Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Washington's Christmas Crossing

Washington Crossing the Delaware
Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze (1816-1868)

On the evening of December 25, 1776, General George Washington marshaled some 2,400 men on the banks of the Delaware River across from New Jersey. It was a very cold and snowy evening and the river was full of ice. Relying heavily upon the efforts of the 14th Continental Regiment (Col. Glover's Regiment) Washington's small army was ferried across the river. After a difficult crossing the troops were then divided into two commands and then marched over poor roads to the outskirts of the town of Trenton. In the early morning hours of December 26th the Americans launched an attack upon the three Regiments of Hessian soldiers that were garrisoned in the small town.

According to legend the Hessian troops were feeling the ill effects of a night of Christmas revelry and were unable to defend themselves. In fact the Hessian soldiers put up a stiff fight but they were taken by surprise by the attack and were overwhelmed by the Continental forces surrounding them. The Hessian commander, Col. Rall, was mortally wounded in the fighting and died shortly afterwards surrounded by his American captors.

The defeat of the Hessian's at Trenton gave the rebel cause a much needed boost. In a year that began with much promise - the British Army's forced evacuation of Boston - the American Army had suffered a series of defeats. After losing major battles at Brooklyn, Harlem Heights and White Plains and a number of other losses, by December 1776 Thomas Paine's famous words, "these are the times that try men's souls", were especially apt. Although a small victory, it was a victory none the less. Washington's army now had the impetus to go forward into the New Year.

Washington's crossing of the Delaware is recreated every year by some very dedicated Revolutionary War Reenactors at Washington Crossing Historic Park in Pennsylvania on December 25. This event is sponsored by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. Here is a story out of Philadelphia about the reenactment and the man portraying Gen. Washington.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Great explosion in Halifax, Nova Scotia

Boston's Official
Christmas Tree

On the morning of December 6, 1917 a French cargo ship loaded with munitions collided in Halifax, Nova Scotia's harbor with another vessel filled with supplies for the war effort (WWI). The resultant explosion killed over 1,900 people and thousands more were wounded. This accidental explosion is still considered one of the greatest man-made non-nuclear explosions ever created.

Relief efforts were marshaled from all over eastern Canada and a special train filled with medical personnel and much needed supplies was sent from Boston to provide further aid. This gesture of goodwill from the people of Boston has never been forgotten in Nova Scotia. For the past 37 years the people of Nova Scotia have been donating a tree to the City of Boston to become the city's official Christmas tree.

These Christmas trees are between 40-50 feet high and are specially chosen from trees grown in Nova Scotia for proper appearance and are donated by private individuals. This years Christmas tree is a 46-foot white spruce which was dedicated in a joint City of Boston/Nova Scotia official lighting ceremony on the Boston Common December 4, 2008.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Boston Tea Party

The Boston Tea Party took place on this date in 1773. Protesting the British tax on tea a well-organized Boston mob took possession of three East India merchant ships docked at Griffin Wharf in Boston Harbor. Disguised as Mohawk Indians the ships were boarded and the cargo of tea was brought up out of the holds of each vessel, un-crated and then dumped into Boston Harbor. The estimated value of the tea, at that time, was over 10,000 pounds.

The Boston Tea Party (a term that only came in use many years afterward) precipitated a major crisis in the relationship between Great Britain and its thirteen North American colonies. Seeking to punish the townspeople of Boston, the busy port was closed and more Regiments of British Regulars were sent to re-establish order. The direct end result of these events was an armed revolt that began some sixteen months later on April 19, 1775.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

First in War, first in Peace...

George Washington died on this date (December 14) in 1799 at his Mt. Vernon, Virginia estate after a brief illness. Of all the men responsible for winning our independence from Great Britain and then creating this nation, George Washington stands head and shoulders above the rest. Without his presence as the commanding General of the Continental Army the army probably would have ceased to exist in 1777. Elected unanimously the first President of the United States he set the example for all others to follow. In this day and age he is not given enough credit as one of our greatest Presidents. (In my mind he tops the list of all American Presidents).

No finer epitaph exists for him, I believe, than the words delivered by fellow soldier and Virginian Henry Lee in his eulogy for George Washington, "First in War, first in Peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen..."

Thursday, November 27, 2008

A Day of Thanksgiving for a New Nation

President George Washington's first Thanksgiving Proclamation to the new nation:

Thanksgiving Proclamation
City of New York, October 3, 1789

WHEREAS it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favour; and Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me "to recommend to the people of the United States a DAY OF PUBLICK THANKSGIVING and PRAYER, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness:

"NOW THEREFORE, I do recommend and assign THURSDAY, the TWENTY-SIXTH DAY of NOVEMBER next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be;

That we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation;

For the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war;

For the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed;

For the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enable to establish Constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted;

For the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge;

And, in general, for all the great and various favours which He has been pleased to confer upon us.

And also, that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions;

To enable us all, whether in publick or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually;

To render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed;

To protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us); and to bless them with good governments, peace, and concord;

To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us; and, generally to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best.

GIVEN under my hand, at the city of New-York, the third day of October, in the year of our Lord, one thousand seven hundred and eighty-nine.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

National Museum of American History Reopens

The Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, often referred to as the "nations attic", reopens in Washington, D.C. tomorrow after a two year long 85 million dollar renovation. Prominently on display is the American flag that flew over Fort McHenry in 1814 during the War of 1812 and was the subject of the poem by Francis Scott Key that later became the "The Star-Spangled Banner", our national anthem. Among the many cultural artifacts on display are Dorothy's ruby slippers from the film the "Wizard of Oz" and Chef Julia Child's kitchen.

A ribbon cutting ceremony will be held at 8:30 a.m. and the first 1,814 visitors will receive special gifts. The museum will stay open until 7:30 p.m. Friday night.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Veterans Day

A U.S. Cemetery in France

Today marks the 90th anniversary of the end of the First World War, formerly known as the Great War and the War to end all Wars. Although the German Army was still on the battlefield, with the entry of the United States in the war by the fall of 1918 it was only a matter of time until Germany was defeated. Peace talks were opened and an Armistice was signed. On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918 the guns on the Western Front of Europe became silent. Four very bloody years of warfare had ended.

