June 15, 1904  P.S. General Slocum

In Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan, there is a 9′ stele sculpted from pink Tennessee Marble.  The relief sculpture shows two children, beside the words “They were Earth’s purest children, young and fair.” 

Kleindeutschland, or “Little Germany”, occupied some 400 blocks on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, in what is now  the East Village.  “Dutchtown”, as contemporary non-Germans called it, was home to New York’s German immigrant community since the 1840s, when they first began to arrive in significant numbers. By 1855, New York had the largest ethnically German community in the world, save for Berlin and Vienna.

General Slocum tokenIt was 9:30 on a beautiful late spring morning when the sidewheel passenger steamboat General Slocum, left the dock and steamed into New York’s East River.

She was on a charter this day, carrying German American families on an outing from St. Mark’s Lutheran Church. Over a thousand tickets were sold for that day’s harbor cruise and picnic, not counting the 300+ children on board who were sailing for free. There were 1,342 people on board, mostly women and children, including band, crew and catering staff.

The fire probably started when someone tossed a cigarette or match in the forward section lamp room. Fueled by lamp oil and oily rags on the floor, the flames spread quickly, being noticed for the first time at around 10:00am.  A 12-year old boy had reported the fire earlier, but the Captain did not believe him.

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The ships’ operators had been woefully lax in maintaining safety equipment.  Now it began to show. Fire hoses stored in the sun for years were uncoiled, only to break into rotten bits in the hands of the crew. Life preservers manufactured in 1891 had hung unprotected in the sun for 13 years, their canvas covers splitting apart pouring useless cork powder onto the floor.  Survivors reported inaccessible life boats, wired and painted into place.Slocum 4

Crew members reported to Captain William van Schaick that the blaze “could not be conquered”  It was “like trying to put out hell itself.” The captain ran full steam into the wind trying to make it to the 134th Street Pier, but a tug boat waved them off, fearing the flames would spread to nearby buildings. The wind and speed of the ship itself whipped the flames into an inferno as Captain van Schaick changed course for North Brother Island, just off the Bronx’ shore.

Many jumped overboard to escape the inferno, but the heavy women’s clothing of the era quickly pulled them under.  Desperate mothers put useless life jackets on children and threw them overboard, only to watch in horror as they sank. One man, fully engulfed in flames, jumped screaming over the side, only to be swallowed whole by the massive paddle wheel. One woman gave birth in the confusion, and then jumped overboard with her newborn to escape the flames. They both drowned.

A few small boats were successful in pulling alongside in the Hell’s Gate part of the harbor, but navigation was difficult due to the number of corpses already bobbing in the waves.

Slocum-ablaze

Holding his station despite the inferno, Captain van Schaick permanently lost sight in one eye and his feet were badly burned by the time he ran the Slocum aground at Brother Island.  Patients and staff at the local hospital formed a human chain to pull survivors to shore as they jumped into shallow water.

1,021 passengers and crew either burned to death or drowned.  It was the deadliest peacetime maritime disaster, in American history.  There were only 321 survivors.General Slocum Casualties

The youngest survivor of the disaster was six month old Adella Liebenow. The following year at the age of one, Liebenow unveiled a memorial statue to the disaster which had killed her two sisters and permanently disfigured her mother. The New York Times reported “Ten thousand persons saw through their tears a baby with a doll tucked under her arm unveil the monument to the unidentified dead of the Slocum disaster yesterday afternoon in the Lutheran Cemetery, Middle Village, L.I.”

Both her sisters, were among the unidentified dead.

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Less than one per cent of Little Germany’s population was killed in the disaster, yet these were the women and children of some of the community’s most established families.  There were more than a few suicides.  Mutual recriminations devoured much of the once-clannish community, as the men began to move away.  There was nothing for them, there.   Anti-German sentiment engendered by WW1 finished what the Slocum disaster had begun. Soon, New York’s German-immigrant community, was no more.

In Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan, there is a 9′ stele sculpted from pink Tennessee Marble.  The relief sculpture shows two children, beside the words “They were Earth’s purest children, young and fair.”

Once the youngest survivor of the disaster, Adella (Liebenow) Wotherspoon passed away in 2004, at the age of 100.  The oldest survivor of the deadliest disaster in New York history, until September 11, 2001.

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June 14, 1775  Happy Birthday, United States Army

The Continental Congress established the ‘American Continental Army’ on June 14, 1775, authorizing 10 companies of ‘expert riflemen,’ to serve as light infantry in the siege of Boston.

On May 10, 1775, twelve colonies convened the second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  One colony was absent at the time, Georgia would come later, arriving on July 20 following their own Provincial Congress.

The Revolution had begun in April that year, with the battles of Lexington and Concord.  A primary focus of the Second Continental Congress was to manage the war effort.Regulars

The fledgling United States had no Army at this time, relying instead on ad hoc militia units organized by the colonies themselves. At this time there were approximately 22,000 such troops surrounding British forces occupying Boston, with another 5,000 or so in New York.

ContinentalThe Continental Congress established the ‘American Continental Army’ on June 14, 1775, authorizing 10 companies of ‘expert riflemen,’ to serve as light infantry in the siege of Boston. The next day the Congress unanimously selected George Washington to be General and Commander in Chief of all continental forces.

Most of the Continental Army was disbanded after the Treaty of Paris ended the war in 1783. The 1st and 2nd Regiments remained to become the basis of the Legion of the United States in 1792, under General Anthony Wayne. These two became the foundation of the United States Army, in 1796.

The formation of other branches of the Armed Forces was quick to follow. The first organized merchant marine action had taken place two days earlier on June 12, 1775, when a group of Machias Maine citizens boarded and captured the schooner British warship HMS Margaretta.

The Navy was formed later that year, in October 1775, the Marine Corps in November. 18th century revenue cutter and rescue operations led to the formation of the United States Coast Guard in January 1915.  The Air Force spun off of the Army Air Corps in September 1947.Military Branches

Speaking on Armed Services Day in 1953, President Dwight David Eisenhower said: “It is fitting and proper that we devote one day each year to paying special tribute to those whose constancy and courage constitute one of the bulwarks guarding the freedom of this nation and the peace of the free world.”

On the other days of the year, you might say that you can thank a teacher if you can read this essay.  Today, you can thank a soldier that you can read it in English.  Happy birthday, United States Army.

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June 13, 1777 Marquis de Lafayette

The two men bonded almost immediately, forming a relationship that closely resembled that of father and son. The fatherless young French officer, and the father of his country who went to his grave, childless.

There are a handful of men who were indispensable to the American Revolution, men without whom the war effort would have been doomed to fail.

One, of course is George Washington, who became commander in chief before he had an army.  Before he even had a country. Knowing full well that the penalty for high treason against the British Crown was death, Washington took command of an army with enough powder for an average 9 rounds per man, in a contest against the most powerful military of its time.

Another indispensable man has to be Benjamin Franklin, whose diplomatic skills and unassuming charm all but single-handedly turned France into an indispensable ally.

Marquis_de_Lafayette_2A third would arguably be Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, better known as the Marquis de Lafayette.

Lafayette was all of nineteen when he landed on North Island South Carolina on June 13, 1777.

The French King had forbidden his coming to America, fearing his capture by British agents. Lafayette wanted none of it. His own father, also the Marquis de Lafayette, was killed fighting the British when the boy was only two. The man was determined to take part in this contest, even if he had to defy his King to do so. Lafayette disguised himself on departure, and purchased the entire ship’s cargo, rather than landing in Barbados and thus exposing himself to capture.

Franklin had written to Washington asking him to take on Lafayette, in hopes that it would secure an increase in French aid to the American war effort. The two men bonded almost immediately, forming a relationship that closely resembled that of father and son. The fatherless young French officer, and the father of his country who went to his grave, childless.

