A Gallery Of Losers Makes A Winning Book
Andrew Jackson O'Shaughnessy, professor of history at the University of Virginia, took Round Tablers on a fascinating biographical journey in his discussion of his new book, The Men Who Lost America. He gave us fresh insightful looks at ten of the politicians, generals and admirals who commanded the British side in the Revolution. At the head of his list was George III's prime minister, Lord North — now considered the worst PM in British history. But he was a gifted orator and shrewd parliamentarian — and a bold politician. The Carlisle Commission that he sent to America in 1778 offered to remove all taxes in perpetuity. But it was too late. Another political failure was the American Secretary, Lord George Germain. He gambled everything on a victory in 1776 and when that didn't happen, he was clueless. Another key voice was Lord Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty. He begged Parliament to expand the Navy in 1775-6. Instead, spooked by the looming public debt, the lawmakers cut it.
Then there were the Howe brothers, the General and the Admiral. Not many people know that the General was promoted over 103 other generals to the high command. Nor do many appreciate that Admiral Howe "wrote the book on amphibious warfare," as he demonstrated by landing 30,000 men on Staten Island in 1776 without losing a man. Next was John Burgoyne, a "rising star" in the British military, who let that praise go to his head and blundered to his fate at Saratoga. Then came Sir Henry Clinton, by far the best read and most cerebral leader on the roster. He saw the key to victory was winning American hearts and minds. But he was crippled by a hypersensitive temperament and lack of reinforcements, once the French entered the war.
Finally there was Charles, Lord Cornwallis, the most aristocratic and most headstrong, who feuded with Clinton until the disaster of Yorktown. He was the only one who had a successful postwar career, crushing the 1798 rebellion in Ireland and smashing Tipoo Sultan and other foes in India to solidify the imperial grip on the subcontinent for another 150 years.
The last man on Mr. O'Shaughnessy's list was perhaps the most important in terms of talent: Admiral George Rodney. His victory in the 1782 Battle of the Saints captured French Admiral Francois de Grasse, a key player in the victory at Yorktown. Mr. O'Shaughnessy said Rodney might be called "the man who saved Canada." The victory stiffened British spines in the peace negotiations, and they rejected Ben Franklin's demand for Canada as a gesture of reconciliation.
Finally, why did all this talent and effort lose the war? Mr. O'Shaughnessy discussed various answers and leaned toward the failure to change enough hearts and minds. "Public opinion," he called it. Chairman Dave Jacobs thanked Dr. O'Shaughnessy for a superb presentation — and announced The Men Who Lost America had won our annual award for the best book on the Revolution in 2013. The Round Tablers' ovation was especially thunderous — deservedly so.
Books, Books, Lots Of Books
Andrea Meyer riveted her listeners with a piercing review of the current bestseller Washington's Secret Six, by TV host Brian Kilmeade and Don Yeager. The book claims to be a revelation about the New York based Culper Network. As Round Tablers know from her discussion of the subject with us in 2006 (in company with her late friend, John Burke) Andrea is an expert on this topic. She was not impressed with this book. She found it a mishmash of fictional and real quotes, which are never distinguished (there are no foot or end notes) plus fantasies of George Washington's inner handwringing over Nathan Hale and a side trip into Benedict Arnold's and John Andre's misadventure. Making GW's handwringing over Hale completely absurd, the authors have the General doing it during the battles of Kips Bay and Harlem Heights and the fire that destroyed so much of Manhattan. "He had other things on his mind," Andrea wryly suggests. Equally fictitious and improbable are spy Abraham Woodhull's thoughts about being the black sheep of his family. Worst of all, the six people the authors choose for their "Secret Six" don't match previous research on the Culper ring. About the only thing Andrea found accurate was the analysis of why the doomed woman spy known as 355 was probably a member of the upper class. Summing up, Andrea said the book should not be read without serious fact checking — and that would lead to the conclusion that there is little in it that can't be found in already published books on the subject. The key to its success is Mr. Kilmeade's constant plugs for it on his TV show.
