Tag Archives: American Revolution

Did the Culper Ring get its due? A review of AMC’s “Turn”

From the poster of AMC's "Turn"

From the poster of AMC’s “Turn”

In the world of espionage, the best recognition is no recognition at all.

The front of the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Langley, Virginia have monuments to fallen agents, sculptures on intelligence gathering, and a statue of Nathan Hale, the Revolutionary war spy who got caught and hanged in September of 1776.  The fallen agents went down due to numerous factors (possibly including incompetence), the intelligence gathering is nothing to celebrate, especially lately, and Hale is remembered more for supposed valor at the gallows than any real prowess as a spy.

Yet there is little public fanfare for the first successful spy agency in American history.

For most Americans, the recent debut of the AMC series Turn is their introduction to the Culper Ring, a network of spies and couriers that operated in New York City, Long Island and Connecticut during the Revolution.  For me, and anyone who went to school on Long Island, the Culper Ring was part of our common knowledge.  Part of my American history class was devoted to local history, and the Culper Ring featured prominently–I had to memorize the names and roles of Benjamin Tallmadge, Abraham Woodhull, Caleb Brewster and the like.

We even used some of their codes and encryption methods in class–which is especially fun when coding out swear words to your classmates.

Yet beyond the spycraft and 18-century Bond-like gadgetry, the Culper Ring was successful in the quality and quantity of their information (they supposedly discovered the Benedict Arnold betrayal and the British ambush on French troops in Rhode Island) as well as keeping their cover.  The original ring kept their identities hidden to the grave, and most of these identities  weren’t discovered until the 1930s.

This was a story that just begged to be made for the screen, and AMC has done it right, for now, in releasing their story as a series.  Is this new drama worthy of the exploits of the Culper gang?  Two episodes in, the verdict is still out, but the results look promising.

The series is based on Alexander Rose’s book Washington’s Spies and begins in a supposed backwater of the war–Suffolk County, Long Island.  Yet it is here, in the north shore hamlet of Setauket, where the ring begins to take shape.  Benjamin Tallmadge, a Continental major (and Yale classmate of Nathan Hale) recruits his reluctant friend Abraham Woodhull on a mission to transmit information to the rebel base across Long Island Sound in Connecticut.  Woodhull is portrayed as a typical non-committal farmer ala Mel Gibson’s melodramatic Benjamin Martin in The Patriot.  His loyalist (for now) father is the local magistrate and friends with the local commander of the British garrison.  As a struggling farmer, Woodhull just wants to stay out of the way, until events push him towards Tallmadge and rebel espionage.

After two episodes (including a one and a half hour pilot) I can see where the creators are going with this.  It’s great that the show is taking its time in developing the establishment of the spy network.  In real life, establishing confidants, sources and “assets” to “turn” (spyspeak for getting an asset to spy on their side) takes time and dangerous planning.  The show is also accurate in developing the perspectives and loyalties of everyday colonists of the time.  Even among the loyalists, you get a sense that the characters are loyal less out of any sense of connection and more of expediency.  The patriots also seem less like the textbook noble heroes and more human, driven by more tangible needs than simply love of liberty.

Selections from the Culper spy code, courtesy of the Three Village School District.

Selections from the Culper spy code, courtesy of the Three Village School District.

Another fun feature of the show is its interactive features.  The Turn website features an option called Story Sync.  Designed to be used simultaneously with the broadcast, Story Sync features information about the historical characters, quizzes, polls, and little asides designed to enrich the experience.  There are also links to interactive maps, spy materials, and other resources that an educator can use.  I already see how these can create a home Blu-Ray or DVD loaded with surprises.

However, the construction of the basic drama, at least now, seems formulaic.  It establishes a clueless British commander in Major Hewlett, a one-dimensional, wooden villain in Captain Simcoe (who reminds me of Colonel Tavington in The Patriot without the charisma), and a somewhat contrived love triangle between Woodhull, his wife, and Anna Strong, a local tavernkeeper who was once engaged to Woodhull and whose husband is in prison for an attack on a British officer.  I will admit, I didn’t read Rose’s book yet, but I do think this romance is more a creation of the screenwriters and less a development of actual events.

In terms of dramatic license, there needs to be some slack given.  Until recently, there was little evidence as to the existence of the ring at all, let alone their day-to-day operations.  So we can forgive the writers somewhat in their zeal to fill in the blanks.