It is generally forgotten today but Veterans Day started out as Armistice Day. In 1919 President Woodrow Wilson declared November 11 to be Armistice Day. In 1954 a federal law was passed changing Armistice Day to Veterans Day to honor all of our nations war veterans.

Monday, November 10, 2008

"From the Halls of Montezuma..."

Semper Fidelis

Today marks the 233 anniversary of the birth of the United States Marine Corp. Established on November 10, 1775 the Continental Marines were created during the American Revolution to serve as naval infantry on board the ships of the fledgling Continental Navy. Today the U.S. Marines is still a detachment of the U.S Navy that serves both as a rapid response and as a amphibious assault force. The Marines have fought and served all over the world in minor skirmishes, police actions, as well as all the nations wars.

As the Marine Corp Hymn so proudly states the bulldogs can even be found on patrol guarding the streets of Heaven:

From the halls of Montezuma,
To the shores of Tripoli;
We fight our country's battles
In the air, on land, and sea;
First to fight for right and freedom
And to keep our honor clean;
We are proud to claim the title
Of United States Marine.

Our flag's unfurled to every breeze
From the dawn to setting sun;
We have fought in every clime and place
Where we could take a gun;
In the snow of far-off northern lands
And in sunny tropic scenes;
You will find us always on the job
The United States Marines.

Here's health to you and to our Corps
Which we are proud to serve;
In many a strife we've fought for life
And have never lost our nerve;
If the Army and the Navy
Ever look on Heaven's scenes;
They will find the streets are guarded
By United States Marines.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Harvard College Founded

Massachusetts Hall
Harvard Yard
Cambridge, Mass.

On October 28, 1636 the Great and General Court of the Masachusetts Bay Colony voted to establish a "New College" to train the next generation of scholars. It was decided to locate the new college in New Towne or Newetowne, a village on the banks of the Charles River. In 1638 minister John Harvard of nearby Charlestown died leaving his library of 400 books and a sum of money to the new school. The college was then named Harvard in his honor. Also in 1638 the village was renamed Cambridge after the famous university in England.

Today Harvard College is just one of the schools that make up
Harvard University. Considered one of the most prestigious universities in the world, having started with humble beginnings, it is also the wealthiest. Harvard University is still managed under its original charter by the President and Fellows of Harvard College, making it the oldest corporation in the New World.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers

Battle of Agincourt

On 25 October 1415, St. Crispen's Day, Henry V of England won an overwhelming victory against the French at the battle of Agincourt. Henry V was attempting to pursue his claim - by force of arms - to the title of the Duchy of Normandy and the throne of France by virtue of his descent from William of Normandy, the conqueror of England in 1066.

Henry's army of 6,000, consisting mostly of archers armed with longbows, faced an French army of between 20,000 - 30,000 men. Among the ranks of the French army were many aristocrats and knights - the so-called "flower of France".

Due to the constraints of a small battlefield and the muddy soil, the French were unable to make proper use of their heavy cavalry to overcome the enemy ranks. The deadly fire from the highly trained English archers led to a further break down in the ranks of the French army.

Sustaining heavy casualties and unable to mount a proper attack the French surrendered. Henry's desperate "band of brothers" had won the day. Fearing the possibility of another attack and having captured more of the enemy than he had men of his own, Henry V ordered the slaughter of French prisoners. How many were actually killed is unknown, but it is estimated that more died in the aftermath of the battle than in the actual battle. As was the custom of the day, those prisoners who survived and belonged to the aristocracy were held until a ransom was paid for their release.

Almost two hundred years later William Shakespeare wrote his play Henry V. In these memorable words from the Bard, here is Henry V speaking to his men on the eve of St. Crispens Day:

"This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian:'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispin's day.'
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember'd.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day"

Friday, October 24, 2008

2008 Poppies Appeal

Poppies amidst headstones
The Royal British Legion has announced the start of its 2008 Poppies Appeal. This year the campaign begins in Basra, Iraq - the first time it has been launched in a war zone. The Legion sells red poppies in order to provide services for former and current members of the British military. This years theme puts it simply: "Serving those who serve".

The inspiration for selling red poppies comes from the poem "In Flanders Field" written by Major John McCrae, a doctor in the Royal Canadian Army, shortly after the battle of Ypres. Poppies were one of the few flowers to grow on the churned up earth of the World War I battlefield in Western Europe. Poppies are also associated with morphine, an opiate, which was used both to ease the pain of and to put wounded soldiers to sleep. "In Flanders Field" is arguably one of the most famous poems to come out of any war.

In Flanders Fields

by John McCrae, May 1915

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved,
and now we lie in Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep,though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Last Days of Pompeii

An empty cobblestone
street in Pompeii, Italy

The opening of a new exhibit entitled Pompeii and the Roman Villa at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and the life, demise and rediscovery of the ancient city of Pompeii is the subject of an editorial review by Paul Richard in the City Guide section of the Washington
Post. Pompeii and Herculaneum were two Roman cities located on what is now the Bay of Naples, that were completely destroyed by volcanic activity when nearby Mt. Vesuvius erupted in August of 79 A.D.

Prior to these eruptions and some smaller eruptions in 62 A.D., Mt. Vesuvius had been dormant for a very long period of time. When the first rumblings began on 24 August 79 A.D. many of the Romans in the city failed to heed the danger and were trapped by the volcanoes dangerous fumes and ash. As a result they were suffocated in their homes and on the city streets. The two cities were totally buried and over time their location and even their existence were all but forgotten. They were finally rediscovered in the 18th century and excavations were begun.

Much of Pompeii was remarkably preserved. Colorful frescoes were uncovered, statues, pottery, fruit, clothing and all of the day to day items of Roman life were found. In addition to being a prosperous trade port Pompeii was also a popular seaside resort for the rich and powerful of the Roman Empire. Many large villas and homes were built in the city, as well as a large coliseum that could hold much of the cities estimated 23,000 people.