Lafeyettes wife Marie_Adrienne_Francoise
Marie Adrienne Francoise, wife of Lafayette

Lafayette wrote home to his wife Marie Adrienne in 1778, from Valley Forge. “In the place he occupies, he is surrounded by flatterers and secret enemies. He finds in me a trustworthy friend in whom he can confide and who will always tell him the truth. Not a day goes by without his talking to me at length or writing long letters to me. And he is willing to consult me on most interesting points.”

Lafayette served without pay, spending the equivalent of $200,000 of his own money for the salaries and uniforms of staff, aides and junior officers. He participated in several Revolutionary War battles, being shot in the leg at Brandywine, going on to serve at Barren Hill, Monmouth Courthouse, Rhode Island, and the final siege at Yorktown. All the while, Lafayette periodically returned to France to work with Franklin in securing thousands of additional troops and several warships to aid in the war effort.

Adrienne gave birth to their first child on one such visit, a boy they named Georges Washington Lafayette.

It was a small force under Lafayette that took a position on Malvern Hill in 1781, hemming in much larger British forces under Lord Cornwallis at the Yorktown peninsula.

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Lafayette’s sabre as general of the Garde nationale. On display at the Musée de l’Armée, Paris.

The trap was sprung that September with the arrival of the main French and American armies under Marshal Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau & General George Washington, and the French fleet’s arrival in the Chesapeake under Lieutenant Général des Armées Navales François-Joseph Paul, comte de Grasse.

Cornwallis surrendered on October 19, 1781, after which Lafayette returned to France.

The Marquis played an important role in his own country’s revolution, becoming a Commander of the French National Guard. When the Bastille was stormed by an angry mob in 1789, Lafayette was handed the key.

Lafayette sent the key to the Bastille to George Washington, as a “token of victory by Liberty over Despotism”. Today that key hangs in the main hallway at Washington’s mansion at Mount Vernon.

There came a time when the French Revolution morphed into the Reign of Terror, and began to eat its young.  The Marquis de Lafayette was captured by Austria in 1792 and imprisoned under verminous conditions, while his wife was taken into custody by the French Republic.

Lafayette_Prison_reunionSecretary of State Thomas Jefferson found a loophole that allowed Lafayette to be paid, with interest, for his services in the late Revolution. An act was rushed through Congress and signed by President Washington, the resulting funds allowing both Lafayettes some of the few privileges permitted them, during their five years’ captivity.

Georges Washington Lafayette was smuggled to America out of France in 1795, while his father was held prisoner.   Adrienne was released after four, and persuaded Emperor Francis to permit her and her two daughters to join her husband in prison. After a brutal year in solitary confinement, Lafeyette’s cell door opened on October 15, 1795.  He must have been astonished to see his wife and daughters walk in. The four would spend his last year in captivity, together.

Adrienne died on Christmas day, 1807.  She had slipped into delirium the night before, her final words spoken to her husband:  “Je suis toute à vous“.  I am all yours.

Lafayette remained staunchly opposed to both the Napoleonic regime and the restoration of the Bourbon dynasty, feeling that both had come to power by undemocratic means.

Lafayette-portrait
1824 portrait by Scheffer, hangs in the U.S. House of Representatives

In 1824, President James Monroe and Congress invited Lafayette to visit the United States, for the nation’s upcoming 50th birthday. Crowds of cheering citizens greeted the French Marquis and his son Georges Washington on their return to Boston, Philadelphia and New York.

Harlow Giles Unger wrote in his 2003 book Lafayette, “It was a mystical experience they would relate to their heirs through generations to come. Lafayette had materialized from a distant age, the last leader and hero at the nation’s defining moment. They knew they and the world would never see his kind again.”

Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier died in Paris on May 20, 1834, and was buried next to his wife at the Picpus Cemetery.  He was seventy-six.  President Andrew Jackson ordered that he be accorded the same funeral honors which President John Adams had bestowed on George Washington himself, in 1799. John Quincy Adams delivered a three-hour eulogy in Congress, saying “The name of Lafayette shall stand enrolled upon the annals of our race high on the list of the pure and disinterested benefactors of mankind.”

Lafayette-grave
Lafayette Burial Place, Picpus Cemetery, Paris

In obedience to his one of his last wishes, several feet of earth were dug up from Bunker Hill, and shipped to France.  The man had always wanted to be buried under American soil.

June 12, 1942 Operation Pastorius

The German submarine U-202 came to the surface in the small hours of June 12 at Amagansett, NY, near Montauk Point. The inflatable that came out of its hatch was rowed to shore at what is today Atlantic Avenue beach, Long Island.

Much has been written about the eight central characters in this story. These individuals have been described in contemporary and subsequent sources alike, as Saboteurs, Nazis and Spies. Certainly to call them such, fed into the political expectations of the day.  Yet their country had chosen them for this mission based on unique qualifications, separate and apart from whatever devotion they felt for the fatherland, or to the Nazi party.  It may be that these guys deserve every evil name that’s been heaped upon them. Or maybe they were just eight guys who got caught up between two nations at war.  It’s an interesting story.  You decide.

The German submarine U-202 came to the surface in the small hours of June 12 at Amagansett, New York, near Montauk Point. The inflatable that came out of its hatch was rowed to shore at what is today Atlantic Avenue beach, Long Island. Four figures stepped onto the beach wearing German military uniforms.  If they’d been captured at that point, they wanted to be treated as enemy combatants, rather than spies.

Their mission was to sabotage American economic targets and damage defense production. Their targets included hydroelectric plants, train bridges, and factories. They had almost $175,000 in cash, some good liquor, and enough explosives to last them through a two year campaign.Pastorius

German plans began to unravel as they buried their uniforms and explosives in the sand.  21-year old Coast Guardsman John Cullen was a “sand pounder”.  Armed only with a flashlight and a flare gun, Cullen had the unglamorous duty of patrolling the beaches, looking for suspicious activity.

It was “so foggy that I couldn’t see my shoes”, Cullen said, when a solitary figure came out of the dunes.  He was George John Davis, he said, a fisherman run ashore.  Something seemed wrong and Cullen’s suspicions were heightened, when another figure came out of the darkness.  He was shouting something in German, when “Davis” spun around, yelling, “You damn fool!  Go back to the others!”

With standing orders to kill anyone who confronted them during the landing, Davis hissed, “Do you have a mother? A father?  Well, I wouldn’t want to have to kill you.”

It was Cullen’s lucky day.  “Davis'” real name was George John Dasch.  He was no Nazi. He’d been a waiter and dishwasher before the war, who’d come to the attention of the German High Command because he’d lived for a time in America.   “Forget about this, take this money, and go have a good time” he said, handing over a wad of bills.   $260 richer, Cullen sprinted two miles to the Coast guard station.

Cullen
Seaman John Cullen, left, received the Legion of Merit from Rear Adm. Stanley V. Parker for his service in WW2

Four days later, U-584 deposited a second team of four at Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, south of Jacksonville. As with the first, this second group had lived and worked in the United States, and were fluent in English.  Two of the eight were US citizens.

George Dasch had a secret.  He had no intention of carrying out his mission.  He summoned Ernst Peter Burger to an upper-level hotel room.  Gesturing toward an open window, Dasch said  “You and I are going to have a talk, and if we disagree, only one of us will walk out that door—the other will fly out this window.”

Burger turned out to be a naturalized citizen, who’d spent 17 months in a concentration camp.  He hated the Nazis as much as Dasch, and the pair decided to defect.Pastorius-Plaque

Dasch tested the waters. Convinced the FBI was infiltrated with Nazi agents, he telephoned the New York field office.  Put on hold with the call transferred several times, Dasch was horrified to have the agent who finally listened to him, quietly hang up the phone.  Had he reached a German mole?  Had the call been traced?

