January 30, 1752 Founding Philanderer

Not that he could’ve have done anything about it, even if the husband did find out.  Morris walked with a peg, his left leg severed below the knee in a carriage accident, lost while running from an angry husband.

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Midtown Street Grid

To drive the streets of Manhattan is to realize that someone had a plan for this place. You might not be able to get there for the congestion, but you can figure out how to do it. Not like the rabbit warren that is her sister city of Boston, that all but unnavigable melange of neighborhoods, grown together as the city expanded into former marshlands and harbor.

In grade school, we all learned the preamble to the Constitution. “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union…” It’s considerably snappier than the original version:

We the people of the states of New-Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode-Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New-York, New-Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North-Carolina, South-Carolina, and Georgia, do ordain, declare and establish the following constitution for the government of ourselves and our posterity.”

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That West 53rd leads to East 53rd and runs next to 54th may be attributed to a committee of three, who fought (and won) the battle against the wide circles and grand plazas, once envisioned for “The City”. That we may be spared that stultifying recitation of our founding document may be laid at the feet of one member of that committee.

Today, his life is all but lost to history, among the familiar constellation of founding fathers.  If he’s remembered at all it’s for that funny name.  Gouverneur Morris.  And what a life it was.

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Gouverneur Morris

Gouverneur Morris was born this day in 1752, the son of Lewis Morris, Jr. and his second wife Sarah (Gouverneur) Morris. Abigail Adams informs us the name was pronounced “Governeer”.

Born to a wealthy New York land owning family, Morris was destined to a place among the founders. His half-brother Lewis signed the Declaration of Independence.  Nephew Lewis Richard served in the Vermont legislature and the US Congress.

As a member of the Continental Congress, Morris helped General George Washington secure funding, to keep the Continental Army in the field. A staunch ally of the Commander-in-Chief, Morris defended Washington against the “Conway Cabal“, the only serious effort to have the General unseated, as commander-in-chief.

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Gouverneur Morris 1789

A staunch opponent of slavery, Morris derided the “peculiar institution” as “the curse of heaven on the states where it prevailed.”  Morris mocked the “3/5ths compromise”, that cynical effort to increase congressional representation based on “property”, who had no right to vote.

Upon what principle”, Morris asked, “is it that the slaves shall be computed in the representation? Are they men? Then make them citizens, and let them vote. Are they property? Why, then, is no other property included?”

And did I mention, Gouverneur Morris was a first-class Rake?

“Rake” is such a great word, short for “Rakehell” or Hellraiser’.  It’s a shame it’s fallen out of usage.  This isn’t the tool shed variety.  An 18th century Rake is a man habituated to dissolute conduct, a chronic libertine devoted to wine, women and song.  Emphasis on the Women and, no problem if they just happened to be married.

At a time when sexual attitudes were “buttoned up” to say the least, Gouverneur Morris was all but addicted to sex in public, given over to the excitement, of the risk at being caught.

As Minister Plenipotentiary to France in the wake of the American Revolution, Morris writes of one such dalliance in the hallway at the Louvre, then a Royal Residence.

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Gouverneur Morris’ wooden leg

“Go to the Louvre… we take the Chance of Interruption and celebrate in the Passage while Mademoiselle (the woman’s daughter) is at the Harpsichord in the Drawing Room. The husband is below. Visitors are hourly expected. The Doors are all open.”

“Celebrate” was Morris’ code word for…well…you know.

Not that he could’ve done anything about it, even if the husband did find out.  Morris walked with a peg, his left leg severed below the knee in a carriage accident, lost while running from an angry husband.

That wooden leg actually helped him one time, as the French Revolution spiraled downward toward the homicidal madness  known as the “Reign of Terror“. While riding in a carriage, a sign of the aristocracy, a horde of sans coulotte attempted to seize the vehicle.  It may have cost Morris, his head.  Gouverneur Morris leaned out the window and shook the leg at them, momentarily shocking the mob into stunned silence. Whether the mob thought him a war veteran or just plain crazy is unknown, but the driver had just enough time, to get away.

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18th century painting “A Rake’s Progress”, by English artist William Hogarth

Morris tried to raise enough to bribe the guards, to release King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.  When that didn’t work out he bought the Queen’s furniture, and brought it home as a keepsake.

Morris finally “settled down” at age 57, but even that was a scandal.  That Anne Gary (“Nancy”) Randolph was twenty-two years younger than he was not so unusual, but marrying his housekeeper, was.  Worse still, the blushing bride had become pregnant by her own brother-in-law at age seventeen, and was tried for killing the baby.  On a plantation named “Bizarre’, no less.

