J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

Subscribe thru Follow.it





•••••••••••••••••



Friday, August 19, 2022

The Mysteries of Fortune Freeman

Earlier this year Boston National Historical Park shared a research article by Anjelica Oswald about an African-American Revolutionary War pensioner. It starts with this scene:
In the spring of 1818, an old man named Fortune Freeman…swore to the court that he served as a soldier in the Revolution, and applied for a veteran’s pension for some relief. Arriving to the court with merely the clothes on his back, Freeman provided few details about his personal life in his statement. Aside from his own declarations, few records of his life exist before or after the war. Only one of these precious few records remained in his possession when he approached the court: a discharge paper from the 4th Massachusetts, issued to him at the close of the Revolutionary War in 1783.
Because many veterans similarly lacked paperwork, and because the U.S. War Department had suffered a fire in 1800, the pension process for aging Revolutionary War veterans relied on applicants’ memories. That makes the pension files detailed historical sources but also leaves them riddled with gaps and contradictions.

In Fortune Freeman’s case, his memories didn’t match the remaining paper trail in several ways.
Freeman claimed to have first enlisted in Boston in 1776 in Captain Elijah Danforth’s company, Colonel Thomas Nixon’s regiment, later designated the 6th Massachusetts Regiment in 1779. He stated that he continued to serve in the same regiment until his honorable discharge in 1783. However, when looking through muster rolls, there is no record of a “Fortune Freeman” enlisting in 1776 in Danforth’s company. In fact, there is no record of a “Fortune Freeman” in Danforth’s company at all.
Capt. Danforth was from Billerica, serving from the first day of the war. But he left the army in March 1779. So whom commanded Fortune Freeman after that?

Freeman also testified to having been wounded at the Battle of Brandywine and to witnessing the surrender of Gen. John Burgoyne at Saratoga. Those two major battles took place in the same season hundreds of miles apart, so no army units were at both.

Freeman’s pension application thus shows some of those gaps and contradictions. However, Oswald also found that in May 1777 Col. James Barrett mustered a Billerica man named Fortune (or “Forten”) Conant into Capt. Danforth’s company. This man served in that Massachusetts regiment until 1780. Then there’s no further record of him.

But there is a record of a man named Fortune Freeman enlisting into the 4th Massachusetts regiment in 1781 and serving until the end of the war two years later. Those details matched the discharge paper Freeman presented with his pension application decades later.

Oswald’s essay explores the likelihood had Fortune Conant and Fortune Freeman were the same man, with some details dovetailing, others (like his later commanding officer) left aside, and a few (either Brandywine or Saratoga) embellished.

It also uses the record of the units Conant and Freeman were linked to, and later civilian records, to fill in the big holes of his/their life. Was Fortune Conant born enslaved, perhaps to the Conant family of Billerica? Did Fortune Freeman return to Massachusetts after being discharged? The U.S. government continued to pay his pension until 1824, so is that when this veteran died? The article is a detailed read, careful to distinguish evidence from supposition.

Thursday, August 18, 2022

H.M.S. Endeavour Under Attack?

The story of the shipwreck in Narragansett Bay that’s probably, but not officially, H.M.S. Endeavour continued this month as the Boston Globe reported that the remains are being eaten away.

Brian Amaral has been covering this story, and in this latest installment he described how Reuben Shipway came from the University of Plymouth to investigate the biology of the wreck (in cooperation with local authorities).

Not only did Shipway find naval shipworms, or Teredo navalis, in wood brought up from the seafloor, but “He saw larvae on their gills — that meant they were breeding.” Indeed, shipworm might share responsibility for only about 10–15% of the warship remaining.

What’s more, “Shipway found evidence that a crustacean species called gribbles had eaten at the wood from the outside, a sort of two-pronged attack that will, in time, eat anything that’s exposed to water until it’s gone.” While the material is safer when buried in sediment, currents in the bay and warming water mean that underwater environment will always be changing.

Shipway also examined his samples for evidence of species from distant oceans, which would add to the evidence that this particular wreck is the Endeavour, later renamed H.M.S. Lord Sandwich. None came to light, but Australian archeologists are already convinced.

There remains the big question of who wants to fund further exploration and any attempts at preservation. The ship came from the British navy. It’s in U.S. waters. In world history, it’s most significant as the vessel that brought Capt. James Cook and the British to Australia, and that country is most interested in it.

Meanwhile, the shipworms and gribbles are still living their lives.

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

“More of the spirit of party, than of poetry”

The precocious poet Richard Polwhele’s The Spirit of Frazer (discussed yesterday) tries to use the form and language of heroic national verse to praise Gen. John Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga and urge Great Britain to withdraw from its American war.