Today Pompeii is one of Italy's most visited tourist sites. Portions of the city are still buried under of the earth, but this is perhaps just as well. Since excavations were begun and Pompeii began to emerge into the open air, the city has suffered. Efforts are being made to preserve as much as possible of Pompeii in its "original" condition, but many buildings and especially the painted frescoes have deteriorated.

The exhibit opens October 19 and runs until March 22, 2009 at the National Gallery of Art. The National Gallery of Art is located at 600 Constitution Ave, NW Washington, D.C. Admission is free. The Museum is open from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Mon - Sat and 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. on Sunday. It is closed December 25 and January 1.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

This Hallowed Ground - Gettysburg, Penn.

Statue of the 1st.
Penn. Cavalry
at Gettysburg

George Will writes again here in the Washington Post about the Battle of Gettysburg and the important role it played in U.S. and World History. It was here on this "hallowed ground" that the Union was saved and the Confederacy reached its "high-water mark", with Pickett's charge.

Wills article gives well-deserved credit to Bob Kinsley and the Gettysburg Foundation for the work they have done in building a new Museum and Visitor Center. Kinsley, who is from nearby York, Penn., was the founder of the Gettysburg Foundation. Kinsley hired Bob Wilburn, formerly of Colonial Williamsburg, who raised the funds necessary to build a new center - $103 million of private monies. Having just visited Gettysburg in 2006 I can testify that a new visitor center was badly needed.

The Museum and Vistor Center includes a theater, where a film narrated by actor Morgan Freeman can be seen and a new and proper setting for the Cyclorama, the 1884 circular painting of Pickett's charge. The Gettysburg Foundation has also purchased the 80-acre Spangler farm , that served as a hospital during the battle. The foundation is working to preserve more battle sites for future generations.

This is not new ground for George Will. Ten years ago he devoted another column to this topic. It has been reposted here.

On November 19, 1863 President Abraham Lincoln gave this short speech at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. If simple words can begin to give justice to the sacrifices made on those three days of battle in July of 1863, perhaps Lincoln's can:

Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation: conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war. . .testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated. . . can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war.

We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate. . .we cannot consecrate. . . we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us. . .that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion. . . that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain. . . that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom. . . and that government of the people. . . by the people. . . for the people. . . shall not perish from the earth.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Guess Who's Coming to (Thanksgiving) Dinner?

The First Thanksgiving

Interested in spicing up the conversation at your Thanksgiving Dinner? Plimoth Plantation is sending Edward Winslow and Hobbamock to spend Thanksgiving with an anonymous winner of its auction on Ebay. The auction winner, a Cape Cod resident, will be hosting employees of Plimoth Plantation portraying Edward
Winslow, the former Governor of the Plymoth Colony and Hobbamock, a representative of the Wampanoag Indian tribe, for Thanksgiving. The winning bid was for $5,000. The Daily News Tribune of Waltham has their version of the story by Edward S. Colby here.

I thought this was a good idea from the people at Plimoth Plantation. This is kind of a variation of the old question: if you could meet an historic figure from the past, would would it be? A very difficult question to answer, but I'm going to answer a variation of the question. What if I could just choose my dinner companions?

In choosing dinner companions I would be naturally be looking for famous people from the past that I admire and who led interesting lives. I would also choose people who were famous for their intelligence, wit and after-dinner conversation.

Narrowing it down to just three, my choices would be: Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890), Samuel Clemens (1835-1910) and Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965). First enjoying dinner and then spending an evening listening to the conversation of these three gentlemen, maybe while they played Billiards and smoked cigars, would certainly be a night to remember.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Christopher Columbus Sails the Ocean Blue

Sailing for the New World

On October 12, 1492 Christopher Columbus, having sailed across the Atlantic Ocean with three small ships from Spain, found himself off the coast of a "New World". Returning to Spain with news of his discovery, Columbus was able to convince his benefactors King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to pay for an even larger fleet of ships to further explore what he believed was China and the Far East. In all Columbus led four expeditions to the New World. Each trip was less successful than the last and at one point Columbus returned to Spain in chains.

The former "Admiral of the Oceans" died believing that he had found a route to Cathay, rather than his actual discovery of the islands of the Caribbean. Columbus, who was actually an excellent navigator, grossly underestimated the size and circumference of the globe. (It is a myth that geographers of the time thought that the world was flat and were unaware that the Earth is a sphere).

For many years Christopher Columbus was hailed as a great explorer and the "Discoverer of America". Columbus Day was declared a national holiday and Italian-Americans took pride in his common nationality. But in recent years his reputation has suffered greatly. He has been blamed for all of the ills that fell upon the people native to the America's with the coming of Europeans to the New World. He has also been blamed for introducing the slave trade to the Western Hemisphere, with all of the pain and death that caused.

To blame Christopher Columbus for the sins committed after his death by others is unfair I believe. It was only a matter of time until the New World was re-discovered and came to the attention of the European powers. Instead of the intrepid navigator from Genoa, Italy sailing with a Spanish fleet , it might have been an Englishman or a Frenchman who found himself off the coast of "Newfoundland" or "Florida" and who then claimed the land for his sovereign. From there what course history might have taken no one knows. (At least one of the great "sins" that the Europeans are blamed for - the introduction of foreign diseases - would have taken place at some point in time no matter what else happened).

Just as we acknowledge and give credit to the other European adventurers for the trips of exploration that they made, we can at least give Christopher Columbus credit for one of the most historic events of the last 500+ years - the re-discovery of the New World by an explorer from the Old World.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Battle of Tours

Charles Martel
Battle of Tours

A posting about the anniversary of the Battle of Tours by the BBC reminded me of an old line of poetry that I heard years ago: "In 732 at the Battle of Tours, Charles Martel defeated the Moors." As the battle is largely forgotten today, it is most likely due to this mnemonic device that I can even recall this famous battle that took place so long ago in France. (The actual fighting took place somewhere between the cities of Tours and Poitiers - the battle is sometimes referred to as the Battle of Poitiers).