In that vein, Robert Rogers offers a fun way to develop the story.  Rogers, a hero of the French and Indian War and a founder of modern military rangers, had serious legal issues in Britain and returned to America as an erratic alcoholic during the Revolution.  He offered his services to whoever would pay him: first Washington, who (wisely it seems) didn’t trust him, and then the British.  He created another Ranger unit that helped capture Nathan Hale, but Rogers’ behavior got him dismissed the next year, so he probably didn’t have as much involvement in the Culper spy network as the series would like him us to believe.

However, I think Rogers can become the most interesting character in the whole show.

In the series, he is portrayed as a colonial has-been with a hair-trigger temper and a sixth sense for treachery, one who’ll sell his mother for a few guineas.  Of all, I see Rogers as developing into an Al Swearengen type of character: a son of a bitch so ruthless and witty you just have to love him.  The problem with the show right now is that the British are all universally one-dimensional bad guys.  The best villains are those who have something likable about them, and Rogers is definitely someone I would have a drink with.  If Rogers emerges as the main antagonist, this might become a really fun show.

In terms of history, Turn is doing its best with the information it has.  Again, I didn’t read the source material, and once I do, I can make a more informed judgement.  However, as a television show, this has the potential to be fun, exciting and a good starting point in studying espionage in the American Revolution.

If only the show can get away from the cookie cutter formulas, it just might  do justice to an important set of patriots in our history.  Let’s hope the history wins out.

 

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Revolutionary Age – the Winter Edition of History NOW

The Siege and Relief of Gibraltar, 13 Septembe...

The Siege and Relief of Gibraltar, 13 September 1782″. By John Singleton Copley (1738-1815), c. 1783 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Revolution is truly like a pox, spreading from person to person.

This particularly human sickness is the subject of this winter’s issue of History NOW from the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.  Ten essays from a collection of eminent historians detail how the revolutionary fervor of the Americas would spread globally, to France, to Haiti, to Cuba and beyond.

Several of the essays caught my eye.  First was Patrick Spero’s interesting piece on the truly global nature of the American war of independence.  Unbeknownst to many on this side of the pond, the longest and largest battle of the War of Independence did not occur on American soil and involved no US lives: the Spanish seige of British-held Gibraltar from 1779 to 1783.  The British victory was celebrated in a painting by John Singleton Copley, demonstrating the US struggle’s overall limited place in what became a global war.

Susan Dunn’s comparison of the French and American Revolutions is also of note.   The analysis is hardly new–that the moderating nature of the American Revolution made for a long-lasting, yet flawed system, while the increasingly radical French Revolution would self-destruct.  What is new is the view of the American Revolution from the French point of view, particularly how the French perspective changes from that of doting admirers to critical ascendant revolutionaries bent on correcting and improving on the American model.

I would be remiss if I forgot the contributions of my old friend, UCLA professor emeritus Gary Nash.  In an article recovered from Gilder Lehrman’s arch, Nash examines the social and intellectual roots of the Revolution, particularly the various movements advocating for independence and social change.  The ideals of revolution manifested itself through various avenues, as Americans of all stripes struggled to create a new society–a society that would be on the backburner as forces of reaction and stability placed the war and the ensuing Constitution as a priority over social change.

As with any Gilder Lehrman product, History NOW is laden with primary sources for educators to utilize the ideas of the authors.  This issue contains the Stamp Act, Jefferson’s letters on the Haitian and French Revolutions, the Monroe Doctrine, even the 1836 Texas Declaration of Independence.

The Neighborhood is usually very enthusiastic of Gilder Lehrman resources, and History NOW is no exception.  Take your time and really sift through the treasure trove of analysis and insight…it’s among the best issues yet.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

This Day in History 12/16: The Boston Tea Party

"The Destruction of Tea at Boston Harbor&...

Image via Wikipedia

Today’s story is not about 342 chests of tea dumped into a harbor.

It is not about Sons of Liberty, Samuel Adams or John Hancock.

It is not about Committees of Correspondence, Mohawks or tarring and feathering.

And it sure as hell isn’t about any American Revolution.

Instead, this is about how a seemingly insignificant everyday citizen helped resurrect a central moment in American history.