That would be a hard task for any writer, let alone a teenager. As the literary scholar Dafydd Moore wrote in what might well be the only recent study of Polwhele, “The language and devices of martial heroism are pushed beyond the point they can be credibly flexed.”

But back in 1778, when young Polwhele had his poem printed in Bath and sent to the London bookseller William Goldsmith and literary reviewers, reactions appeared to have hinged on politics.

The Spirit of Frazer was undoubtedly political, and magazine editors didn’t even have to read the poem to get that. By putting the name of “Mrs. [Catharine] Macaulay” on the title page, Polwhele allied himself with the country’s radical Whigs.

The Westminster Magazine’s reviewer wrote:
The inscription to the great Commonwealth heroine, or queen of the Amazons, sufficiently hints the principle on which these pieces are written; and as for the rest, there plainly appears more of the spirit of party, than of poetry, in them.
The Critical Review started out on the same point but actually had something to say about the poetry as poetry:
When the reader observes that these two poems are inscribed to the female historian, we need not add that they are of the patriotic cast. In the Tale we find some strokes of the pathetic, and the Ode contains some flashings of poetical fire.
In contrast, all the Town and Country Magazine had to say was, “Another patriotic reverie in verse.” British Whigs, like Americans, had adopted the term “Patriot” for their platform of political reforms, so it meant both more and less than basic loyalty to Britain.

Some reviewers really didn’t like Polwhele’s message. The Monthly Catalogue stated:
Of all the spirits we ever conversed with, this is the most spiritless. It persuades General Burgoyne (who, it seems, took its advice) to yield the day to [Horatio] Gates. . . . This is the genius—this the language of the gallant [Simon] Frazer!—No, ’tis a base counterfeit—the ghost of a By—g [Adm. John Byng],—or it is some dastard soul, the body of which had been shot in the back.—S’death! if the real spirit of General Frazer, now, perhaps, hovering, melancholy, over the fatal plain of Saratoga, could but hear of this poem, it would certainly waft itself back to Britain, and pull the Author by the nose.
And the London Review of English and Foreign Literature called The Spirit of Frazer:
A piece of Bath metal sent up to a London Goldsmith, to make money of.—What punishment ought not to be inflicted on such counterfeiters of poetical coin.
Still, nothing could daunt young Richard Polwhele from his literary career. He studied for a couple of years at Oxford and then went into the ministry, married, and raised a family while working as a country cleric. And he continued to write—more long poems, antiquarian and topographical studies, biographies.

People care about only one of Polwhele’s books, though: The Unsex’d Females, a 1798 poem (with lengthy footnotes) about the dangers of the French Revolution and Mary Wollstonecraft. And that’s only because it shows the environment that women faced as public authors in the period.

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

“Reason’s voice commands thee, yield”

The first person to use the death of Gen. Simon Fraser at Saratoga in art might have been the young poet Richard Polwhele (1760–1838, shown here).

His first tiny splash in the British literary world was as the youngest of the admirers writing odes to Catherine Macaulay for her birthday in 1777, mentioned back here.

Through the same printer the teenager soon published The Fate of Lewellyn; or, the Druid’s Sacrifice. A Legendary Tale. In Two Parts. To which is added Carnbré, a Poem. Agnes Repplier later wrote of that book:
The title-page stated modestly that the writer was “a young gentleman of Truro School”; whereupon an ill-disposed critic in the “Monthly Review” intimated that the master of Truro School would do well to keep his young gentlemen out of print. Dr. [Cornelius] Cardew, the said master, retorted hotly that the book had been published without his knowledge
Undaunted, in 1778 Polwhele enrolled at Oxford and put out yet another volume: The Spirit of Frazer, to General Burgoyne. An ode. To which is added, The Death of Hilda; an American Tale. Inscribed to Mrs. Macaulay. In fact, according to a 1798 profile, he wrote those poems before leaving school.

I haven’t found any online texts, and for that most people would be grateful. However, Dafydd Moore quoted and analyzed The Spirit of Frazer in his monograph Richard Polwhele and Romantic Culture: The Politics of Reaction and the Poetics of Place. So you’re not getting off that easily.

As Polwhele spins his tale, a few days after his death Fraser appears to Gen. John Burgoyne and poetically urges surrender to the American army. The brigadier’s ghost argues that this is the most honorable course because the war in America is both unjust and unwinnable.
Reason’s voice commands thee, yield:
Ev’n Frenzy’s self would scarce oppose!
Tempt not the horrors of the field,
Nor brave surrounding foes!
Nor Slavery’s dungeon be thy meed!
For Honour would disclaim the deed!
Yet stamps the Roll that bids the battle cease!
Burgoyne, the ghost says, should return to Britain and advocate for peace.
Go! and bid her spread no more
Her thunders o’er the Atlantic wave,
While glooms destruction’s threatning power,
Pointing to the yawning grave!
No more let War his flaming brand
Wide wave o’er Freedom’s ravag’d land,
Where soon a glorious Empire shall arise!
Polwhele thus had Fraser echo how Britain’s most radical anti-war Whigs were responding to news of Saratoga.