In October of 732 a large Saracen army, under the command of Abd-er Rahman, crossed the Pyrenees from Spain into the land of the Franks seeking plunder and conquest. First defeating Count Eudo at the Battle of Bordeaux the Moors continued out into the French countryside. Count Eudo then made peace with his rival Charles Martel and combined their forces under Martel's command.

By then marching against the Moors and threatening their rear guard, Charles Martel forced Abd-er Rahman to retire from his attempt to take Tours and meet the new threat. Martel wisely dismounted his cavalry and formed a "wall" of armor to combat the enemy. It is estimated that the Moorish army was some 50,000 strong and made up mostly of cavalry. The Frankish army was of an unknown number, but usually is considered to have been a similar sized force made up of both cavalry and infantry.

Once the battle lines were formed, the Moorish cavalry made a series of attacks against the Franks. The Franks were able to hold their ground and even gained an advantage, threatening their camp. The Muslim army fell back from the attack with their leader killed. The next day the Moors began their retreat back south of the Pyrenees. Charles Martel had won the day and had earned his name the "Hammer".

Charles Martel and his victory at the Battle of Tours is credited with turning back the tide of Islam from Europe and saving Christendom for another day. He then founded a dynasty that included his even more famous grandson, Charlemagne (Charles the Great). Having saved the "western world" and then founding the Frankish Empire, it is no wonder that Charles Martel was the subject of poetry.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

"Don't Know Much About History..."

U.S. Constitution

An article posted on brings to my mind the first line from an old Sam Cooke song - "Don't know much about History." (The title of the song is "What a Wonderful World"). The story by contributing editor Kenneth C. Davis cites a report by the Intercollegiate Studies Institutes's (ISI) and the results of their 2006 American Civic Literacy Test. The test was given to 14,000 freshman and senior college students from 50 colleges and universities.

The results from the test are disappointing to say the least. The average test score was 52% while the highest test score was from Seniors at Harvard who scored 69.6%. You have to wonder how average Americans would score on the test with students from what is arguably America's most prestigious university scoring the equivalent of a D+.

Davis makes the argument that the way History is taught in our schools could be a lot more "fun" than it is now. He illustrates the point by telling this "story":

For instance, did you hear the one about the 20-something American officer who disobeyed orders, led an ambush of some sleeping French soldiers, then signed a document amounting to a confession of assassinating a French diplomat and ignited a world war in the process? That's actually a true story about an ambitious, headstrong George Washington in 1754. And it's much more interesting than the hokey legend about the cherry tree.

That is a very interesting story and one that I'll go into further in a future blog. Davis also briefly mentions Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Abraham Lincoln and how some of what they experienced in their lives relates to stories in today's headlines.

As for the ISI's American Civics and History Test you can find that here. There are sixty questions on the test and you are tested in the following areas: American History, Political Philosophy and American Government, America and the World and The Market Economy. Having taken the test myself, let me just warn you that it is a challenging test.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Real Live Uncle Sam

Uncle Sam

According to tradition this colorful representation of the United States, Uncle Sam, had its beginnings with the life of a Massachusetts man - Samuel Wilson. Sam Wilson was born in Arlington, Mass. (known as Menotomy at the time) on September 10, 1766, making him just eight years old when the fighting took place near his home on April 19, 1775 that marked the beginning of the American Revolution. While still a boy his family moved to Mason, New Hampshire.

It was a later war, the War of 1812, that brought Samuel Wilson his "fame". Sam and his brother had a contract with the government to supply meat to the U.S. Army. The meat was shipped to the army in barrels that were marked with the letters U.S. to show that they belonged to the government. The soldiers at some point began to joke that the letters U.S. actually stood for the supplier of the meat and the name Uncle Sam came into being. The traditional military habit of referring to any item that was government issued (whether stamped U.S. or not) as "belonging to Uncle Sam" was begun.

Many years later political cartoonists began drawing a character representing the U.S.A. who was commonly referred to as Uncle Sam. But Uncle Sam is of course best known for the military recruiting posters of the First and Second World War that show his image with the caption: "Uncle Sam wants you for the U.S. Army". Millions of American servicemen became very familiar with this poster as they volunteered for the U.S. military.

During America's Bicentennial year of 1976 the town of Arlington, Mass. unveiled this monument to Samuel Wilson, the real life genesis for the symbol of our country, Uncle Sam. Theodore Catillo Barbarossa was the artist and sculptor. The monument bears a statue of Samuel Wilson, a graphic depiction of his life and the following inscription at its base:


Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Mohawk Trail

"Hail to the Sunrise"
Mohawk Park
Charlemont, Mass.

Historically the Mohawks were one of the five original Native American tribes who made up the Iroquois Confederacy or Nation. The Mohawks were the eastern most of the Iroquois tribes living in what was to become upstate New York.

Over the thousands of years that Native Americans resided in what is now New England and New York numerous hunting and trading trails were made through this largely forested region. Europeans naturally made use of these trials when they first started exploring and then establishing their own settlements.

The original Mohawk Trail was a well established trail that led from the lands of the Mohawk to the banks of the Connecticut River has it passed through Massachusetts. This footpath was used for access to the hunting and fishing grounds and for the trading and warfare that went on between the five tribes that lived in the area. With the mass migrations of Europeans into New York and Massachusetts in the 1600's the tribal lands of the Native Americans shrank. More and more European settlements were established which led to the building of roads that often built over and followed the old Native American trails.

With the advent of the automobile in the early 1900's, America began its love affair with the car and the roadway. One of the earliest major highways built for the automobile in Massachusetts was Route 2 which stretches east to west from Cambridge to the New York border. The westernmost portion of the state highway covers some of the same ground as the old Mohawk Trail.