On December 16, 1773, after a pre-approved signal from a protest meeting in Faneuil Hall in Boston, a group of colonists dressed as “Mohawks” (or what they thought were Mohawks) dumped 342 chests of tea from three ships anchored in Boston harbor.

The act was triggered by the Tea Act of 1773, a new British law giving the British East India Company a monopoly on the tea trade in the colonies, providing cheaper tea and undercutting local smugglers. The colonial governor, Thomas Hutchinson, ordered that tea from incoming ships be unloaded, against the wishes of Boston citizens who wanted none of it.

Unlike other governors who negotiated with colonists and ship owners to reach a compromise on the tea, Hutchinson was playing hardball with the colonists, many of whom had various motives. Some were genuinely concerned about taxation without representation. Others were pissed that their smuggling operations were being sabotaged by legitimate enterprise.

Whatever their reasons, the dumping of the tea galvanized and hardened both sides. Britain closed the port of Boston, suspended the colonial charter and placed Massachusetts under martial law. The colonists stockpiled weapons. British soldiers attempt to seize colonial munitions at Concord…

…you know the rest of the story.

This is all common knowledge today. Yet a half-century afterwards, the events of Boston were dying along with the remaining descendants of the Revolution. The Boston Tea Party, the act of vandalism that helped trigger the American Revolution, would have been lost—if not for a poor centenarian shoemaker and widower from upstate New York.

George Robert Twelves Hewes was the son of a poor tanner in Boston’s South End. As a poor shoemaker and active Son of Liberty, Hewes was present at the Boston Massacre (where he was injured by the butt of a British rifle), at a tarring and feathering (where he was bashed by a cane on his head) and the “Tea Party” itself (he was a boatswain on one of the boarding crews, due to his “whistling” ability.).

During the war, he served on privateer ships and did two stints in the Massachusetts militia. Then, during the next 50 years, Hewes lived the unremarkable life of a poor shoemaker, first in Wrentham, Massachusetts and finally in Otsego County, New York.

Yet a chance encounter in 1833 would change Hewe’s life—and the memory of the Boston Tea Party.

James Hawkes was an author who encountered the now widowed Hewes in Richfield Springs, New York. The moment was all too important: Hewes was among the last survivors of the Revolution. Hawkes would publish a biography, A Retrospect of the Boston Tea-Party. It was soon followed by Benjamin Bussey Thatcher’s Traits of the Tea Party.

Both books revived the age-old events in Boston, and made the humble shoemaker a celebrity in his nineties.

Hewes took a publicity tour of New England, and was guest of honor at speeches and banquets throughout the region. He charmed throngs with his polite demeanor, plainspokenness and an uncanny memory that never failed him.

Even though he wasn’t a big player, Hewes was celebrated as being a witness—and an accurate one—of the pivotal events in the Revolution. It was the culmination of a renewed interest in the period in the 1820s and 1830s, as Americans saw the last of the Revolutionary generation pass away—as Hewes would in 1840.

Yet most importantly, Hewes himself set out the details of that night in Boston when the tea was dumped.

It was a night that neither Hewes nor anyone else at the time called a “tea party,” but rather the “destruction of the tea.”

It took later authors to make the vandalism a bit more…festive.

4 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Why we Celebrate the Fourth of July – The Declaration of Independence

Flag of the United States in the Moon Light 月光...

Image by Yang and Yun's Album via Flickr

IN CONGRESS, JULY 4, 1776.

A DECLARATION BY THE REPRESENTATIVES OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, IN GENERAL CONGRESS ASSEMBLED.

WHEN in the course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the Separation.

WE hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness—-That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient Causes; and accordingly all Experience hath shewn, that Mankind are more disposed to suffer, while Evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the Forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long Train of Abuses and Usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a Design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their Right, it is their Duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future Security. Such has been the patient Sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the Necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The History of the Present King of Great-Britain is a History of repeated Injuries and Usurpations, all having in direct Object the Establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid World.

HE has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public Good.

HE has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing Importance, unless suspended in their Operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

HE has refused to pass other Laws for the Accommodation of large Districts of People; unless those People would relinquish the Right of Representation in the Legislature, a Right inestimable to them, and formidable to Tyrants only.

HE has called together Legislative Bodies at Places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the Depository of their public Records, for the sole Purpose of fatiguing them into Compliance with his Measures.

HE has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly Firmness his Invasions on the Rights of the People.