Anne was acquitted of the charge of infanticide, but the scandal followed her, all her days.  Morris announced his marriage to her at his Christmas party.  In his diary, Gouverneur writes “I marry this day Anne Gary Randolph. No small surprise to my guests.”

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Whalebone

Toward the end of his life, Gouverneur Morris experienced problems with his urinary tract, probably the result of prostate cancer.  Believing there to be some blockage in his pipes, Morris tried the “Do-it-Yourself” approach to fixing the problem, with a piece of whalebone.

Unsurprisingly, the method caused himself considerable damage and massive infection.  The man who brought the Erie Canal to upstate New York died on November 6, 1813.  Six days later, the Columbian Centinal newspaper of Boston reported his death following “a short but distressing illness.”

I should say so.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

 

 

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January 29, 1820  An Ass for a Lion

“One of the strongest natural proofs of the folly of hereditary right in kings, is, that nature disapproves it, otherwise she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule by giving mankind an ass for a lion”.  – Thomas Paine, Common Sense

The Declaration of Independence, the birth certificate of the nation, begins with this preamble: “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another...”.

The next paragraph leads with the phrase most commonly cited:

“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”. 

The paragraph ends with a personal indictment of one man, followed by a 27-item Bill of Particulars against him.  “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“.

The word “He” appears 19 times in the document.  “Tyrant” is used twice and “ruler”, only once:  “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”.

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King George III of England, by Johann Zoffany

The overall tenor of the document is a personal indictment of one man, George III, King of England.  Thomas Paine wrote of the King in “Common Sense”, the pamphlet which inspired a people to rise up in the summer of 1776:  “One of the strongest natural proofs of the folly of hereditary right in kings, is, that nature disapproves it, otherwise she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule by giving mankind an ass for a lion”.

George III became something of a lighting rod for colonial discontent, held personally responsible for policies brought forth by the British legislative body. The Stamp Act of 1765, the Townshend duties on tea, paper and other products in 1767;  these came from Parliament, as did the “Coercive Acts” of 1774, referred to by the Patriots of Massachusetts and others as “The Intolerable Acts”.

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The “Intolerable Acts” were a series of bills passed by Parliament, to punish American colonists for The Boston Tea Party.

These policies were a result of the financial burdens of garrisoning and administering the huge territories of the American colonies, the never-ending wars with France and Spain, and the loans given to the East India Company, then responsible for administering India.

The third King of the House of Hanover was himself a creature of Parliament, his lineage having been invited to rule over Great Britain in 1714, after the fall of the House of Stuart.  What Parliament gives, Parliament may take away.

George III is the longest reigning of any English King, ruling from 1760 until his death on January 29, 1820.  He is exceeded in office only by his Granddaughter Victoria, the last monarch of the House of the Hanoverian Dynasty and Elizabeth II, reigning Queen of the United Kingdom and the other Commonwealth realms.

Medical historians have long believed that George III suffered from a genetic blood disorder called Porphyria, a term from the Greek meaning “purple pigment”.  This refers to a blue discoloration in the urine of those suffering from the condition, along with symptoms primarily involving the central nervous system, and accompanied by severe abdominal pain, vomiting and mental disturbances.

king-george-iii_1_The illness seems to have afflicted George III alone however, casting doubt on an hereditary condition.  George III’s medical records cast further doubt on the porphyria diagnosis, showing that he was prescribed medicine based on gentian, a plant with deep blue flowers which may turn the urine blue. He seems to have been afflicted with some kind of mental illness, suffering bouts which occurred with increasing severity and for increasing periods of time.  At times he would talk until he foamed at the mouth or go into convulsions where pages had to sit on him to keep the King from injuring himself.

An ongoing research project at St George’s, University of London, has looked at thousands of King George III’s handwritten letters, and concluded that the King suffered from mental illness.  His writing was erratic at times coinciding with his “spells”, with run-on sentences of 400 words or more and as many as 8 verbs with no punctuation.  These are features seen today in the writing and speech of patients as they experience the manic phase of bipolar disorder.  This manic phase stands at one end of a spectrum of mood disorders, with an overwhelming sadness or depression at the other.  Research is ongoing, but these types of mood swings are consistent with contemporary witnesses to George’s behavior, as well as the written record.

All but blind from cataracts and suffering a painful rheumatic disorder, George’s final descent was triggered by the death of his youngest and favorite daughter Princess Amelia, at age 27.  In November 1810, the Princess’s nurse reported “scenes of distress and crying every day …  melancholy beyond description.”

George himself accepted the Regent Act of 1811, appointing his eldest son the Prince of Wales and future King George IV, Prince Regent.  Britannica.com describes the last ten years as a “living death”, a period of violent insanity interspersed with “intervals of senile lucidity”.

The King neither knew nor would he have understood when he was appointed King of Hanover in 1814, nor when his wife died in 1818. On Christmas 1819, George spoke for fifty-eight hours straight, all of it, gibberish.

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Engraving of George III in later life, by Henry Meyer

Today, George III is remembered for two things:  losing the American colonies, and going mad.

There is an historic lesson in this story.  If the country ruled by a King (or Queen) wins the lottery and gets a good and fair monarch, then that country may experience a period of peace and prosperity.  If that nation draws the cosmic short straw and gets a bad one, the results can be catastrophic.  In the end, it’s the most powerful argument I can think of for a governmental system of specified authority, diffuse power, and checks & balances.

January 24, 1776 Seven Weeks in Winter

It must have been a sight when that noble train of artillery entered Cambridge on this day in 1776. By March, Henry Knox’ cannon would be manhandled to the top of Dorchester Heights, resulting in the British evacuation of Boston and a peculiar Massachusetts institution which exists to this day, known as “Evacuation Day”:  March 17.

The American Revolution began with the Shot Heard Round the World” on the morning of April 19, 1775. Within days of the Battles at Lexington and Concord and subsequent British withdrawal to Boston, over 20,000 men poured into Cambridge from all over New England. Abandoned Tory homes and the empty Christ Church became temporary barracks and field hospitals.  Even Harvard College shut down, its buildings becoming quarters for some 1,600 Patriots.

The Continental Congress appointed George Washington General of this “Army” on June 15, two days before the British assault on Farmer Breed’s hill. The action would take its name from that of a neighboring farmer, and went into history as the Battle of Bunker Hill.

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Shortly after arriving in July, General Washington discovered that his army had enough gunpowder for nine rounds per man, and then they’d be done.

At the time, Boston was a virtual island, connected to the mainland by a narrow strip of land.  British forces were effectively penned up in Boston, by a force too weak to do anything about it.

The stalemate dragged on for months, when a 25-year-old bookseller came to General Washington with a plan. His name was Henry Knox. His plan was a 300-mile, round trip slog into a New England winter, to retrieve the guns of Forts Ticonderoga, and Crown Point.

fort ticonderoga artillery (fort ti photo)

Washington’s advisers derided the idea as hopeless, but the General approved. Henry Knox set out with a column of men on December 1.

Located on the New York banks of Lake Champlain, Fort Ticonderoga was captured by a small force led by Ethan Allen and Colonel Benedict Arnold, in May of that year. In it were brass and iron cannon, howitzers, coehorns and mortars, 30 pieces in all and another 29, from Fort Crown Point.  Arriving on December 5, Knox and his men set about disassembling the artillery, making it ready for transport. A flotilla of flat bottom boats was scavenged from all over the countryside, the guns loaded and rowed the length of Lake George, arriving barely before the water began to freeze over.

colonel-knox-bringing-the-cannons-from-fort-ticonderoga (2)Local farmers were enlisted to help and by December 17, Knox was able to report to General Washington “I have had made forty two exceedingly strong sleds & have provided eighty yoke of oxen to drag them as far as Springfield where I shall get fresh cattle to carry them to camp. . . . I hope in 16 or 17 days to be able to present your Excellency a noble train of artillery.”

Bare ground prevented the sleds from moving until Christmas morning, when a heavy snow fell and the column set out for Albany. Two attempts to cross the Hudson River on January 5 each resulted in cannon being lost to the river, but finally Knox was able to write “Went on the ice about 8 o’clock in the morning & proceeded so carefully that before night we got over 23 sleds & were so lucky as to get the Cannon out of the River, owing to the assistance the good people of the City of Albany gave.”

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Continuing east, Knox and his men crossed into Massachusetts, over the Berkshires, and on to Springfield. With 80 fresh yoke of oxen, the 5,400lb sleds moved along much of what are modern-day Routes 9 and 20, passing through Brookfield, Spencer, Leicester, Worcester, Shrewsbury, Northborough, Marlborough, Southborough, Framingham, Wayland, Weston, Waltham, and Watertown.

It must have been a sight when that noble train of artillery entered Cambridge on this day in 1776. By March, Henry Knox’ cannon would be manhandled to the top of Dorchester Heights, resulting in the British evacuation of Boston and a peculiar Massachusetts institution which exists to this day:  “Evacuation Day”, March 17.

