Tag Archives: New York History

Occupy Wall Street Videos for the Classroom

The Occupy Wall Street protests are obviously on many peoples’ minds lately.  In my scotch fog (more like cheap Bourbon, in my case) not only did I not take into account my lack of activity on this blog, but also my lack of real analysis of these protests.

So here’s some video to share with your students–hopefully with as little editorializing as possible.

The YouTube channel OccupyTVNY provides a pretty good snapshot of the various protests in New York, where the movement began (obviously…does anyone really want to occupy Wall Street in the middle of Montana?).  Furthermore, the Manchester Guardian’s Teacher Network provides a cool set of stats and classroom resources for teachers covering the protests.

Given the Guardian’s slant, its pretty even handed.

I’ll be giving my own take on these protests shortly.  If you read my reports on the Save Our Schools March in July, you probably get a sense of where I’m going with this.

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This Day in History 10/17: Burgoyne Surrenders at Saratoga

"The surrender at Saratoga" shows Ge...

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Everything about the Battle of Saratoga–including its name–has been scrubbed clean by scores of textbooks.

On October 17, 1777, after a punishing four-month campaign, British general John Burgoyne surrendered almost 6,000 British, Hessian and Canadian troops to the Northern Department of the Continental Army, led by General Horatio Gates and (they should get all the credit for victory) Generals Benedict Arnold and Daniel Morgan.

It was a stunning victory, one that would have widespread effects on the Revolutionary War.  Yet many of the details have been lost to the chest-thumping.

Burgoyne left Canada in June of 1777 with a force that was designed to connect with two other British forces: Barry St. Leger‘s mixed army of British, Hessian and Native troops from the west, and Sir William Howe‘s main British force from New York City.  They were supposed to meet near Albany, dividing the colonies in two and effectively ending the war and the American Revolution.

It didn’t exactly go as planned.

First to punk out was Howe.  It was, on the surface, an easy choice: George Washington’s army was being driven from Pennsylvania, and the rebel capital, Philadelphia was poised for the taking.  To him, it made more sense.  Never mind that the plan to effectively end the war was fucked up from the very beginning–Washington was the bigger prize.  It would be a prize Howe would never get, and would soon be relieved by Sir Henry Clinton.

St. Leger had an even worse time.  He never had any intention of backing out: his mixed force of 2000 Loyalists, British and natives crossed Lake Ontario and landed at Oswego on July 25. The brutal campaigns of Oriskany and Fort Stanwix–where American militiamen and native allies slugged it out with St. Leger’s forces to a stalemate–changed the story.  It drained the morale of St. Leger’s native allies, who took their supplies and took off.  It didn’t help that Benedict Arnold tricked St. Leger into thinking a larger colonial force was coming to relieve Fort Stanwix.  By the time St. Leger shows up at Fort Ticonderoga on September 27, his feeble force was no help to Burgoyne.

Of the three prongs on the British plan, it was Burgoyne, funny enough, who was most successful.  By July he had retaken Fort Ticonderoga, an important strategic and symbolic fortification on the foot of Lake Champlain.  Yet from then on, his campaign slowed to a crawl, as the wagons crating the supplies–including Burgoyne’s luggage, china and furniture–got bogged down in the Hudson highlands.

In the meantime, a quick American victory over Burgoyne’s advance cavalry at Bennington boosted morale to the point that American forces would swell to close to 15,000.  It included Daniel Morgan’s Virginia sharpshooters, Benedict Arnold’s force sent to relieve Fort Stanwix, as well as the main force under Benjamin Lincoln and a new commander, British trained Horatio Gates.

Gates thought he could do a better job than Washington.  Arnold thought he could do a better job than Gates.  Both hated each other.

So how was Saratoga won?

Saratoga was not one battle, but rather a series of maneuvers and two battles over on month.  The first, the Battle of Freeman’s Farm, the British technically won, but at the cost of 600 casualties.  On October 7, the British attacked American fortified positions at Bemis Heights.  In the two actions–the second punctuated by a daring attack by Arnold who was probably drunk–the British suffered a total of 1000 casualties.

Outnumber three to one, with the Americans controlling the high ground and surrounding him at the town of Saratoga itself, Burgoyne was forced to surrender his forces.   When he discussed the terms with General Gates, Burgoyne insisted on calling the surrender a “convention” rather than a “capitulation.”