HE has refused for a long Time, after such Dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the Dangers of Invasion from without, and Convulsions within.

HE has endeavoured to prevent the Population of these States; for that Purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their Migrations hither, and raising the Conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

HE has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.

HE has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the Tenure of their Offices, and Amount and Payment of their Salaries.

HE has erected a Multitude of new Offices, and sent hither Swarms of Officers to harass our People, and eat out their Substance.

HE has kept among us, in Times of Peace, Standing Armies, without the consent of our Legislature.

HE has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.

HE has combined with others to subject us to a Jurisdiction foreign to our Constitution, and unacknowledged by our Laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

FOR quartering large Bodies of Armed Troops among us:

FOR protecting them, by a mock Trial, from Punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

FOR cutting off our Trade with all Parts of the World:

FOR imposing taxes on us without our Consent:

FOR depriving us, in many Cases, of the Benefits of Trial by Jury:

FOR transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended Offences:

FOR abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an arbitrary Government, and enlarging its Boundaries, so as to render it at once an Example and fit Instrument for introducing the same absolute Rule in these Colonies:

FOR taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:

FOR suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with Powers to legislate for us in all Cases whatsoever.

HE has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

HE has plundered our Seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our Towns, and destroyed the Lives of our People.

HE is, at this Time, transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the Works of Death, Desolation, and Tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty and Perfidy, scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous Ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized Nation.

HE has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the Executioners of their Friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

HE has excited domestic Insurrections among us, and has endeavoured to bring on the Inhabitants of our Frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known Rule of Warfare, is an undistinguished Destruction, of all Ages, Sexes and Conditions.

IN every stage of these Oppressions we have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble Terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated Injury. A Prince, whose Character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the Ruler of a free People.

NOR have we been wanting in Attentions to our British Brethren. We have warned them from Time to Time of Attempts by their Legislature to extend an unwarrantable Jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the Circumstances of our Emigration and Settlement here. We have appealed to their native Justice and Magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the Ties of our common Kindred to disavow these Usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our Connections and Correspondence. They too have been deaf to the Voice of Justice and of Consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the Necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of Mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace, Friends.

WE, therefore, the Representatives of the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, in GENERAL CONGRESS, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the World for the Rectitude of our Intentions, do, in the Name, and by the Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly Publish and Declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be, FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES; that they are absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political Connection between them and the State of Great-Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which INDEPENDENT STATES may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm Reliance on the Protection of the divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

This Day in History 5/16: The 1771 Battle of Alamance

Site of the Battle of Alamance at Alamance Bat...

Site of the 1771 Battle of Alamance. Image via Wikipedia

For many years, many people in the Carolinas claimed that the first battle of the American Revolution did not take place on the Lexington Common, but rather in the rugged backcountry of North Carolina.

On May 16, 1771, a group of frontier farmers, known as “Regulators”, fought against the North Carolina colonial militia at Alamance Creek in North Carolina.  Since about 1760, The Regulators had waged a decade-long guerrilla war against the colonial government, claiming unfair taxation and corrupt practices on the part of colonial officials–many of which came from the wealthier tobacco plantations in the east.

The War of the Regulation, as it was called, was not a rebellion against British rule–a fact lost on many Carolinians who claim the Revolution began at the Alamance.  It was, in fact, a rebellion against local colonial government, which was perceived as corrupt, subjective and prejudiced against the poorer backcountry Scots-Irish farmers that flooded the western frontier.  By 1771, the Regulator army swelled to 2000, against the 1000-man militia of governor William Tryon.

The Regulators were confident, if poorly armed.  They had dragged the government into a long conflict it wanted to end quickly.  Yet Tryon’s massed artillery were no match for the frontier army.  After early promise, the relentless cannon overwhelmed the Regulators and the rest fled into the woods.

In a final act of savagery, Tryon ordered the forest burned with the remaining rebels inside.  It was a prelude to his better known act of arson: the 1777-1779 punitive campaigns against coastal Connecticut towns where every town from Greenwich to New Haven was plundered and burned.

Although the Alamance was not the start of the Revolution, it brought to a head many of the conflicts that would spark the bigger rebellion four years later.  Corrupt colonial officials, high taxation, the suppression and disenfranchisement of the poor: all these factors were dealt with in one way or another by all thirteen colonies.