Dasch could not have known, he’d been transferred to the ‘nut desk’.  The FBI thought he was a clown.

Finally, Dasch went to the FBI office in Washington DC, where he was treated like a nut job.  Until he dumped $84,000 on Assistant Director D.M. Ladd’s desk, equivalent to about a million, today.  Dasch was interrogated for hours, and happily gave up everything he knew.  Targets, German war production, he spilled it all, even a handkerchief with the names of local contacts, written in invisible ink.  He couldn’t have been a very good spy, though.  He forgot how to reveal the names.

All eight were in custody within two weeks.

J. Edgar Hoover announced the German plot on June 27, but his version had little resemblance to that of Dasch and Burger.  As with the brief he had given President Roosevelt, Hoover praised the magnificent work of FBI detectives, and the Sherlock Holmes-like powers of deduction which led Assistant Director Ladd to the $84,000.  Dasch and Burger’s role in the investigation was conveniently left out, as was the fact that the money had basically bounced Ladd off the head.Pastorius-8

Neither Dasch nor Burger expected to be thrown in a cell, but agents assured them it was a formality.  Meanwhile, a credulous and adoring media speculated on how Hoover’s FBI had done it all.  Did America have spies inside the Gestapo?  German High Command?  Were they seriously that good?

Attorneys for the defense wanted a civilian trial, but President Roosevelt wrote to Attorney General Francis Biddle: “Surely they are as guilty as it is possible to be and it seems to me that the death penalty is almost obligatory”. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where the decision “Ex parte Quirin” became precedent for the way unlawful combatants are tried, to this day.  All eight would appear before a military tribunal.

It’s unclear whether any of the eight were the menace they were made out to be.  German High Command had selected all eight based on a past connection with the United States, ordering them to attack what they may have regarded as their adopted country.  Several were arrested in gambling establishments or houses of prostitution.  One had resumed a relationship with an old girlfriend, and the pair was planning to marry.  Not exactly the behavior patterns of “Nazi saboteurs”.

The trial was held before a closed-door military tribunal in the Department of Justice building in Washington, the first such trial since the Civil War. All eight defendants were found guilty and sentenced to death.  It was only on reading trial transcripts, that Roosevelt learned the rest of the story.  The President commuted Burger’s sentence to life and Dasch’s to 30 years, based on their cooperation with the prosecution. The other six were executed by electric chair on August 8, in alphabetical order.

Pastorius-Sentinel

After the war, Burger and Dasch’s trial transcripts were released to the public, over the strenuous objections of J. Edgar Hoover.  In 1948, President Harry S. Truman bowed to political pressure, granting them executive clemency and deporting both to the American zone of occupied Germany.  The pair found themselves men without a country, hated as spies in America, and traitors in Germany.

The reader may decide, whether Hoover and Roosevelt operated from base and venal political motives, or whether the pair was playing 4-D chess.  Be that as it may, Hitler rebuked Admiral Canaris, and seems to have bought into Hoover’s version of FBI invincibility.  There would be no further missions of this type, save for one in November 1944, when two spies were landed on the coast of Maine to gather information on the Manhattan project.

George Dasch campaigned for the rest of his life, to be allowed to return to what he described as his adopted country.  Ernst Burger died in Germany in 1975, Dasch in 1992.  The pardon Hoover promised both men a half-century earlier, never materialized

June 11, 1837 Broad Street Riot

Ancient animosity were on display that day, and words were exchanged between the groups.  A fight broke out and it turned into a brawl. Very quickly, the brawl became a full-scale riot.

180 years ago today, fire engine #20, “The Extinguisher” crossed paths with an Irish Catholic funeral procession, returning from a blaze in Roxbury, Massachusetts.

The fire company was entirely comprised of “Yankees”:  protestants of old English stock. Ancient animosity were on display that day, and words were exchanged between the groups.  A fight broke out and it turned into a brawl. Very quickly, the brawl became a full-scale riot.