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It is doubtful whether Washington possessed either powder or shot in quantities sufficient for a sustained campaign, but British forces occupying Boston didn’t know that. The mere presence of those guns moved British General Howe to weigh anchor and sail for Nova Scotia, but that must be a story for another day.

Afterward

During WW1, Winthrop Massachusetts artist and bronze foundry operator Henry L. Norton served with the Canadian army “over there” where he was wounded, seven times. In 1926, 150 years after Knox’s march through New York and Massachusetts, Norton and Albany sculptor Henry James Albright designed commemorative plaques to be installed on 56 stone monuments, marking the path of that noble train of artillery. The project was completed in 1927.

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Marker locations were updated in 1975 to reflect new research, concerning Knox’s route between Kinderhook New York and Alford, Massachusetts,

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Henry Knox Trail marker. Tip of the hat to Aaron Altice, for this image

A new marker was added in 2009, adjacent to a house owned by General John Thomas at the Roxbury Heritage State Park, in Boston. It was he who guided the weapons from Cambridge to their final placement on Dorchester Heights.

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If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

 

January 15, 1919 Slower than Cold Molasses, in January

Molasses, waist deep, covered the street and swirled and bubbled about the wreckage … Here and there struggled a form—whether it was animal or human being was impossible to tell. Only an upheaval, a thrashing about in the sticky mass, showed where any life was … Horses died like so many flies on sticky fly-paper. The more they struggled, the deeper in the mess they were ensnared. Human beings—men and women—suffered likewise

On May 6, 1954, Roger Bannister became the first human to run a sub-four minute mile, with an official time of 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds.

Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt is the fastest man who ever lived. At the 2009 World Track and Field Championships, Bolt ran 100 meters at an average 23.35 mph from a standing start, and the 20 meters between the 60 & 80 markers, at an average 27.79 mph.

It would come as a rude shock to both of those guys, that they are literally slower than cold molasses.  In January.

File photo of Bolt of Jamaica competing in the men's 100 metres semi-final heat event during the IAAF World Athletics Championships at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow
Usain Bolt

In 1919, the Purity Distilling Company operated a large molasses storage tank at 529 Commercial Street, in the North End of Boston. Fifty feet tall and ninety feet wide, the tank held 2.32 million gallons, about 14,000 tons of the sweet stuff, awaiting transfer to the Purity industrial alcohol distillation plant, in Cambridge.

It had been cold earlier in the month, but on January 15, it was a balmy 46°, up from the bitter low of 2° of the day before.

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If you were there at about 12:30, the first sound you might have heard was a rumble, like the sound of a distant train. The next sound was like that of a machine gun, as rivets popped and the two sides of the metal tower split apart.

The collapse hurled a wall of molasses 40′ high down the street at 35 miles per hour, smashing the elevated train tracks on Atlantic Ave and hurling entire buildings from their foundations. Horses, wagons, and dogs were caught up with broken buildings and scores of people as the brown deluge sped across the North End. Twenty municipal workers were eating lunch in a nearby city building when they were swept away, parts of the building thrown fifty yards. Part of the tank wall fell on a nearby fire house, crushing the building and burying three firemen alive.

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The power of the deluge may be seen in the elevated rail, twisted and deformed as by the temper tantrum, of some titanic child.

In the 17th century, Sir Isaac Newton described the physical properties of fluids. Water, a “Newtonian” fluid, retains a constant viscosity (flow) between 32° and 212°, Fahrenheit. We all know what it is to swim in water, but a “non-Newtonian” fluid such as molasses, acts very differently. Non Newtonian fluids change viscosity and “shear”, in response to pressure. You do not propel yourself through non-Newtonian fluid, the stuff will swallow you, whole. Not even Michael Phelps is swimming out of all that gunk.

The Boston Post reported “Molasses, waist deep, covered the street and swirled and bubbled about the wreckage … Here and there struggled a form—whether it was animal or human being was impossible to tell. Only an upheaval, a thrashing about in the sticky mass, showed where any life was … Horses died like so many flies on sticky fly-paper. The more they struggled, the deeper in the mess they were ensnared. Human beings—men and women—suffered likewise”.

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“Firefighters tried to wash the molasses away with freshwater, but would later find that briny seawater was the only way to “cut” the hardened substance”. H/T Historycollection.com

In 1983, a Smithsonian Magazine article described the experience of one child: “Anthony di Stasio, walking homeward with his sisters from the Michelangelo School, was picked up by the wave and carried, tumbling on its crest, almost as though he were surfing. Then he grounded and the molasses rolled him like a pebble as the wave diminished. He heard his mother call his name and couldn’t answer, his throat was so clogged with the smothering goo. He passed out, then opened his eyes to find three of his four sisters staring at him”.

All told, the molasses flood of 1919 killed 21 people, and injured another 150. 116 cadets from the Massachusetts Nautical School, now Mass Maritime Academy, were the first rescuers on-scene. They were soon followed by Boston Police, Red Cross, Army and Navy personnel. Some Red Cross nurses literally dove into the mess to rescue victims, while doctors and surgeons set up a makeshift hospital and worked around the clock.

It was four days before the search was called off for additional victims. The total cleanup was estimated at 87,000 man-hours.

The men playing cards at the firehouse looked out the windows and saw a dark wall that didn’t belong there. Whatever it was, the wall was coming right at them.

The rupture resulted from a combination of factors. Construction was so poor, locals knew they could come down and collect household molasses from drippings down the outside of the thing, which was leaking so badly it was painted brown to hide the leaks.

This was only the 6th or 7th time the tank had been filled to capacity, and rising temperatures almost surely helped to build up gas pressure inside the structure.

molasses part of tank

With temperatures being so cold, the rapid spread of all that molasses made no sense. The proverbial “cold molasses” had exploded it seemed, in January.  Newspapers speculated that there must be something more. A bomb, perhaps.

Newspapers would more profitably have resorted to their physics books. In fluid dynamics, a “gravity current” describes the horizontal flow in a gravitational field, of a dense fluid into a fluid of lesser density. Think about the way cold air rushes through an open doorway into a warm room, even with no wind behind it.

molasses flood, headline

Today, the site of the Great Molasses Flood is occupied by a recreational complex called Langone Park, featuring a Little League ball field, a playground, and boccie courts. The Boston Duck Tours DUKW’s regularly visit the place with their amphibious vehicles, especially the dark brown one. The one with the name “Molly Molasses”, painted on its side.

molly molasses

Feature image, top of page:  H/T Boston Globe.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

December 29, 1778 The Siege of Savannah

For the Americans and their allies, the frontal assault of October 9 was one of the bloodiest engagements, of the Revolution.  It could have been worse.  As battered American and French soldiers fell back, 500 free men of color known as the Chasseurs Volontaires de Saint-Domingue stepped up, to cover their retreat.

Many of these Haitian soldiers went on to win their own war of independence, and credited their military experience, to Savannah.

As 1778 drew to a close, British military planners could look back on five years of trying to suppress rebellion in the American colonies, with little to show for it.   In March of that year, the British defeat at Saratoga had brought France into the war, on the side of the Rebels.

Two years of open warfare had centered mostly on the north.   Now, a “southern strategy” was devised to conquer rebellious colonies in the south, while isolating those to the north. Key to the Southern Strategy was Georgia and the colonial capital at Savannah, the southernmost commercial port of the thirteen Colonies.

General sir Henry Clinton dispatched a force of some 3,100 from New York under Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Campbell, along with an unknown quantity of artillery. Campbell arrived outside Tybee Island on December 23.

Georgia was defended by two separate forces at this time, units of the Continental Army under the command of General Robert Howe, and state militia under the command of Governor John Houstoun.  The two men had a history of squabbling for control and most of their troops, had yet to be tried.

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Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Campbell, British commander at the capture of Savannah in December 1778

The 850 under General Howe never really had a chance, against the battle hardened Regulars, Hessian auxiliaries and Loyalist militia, coming ashore on December 29.  Defeat turned to rout when Howe’s forces threw down their weapons and ran.  Campbell reported that “It was scarcely possible to come up with them, their retreat was rapid beyond conception.

Patriot forces suffered 83 killed, 11 wounded and 453 captured. Campbell suffered 7 killed and 17 wounded.

Howe was court-marshaled for the disaster, while Campbell bragged about being “the first British officer to [rend] a star and stripe from the flag of Congress

Brigadier General Augustine Prevost arrived from St. Augustine Florida two weeks later, with a mixed force of Regulars and Creek and Cherokee allies.   Campbell and a force of 1,000 would take the provisional capital at Augusta that February but soon retreated to Savannah, citing insufficient support among Loyalist and Native American populations.

American hopes soon fell back on their new-found alliance with France. During the following summer, French Admiral Count Charles-Hector Theodat d’Estaing captured St. Vincent and Grenada in the British West Indies, clearing the way to the Georgia coast. The powerful 47-ship French fleet arrived with 4,000 troops on September 1, surprising and capturing several British ships outside the mouth of the Savannah River.

french-shipsD’Estaing sent an ultimatum to British Commander Augustine Prevost on September 16, 1779. He was to surrender the city “To the arms of his Majesty the King of France”, or he would be personally answerable for what was about to happen. It could not have pleased General Benjamin Lincoln or his Patriot allies when d’Estaing added “I have not been able to refuse the army of the United States uniting itself with that of the King. The junction will probably be effected this day. If I have not an answer therefore immediately, you must confer with General Lincoln and me”.

“Bullet Head Prevost”, so called because of a circular scar on his temple, stalled for 24 hours, using the time in furiously building up his defenses and calling up 800 reinforcements from South Carolina.

Lincoln joined d’Estaing on September 23 with an army of 3,000 militia and Continental soldiers, laying siege to Savannah and the 2,500 British and Loyalist troops in occupation.

On October 1, a British relief column under one Captain French was coming to the city’s aid, camped on the banks of the Ogeechee River. Georgia Continental Colonel John White had two officers, a sergeant and three privates with him, when he tricked French into surrendering. These guys ran through the woods lighting so many fires that the British thought the entire continental Army was bivouacked around them. Captain French was unavailable for comment but, it must be a special feeling, knowing that you just surrendered 111 guys to six, without firing a shot.

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View of the siege works against the town at the Siege of Savannah September and October 1779 in the American Revolutionary War: contemporary picture by a French officer

Lack of horses and artillery carriages delayed the allies’ moving their cannon ashore, so French warships bombarded the city from the sea. At one point shortly after Midnight on October 3, with rum rations flowing far too freely, fire from French gunners became more dangerous to themselves than to the city itself.

For the Americans and their allies, the frontal assault of October 9 was one of the bloodiest engagements, of the Revolution.  It could have been worse.  As battered American and French soldiers fell back, 500 free men of color known as the Chasseurs Volontaires de Saint-Domingue stepped up, to cover their retreat.

Many of these Haitian soldiers went on to win their own war of independence, and credited their military experience, to Savannah.

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Franklin Square Monument remembers the contributions of the Haitian militia, in the Siege of Savannah

 The siege of Savannah inflicted untold misery among the population, but Patriot forces and their French allies, never did break the city’s defenses. The siege broke a short time later, amidst recriminations on both sides.   D’Estaing returned to France, where he lost his head to the guillotine in 1794.

Savannah would remain in British hands until the end of the war, finally evacuated on July 11, 1782. A coquina marker in a small Savannah park; that soft, seashell limestone common throughout the Caribbean basin to Florida and beyond, bears a small brass plaque, darkened with the patina of age.

COMMEMORATIVE OF THE BRITISH EVACUATION OF SAVANNAH 1782
PRESENTED TO THE CITY OF SAVANNAH
BY THE
LACHLAN McINTOSH CHAPTER
DAUGHTERS OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION
1904

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Attack of 2nd South Carolina Continentals on the Spring Hill Redoubt at the Siege of Savannah on 9th October 1779 in the American Revolutionary War: picture by A.I. Keller

December 26, 1776 Hell Ships of the Revolution

British and American forces and their allies fought no less than seventy-one major engagements from the April 19, 1775 battles of Lexington and Concord, to the 1783 Battle of Arkansas Post.  The prison ships of the British killed more Americans than every single one of them, combined.

Since the first Geneva Convention of 1864, nations have attempted to codify a system of international law, concerning acceptable limits on the conduct of war.  These laws address a range of considerations including declarations of war, acceptance of surrender and proper treatment of prisoners.

Such discussions are nothing new, the earliest examples dating to the ancient Sanskrit epic Mahābhārata, and to the old testament (Torah) Book of Deuteronomy. The first Caliph, Abu Bakr, laid down ten rules of warfare for his Muslim army, in the 7th century.

In the New World British colony in North America, one of twenty-seven grievances enumerated in the Declaration of Independence was that King George IIIhas 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“.

unknown-8-1489678956-1972The American Revolution was on its last legs in December 1776. The year had started out well for the Patriot cause but turned into a string of disasters, beginning in August. Food, ammunition and equipment were in short supply by December.  Men were deserting as the string of defeats brought morale to a new low.   Most of those who remained, ended enlistments at the end of the year.

General George Washington and a force of 5,000 performed the famous crossing of the Delaware River in the howling blizzard of Christmas day, 1776. The assault on the Hessian garrison at Trenton, was do or die. The cause of Independence needed decisive victory, or it was over. The pass word on that frigid night was “Victory”.  There was only one acceptable response: “Or Death”.