On October 22, 1914 the Massachusetts legislature designated that portion of Route 2 that runs from the Connecticut river to the New York border, a 63 mile section, to be a "scenic tourist route". Commonly referred to as the Mohawk Trail, it continues to be a popular tourist route and attraction, especially in the foliage season.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Bombing of Dresden

Dresden, 1945

On the night of 13 February 1945 bombers from RAF Bomber Command flew over Dresden, Germany and dropped thousands of pounds of bombs. The next day U.S.A.A.F. bombers continued the bombing raids. In total, four bombing raids were conducted dropping tons of high explosive and incendiary bombs. The mixture of bombs created a firestorm that devastated the city and killed thousands of German civilians.

Exactly how many civilians were killed is the subject of a new study whose results were released today. The purpose of the study was to make an authoritative accounting of the number killed in order to put to rest part of the controversy that has arisen over the Dresden bombings. Since the war there have been claims that have placed the death toll to be between 40,000 and as many as 135,000 civilians killed in the bombing raids. The new study places the death toll to be no more than 25,000, which is still a substantial number.

Even in the midst of the horror and the mass killings of the Second World War, the bombing of Dresden has always been controversial. Dresden was considered the cultural capital of northern Germany and had little or no military value. Also, by February 1945 the war in Europe was almost over and Nazi Germany was clearly in its last days.

Held up against the crimes committed by Hitler's Third Reich, especially the deaths of as many as 11 million civilians in its work and death camps, questions about the necessity and even the morality of the Dresden bombings are pushed into the background. In hindsight and perhaps even at the time, it appears that the decision to go ahead with the bombings and the deliberate manner in which they were conducted, was the wrong decision.

What can be called the deadly equation of war, the costs of a war (which includes the number of deaths) weighed against the results that a country or an alliance can expect to achieve, changes over time. In the Second World War, the nations involved decided that no cost was too high to pay in order to defeat the enemy. As a result, large portions of Europe, Russia and Asia were devastated in the war and millions of combatants and civilians died. In the midst of all that carnage the desire for revenge and to spread the destruction can be a strong motivator in strategic thinking.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Washington's Address at Newburgh

Gen. Washington

Despite the American victory at Yorktown in October 1781, it wasn't until 3 September 1783 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris (and its subsequent ratification in 1784 ) that America's War for Independence came to an end. Although Yorktown effectively brought an end to the major fighting, it was necessary to keep troops in the field to provide a counter to the British forces still garrisoned in America.

In 1783, the American Army, under the command of Gen. George Washington, was headquartered in Newburgh, New York. The Continental Army was growing increasingly unhappy with its lot and with Congress. The soldiers were owed months and sometimes years of back pay and many felt that Congress would not follow through with the promises that had been made to them. (The thirteen former colonies were now operating under the Articles of Confederation which gave the new government power over the Army, but did not give it the means to raise money to pay its soldiers).

On March 11, 1783 Gen. Washington, having learned that his officer Corps was planning on holding a meeting to discuss their situation, sent out an order condemning such an action. Washington was concerned about the seditious talk traveling through his army about marching on Congress or even disbanding the army. As a compromise measure, he asked that the meeting be postponed and said that he would send a representative to the meeting.

The meeting was postponed and rescheduled for Saturday March 15. The officers were then taken by surprise when General Washington himself went to the meeting. Washington made an appeal to his men with the following speech. At the conclusion of his speech he then began to read a message from Congress. Initially unable to read the text he paused and said the following:

"Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have grown not only gray, but almost blind in the service of my country".

Having served with Gen. Washington for so many years the gathered officers were quite moved by their General's sign of weakness and age and the Newburgh Conspiracy, as it has been referred to, advanced no further.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Siege of Yorktown

Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown
by John Trumball (1797)

On September 28, 1781 an allied army made up of American and French soldiers began the siege of British forces under the command of Lt. General Cornwallis in Yorktown, Virginia. Cornwallis' command of some 6,000 soldiers were divided between the towns of Yorktown and Gloucester on opposite sides of the banks of the York River.

Prior to his advance into Virginia, Cornwallis had been campaigning in the Carolina's. Without authorization from his superior in New York, Gen. Clinton, Cornwallis decided to invade Virginia in the hope of having greater success in that state. Gen. Lafayette, commanding militia, followed Cornwallis and his small army into Virginia and sent word to Gen. Washington in New York of Cornwallis' location.

Gen. Washington and his French counterpart, Gen. Comte de Rochambeau, together devised a plan to trap Cornwallis. Taking advantage of (temporary) French naval superiority, a French fleet under Admiral de Grasse was dispatched to the Chesapeake to prevent British reinforcement or escape by sea. Washington and Rochambeau, along with some 7,000 soldiers, quickly marched south to Virginia. Upon arrival the army quickly surrounded Yorktown and began conducting siege operations. With the addition of some 3,000 from Admiral de Grasse's fleet, Lafayette's militia and other allied forces, the British were now outnumbered by more than two-to-one.

Trenches were built closer and closer to the British lines. As soon as they were able the allied force began a heavy artillery bombardment of Yorktown and the British positions. The British attempts to break through the enemy lines failed and with the loss of two important redoubts, #9 and #10, the situation was rapidly becoming untenable. Finally with supplies running low and receiving word of the delay of the arrival of a relief force from New York, on October 17 Gen. Cornwallis sent word that he would surrender his forces unconditionally.

The surrender documents were signed on October 19. Marching out in regimental formation, British and Hessian soldiers surrendered their colors and laid down their arms in front of the massed columns of American and French soldiers. Claiming illness, Gen. Cornwallis sent his second in command to formally surrender his sword to the victors. Gen. Washington sent his senior commander, Gen. Benjamin Lincoln, to accept the surrender. According to tradition, British musicians played "The World Turned Upside Down" during the ceremonies.

News of the loss of yet another major British command (Gen. Burgoyne's surrender at Saratoga brought the French openly into the war) was devastating to the British government. Once a new government was formed (in 1782) serious peace negotiations were begun. Although it would be two years before the Treaty of Paris was signed, the victory at Yorktown effectively ended the major fighting in America's War for Independence.