David Malinsky gave us a similarly tough-minded report on Robert Sullivan's My American Revolution. The book tries to be several things at once, a travelogue of the greater New York area, a personal memoir, a mood piece and a collection of sometimes relevant anecdotes clinging to a central narrative. It fails to succeed at any one of these tasks. The result is a lot of shallow mythologizing, while the author discusses Washington crossing the Delaware, the Turtle submarine, and other topics, separated thematically rather than chronologically. When the author stays on topic, as in the Turtle story, he writes well. But too often he drifts into tangents that suck all the interest out of the larger narrative. Worst of all are his personal stories — his bumbling attempts at crossing the Watchung Mountains, for instance. They come across as tepid rather than exhilarating. Even more confusing are the footnotes, which often end up longer than the main text. The book badly needs a couple of maps and illustrations. The author talks about a painter's revisionist version of Washington's crossing but we never see it. If you're a hardcore history fan, David advises sticking with straight history or outright travelogue.
Polly Guerin told us about Revolutionary Cooking, a book with over two hundred recipes that reveal what Americans ate and drank at meals and entertainments in the days of 1776. The authors researched family journals, old English cookbooks and notebooks for their data. The book sheds light on some rather unusual meals in a text spiced with bits of social history. Breakfast, for instance, was often a mug of beer and some mush and molasses. Slightly spoiled meat was masked with spices. A favorite snack, egg and bacon pie, grew up to become Quiche Lorraine. The first published cookbook, Amelia Simmons's American Cooking, came out in 1796. It has recipes for sour rabbit, crooknecked squash, Indian pudding and apple-shrimp curry. A possible dessert is Cleto's Gamebird Pie. Topping it all off are illustrations of tankards, porringers and pots. Polly predicted 2014 readers will find this book a "fascinating resource."'
Jack Buchanan, Travelling Historian
Round Tabler John ("Jack") Buchanan is on the road to the Southland these days. On Oct. 19, 2013, he spoke at the 11th annual Frances Marion Symposium in Manning, South Carolina. On March 17th, 2014 he was in Spartanburg, S.C. speaking to their Round Table about Nathaniel Greene. He was also supposed to speak at Kings Mountain on Oct. 7, 2013, but as Jack puts it wryly, "our leaders in Washington decided otherwise." He was shut down by the government shutdown.
Jack is the author of the widely acclaimed The Road to Guilford Courthouse and two other distinguished history books, plus a gripping Cold War novel, The Rise of Stefan Gregorovic. He is currently at work on A Great and Good Man: Nathaniel Greene and the Road to Charleston.
Paul Revere, Founding Father And America's First Forensic Dentist
That is the title of an article in a prominent dental magazine. It tells the story of Revere's heroic 1775 ride, focusing on how Dr. Joseph Warren, the acting head of the Massachusetts rebels. sent him on his historic journey. Named a general, Warren joined the men in the redoubt on Breed's Hill on June 17, 1775 and was killed in the melee when the British swarmed into the fort. A British officer tossed Warren's body into a mass grave. Nine months later, Warren's family decided to retrieve his corpse. They asked Revere, who was also his dentist, to help them. He led the search and identified the body by verifying a dental prosthesis that he had placed in his friend's mouth in 1774, Warren's nephew would later describe the device as a "golden wire" that secured in its place "the left upper cuspidatus, or eye-tooth." The article was written by James William Maloney DDS and George Raymond, DDS, both faculty members of the Department of Cariology at NYU. They hail Revere's discovery as a first breakthrough on identifying America's war dead.
Great News From The Fight To Preserve The Princeton Battlefield
The Princeton Battlefield Society has won a crucial victory that will stop the Institute for Advanced Study from going ahead with their plan to desecrate the Princeton battlefield by building faculty housing on it. The IAS had to get a clearance from the Delaware Raritan Canal Commission. After a five hour hearing on January 15th 2014, in which the PBS vigorously participated, the DRCC refused to give the professors their permission. All those who have contributed funds to the PBS should rejoice. This means the IAS will have to go back to the Princeton Planning Board, where the PBS will oppose them again. It does not mean the PBS has won the war. But as Jerry Hurwitz, president of the PBS says, they have made a large stride in the right direction. He thinks they can win a decisive victory in 2014, if their supporters continue to send them what they still need: DOLLARS. "Washington won in 1777, defeating British regulars for the first time," Jerry says. "We can do the same thing in 2014!"
The Spy Who Flopped
In mid-February, newspapers and websites carried an excited story about a man many reporters called Washington's "intelligence director." The International Spy Museum was displaying a letter that the General wrote to Nathaniel Sackett on Feb. 4, 1777, offering him $50 a month to create a spy network inside British-held New York and Long Island. Some accounts say the General threw in $500 as a bonus.