It was in the backcountry of North Carolina, however, where these problems were first brought into sharp, deadly focus.

Attached is a video about the Battle of Alamance.  It gives a good narration of the battle itself and of the Regulator movement itself.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Margaret Corbin: The First “Molly Pitcher”

This is a tale about “Molly Pitcher”–and I don’t mean the one that has a rest stop named after her on the New Jersey Turnpike.

In fact, during the Revolutionary War, there were numerous “Molly Pitchers.”

Although many believe “Molly” to be a composite character, there was much truth to the name.  “Molly” was a common nickname for the female wives and companions of soldiers on both sides, known as camp followers.  In order to receive half-rations, camp followers had to prove useful to the troops through cleaning, cooking, and caring for the wounded.

Some “Mollies”, like Mary Ludwig Hays (the most well-known “Molly”) even stepped into battle when their beau had fallen.  This was the case in June 1778, when Hays picked up his husband’s rammer and manned a cannon at the Battle of Monmouth, NJ.

Yet today’s story is not about her, nor her rest stop.  It is about the first woman to be wounded in the Revolution, the first true “Molly Pitcher.” That honor goes to another Pennsylvania housewife named Margaret Corbin.

Margaret Cochran Corbin was born on November 12, 1751 to Scots-Irish immigrants in the rugged frontier of Western Pennsylvania.  During the French and Indian War, a native attack killed her father and took her mother captive, leaving young Margaret into the care of her uncle.  She marries a young Virginia farmer, John Corbin, in 1772, and the story pretty much stays put.  If events didn’t turn, she would be just another housewife along the Pennsylvania wilderness.

Then came news of Lexington and Concord.

John enlisted in a Pennsylvania artillery company, loading and firing cannons.  Margaret came along, and quickly assumed a leadership role amongst the wives in camp, earning the nickname “Captain Molly.” Her booming voice and commanding presence encouraged the women as they cooked, cleaned, mended uniforms, shined boots, and cared for the sick and wounded.

Like most camp followers, Margaret did her work in full view of the marching, drilling and practice fire sessions of her husband’s unit.  Observing each day, the wives became astute at soldiering themselves–a useful tool in the thick of battle.  Margaret would become a “Molly Pitcher” like the other wives, not because they brought water to drink, but because their buckets of water cooled the over-heated cannon barrels during the fighting.

On November 16, 1776, as the British continued their relentless advance north through Manhattan, John was assigned to a cannon crew defending Fort Washington in upper Manhattan from an overlooking ridge, today known as Fort Tryon.  There were only two cannon on the ridge, and only 600 Continental and militia troops to defend the fort against 4000 Hessian mercenaries: brutal German troops hired by the British.

John was killed by a Hessian assault, leaving Margaret to man his cannon.  She quietly witnessed his death and took up her station at the gun.  Ever the astute observer, Margaret fired and fired her weapon exactly as John did on the parade grounds in camp.  She stayed at her post until wounds to her jaw, chest and arm forced her gun silent, wounds that left her disabled for the rest of her life.

The more popular “Molly” merely had her petticoats torn from cannon fire while her hubby was overheated from the sun.  There’s simply no comparison.

The American forces surrendered Fort Washington, and Margaret was taken prisoner by the British who released her on parole as a wounded combatent.  Crippled by injuries that would never fully heal–including the complete loss of use of one arm–Margaret struggled to make ends meet until 1779, when Pennsylvania awarded her $30 to cover her present needs.

Her case was then sent to the Board of War of the Continental Congress, who were impressed by her service, her bravery, and her perseverence due to her wounds.  She received half the monthly pay of a Continental soldier, including a new set of clothes (some say she received cash in lieu of the clothes).  The Congress concluded that:

” As she had the fortitude and virtue enough to supply the place of her husband after his fall in the service of his country, and in the execution of that task received the dangerous wound under which she now labors, the board  can but consider her as entitled to the same grateful return which would be made to a soldier in circumstances equally unfortunate.”

With this act, Margaret Corbin became the first woman to receive a military pension from the United States.

Margaret Corbin remained on the military rolls as a wounded soldier until she finally left the Continental Army in 1783.  Receiving help from both Pennsylvania and the United States for the rest of her life, Margaret died in Highland Falls, New York in 1800 at the age of 48.  According to many records, her neighbors described “Captain Molly” as a rough, disagreeable woman who kept to herself, was drunk and surly to others, and could not keep normal hygiene due to her disabilities, which repulsed the ladies of polite society.  She preferred the company of fellow veterans to the “ladies” of New York.