The tactical surprise was complete in the early morning hours of December 26.  Hessian losses were 22 killed, 92 wounded and 918 captured.  Only 400 escaped. The Americans suffered two who had frozen to death in the march on Trenton, and five wounded. It was the colonist’s first major victory of the Revolution.

What to do with all those prisoners was a new problem for Washington, who ordered his troops to treat them with humanity.  “Let them have no reason to complain of our copying the brutal example of the British army in their treatment of our unfortunate brethren who have fallen into their hands.”

Washington’s position on the treatment of prisoners was clear and consistent. On September 14 of the previous year, the General wrote to Colonel Benedict Arnold then in camp in Cambridge Massachusetts: “Should any American soldier be so base and infamous as to injure any [prisoner]…I do most earnestly enjoin you to bring him to such severe and exemplary punishment as the enormity of the crime may require.”

No such consideration was given American prisoners of his Majesty’s government.  King George III personally declared American revolutionaries to be traitors in 1775, denying them prisoner of war status.  Land based detention facilities in British-occupied cities such as New York, Philadelphia and Charleston quickly filled up when the hulks of spent vessels were brought into service as prison ships, little more than waterlogged coffins.

1024px-HMS_Jersey_Prison_Ship_1782_(cropped)
Prison Ship HMS Jersey

Conditions on board these prison ships, were gruesome.  The stifling hold of  HMS Jersey alone held no fewer than 1,000 men in Wallabout Bay, modern-day site of the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Authorities were loath to execute detainees for “treason” for fear of inciting sympathy.  Prisoners were left instead to wallow in their own filth, starved and tormented by most every disease and parasite, known to modern medicine.   The Connecticut Gazette recounted the experience of one Robert Sheffield in July 1778, one of precious few to escape:

The heat was so intense that [the 300-plus prisoners] were all naked, which also served the well to get rid of vermin, but the sick were eaten up alive. Their sickly countenances, and ghastly looks were truly horrible; some swearing and blaspheming; others crying, praying, and wringing their hands; and stalking about like ghosts; others delirious, raving and storming, all panting for breath; some dead, and corrupting. The air was so foul that at times a lamp could not be kept burning, by reason of which the bodies were not missed until they had been dead ten days. One person alone was admitted on deck at a time, after sunset, which occasioned much filth to run into the hold, and mingle with the bilge water …

Bodies of the dead were tossed overboard, ten or fifteen every day from Jersey, alone.  Thousands of dead fouled the brackish waters of Wallabout Bay, from which water was drawn to boil “soup” for survivors, more like a toxic sludge, sometimes augmented with moldy bread or rancid meat.

Even after Cornwallis’ surrender in 1781, prisoners languished in the holds of Jersey and other Hell ships until the Treaty of Paris formally ended the war, in 1783.

A host of place names enter the popular imagination, when we think of the American Revolution.  Bunker Hill.  Trenton.  SaratogaYorktown.  British and American forces and their allies fought no fewer than seventy-one major engagements from the April 19, 1775 battles of Lexington and Concord, to the 1783 Battle of Arkansas Post.  The prison ships of the British killed more Americans than every one of them, combined.

Thousands of remains washed up on the shores of Brooklyn.  Bones were still being found in 1801, during construction of the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Prison-Ship-Martyrs-Memorial-Fort-Greene-Park-Brooklyn
Prison Ship Martyrs Memorial Fort Greene Park Brooklyn

Locals collected as many as they could for burial in a local tomb.  The bones were eventually moved to a crypt in Fort Greene Park, a half-mile south of Wallabout Bay.  Today, a 149-foot martyrs memorial topped with an eight-ton bronze brazier marks the location of their Fort Greene crypt.

In eight years, an estimated eleven to twelve thousand men perished of the filth, abuse, neglect and disease of these Hell Ships.  Untold thousands more passed through their stinking holds, and lived to tell the tale.

That such men ever lived, may be counted among the blessings of Liberty.

Brooklyn Parks Commissioner Martin “Marty” Maher is quoted in Smithsonian.com“These were ordinary citizens, fighting for a country that had barely been born. Every man was offered freedom if he would swear to stop fighting. But there’s no record that anyone took up the offer. No prisoner renounced the revolution to gain his freedom. Not one.”

fort-greene-park-brooklyn

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November 16, 1776 The First Salute

242 years ago today, three thousand American Patriots fought a desperate and losing battle against 8,000 British forces and their Hessian allies for Washington Heights, in New York.  1776 miles away at that very moment, little Sint Eustatius had just become the first nation in history, to recognize American independence.