TOMORROW: The reviews roll in.

Monday, August 15, 2022

The Memory of Gen. Simon Fraser

Brigadier general Simon Fraser had a long career in the British army before dying in the Battle of Saratoga.

Even so, it appears that Gen. John Burgoyne’s description of his funeral, quoted back here, made Fraser into a British icon of sorts.

Burgoyne’s efforts were helped along by another narrative of that event in Lt. Thomas Anburey’s Travels Through the Interior Parts of America, published in 1789. Anburey wrote:
About sun-set, the corpse was carried up the hill; the procession was in view of both armies; as it passed by Generals Burgoyne, [William] Phillips and Riedesel, they were struck at the plain simplicity of the parade, being only attended by the officers of his suite…and urged by a natural wish to pay the last honors to him, in the eyes of the whole army, they joined the procession.

The enemy, with an inhumanity peculiar to Americans, cannonaded the procession as it passed, and during the service over the grave. The account given me by your friend Lieut. [Quin John] Freeman was, that there appeared an expressive mixture of sensibility and indignation upon every countenance—the scene must have been affecting.
Anburey spent years as a prisoner of war with the Convention Army—that was how he traveled through the interior parts of America. He didn’t come away with any fondness for the host nation.

In the same year Anburey’s account was published, a print appeared on the London market titled “View of the West Bank of the Hudson’s River, 3 Miles above Still Water, Upon which is the Army under the Command of Lt. Gen. Burgoyne (Showing General Frazer’s Funeral).”

Follow this link to a digitized image of this print from the Yale University Art Gallery. On the rightmost of the three hills is a line of tiny figures following two coffins. Some experts interpret the second one as representing Burgoyne’s aide-de-camp Sir Francis Clarke, also killed in the battle though not in any account buried with Fraser.

Finally in 1791 the Scottish artist John Graham (1754–1817) exhibited a painting of Fraser’s funeral. Graham was influenced by Benjamin West’s picture of the death of Gen. James Wolfe in 1759. So much so, in fact, that one critic of the time reviewed The Funeral of General Fraser by saying: “We should have been more pleased with the picture if we had not seen The Death of General Wolfe by West.”

As West had done before him (and as other West acolytes like John Singleton Copley and John Trumbull did), Graham sought out the officers who had been at the event he was depicting. He made studies of those men and portrayed them as individuals in his scene. That painting was made into a print in 1794, and the print was issued with a key to the figures.

(I can’t find Graham’s original on the web; the image above shows a copy in the collection of the National Army Museum.)

Burgoyne, Anburey, and Graham thus crafted Fraser’s funeral into an emblem of British fortitude and propriety even in defeat. This stuff-upper-lip behavior could easily, as Don Carleton commented last week, tip into Monty Python–style satire. Still, it was effective.

American chroniclers of the Battle of Saratoga felt a need to quote Riedesel and Burgoyne on Fraser’s death and metal—those sources are just too full of drama to ignore. But the same historians often added a protest that if only the British commanders had told the Americans that the generals were gathering for a funeral there would have been no artillery fire. I’m not entirely convinced.

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Another Dispatch from James Madison’s Montpelier

The Culpepper Star-Exponent is reporting on an odd wrinkle in the already public conflict over historical interpretation at Montpelier, James Madison’s slave-labor plantation.

The U.S. Postal Service closed the small post office near that historic site on short notice in June because, as Allison Brophy Champion reports, “it objected to a historical exhibit there.” The small building that housed the post office is part of the property of the Montpelier Foundation.

A spokesperson told the newspaper, “Service at Montpelier Station was suspended after it was determined the display at the site was unacceptable to the Postal Service.”

The display at issue consists of one panel on the outside of the building and several more inside—through a door separate from the one that went to the working post office.

The exhibit is titled “In the Time of Segregation,” and it describes segregation at that post office, opened in 1912, and in other services in the Jim Crow states.

Now one might at first guess that this display was a project of the new management at Montpelier. In May, as I described here and here, the Montpelier Foundation resolved months of internal controversy by seating eleven new members representing descendants of people enslaved at that plantation and others nearby, and installing new top management. The organization seemed poised to focus more attention on the site’s history of slavery and segregation.

In fact, the “In the Time of Segregation” exhibit was installed twelve years ago when the post office building reopened after Montpelier restored it. Only in June, within a month of the Montpelier Foundation management change, did some U.S. Postal Service manager deem that presentation of history “unacceptable.”

The post office’s local spokesperson declined to offer any more information and also claimed, “we attempted to address the issue with the property owner.” The head of the Montpelier Foundation told the Star-Exponent, “The U.S. Postal Service did not contact the current CEO or chief of staff, nor did it contact the previous CEO or chief of staff.”

The closure doesn’t affect Montpelier alone. About a hundred people had boxes at that post office because they don’t get mail delivered to their houses nearby. They “were supposed to get temporary postal boxes in Orange,” about four miles away, but that hasn’t happened. The Postal Service also promised a public meeting, but there’s no report of one taking place.

Furthermore, the area’s representative in Congress has told the U.S.P.S. district manager that “To close a post office, the agency is required to make its determination in writing, made available to the customers served by the office, and may not close it until 60 days afterward.” That clearly didn’t happen.

Saturday, August 13, 2022

Online Tools to Investigate the Myths of American History

Today I’m speaking at History Camp Boston, the gathering of history researchers, writers, and buffs organized by the Pursuit of History.

I’ve spoken at each annual History Camp Boston, and it will be good to return after two years in which the pandemic made such a congregation too risky.

Back in late 2019 or early 2020 the founder of the Pursuit of History, Lee Wright, suggested I speak at the next History Camp about debunking myths of Revolutionary history. I decided it would be better to focus on tools for people doing their own research. And then I had other, heavier things on my mind for more than two years.

But at last History Camp Boston is taking place, and my talk is:

Digging and Debunking: Using Online Tools to Investigate the Myths of American History

From Founders’ quotes to inspirational legends to details that historians have repeated for so long that nobody considers where they came from, our history abounds with assertions that we should be skeptical about. This workshop discusses how to assess such historical tales and tidbits. It will share tactics for using Google Books and other free resources to pinpoint when and where stories arose, and lay out the dynamic of “grandmother’s tales,” “memory creep,” and other ways legends spread. And every so often these techniques reveal that a story almost too good to be true is supported by solid evidence.
I expect to touch on the following websites since I use them regularly when I research new topics and details about individuals.

Google, especially Google Books, sometimes augmented with Google Ngram Viewer
HathiTrust Digital Library
Internet Archive

Founders Online
Colonial Society of Massachusetts publications
Massachusetts Historical Society Coming of the Revolution and other resources

Sites on false quotations from famous Founders
Monticello’s spurious quotes page
Mount Vernon’s spurious quotes page
Wikiquote

Language sites
Etymonline
Merriam-Webster
Johnson’s Dictionary Online

JSTOR (I can access through the Newton Free Library; a card from the Boston Public Library, which any Massachusetts resident can apply for, also offers access to electronic resources)

American Archives

Newspapers
GenealogyBank (paid subscription)
Harbottle Dorr collection of Boston newspapers at the Massachsuetts Historical Society
Virginia Gazettes at Colonial Williamsburg

Genealogy sites (for vital records)
Early Vital Records of Massachusetts
FamilySearch
Geni
American Ancestors (N.E.H.G.S.) for local probate files, real estate, &c. (paid membership)

Fold3’s Revolutionary War Pensions (paid membership)

Sources on the naval war
American War of Independence at Sea
Three Decks
Naval Documents of the American Revolution

Town, state, and federal government records
Massachusetts House Journals
Massachusetts census of 1765
Boston town records
Boston tax records for 1780
A Century of Lawmaking on the Continental Congresses

Friday, August 12, 2022

The Funeral of Gen. Simon Fraser

Yesterday I quoted Frederika von Massow Riedesel on the death of Gen. Simon Fraser at Saratoga.

Wounded at Bemis Heights on 7 Oct 1777, Fraser died the following morning. By then the Crown forces had pulled back to their fortified camp, and the Continentals were attacking them.

Riedesel's memoir, in the 1827 translation, continued:
After he had been washed, he was wrapped in a sheet, and laid out. We then returned into the room, and had this melancholy spectacle before us the whole day. . . .

We were informed, that general [John] Burgoyne intended to comply with general Fraser’s last request, and to have him buried at 6 o’clock, in the place which he had designated. This occasioned an useless delay, and contributed to our military misfortunes. At 6 o’clock, the corpse was removed, and we saw all the generals, with their retinues, on the hill, assisting at the funeral ceremony.
Among those generals was Riedesel’s own husband, making what followed particularly unnerving for her. Especially since she obviously felt the army should be moving to a place of greater safety rather than going through this ceremony.