To be fair, after the life she led, Margaret earned the right to being a snarling, grumpy spinster.

Alone, impoverished, drunk and forgotten, Margaret Corbin was–willfully or not–forgotten for a century and a half.  Corbin’s legacy faded as the legend of her contemporary, Mary Hays (later Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley) grew in popular folklore.  Perhaps this was because Hays stayed married, and remarried after John Hays’ death, ever the dutiful wife.  Her story was more palatable, more “sellable” than that of a widowed invalid who repulsed more genteel elements of society.  In fact, the Hays story would often steal elements from the Corbin story, as historians for centuries would confuse the two “Mollies”, never realizing they were talking about two entirely different people.

In 1926, the Daughters of the American Revolution worked to restore Corbin’s legacy, and give her an honor that Mary Hays could only dream about in her tattered petticoats.

The DAR disinterred Corbin’s remains and reburied them with a special monument at the cemetery behind the Old Cadet Chapel at the United States Military Academy at West Point.  She is one of only two Revolutionary War soldiers buried there.  On her monument is a bronze relief of Margaret, holding her ramrod next to the cannon she tended on that terrible day in 1776.

The American Revolution is littered with stories of important and famous women.  There were many more “Molly Pitchers” whose names were forgotten to history.  Even the more popular Mary Hays deserved recognition for her bravery.

Yet the unvarnished, often distasteful details about a person should not negate their rightful place in history.

Margaret Corbin’s sin was her crippled status.  It made her a pariah, while Mary Hays could bask in relative glory in marriage (though her second marriage was quite violent).  So history decided to make the more marketable Hays the “Molly Pitcher” by which all “Molly Pitchers” are measured.

Yet Margaret Corbin was the genuine article.  She was the original “Molly Pitcher”…

…and she had the battle scars to show for it.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Mr. D and the “War on Christmas”: A Response to Ed O’Donnell’s 11/25 NY Daily News Column

Around mid-December, a memo circulates around my school that could be seen as a broadside in the ever-resurgent “War on Christmas.”

Once you get past the logistical minutia about cleaning up rooms, timetables for parties and whatnot, a curious sentence pops up, to the effect of

“Under no circumstances are children to be removed from parties due to behavior.  Even if you do not celebrate it, these children are entitled to Christmas celebrations.”

Not holidays, but CHRISTMAS celebrations.  One can’t be too sure if this is intentional or not.  However, the message was loud and clear: keep your skepticism, doubt and alternative beliefs at the door.  In this community, it is Christmas—and
ONL Y Christmas, not Chanukah or even Kwanzaa—that matters.

I thought about this as I read a recent Daily News column by Ed O’Donnell, associate professor of history at Holy Cross.  In his piece, O’Donnell finds a new appreciation for the much-maligned phrase “Happy Holidays.”  Speaking as a church-going Christian himself, O’Donnell claims that Happy Holidays “embodies both a fundamental American value and, strange as it may sound, one of Christmas’ core religious ideals.”

It demonstrates the spirit of American inclusiveness, as it is free to interpretation by any faith, and also focuses on inclusivity’s Christian message—a message clouded by “a grotesque exhibition of materialist excess,” in O’Donnell’s words.

Some disclosure is in order. I’ve met Professor O’Donnell a number of times through lectures, workshops and grant programs.  Heck, I even piloted one of my curriculum units for him.  O’Donnell is a first-rate historian, a magnificent writer (I recommend his book Ship Ablaze, about the 1904 sinking of the General Slocum) and one of the finest lecturers I’ve ever met.

Even better—and take my word for it—Ed is a stand-up fellow, a really nice guy.

That said, I do take issue with O’Donnell in this particular survey of the “War on Christmas.” Two points to consider:

(1) His exalting of “Happy Holidays” as a triumph of American inclusivity over religious bigotry fails to take into account Christmas’ own status as a persecuted holiday in the early history of our republic; and

(2) Though it is perhaps unintentional, O’Donnell’s appreciation for “Happy Holidays” might be construed as creating a new orthodoxy, pulling down one golden calf in place of another.