Sint Eustatius, known to locals as “Statia”, is a Caribbean island of 8.1 sq. miles in the northeastern Caribbean, located between St. Kitts and Puerto Rico.

Throughout the 18th century, Sint Eustatius had close ties with North America, and became wealthy from the trade in a variety of goods.  Sugar, molasses, gin, rum and cotton were only a few of the goods shipped from, or through, Sint Eustatius. Colonial ports from Maine to Virginia shipped products to the island in return, including barrel staves, beans, flour, cod, horses, lumber and tobacco.

At its height, the island was handling over 3,000 vessels per year, making St. Eustatius the “Golden Rock” of the Caribbean.

Andrew Doria
Andrew Doria

As a Dutch Colony, Sint Eustatius was required to remain neutral during the American Revolution. The government in Holland warned Governor Johannes de Graaff to stay away from the American “rebels” fighting for independence, but de Graaff didn’t see it that way.  The trade in powder, ammunition and arms continued throughout the Revolutionary period, with covert support smuggled in from Spain, France and dissident interests in Holland.

For a time, little Sint Eustatius was the only link between Europe, and the American colonies.

On November 16, 1776, the Brig Andrew Doria sailed into Sint Eustatius’ principle anchorage in Oranje Bay, flying the Continental Colors, the first national flag of the fledgling United States.  The brig, under command of Captain Isaiah Robinson, was there to obtain munitions and military supplies. Andrew Doria also carried a precious cargo, a copy of the Declaration of Independence.

This was the Americans’ second attempt to send the Declaration to their Dutch associates, the first having been captured on the way to Holland.  Wrapped in papers containing some obscure espionage code, British investigators labored in vain to unlock this strange new cipher. They could have spared themselves the effort.  That first copy of the declaration was sheathed in notes written in Yiddish, personal greetings to some of the Jewish merchants of Holland.

Fort Oranje on Statia
Fort Oranje, Sint Eustatius

It was traditional in those days, that vessels approaching a foreign harbor fire a gun salute upon entering. Captain Robinson fired a 13-gun volley on entering the bay, one for each of the thirteen American colonies.

Tradition dictated that a salute be fired in return, typically two guns fewer than that discharged by the incoming vessel, but such an act carried meaning.  Such a return salute was an act of overt recognition, that a sovereign state had entered the harbor. Such a salute would amount to formal recognition of the thirteen American colonies, as free and independent states.

St Eustatius 1st Salute
First Salute

The commander at Fort Oranje, overlooking the anchorage, didn’t know how to respond. Governor de Graaff ordered an 11-gun return salute fired from the guns of Fort Oranje.

At the time, none could have known:  242 years ago today, three thousand American Patriots fought a desperate and losing battle against 8,000 British forces and their Hessian allies for Washington Heights, in New York.  1776 miles away at that very moment, little Sint Eustatius had just become the first nation in history, to recognize American independence.

Playing the role of the young tattle-tale to an older sibling, nearby Saint Kitts immediately dispatched a vessel to England, to inform the British government of the event. The British were furious, of course. The trade between St. Eustatius and the American Colonies became the principal cause of the fourth Anglo-Dutch war, begun on December 12, 1780.

Admiral George Bridges Rodney forced the surrender of Sint Eustatius the following February, complaining that “This rock, of only six miles in length and three in breadth, has done England more harm than all the arms of her most potent enemies, and alone supported the infamous rebellion. When I leave the island of St. Eustatius, it will be as barren a rock as the day it erupted from the sea. Instead of one of the greatest emporiums on earth, it will be a mere desert and known only by report.”

Sint_Eustatius_wapenAdmiral Rodney pretty much had his way. The census of 1790 shows 8,124 on the Dutch island nation. In 1950, the population stood at only 790. It would take 150 years from Rodney’s departure, before tourism even began to restore the economic well-being of the tiny island.

Today, Sint Eustatius celebrates the 16th of November as “Statia America Day”, in recognition of that first salute.

An official coat of arms was designed by Sint Eustatius’ Director of Monuments Walter Hellebrand, and adopted on this day in 2004. On the left is a Golden Rock, in memory of the trade that made the island rich. On the right is Fort Oranje, Sint Eustatius’ most important landmark. The angel fish of this pristine diving destination is at the bottom, symbolizing the island’s future. Below is the Latin motto, “SUPERBA ET CONFIDENS”.  Proud and Confident.

Happy Statia America Day!

Feature image, top of page: The silky mosses, orchids and sweet smelling bromeliads of a pocket-sized tropical rain forest occupies the crater of Sint Eustatius’ dormant volcano, known as “The Quill”.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.