Friday, September 26, 2008

H.M.S. Victory

H.M.S. Victory
Portsmouth, England

The British Navy's most famous fighting ship, H.M.S. Victory, was built between the years 1759-1765 but was not commissioned until 1778. With some 230 years having passed it is the oldest commissioned naval vessel in the world - in drydock. (The U.S.S. Constitution is the oldest naval ship in the world still afloat).

The H.M.S. Victory is also the only remaining 18th century ship of the line still in existence. A British ship of the line was a main or rated ship, one that carried between 50 and a 100+ guns. The Victory was a first-rate ship, as she carried an armament of at least a hundred guns. This made the Victory one of the super battleships of her day, a ship that very few enemy vessels could match in firepower. (In contrast the U.S.S. Constitution is a frigate and not a ship of the line and carried between 46 - 60 guns).

The H.M.S. Victory is best known for being Lord Admiral Horatio Nelsons flagship during the Battle of Trafalgar. On 21 October 1805 Lord Nelson met and defeated a combined French-Spanish fleet off the coast of Spain. On that day the British fleet sank 22 enemy ships of the line without losing a single ship. This victory ended Napoleons plans to invade England and led to complete British dominance of the seas.

Unfortunately, Admiral Nelson was mortally wounded during the battle as he stood upon the quarterdeck of the Victory. Shot by a French Marine, he died shortly after learning that the battle had been won. Nelsons body was transported to England where he was given a state funeral and honored as a national hero. He is buried in St. Paul's Cathedral in London.

In 1812 the Victory's active career came to an end and she was berthed in Portsmouth harbor. In 1922 due to the ships poor condition she was placed in N0. 2 Drydock in the Royal Naval Dockyard. H.M.S. Victory is now a museum ship with an active duty crew and is open to the public for tours.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Sudbury Colonial Faire - Sudbury, Mass.

Sudbury Faire

This Saturday (September 27) the Sudbury Companies of Militia and Minutemen and the Sudbury Ancient Fyfe and Drum Companies are hosting the Colonial Faire & Muster of Fyfe and Drums at the Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Mass. Fife and Drum Corps from all over the country will be attending this annual muster. British and American Revolutionary War reenactors, including the 4th Kings Own, will be joining the Sudbury militia on the field.

The Sudbury Militia will be taking the opportunity of the Faire to have a change of command ceremony welcoming in a new Colonel. (There is a chance this ceremony may be interrupted by the untimely arrival of the Kings troops). As always, there will be a number of food vendors and Sutlers at the Faire.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Saving Old Ironsides

U. S. S. Constitution

The U.S.S. Constitution was launched in 1797, one of six U.S. frigates ordered built in 1794 by Congress. These frigates would be the start of a new American Navy - at the conclusion of the American War for Independence, the Navy had been dissolved. Facing threats from both French privateers and Barbary Pirates the U. S. government realized it needed a Navy to protect its vital merchant fleet and its national interests.

The U.S.S. Constitution was a heavy frigate, carrying more guns than was usual for a frigate of the time. The ability to fire heavier broadsides, along with its strong construction, were instrumental in its great success as a fighting ship. Old Ironsides, as it affectionately came to be known, was never defeated in battle.

Old Ironsides greatest victories came in the The War of 1812. By defeating the British ships H.M.S. Guerriere and H.M.S. Java, the U.S.S. Constitution won everlasting fame.

In September of 1830 the Navy announced that the Constitution, now some thirty-three years old and needing extensive repair, would be scrapped. Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes of Boston wasted no time in writing and having published this poem to lodge his personal complaint. A nation-wide protest led to the decision by Congress to fund the needed repairs.

In 1924 Old Ironsides was again on the chopping block. The frigate was in very poor condition and required a complete overhaul that would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. A publicity campaign by the Elks Club enlisted the help of the nations schoolchildren, who contributed thousands of dollars by literally pitching in their pennies. Congress responded to popular pressure and provided the remainder of the funds.

Today the U.S.S. Constitution is the oldest commissioned war ship still afloat in the world. It has an a complement of active duty U.S. Navy personnel and is berthed in the old Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston. It is currently undergoing renovations, but it is open to the public for tours.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Saturday Club

Omni Parker House Hotel
60 School St.
Boston, Mass. 02108

The Saturday Club was a social club that during the mid-1800's met on the last Saturday of every month in the Parker House Hotel on School St. in Boston. But this wasn't just any social club - the Saturday Club was made up of some of the greatest writers and brightest minds to be found in America at that time. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Professor Louis Agassiz, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Charles Francis Adams, Francis Parkman, James Russell Lowell, John Greenleaf Whittier and Nathaniel Hawthorne were just some of the members of the club.

During the early 1800's Boston gained the title of Athens of America and the Saturday Club meetings gave credence to the name. Charles Dickens, while a guest staying at the Parker House, joined a Club meeting and read from his work A Christmas Carol. At yet another gathering Longfellow worked on an early draft of his famous poem Paul Revere's Ride.

Prior to their meetings the club members would often visit the Old Corner Bookstore, which can still be found on the corner of School St. and Washington St. They would then have dinner before settling down on a Saturday afternoon to discuss poetry, literature and engage one another in conversation. In our modern non-literary age it is hard to imagine that a comparable group of people could be found in the same city, never mind meeting together under the same roof.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Re-enactors delight in New York

The Saratogian

This weekend is a re-enactors - and the viewing publics - delight in New York state. First of all, starting on Saturday (Sept. 20) at 9:00 a.m. a Civil War encampment will be open to the public in Congress Park in Saratoga Springs. This event ends at noon on Sunday.

Also this weekend the National Park Service is commemorating the 231st anniversary of the Battles of Saratoga in Saratoga National Historical Park in Stillwater, New York. Revolutionary War re-enactors representing British and American soldiers will be in the park all weekend.

Finally at Fort Edward in New York, from an even earlier era of warfare, re-enactors will be taking part in recreating the French and Indian War (1754-1763). Re-enactors portraying British Regulars, Native Americans, Rangers and American Colonial soldiers will be turning out for this event.

For more details see Paul Post's article Passing Muster from The Saratogian linked here.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Constitution Week

U. S. Constitution

On September 17, 1787 delegates from the thirteen states meeting in a special convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania voted to adopt a new constitution. The delegates had been sent to Philadelphia to make changes to the Articles of Confederation, but instead had exceeded their authority and decided to create an entirely new form of government. Rather than having a confederation of independent states, the new constitution called for the establishment of a federal government that would unite the states into one nation.

The new constitution still needed to be ratified by the people and the states. It was decided that rather than a needing a unanimous ratification it would require passage by only nine of the thirteen states. Constitutional conventions were called in all thirteen states and representatives were sent to say yea or nay to the constitution.

As soon as news went out from Philadelphia about the results of the convention the controversy began. Many of the people who had fought the hardest to gain independence for the thirteen American colonies were steadfastly against having the new Federal form of government. The Anti-Federalists, as they were called, were deathly afraid of trading one set of masters for another. They were concerned that putting too much power in the hands of a central government would lead to that power being abused.

The framers of the Constitution were also aware of the danger of too much power being placed in the hands of government. They quite deliberately built into the Constitution a series of checks and balances that was meant to limit the extent and the power of the government. The Federal government they established had three co-equal bodies - the executive branch, the legislative branch and the judiciary. Each body was meant to provide a "check" on the power of the other two bodies. The specific powers of each branch of government was laid out and the powers not given to the Federal or State governments were meant to stay with the people.

With many people believing that the Constitution as written didn't go far enough to protect the rights of the people, a number of amendments were proposed. Ten of these proposed amendments, which came to be known as the "Bill of Rights", were added to the Constitution and became part of the ratification process. Since then some 17 other amendments have been added to the Constitution.

The arguments of the Federalists held sway in the country and the U. S. Constitution was ratified. With New Hampshire voting on June 21, 1788 to ratify, the required number of states was reached. On March 4, 1789 the Constitution went into effect and it remains as the oldest written constitution governing a democratic nation in the world.

Monday, September 15, 2008

It must be Witchcraft ...

Witchcraft was blamed when a riot broke out on Sunday during a football (soccer) match in the Democratic Republic of Congo. According to the BBC a keeper (goalie) was caught throwing something into the net of the opposing team. He was accused of engaging in witchcraft and a fight broke out. When police tired to separate the combatants the fighting escalated into a riot. The violence and the use of tear gas is blamed for causing a panic which resulted in the deaths of thirteen people.

What is meant by the term witchcraft has changed over the years, varying from country to country and over time. Its basic meaning today is simply the practice of performing ritual magic to gain power over people, affect events or to attain unusual personal powers - all by some extraordinary, supernatural means.

Some have tied witchcraft to paganism, an ancient religion practiced world-wide that placed an emphasis on the worship of multiple gods, most especially the gods and goddesses having influence over nature and fertility. The Celtic people of Western Europe practiced an elaborate form of paganism that included Druid priests and sacred forests and isles. When the Roman Empire made Christianity its official religion, the Druids came to be viewed as enemies of the state and were all but obliterated.

Beginning as early as the late-Crusades in Europe, Christianity again took a violent and intolerant path when it began prosecuting those who were thought to be different or even heretics. Witchcraft came to be viewed as literally doing the Devil's work. Those who were accused of witchcraft were believed to be in league with the Devil and were treated as heretics. As heretics they were subjected to trial and/or torture to determine their guilt. Those who were found guilty were often sentenced to death, usually by being burnt at the stake.

These "Witch Hunts" continued until well in the 17th century and engulfed thousands of people all over Europe. Kings and Pontiffs made use of the hysteria to rid themselves of their enemies or those they feared were too powerful. The leaders of the Order of the Knights Templar, who had become rich and powerful as the bankers of Europe, were accused of horrible crimes to include witchcraft and some were brutally tortured and killed. The religious Order was subsequently dissolved. Many other groups were persecuted in the same manner.

In 1692 the Witchcraft hysteria reached the British colonies in America. It was in that year that throughout Essex county, in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, witch trials were conducted. The most famous of these trials were held in Salem. The hysteria began when local children began having fits and behaving like they were mad or maybe even possessed. Upon questioning the children claimed to be the victims of witchcraft. They were also more than willing to accuse some of their neighbors as being witches.

From such a small beginning events took on a life of their own. Prominent members of the colony including the well-known Boston Puritan minister, Cotton Mather, took up the cause and actual trials by jury were conducted. Most of the victims of what came to be know as the Salem Witch trials were not surprisingly elderly women. One of the victims was Rebecca Nurse who lived in what is now Danvers. She was found guilty of being a witch by a jury and sentenced to hang. Her home still exists and is owned and managed by a non-profit organization. A monument was dedicated in 1885 to her memory and can be found on the property.

All together some 150 people were put on trial. Nineteen women and men were found guilty of practising witchcraft and were hanged. One man was pressed to death by stones as he was being questioned. At least four people accused of witchcraft died while in jail. Eventually the hysteria died down, the remaining prisoners were freed and the trials came to an end. But many years were to pass before any apology or admissions of guilt were made by those who were responsible for this great miscarriage of justice.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Baseball invented in England

British Baseball
(Olympic Team)

It was announced on Thursday that Americas great contribution to the world of sports and its "favorite pastime", the game of Baseball, was apparently invented in England. A diary by a Surrey solicitor that was recently found in a tool shed (how English is that?) has a 1755 entry that states the writer spent some time "playing at" the game of "Base Ball". This was followed by the drinking of Tea and a game of Cricket. (The game of Cricket was played in Colonial America but never achieved the long-lasting popularity it has in England).

The entry was made on the Monday after Easter, a Holiday in England and mentions that the game of "Base Ball" included women players. The solicitor, William Bray, was already well-known to the Surrey History Centre as a diarist and local historian when the diary containing the entry was turned over to them.

Prior to this it was believed Baseball was invented in the U.S. in the 1790's. (Although I seem to remember references to Baseball being played in America in the 1770's). With the addition of Baseball to the list of sports/pastimes invented in Great Britain the list has become an impressive one. Golf, Football (Soccer), Rugby, Cricket, Fly Fishing, Tennis and Badminton were all invented in the British Isles. Major League Baseball has been informed of this news.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Yankee Doodle Homecoming - Billerica, Mass.

Spirit of '76
by Archibald Willard

Starting today and continuing through the weekend (Sept. 12-14) Billerica, Mass. is celebrating its 17th annual Yankee Doodle Homecoming. This event, held every September, commemorates the role Billerica's Colonial Militia and the townspeople of Billerica played in America's War of Independence. The Billerica Minute Men took part in the fighting at Meriam's Corner in Concord on April 19, 1775 and the Battle of Bunker Hill.

As part of the weekends events the recreated Billerica Colonial Minute Men will have a weekend long Revolutionary War encampment and on Saturday members of the 4th Kings Own Light Company will "Tar and Feather" a member of the militia. This event is a recreation of the actual tar and feathering of Thomas Ditson Jr. (Billerica's Yankee Doodle) in Boston in 1775.

Seeking to arm himself in order to join the local militia, Ditson traveled into Boston and attempted to buy a musket from a Serjeant of the 47th Regiment of Foot. The Serjeant took him prisoner and the next day Ditson was "tarred and feathered" and paraded in public by members of the 47th. Ditson survived this brutal treatment and later fought with Billerica's Minute Men Company at Meriam's corner in Concord. A fuller account of this story is told here.

Also this weekend, on Saturday (Sept. 13), the Rebecca Nurse Homestead in Danvers and the Danvers Alarm List Company is hosting a Colonial Muster Day. In addition to having its muster the Colonial militia will skirmish with British Revolutionary War reenactors from the area, to include members of the 4th Kings Own.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Who are these Guys?

William R. de Vane King
U.S. Vice-President

The U.S. has had 46 Vice-Presidents since the U.S. Constitution went into effect. During that same time we have had 42 U.S. Presidents. The office of Vice-President has become vacate several times, either due to the death or resignation of the Vice-President or the President. Eight U.S Presidents have died while in office, one has resigned (Richard Nixon), leading to then current Vice-President being sworn into office as the new President.

Only fourteen Vice-Presidents have gone on to become President. With nine of those Vice-Presidents assuming the office through constitutional succession, those are not great odds. Two of those Vice-Presidents, Andrew Johnson and Richard Nixon, were openly vilified and faced disgrace. I'm not an presidential historian, but looking over the list I would say that a majority of the remaining twelve had successful Presidential administrations.

The 46 U.S. Vice-Presidents who have served this country are, for the most part, unknown names and quantities to anyone other than professional historians. Most Americans can name at least some of our recent Vice-Presidents. Of the fourteen Vice-Presidents who became President, many of them are quite well-known. I'm familiar with the names Aaron Burr, George Clinton of New York, J.C. Calhoun and some others who achieved their own fame. But I'm afraid many of the others are just names on a page to me. (For instance, I never heard of William R. de Vane of Alabama, who died of tuberculosis after only 45 days in office. But maybe that's only me).

In the modern era, a candidate for President looks for a running-mate who can "balance" the ticket and increase the chances for winning in November. John F. Kennedy's choice of Lyndon B. Johnson was important in winning the 1960 election. Quite often the choice has made little or no difference. It remains to be seen how important the two Presidential candidates choice for Vice-President will be in the election of 2008.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Lafayette born

Marquis de La Fayette

On this date in 1757 Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de La Fayette (Lafayette), was born. Two years later, during the Seven Years War, his father was killed fighting the British at the Battle of Minden. With the death of his mother and an uncle a few years later he came into his family inheritance. As a young man Lafayette became a Mason and was introduced to the concepts of the "rights of man". Becoming enamored of the American colonists fight for independence he sought out a way to join the American cause.

Hiring and outfitting his own ship Lafayette sailed to America. The Continental Congress on 31 July of 1777 commissioned Lafayette as a Major General in the American Army. After meeting with Gen. George Washington, he was taken into Washington's "family" and made an aide-de-camp. The two men became extremely close, becoming almost like a father and son.

Lafayette went on to give proof of his own merit and fought in several actions and battles during America's War for Independence. He was wounded at the Battle of Brandywine and played a vital role in the final military victory at Yorktown.

After the war Lafayette returned to France. He played an important role in pre-revolutionary France helping to maintain order. When the radical Jacobites came to power Lafayette was commanding a French Army on the Austrian border. Knowing he was a likely candidate for the guillotine he attempted to flee the country, but was captured by the Austrians. He spent several years in military prisons. In later years Lafayette would again serve his native country in many important positions.

In 1824 Lafayette was invited back to come to America. Lafayette was feted as a returning hero and was everywhere treated as an honored guest as he traveled through all 24 states. President James Monroe issued a proclamation giving Lafayette honorary U.S. citizenship. All over the country the name Lafayette was memorialized as city's, towns, streets and parks were named in his honor.

Lafayette died on 20 May 1757. On 6 August 2002, by an official act of the U.S. Congress, Lafayette was posthumously granted honorary U.S. Citizenship.

On 4 July 1917 American soldiers of the 1st Army Division, coming to the aid of France in the First World War, paid a ceremonial visit to Lafayette's tomb in Paris. During the ceremonies Col. Charles E. Stanton gave a speech whose haunting final words will long be remembered: "Lafayette, we are here."

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Big River

The Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut is opening a new production this month of the musical Big River, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. During the 1980's Big River had a successful run on Broadway in New York and won several Tony awards including Best Musical. The story line is drawn from Mark Twain's novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and tells the tale of Huck and the runaway slave Jim as they attempt to gain their freedom by rafting down the mighty Mississippi River.

The Goodspeed Opera House is run by a non-profit group that specializes in producing musicals and is responsible for the first production of such well-known musicals as Man of La Mancha and Annie. The Opera House is situated on the banks of the Connecticut River and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Big River the musical runs from September 26 to November 30.