He fooled no one.

On the final ceremony, after Burgoyne offered his sword to Gates (who refused–a move that further infuriated Arnold), 6000 soldiers laid down their arms as the band played “Yankee Doodle.”

It was very clear to everyone this was no “convention.”

Saratoga would invoke the first day of Thanksgiving, decreed by the Continental Congress on December 18, 1777.  It convinced France and Spain that the Americans could actually win the war–given the right support.  Soon, both countries would sign treaties of alliance with the United States, transforming a colonial rebellion into a world war.

Below is a two-part short documentary about Saratoga narrated by Dan Roberts.

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Hatchets, Boardwalks and Demon Rum: Learning about Prohibition

Prohibition agents destroying barrels of alcoh...

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I share my birthday with a rather prophetic event in American history.

On December 5, 1933, the 21st Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified. With Utah’s ratification vote, the failed social experiment known as Prohibition was killed, and Americans could once again belly up to the bar free of prosecution.

Yet the effects of that 13 year era still linger, both in our national consciousness and our collective imagination. Film and television have done much to pump up the mystique.

Yesterday, two programs dealt with Prohibition—one a multi-layered morality play, the other a social-science documentary. You can guess which is which by the networks they were on: few fact-based documentaries of glacial speed exist on Home Box Office. On the other hand, PBS rarely has a massive volume of exposed breasts and gunplay.

While Boardwalk Empire and Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s Prohibition may seem altogether different, in fact they approach the Noble Experiment in two important directions—and one cannot exist without the other.

The Ken Burns documentary, a format familiar to many, lays out the larger issues of the era and the main characters involved in a familiar maudlin motif. In the first episode, alcohol takes its place as a prominent American beverage since the colonial period—only reaching crisis mode as distilled spirits become the drink of choice in saloons during the mid 19th century. The negative effects of drinking (the violence, indolence, illness, etc.) touched women and children the worst, especially at a time when their voice was largely silenced.

The groups formed to combat the spread of “Demon rum”—the Prohibition Party, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League—grew out of a larger social reform movement for abolition, workplace reform, and especially womens’ suffrage. It further split Americans along regional, class and ethnic lines: Protestants against Catholics, Episcopalians and German Lutherans, Native-born against immigrants, rural versus urban.

Yet where the documentary works to establish the greater framework for the era, it is difficult for stills and voiceovers to create an ethos or soul.

Boardwalk Empire is now in its second season on HBO. A dramatic series based loosely on real events and characters in Atlantic City in the 1920s, the program follows county treasurer and political boss Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (based on real-life boss “Nucky” Johnson) as he navigates his empire of graft and corruption—an empire grown richer thanks to Prohibition. Along the way, mobsters, mistresses, lackeys, and rival bosses struggle in the wake of Nucky’s machinations.

It is these struggles that are an important piece of the Prohibition puzzle—a piece, so far, absent from the PBS documentary.

Even in future episodes, as the rise and collapse of Prohibition is laid out in detail, Prohibition is no catch-all synopsis of the entirety of the dry days. The voiceovers, narration, grainy stills and grainier silent films of the era give much authenticity—much, but not all.

There is something in scripted drama that truly establishes an ethos, even if that ethos is almost a century in the past. Prohibition was more than just laws, agents, mobsters and speakeasies. At its heart, it was about ordinary Americans forced to make choices in a time of tremendous upheaval—a conflict well-founded in the HBO series.

Boardwalk Empire shows, in the daily conflicts of people high and low, the tough choices Americans were forced to make. Politicians like Nucky Thompson made choices that compromised morality, legality and even personal loyalty. Law enforcement officers, like sheriff Elias Thompson and Prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden, made choices that conflicted their sense of duty with their need for material security. Ordinary citizens, people who were once law-abiding, had to make the difficult (or often not so difficult) choice to break the law in order get even a little bit of comfort.

Like any era in history, Prohibition cannot be encapsulated in one source. Even a library of material could not encompass the necessary scholarship that defines a time in the past. In this case, however, a good basic grasp of the period requires two hands instead of one.

Documentaries provide solid material, underlying conflicts, primary sources—basically the big picture. Yet do not count out historical fiction entirely, especially if it’s done well.

Using both, you may get a more complete picture than you realize.

Enjoy them both…the next round’s on me.

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