The chaplain who presided was the Rev. Edward Brudenell.

Gen. Burgoyne devoted space in his report to the House of Commons on the failed campaign to Fraser’s funeral:
The incessant cannonade during the solemnity; the steady attitude and unaltered voice with which the chaplain officiated, though frequently covered with dust, which the shot threw up on all sides of him; the mute but expressive mixture of sensibility and indignation upon every countenance: these objects will remain to the last of life upon the minds of every man who was present. The growing duskiness added to the scenery, and the whole marked a character of that juncture that would make one of the finest subjects for the pencil of a master that the field ever exhibited—

To the canvas and to the faithful page of a more important historian, gallant friend! I consign thy memory. There may thy talents, thy manly virtues, their progress and their period, find due distinction; and long may they survive;—long after the frail record of my pen shall be forgotten.
Can you tell that Burgoyne (shown above) was a dramatist?

COMING UP: A scene of British fortitude.

Thursday, August 11, 2022

The Death of Gen. Simon Fraser

During the fight at Bemis Heights, the second act of the Battle of Saratoga, an American rifleman picked off Simon Fraser, brigadier general and commander of His Majesty’s 24th Regiment of Foot.

Frederika von Massow Riedesel left a dramatic account of Fraser’s last hours. Wife of the officer commanding the Crown’s German-speaking hired regiments, she had traveled to North America with their young children.

This is from the 1827 translation of Riedesel’s memoir of the war:
About 3 o’clock in the afternoon, instead of the guests whom I expected, I saw one of them, poor general Fraser, brought upon a hand-barrow, mortally wounded. The table, which was already prepared for dinner, was immediately removed, and a bed placed in its stead for the general. I sat terrified and trembling in a corner. The noise grew more alarming, and I was in a continual agony and tremour, while thinking that my husband might soon also be brought in, wounded like general Fraser.

That poor general said to the surgeon, “tell me the truth: is there no hope?” . . . the ball had passed through his body, but unhappily for the general, he had that morning eaten a full breakfast, by which the stomach was distended, and the ball, as the surgeon remarked, passed directly through it. I heard often amidst his groans, such words as these, “O bad ambition! poor general Burgoyne! poor Mistress Fraser.” Prayers were read, after which he desired that general [John] Burgoyne should be requested to have him buried on the next day at 6 o’clock in the evening, on a hill where a breastwork had been constructed.

I knew not what to do: the entrance and all the rooms were full of sick, in consequence of the dysentery which prevailed in the camp. At length, towards evening, my husband came, and from that moment my affection was much soothed, and I breathed thanks to God. He dined with me and the aids-de-camp in great haste, in an open space in the rear of the house. We poor females had been told, that our troops had been victorious; but I well saw, by the melancholy countenance of my husband, that it was quite the contrary. On going away, he took me aside, to tell me every went badly, and that I should prepare myself to depart, but without saying any thing to any body. Under the pretence of removing the next day to my new lodgings, I ordered the baggage to be packed up. . . .

my children…were asleep, but…, I feared, might disturb the poor dying general. He sent me several messages to beg my pardon for the trouble he thought he gave me. About 3 o’clock, I was informed that he could not hold out much longer, and as I did not wish to be present at his last struggle, I wrapped my children in blankets, and retired into the entrance hall. About 8 o’clock in the morning he expired.
The 1827 translation says that the words in boldface above appeared in English in the original German publication of Riedesel’s memoir. In other words, they were supposedly the general’s exact words. Nonetheless, a later translation presented Fraser’s words as, “Oh, fatal ambition! Poor General Burgoyne! My poor wife!” 

TOMORROW: A memorable burial.

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

All Dressed Up for the Sestercentennial

I got a new T-shirt this week, offered by JCD666 on TeePublic.

The best part is that the official U.S. Bicentennial logo is modified to look weathered, like a silkscreened shirt that’s gone through the laundry for nearly fifty years.

Getting Fort Plain Sorted Out

The year that The Road to Concord was published, I spoke at the American Revolution Conference organized by the Fort Plain Museum, and I had enough fun to go back in other years.

I’ve also enjoyed the Fort Plain Museum’s online bookstore, which stocks a wide range of books about the American Revolution, well beyond the titles on its region. The store often offers generous discounts on recent titles and free shipping for larger orders.

But on my visits I’d never had time to visit the museum itself, not until this week. It provides a thorough account of the fight between the U.S. of A. and the British Empire over New York’s Mohawk Valley.

I must confess I’d need to take better notes to sort out all the “forts” in the area, ranging from a large construction like Fort Stanwix to little more than a big farmhouse with shutters and a bunch of soldiers assigned to it.

I felt reassured, though, that I’m not alone in that confusion. In fact, the struggle to tell the Mohawk Valley fortifications apart apparently reached up to the highest level of the Continental Army. For this I’m relying on a roundup of period quotations from Norm Bollen (P.D.F. download).

As early as 1780, an invoice documents that people living around where Otsquago Creek joined the Mohawk River called their fortification Fort Plain. But when Gen. Robert Van Rensselaer made it his headquarters later that year, he dubbed it Fort Rensselaer.

There was a geographic and class division between the frontier farmers and Gen. Van Rensselaer, aggravated by a court-martial pitting him against the county’s militia officers. This resentment came out in people living near the fort continuing to call it “Fort Plain.”

Even when Col. Marinus Willett took over and proved more popular and more militarily successful, locals still sent him messages about “Fort Plain.” Willett regularly crossed out that name and wrote in “Fort Rensselear” (close enough by 18th-century standards).

In February 1782 the French military engineer Villefranche de Genton sent Gen. George Washington a “plan of a Redoubt with a Block-house the inside proper to contain two hundred men, and large magazines, as well for ammunition as provisions” for “Fort Ranceler,” as requested by Willett.

Washington thanked the engineer for his work, and in April sent a bunch of paperwork to Gen. Philip Schuyler, including a contract to finish that blockhouse at Fort Rensselaer. Schuyler was Gen. Robert Van Renssalaer’s brother-in-law, so we can be sure of what he called that location.

At the end of May, Col. Benjamin Tupper of Massachusetts took over at that fort. But when he wrote to Washington about the situation, he used the local name:
There is an unfinished Blockhouse at Fort plain which if compleated would be a strong barrior in that Country; I think if some money could be sent on for the Meterials we can procure workmen among the levies to compleat it.
Washington immediately wrote back to say it was “out of my Ability to furnish you with any Money for the Completion of the Block House at Fort plain.” This despite how he’d already asked Schuyler to start work on the blockhouse at Fort Rensselaer.

On 24 June, Gen. Washington traveled up to the Albany region to inspect the Continental posts and supply depots. As part of that trip, he appears to have learned that Fort Rensselaer and Fort Plain were the same place, and it still needed a blockhouse. On 2 July he ordered the quartermaster to send supplies there. Meanwhile, the latest commander of the post, Col. George Reid, was careful to refer to it in his letters to the commander-in-chief as “Fort Plain, or Ransler.”

After the war, the fortification was no longer needed. It disappeared by the end of the century. But the memory of it was strong enough that when the settlers living around Otsquago Creek needed a name for their village, they chose Fort Plain.

Tuesday, August 09, 2022

“Never acquaint any person with that place where I shall be buried”

In his last last will and testament, Gen. Frederick William de Steuben wrote:
I do hereby declare that those legacies to my servants are on the following conditions, that on my Decease they do not permit any person to touche my Body, not even to change the Shirt in which I shall die but that they wrap me up in my old Military Cloak and in twenty four hours after my Decease bury me in such spot as I have before my Decease point out to them and that they never acquaint any person with that place where I shall be buried.
It didn’t work out like that.

When the baron died in 1794, his heirs and executors followed his instructions as best they could. (It’s not clear whether he actually did point out a spot or they chose one they thought he’d like.)

But ten years later the growing population of central New York meant that a road was going past or over his grave. Benjamin Walker arranged for his former commander’s remains to be moved to a more secluded spot and donated nearby land to a Baptist church on the condition that its congregation care for that new grave.

Twenty years after that, as the fiftieth anniversary of independence approached, a small monument was erected. In 1871 a much larger pile of stone went up, festooned with half-buried iron cannon and cannon balls.

The gravesite got the high-falutin’ name of the “Sacred Grove”; was named a memorial state park in 1931; has been augmented with a replica of the baron’s cabin, interpretive signage, and public restrooms; and is now managed by the state government in partnership with the National Park Service.

This is, of course, a far cry from Baron de Steuben’s original wish that his executors “never acquaint any person with that place where I shall be buried.”

Yet somehow I think Steuben would be more upset at hearing the cyclist who came through while I was taking photos: “I’ve lived here thirty years, and never knew this was back here.”

A Visit to Fort Stanwix

A combination of travel, illness, and lack of connectivity kept me from posting on my usual daily schedule this weekend, so I’m catching up with some of the places I passed through in central New York.

First up is Fort Stanwix in the city of Rome. I visited this site once before, in the 1990s. It’s impressive to see an eighteenth-century wooden fortification, built to high standards of authenticity, in the middle of a modern city.

Of course, location was the point of Fort Stanwix—it commanded an important portage point in the French and Indian and Revolutionary Wars. It provided a base for protecting the nascent U.S. of A.’s furthest northwest settlements. The city of Rome grew up around it.

And location was also the point of the reconstruction—it was an urban-renewal project. The land was designated as a National Monument back in 1935, when it was still covered with apartment buildings and shops. In the 1960s, Rome city leaders decided a recreated fort would be better for tourism, and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy threw his weight behind the project.

The somewhat dragooned National Park Service offered a master plan in 1967. From 1970 to 1973 it oversaw archeological work, and from 1974 to 1978 the fort went up. Though there’s a reinforced concrete structure, most of what we see is earth and wood.

Fort Stanwix was besieged by Crown forces starting on 3 Aug 1777. To commemorate that period, the park flies a flag based on period sources—thirteen red, white, and blue stripes with no canton or stars.

I was there on a summer Monday. The visitor center was closed. Only one interpretive ranger was on site at a time. A thin but steady stream of visitors suggests that the park could attract more people on summer Mondays with more programming, but of course that costs money.

Some parts of the fort were recently rebuilt, I learned, but the contractor who’d won the bid to haul away the old lumber went out of business during the pandemic. Now there are big piles of logs on the grounds waiting to be removed. That heavy hauling job has to go through the federal hiring process again, following rules designed to protect our public interest but also subject to slowness.

The present park site is thus a memorial to both the wars of the eighteenth century and the expansive, can-do attitude of the Kennedy decade.

Saturday, August 06, 2022

James Leander Cathcart on Three Continents

At Common-place, Julie R. Voss discussed the self-fashioned career of James Leander Cathcart (1767–1843).

Cathcart was born in Ireland and, according to an autobiographical manuscript he left with his family, came to America at age eight with a relative who was a sea captain. That would have been just as the war began.

Within a couple of years, both James and his relative were working on privateers. He reported that he out on the Connecticut-based Continental warship Confederacy under Capt. Seth Harding (1734–1814). That frigate had 32 guns and galley oars as well as sails for better maneuvering, but, when faced with two British warships, Harding surrendered on 18 April 1781.

Cathcart thus became a teen-aged prisoner of war. Voss writes:
In his narrative, Cathcart claims the frigate was seized and the sailors held on a prison ship in New York harbor, from which he and a friend escaped. This striking and adventurous story cannot be corroborated, and it’s at least equally possible that Cathcart claimed his British citizenship when he was seized and then served in the British Navy in order to escape being a prisoner of war.
There are Admiralty Office records of at least some of the New York prison ships, so it might be possible to find young Cathcart’s name and know how long he was a prisoner and how he got out.

After the war, Cathcart continued to work as a sailor, running into another danger:
The Mediterranean practice of seizing ships and holding the crews for ransom or hard labor was common. In fact, the practice dated back centuries, and went in multiple directions. In the heyday of galley ships, European nations captured North Africans to work the oars; and the Catholic Church engineered an entire enterprise of “redemption” for Catholics seized by the ships of Barbary.

By the late eighteenth century, European nations signed treaties with the Barbary States to protect their shipping, and these treaties were renegotiated frequently. After the American Revolution, American ships were no longer protected by British treaties, and Cathcart and his shipmates quickly learned the consequences.
James spent eleven years as a captive, coming of age in northern Africa. At first assigned to be a menial servant, James finessed what Voss calls his “remarkable facility with languages” to become a clerk for the local official and a business owner.

When David Humphreys arrived to neogtiate for the Americans, Cathcart became the man’s aide, helping to obtain his and his fellow prisoners’ release in 1796.

One might think James Leander Cathcart had then had enough of north Africa, but he had lived as long on that continent as any other. He lobbied to be appointed a U.S. consul.

For all his skills, some people thought Cathcart was duplicitous. The American diplomat Joel Barlow stated, “He has neither the talent nor the dignity of character necessary” for his role. Mustafa Baba, the Dey of Algiers after the one Cathcart served, sent a similar message to President Thomas Jefferson. In modern translation:
If he comes to me, I shall in no way receive him since he is not a good man. It is clear that wherever he spends time he creates a great disturbance. For this reason, our not accepting him is for our and your good.
As translated at the time:
his Character does not Suit us, as we know, wherever he has remained That he has created difficulties and brought On a war And as I will not receive him I am shure it will be well for both nations
But the U.S. didn’t have a lot of people experienced in the Arab world and willing to serve the government. Cathcart thus remained consul in Tunis and Tripoli, helping to negotiate again with Algiers. Later he spent more than fifteen years in Madeira and Cadiz before returning to the U.S. of A. and working for the Treasury Department.

Friday, August 05, 2022

Two Revolutionary History Conferences in September

On Saturday, 24 September, folks interested in Revolutionary War history will have a choice of scholarly events to attend or tune into.