The first point is, in my humble opinion, an egregious omission on O’Donnell’s part.   Of course, he is correct in mentioning our country’s history of violence over religion, via the anti-Catholic and anti-Mormon movements of the mid-19th century.  Yet Christmas did not have an easy road to acceptance: often just as treacherous as the Mormon trek towards the salt flats of Utah.

Since the Reformation, Protestant groups saw Christmas as one of the prime targets for assault in their war against the Roman Catholic Church.  The pomp and pageantry of Christmas was reviled as a papist extravagance bearing the “marks of the beast.”

This anti-Christmas attitude was superimposed on the New World.  England’s Puritan government had severely curtailed the holiday in 1647 and banned it outright in 1652.  Plymouth abolished Christmas, as did Massachusetts Bay in 1659—with a huge 50 shilling fine for non-compliance.  In Of Plimoth Plantation, William Bradford recalls the Christmas of 1621, which was a regular work day at the Separatist colony:

“On the day called Christmas Day, the Governor called [the settlers] out to work as was usual. However, the most of this new company excused themselves and said it went against their consciences to work on that day. So the Governor told them that if they made it [a] matter of conscience, he would spare them till they were better informed; so he led away the rest and left them.” ~ William Bradford, Of Plimoth Plantation (1647)

Even after the bans were lifted in the late 1600s, Christmas was rarely celebrated outside of immigrant—mostly German—communities in New York, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, as well as the Anglican gentry of Virginia.   Massachusetts and the rest of New England kept to the old superstitions and prejudices of the holiday.  Christmas, in the Puritan view, was vain, extravagant, Papist, elitist, and royalist.

In fact, a major victory in the American Revolution would not have been possible if Christmas were celebrated more widely in the colonies. The 1776 Christmas victory over the Hessians at Trenton would have turned out differently if both sides—and not just the German mercenaries—were hung over after holiday celebrations.

It wasn’t until 1870—after the Revolution, western expansion, immigration waves, industrialization, and a bloody Civil War—that Christmas finally became a federal holiday, thereby shaking off the vestiges of Puritan intolerance.

To then bury the name “Christmas” under the verbal veneer of “Happy Holidays” can be seen as intolerant as well—intolerant of the arduous road Christmas took to gain acceptance in the United States over fear and superstition.

This leads me to my second point.  I’m in full agreement that the conservative blowhards who push “Keep Christ in Christmas” while turning their heads at its crass commercialism deserve a sound comeuppance.  Though my views tend towards the conservative side, I’m no holy roller—I’m less of a churchgoer than Professor O’Donnell, who goes weekly.  The right has more important things to worry about than labels and names on the best time of year.

That said, the secular left is not getting off easy.  O’Donnell notes that “Happy Holidays” embodies a uniquely American virtue: “respect for each and every citizen’s right to their own religious beliefs (or nonbeliefs). “  Does this also include the right to not say “Happy Holidays”?  Or are those who adhere to their particular beliefs in exclusion to others subject to their own shunning by a secular establishment?

I’m not picking on O’Donnell per se, since I understand his intentions with the piece: to express an appreciation for an unpopular phrase of the season.  Yet this sentiment of inclusiveness can lead many to construe it as the focus for a new standard of exclusiveness.  The “Happy Holidays” crowd, in their zeal to include everyone and respect all, may in fact be disrespecting and persecuting those who see in their individual holidays a source of identity and cohesion—EVEN IF their celebrations may seem exclusive to others.

Does this mean that the “War on Christmas” is legitimate?  Not really; Christmas is not going away anytime soon.  Yet whenever a phrase like “Happy Holidays” is touted as supreme or better than something else, it tends to create an aura of authority—an aura that inherently excludes those who disagree.

George Orwell famously said that “freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” This, in many ways more so than inclusivity and respect, is the true republican virtue of American society. Sometime this season, I will hear someone tell me “Happy Holidays.”  I may not like it.  I may feel like cracking a two-by-four over the bastard’s head.  Yet I have to respect his right to say it—and conversely, that SOB has to respect my right to tell them “Merry Christmas” if I feel like it.

So this holiday season, say “Happy Holidays,” “Merry Christmas,” “Happy Chanukah,” “Joyous Kwanzaa,” or whatever you feel like.

Just don’t try to shame someone for mistaking you for a believer and slipping a “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Chanukah.” If you don’t know what that can lead to, re-read George Orwell’s magnum opus to refresh your memory.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized