have been very supportive. In October, Peter Maugle gave an excellent presentation on "The Philadelphia Campaign" including Brandywine and Germantown. He is also planning to talk on Valley Forge and Monmouth in the coming months. The concluding lecture in June will be by Richmond battlefield historian Bert Dunkerly on "King Phillips War." Next season there will be presentations by NPS historian Noel Harrison, as well as talks by experts from the faculty of the Quantico Marine Corps Command College and Mary Washington University. The latter speaker will talk about that just mentioned Washington critic, James Monroe.
The Journal Of The Revolution's Nice Surprise
We've told you about their website, which day after day publishes fresh and often startling stories about the Revolution. The number of visitors keeps rising with every month. Now the editors have published a stunning, 250-page, full-color book with 60 articles from 20 historians and a striking picture of George Washington on horseback on the cover. It's available on Amazon for $19. Our own Tom Fleming is one of the contributors — and editor Todd Andrlik recently announced that his article, "Congress Does Not Trust Me. I Cannot Continue Thus," has been chosen for the Mount Vernon website. It's about how General Washington changed the minds of the five Continental Congressmen sent to Valley Forge to "rap a demigod over the knuckles" and embarrass him into resigning his command.
A Forgotten Hero
Bill Fleming has entertained us several times in recent years with his discoveries of graves of Revolutionary war leaders in upstate New York. He has done it again with his picture of the Cayuga County tombstone of Adam Helmer, who was one of the more daring scouts in the Mohawk Valley. Helmer was made nationally famous by Walter D. Edmonds's popular 1936 novel, Drums Along the Mohawk, which featured Helmer's 1778 forty mile "run" to warn the citizens of German Flats of the approach of Joseph Brant and his company of Indians and Tories. Although Helmer did not prevent Brant from burning many homes and seizing dozens of cattle, only two Americans were killed in the raid. The rest found shelter in a nearby fort. Helmer reportedly slept for 36 hours to recover from his run. In the 1939 John Ford film based on the book, he was portrayed by Ward Bond. Tom Fleming will bring a photo of Helmer's gravesite to the December meeting.
Saratoga's Wandering Cannon
The New York Times recently reported the unlikely solution of a mystery: where did General Burgoyne's bronze 555 pound cannon go? Captured when the General surrendered his army in 1777, the cannon was a six pounder, capable of belching murderous grapeshot in the faces of charging infantrymen. After travelling south to defend New York City during the War of 1812, it wound up on display in Brooklyn's Prospect Park, site of the Battle of Long Island. A local historian in Saratoga persuaded the owners to return it but it never reached the battlefield. It sat in a local barn for a while, then appeared in a nearby amusement park and eventually wound up in an art museum in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The National Park Service heard about its whereabouts in 2009 and after four years of negotiations persuaded the museum to return it to its true home. In mid-November it was received with appropriate reverence on the Saratoga battlefield. As one awed historian put it, "People who fought in the Revolution touched this gun."
Was Benedict Arnold Trying To Trap The British At West Point?
An exotic new theory has recently arisen about General Benedict Arnold's intentions, It is the brainchild of the late John H. Mead, former director of the Bear Mountain Trailside Museums. It was recently described in a paper issued by the Interstate Historical Commission. In Arnold's letter to the British, describing how they should attack West Point, he refers to a "commanding piece of ground between Fort Putnam and No. 4 Redoubt, on Rocky Hill." Mead maintained that the piece of ground simply did not exist. He found similar discrepancies in other positions Arnold described. He also understated the number of militia in the garrison. Mead wondered if Arnold's original plan was to entrap the British into a reckless assault which would leave their army all but shattered. Mead pointed to a statement by Arnold, after he fled to British protection. I have ever acted out of love to my country."
The Broadside consulted several heavy historical thinkers in our ranks and outside it and found skepticism, doubt, and something very close to rejection from everyone. They were convinced that when Arnold talked about loving his country, he was describing his hope that he would become another General George Monk. He signed several of his early letters to the British using that famous name. Monk (or Monck) was second in command of Oliver Cromwell's army. When Cromwell died, Monk switched sides, avoiding a replay of the ruinous civil war that had put Cromwell in power. Monk died full of honors from a grateful King Charles II. This was what Arnold hoped his switch to the British would do. But he soon discovered no American had the slightest desire to join him in rescuing America from the treacherous (in Arnold's opinion) Catholic French.
The Speaker For December: Richard Radune
The Topic: Long Island Sound In The Revolution
Richard Radune is a retired business executive who majored in history at Syracuse University. His highly praised book, Sound Rising, is full of vivid anecdotes and characters who turned Long Island Sound into a watery battleground throughout the Revolution and also in the War of 1812. Treasurer Jon Carriel, who has sailed on and swum in the Sound all his life, says he "can't wait" to hear this little known story.
And A Word From Our Chairman
The Round Table will muster as usual at 6 pm on Tuesday, December 3 in The Coffee House Club at 20 West 44th Street, on the sixth floor, to continue our 53rd year. As usual, we would like everyone's reservation in advance. The stamp-deprived can email Jon Carriel, at email@example.com.
NB NB NB: There will be a meeting of the Board of Governors at 5pm. NB NB NB
Your most obdt svt,
David W. Jacobs