There were fifteen hundred combatants at the height the melee. Houses were broken into, furniture smashed and thrown into the street. Mattresses were slashed, their contents thrown to the winds. Bricks, stones and anything else that could be picked up and thrown was used as a weapon, or hurled by one side at the other. It’s a wonder that more weren’t killed, there were scores of injured.

The fighting went on for hours, until Mayor Samuel Atkins Eliot called out the military to restore order.

Several participants were tried in the days that followed, and police courts sentenced several to periods of hard labor at the House of Correction.  Police and military forces were stationed at Faneuil Hall, armories and churches around the city to prevent a recurrence, as local homeowners and shopkeepers petitioned the City of Boston for reimbursement of their losses.

There were a number of further confrontations, the latest on the 18th as crowds “hissed and hooted” at fire companies returning from a South Boston blaze. A number of combatants tried to re-ignite the brawl in the days that followed, none of them successfully.

The Baltimore Sun reported on June 12 that “four of the Irishmen were killed; a great number were badly injured and probably mortally”. The article went on to report that “It commenced with a funeral, and closed in sending its victims to a dishonored grave. Hereafter, let Boston hang her head in silence, and avoid the condemning verdict of the world. Let her in future prate no more about her devotion to morality, religion, and law; and last of all, let her not open her mouth, or the jaws of her press, to reproach the city of Baltimore”.

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I know not what sort of inter-city rivalry existed between Baltimore and Boston at that time.  In light of the “Black Lives Matter” riots of a couple years ago and the performance of that city’s Mayor and District Attorney, perhaps the editors of the Baltimore Sun need not have been quite so smug.

A “New England oyster bar & Atlantic Coast cookery” opened in November 2014, in Boston’s financial district, calling itself “Broad Street Riot”. Too bad they closed a year later, I would have liked to try them. There’s never a bad time for a belly full of cold water oysters.

June 10, 1944 Oradour-sur-Glane

The women and children were locked in a village church while the German soldiers looted the town. The men were taken to a nearby barn, where the machine guns had already been set up.

Oradour-sur-Glane-StreetsIt was D+4 in the invasion of Normandy, and the 2nd SS Panzer Division (“Das Reich”) had been ordered to stop the Allied advance. They were passing through the Limousin region in west central France, when SS-Sturmbannführer Adolf Diekmann received word that Waffen-SS officer Helmut Kämpfe was being held by French Resistance forces in the village of Oradour-sur-Vayres.

Diekmann’s battalion sealed off the nearby village of Oradour-sur-Glane, unaware that they had confused it with the other village. Everyone in the town was ordered to assemble in the village square to have their identity papers examined. The entire population of the village was there, plus another 6 unfortunates who were riding their bicycles in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

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The women and children were locked in a village church while German soldiers looted the town. The men were taken to a nearby barn, where machine guns had already been set up.

The Germans aimed for the legs when they opened fire, intending to inflict as much pain as possible. Five escaped in the confusion before the SS lit the barn on fire. 190 men were burned alive.

Nazi soldiers then lit an incendiary device in the church, and gunned down 247 women and 205 children as they tried to get out.

642 inhabitants of Oradour-sur-Glane, age one week to 90 years, were murdered in a few hours, the village razed to the ground. After the war, French President Charles de Gaulle ordered that the village remain as is; a memorial to the cruelty of collective punishment, and the savagery committed by the Waffen-SS in countless places: the French towns of Tulle, Ascq, Maillé, Robert-Espagne, and Clermont-en-Argonne; the Polish villages Michniów, Wanaty and Krasowo-Częstki, Warsaw; the Soviet village of Kortelisy; the Lithuanian village of Pirčiupiai; the Czechoslovakian villages of Ležáky and Lidice; the Greek towns of Kalavryta and Distomo; the Dutch town of Putten; the Yugoslavian towns of Kragujevac and Kraljevo, and the village of Dražgoše, in what is now Slovenia; the Norwegian village of Telavåg; the Italian villages of Sant’Anna di Stazzema and Marzabotto. And on, and on, and on.

French President Jacques Chirac dedicated a memorial museum in 1999, the “Centre de la mémoire d’Oradour”. The village stands today as the Nazis left it, 73 years ago today. It may be the most forlorn place on earth.

The story was featured in the 1974 British television series “The World at War”, narrated by Sir Laurence Olivier. The first and final episodes of the program began with these words: “Down this road, on a summer day in 1944. . . The soldiers came. Nobody lives here now. They stayed only a few hours. When they had gone, the community which had lived for a thousand years. . . was dead. This is Oradour-sur-Glane, in France. The day the soldiers came, the people were gathered together. The men were taken to garages and barns, the women and children were led down this road . . . and they were driven. . . into this church. Here, they heard the firing as their men were shot. Then. . . they were killed too. A few weeks later, many of those who had done the killing were themselves dead, in battle. They never rebuilt Oradour. Its ruins are a memorial. Its martyrdom stands for thousands upon thousands of other martyrdoms in Poland, in Russia, in Burma, in China, in a World at War”.

Oradour-sur-Glane

June 9, 1772 The Gaspée Affair

The customs schooner H.M.S. Gaspée sailed into Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island in early 1772, to aid with customs enforcement and collections. She was chasing the packet boat Hannah through shallow water on the 9th of June, when she ran aground in shallow water, near the town of Warwick at what is now Gaspée Point.

The Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) was in many ways a world war, experienced in the American colonies as the French and Indian War.  The cost to the British crown was staggering, and Parliament wanted their colonies in America to pay for their share of it. The war had been fought for their benefit, after all, had it not?

intolerable-actsSeveral measures were taken in the 1760’s to collect these revenues. In one 12-month period, Parliament passed the Stamp Act, the Quartering Act, and the Declaratory Act, and deputized the Royal Navy’s Sea Officers to help enforce customs laws in colonial ports.

American colonists hated these measures.  They had been left to run their own affairs for decades.  Many of them bristled at the heavy handed measures being taken by revenue and customs agents. Rhode Islanders attacked HMS St. John in 1764.  In 1769 they burned the customs ship H.M.S. Liberty in Newport harbor.  In a few short months, the “Boston Massacre” would unfold only a few miles to the north.

The customs schooner H.M.S. Gaspée sailed into Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island in early 1772, to aid with customs enforcement and collections. She was chasing the packet boat Hannah through shallow water on the 9th of June, when she ran aground in shallow water, near the town of Warwick at what is now Gaspée Point.GaspeePtaerial

A number of local Sons of Liberty met that afternoon at Sabin Tavern, opposite Fenner’s Wharf, from which the daily packet ship sailed to Newport Harbor. There they formed a plan to burn the Gaspée, and spent their evening hours casting bullets in the tavern.

They rowed out to the ship at dawn the next morning. There was a brief scuffle when they boarded, in which Lieutenant William Dudingston was shot and wounded. The vessel was then looted, and burned to the waterline.

Earlier attacks on British shipping had been dealt with lightly, but the Crown was not going to ignore the destruction of one of its military vessels on station. Treason charges were prepared, planning to try the perpetrators in England, but the crown was never able to make the case.  Unsurprisingly, it seems that nobody saw anything.

Lexington ReenactorsA few days later, a visiting minister in Boston, John Allen, used the Gaspée incident in a 2nd Baptist Church sermon. His sermon was printed seven times in four colonial cities, one of the most widely read pamphlets in Colonial British America.

The King’s “Tea Act” would lead to the Boston Tea Party the following year.  The blizzard of regulations that came down in 1774, the “Intolerable Acts”, would pave the way to the Battles of Lexington & Concord and the Battle of Bunker Hill later in 1775.

The fuse to Revolution had been lit.  It was not going to be put out, easily.