Fort Ticonderoga will hold its Eighteenth Annual Seminar on the American Revolution from the evening of Friday, 23 September, to the afternoon of Sunday, 25 September.

Scheduled presentations include:
  • Matthew Keagle, “Highlights from the Robert Nittolo Collection”
  • Blake Grindon, “Jane McCrea, Women, and War: Gender and Violence in the Revolution’s Northern Front”
  • Mark Edward Lender, “Tactical Prowess, Strategic Success, and John Brown’s Ticonderoga Raid Reconsidered”
  • Todd W. Braisted, “‘To do the duty of Soldiers in Every Respect’: New York City’s Loyalist Militia, 1776-1783”
  • Katie Turner Getty, “Displaced: The Donation People and the Siege of Boston, 1775”
  • Ricardo A. Herrera, “FOB Valley Forge: Washington’s Armed Camp on the Schuylkill”
  • Glenn F. Williams, “For Britannia’s Glory and Wealth”
  • J. Patrick Mullins, “‘Wilkes & Liberty’: Material Culture and the Britishness of the American Revolution”
  • Sarah Shepherd, “‘The Infamous Conduct of A few Abandoned Miscreants’: Sexual Violence Committed by Continental Soldiers towards American Women” 
  • Matthew Cerjak, “‘The British Will Know Who We Are’: Women in the Revolutionary War”
  • John William Nelson, “Beyond the Racial Divide: Cross-cultural Alliances and Unexpected Loyalties in the Revolutionary Borderlands”
Registration costs $140 with discounts for early-bird registration by 15 August, Fort Ti membership, and remote access. For more details, go here.

On 24 September, the Emerging Revolutionary War organization will hold its annual symposium in Alexandria, Virginia. This year on the theme “The World Turned Upside: The American Revolution’s Impact on a Global Scale.”

Speakers at that event are:
  • Dr. Lindsay Chervinsky, “‘Peace and Inviolable Faith with All Nations’: John Adams, Independence, and the Quest for Neutrality”
  • Norman Desmarais, “Reevaluating Our French Allies: A New Look at Popular Assumptions of the French Army through the Diary of Count de Lauberdiere”
  • Kate Gruber, “A Retrospective Revolution: England’s Long 17th Century and the Coming of Revolution in Virginia”
  • Scott Stroh, “George Mason’s Declaration of Rights and Their Global Impact”
  • Eric Sterner, “Britain, Russia, and the American War”
Registration for that one-day event starts at $60, again with some discounts, explained here.

Thursday, August 04, 2022

The Stinking Waters and George R. T. Hewes

As I type this, I’m in Richfield Springs, New York. In fact, I’m right across East Main Street (Route 20) from the springs that gave the town its name.

Those are sulphur springs, and the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) referred to this place as Ganowauges, or “stinking waters.”

Europeans learned about the springs by the early 1750s, and British troops reached the site in 1757 during the French and Indian War. But there was still very little European settlement in the area two decades later when Adam Helmer ran past.

I heard about Richfield Springs first because of its connection to one memorable Revolutionary Bostonian: George Robert Twelves Hewes.

During the siege Hewes lost his shoemaking workshop in Boston and resettled with his family in Wrentham. That change may have helped to cement his memories of the pre-war port.

Later some of Hewes’s children, like many rural New Englanders, moved out to central New York. In the early 1800s the area around Richfield Springs was being developed, with the sulphur water itself promoted as a health remedy.

After the War of 1812, Hewes and his wife Sally followed those children to Richfield Springs. He was then seventy-four years old and ready to retire. Sally Hewes died in 1828. For the next few years, Hewes moved among the houses of relatives and neighbors, telling stories about the Revolution and pulling out his old militia uniform for patriotic holidays.

Some of Hewes’s Independence Day talks came to the attention of a New York writer named James Hawkes, who wrote a biography collecting those tales. The term “Boston Tea Party” had been coined a few years before, and Hawkes titled his 1834 book A Retrospect of the Boston Tea-Party.

That publication spurred Boston grandees to invite Hewes to revisit his home town, which he did in 1835. He sat for a portrait and for celebratory dinners. Since of course we couldn’t be satisfied with a book written by a New Yorker, local writer Benjamin Bussey Thatcher pumped Hewes for more stories, augmented them with other men’s recollections, and published Traits of the Tea Party.

Hewes returned to central New York, having thoroughly enjoyed being a celebrity. In 1840 he was boarding a carriage to ride to yet another Independence Day celebration when he suffered an injury. Hewes died on 5 November at the age of ninety-eight and was buried here in Richfield Springs.