Huh? Most people that Broadside's editors contacted had never heard of Nathaniel Sackett. An examination of the letter that was displayed in about a dozen stories on the Internet made it clear that the $500 was not a bonus, but a fund from which he could pay spies. Sackett is so obscure, he doesn't even rate a listing in the Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. The reason? Washington fired him a few months later. He failed to produce any worthwhile information. He later became a sutler for the Continental Army. He was an enthusiastic patriot but as a spymaster, he was a flop.
A Discovery After Two Centuries
Most historians of the American Revolution have long consigned Robert R. Livingston to the company of the reluctant — men who had grave doubts about the wisdom of a break with Great Britain. A few months ago an accidental discovery in a dusty drawer of the Morris-Jumel Mansion changed everyone's mind.
The discovery occurred when Emilie Gruchow, now an archivist at the mansion, was an intern. She took a folder out of a drawer that was supposed to contain colonial doctors bills. She discovered one piece of paper that was markedly different. It was the draft of an urgent plea for reconciliation from the Continental Congress. It was addressed to the people of Britain, not George III or Parliament. The opening words referred to "the tender ties which bind us to each other." This was followed by a long list of complaints about the infringement of American rights and the "rigorous acts of oppression which are daily exercised in the Town of Boston."
These were not the words of a fence sitter. The letter was a brilliant piece of pro-independence propaganda. Experts soon identified the handwriting as that of Livingston. It explains why Congress tapped him the following year to write the Declaration along with Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and Roger Sherman. No one had ever seen this draft of the long-lost letter in Livingston's handwriting. Most people, working only from a printed copy, had assumed it was written by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia.
By the time the document reached London, George III had issued his fateful proclamation, declaring the colonies in rebellion. Neither the king nor anyone else in the British establishment ever replied to the letter. This may explain why it was not widely distributed in the colonies. But some notable people saw it. James Madison praised it extravagantly and wondered who had written it. Abigail Adams also read and liked it when her husband John sent it to her.
Livingston went on to play leading roles in other founding dramas. He swore in George Washington as the first president, and played a crucial part in the purchase of Louisiana while he was Thomas Jefferson's ambassador to Paris. Ms Gruchow is still amazed by her discovery. When she first looked at it, she said. "I thought it was a really good handwritten copy of a 20th Century letter. Then it dawned on me that it was 250 year old paper." The rest, as the saying goes, was history. In this case, history with a capital H.
Our 2013 Prize Winner Gets National Recognition — And Cash!
Little more than a month after we gave Andrew Jackson O'Shaughnessy our prize, the New York Historical Society announced that The Men Who Lost America was the winner of their annual American history medal, which includes a $50,000 cash award. Previous winners include Robert Caro, Drew Gilpin Faust, and Gordon Wood. The medal will be awarded at a gala ball in April, part of the Society's Annual History Weekend. Who says we can't pick the best books?
Playing At War
In mid-February Tom and Alice Fleming went to see David Malinsky's ingenious short play at the Riant Theater on W. 46th St and gave it an enthusiastic thumbs-up. The narrator, played by David, is William Dunlap, first historian of the American theater, who was 11 years old when the British seized New York — his home town. Dunlap (David) gives the audience vivid glimpses of the actors at the Theater Royale on John Street, playing various parts and commenting on the plays. He does a good takeoff of the playwright and General Burgoyne in Boston. He keeps wondering why the Continental Congress banned plays from the country in 1774. As an American and a theater lover, this torments him. In the closing moments, when the British evacuate New York, he meets General Washington and is amazed to discover he too loves the theater. "Playing At War is a gold mine of forgotten facts about New York's cultural history," Tom Fleming says.
Where George Snoozed In New Jersey
A recent edition of the Newark Star Ledger's Inside Jersey has a directory of the nine surviving houses where George Washington slept in New Jersey. The general spent a lot of time in the Cockpit State — by one estimate, roughly half of the entire Revolutionary War. All the houses were described as "pretty nice digs — especially when you consider that he was a fugitive all the time." Now there's a very Jersey comment. Are you listening, Governor Christie?
The Speaker For April: Philip Pappas
His Subject: Major General Charles Lee
Renegade Revolutionary, Mr. Pappas's biography of the controversial General Lee, is the first book on him in almost fifty years. You will be fascinated and amazed by how much Mr. Pappas has learned about a man who thought himself a much better general than George Washington — and wound up
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 1st, at 6 p.m. to continue the Round Table's 54th year. As usual, we would like everyone's reservation in advance. The stamp-deprived can email our treasurer, Jon Carriel, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Your most obdt svt,
David W. Jacobs, Chairman