French in the American Revolution

When I taught the Revolution as part of an American History course, I always focused on events in New England and the mid-Atlantic.  The Stamp Act (1765), Boston Massacre (1770), Boston Tea Party (1773),  First Continental Congress (1774), Paul Revere and William Dawes rides, Lexington & Concord, Fort Ticonderoga,  Second Continental Congress, Bunker Hill (1775), British sail out of  Boston and the action moves to New York, Declaration of Independence, Battle of Long Island, Washington escapes across New Jersey into Bucks County, Battle of Trenton (1776), then Princeton, Battle of Brandywine, Saratoga, British occupy Philadelphia, Valley Forge (1777),  British abandon Philadelphia (it’s 1778).  There were other battles in the South and West but the real action seemed to happen in Boston, New York and Pennsylvania.  Then in 1781, Cornwallis surrenders in Yorktown, Virginia.  What happened?

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Part of the missing story is found in Nathaniel Philbrick’s “In the Hurricane’s Eye: the genius of George Washington and the victory at Yorktown.”  Philbrick is a favorite author.  He is from Nantucket and I first read was “Away Offshore: Nantucket Island and it’s People.” I’ve also read “Mayflower,” “Why Read Moby Dick,” “Abram’s Eye: the Native American legacy on Nantucket Island,” and  “In the Heart of the Sea”  (the story of the ship Essex, inspiration for Melville’s “Moby Dick”). I saw Philbrick speak on Nantucket several times.

So what happened between 1778 when the British leave Philadelphia and Yorktown, the battle that ended the war.  The simple answer was the French.  In 1778, Franklin ended successful negotiations and the French became allies in the American war for independence.  We’ve all heard of the young Lafayette.  But far less of the role played by the French Navy.

I’m amazed at the historical detail in “In the Hurricane’s Eye.”  There are about 40 pages of notes and a 20 page bibliography.  Philbrick deals with the main issues, when will the full French fleet arrive and where will they take on the British?  Washington was hoping for a New York engagement, much of the British fleet and Clinton was there.  The French wanted the Chesapeake where Cornwallis had an army.  The French prevailed.

Philbrick documents the movements of armies and fleets.  There are a number of encounters before the final assault on Cornwallis at Yorktown.  We learn naval tactics, the number of cannons, different types of ships, and the strategy of each side, the relationship between Washington and Rochambeau, the French commander.

Yorktown is located at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay where the York and James rivers empty into the bay, then ocean.  The French were able to control entrance into the Bay; American and French forces conducted a siege.  Cornwallis realized it was the end and surrendered after 21 days.  The thirteen colonies would become the United States.  Washington would become its first President under the Constitution.

And the French?  They had 28 ships in the Bay.  And their ground forces may have been about 10,000, more than the Americans. If I taught the Revolution again, I think I’d need to revise my story. I can thank the research of Nathaniel Philbrick.

 

 

 

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Salmon

6B211778-7BC7-4CDE-84CF-2E8660D27224Do you consciously buy wild salmon instead of farm raised?  “Wild” will probably be more expensive;  but will probably taste better;  with less fat, it will need more careful cooking to avoid drying out.  It probably comes from Alaska.  We’ve lost Atlantic salmon.  And catches are down in the northwest — Oregon, Washington.

 

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I recently re-read “Mountains in the Clouds: a search for the wild salmon,” by Bruce Brown.  Originally published in 1982, it’s outdated but is still an interesting environmental history.  I probably originally bought and read it while visiting my sister, Marylee, and her husband Norval, when they were living on a beautiful coastal property overlooking the Pacific, near Tahola and working on the Quinault Indian Reservation.

Salmon are born in rivers, they spend their lives in the ocean and return to their home river to spawn. Different species have characteristics associated with their river.  There are several Pacific types, Chinook (King) is sometimes considered the best.  You might also find Sockeye (red), Coho (silver), Pink and Chum.  I don’t remember seeing the last two but will pay more attention now. Last night we had some delicious Sockeye ($19.95 a pound).

“Mountain in the Clouds” documents the decline in the Washington State salmon fishery.  Today most commercial wild salmon come from Alaskan waters; although there is tribal and recreational salmon fishing in WA.  The decline of wild salmon is another chapter in the story of our destruction of the natural world.  Think American bison, passenger pigeons, Atlantic Cod.

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The decline of the Pacific salmon is the result of several factors.  Intensive logging on the Olympic Peninsula poisoned streams and rivers.  Runoff from clear cut slopes, logging roads, and sawdust polluted waterways eliminating oxygen.  I saw the landscape devastation from logging on the Quinault Reservation; I need to pull out the photographs of those trips.  I have a book from the period about logging in the Gray’s Harbor area.

Dams on various rivers have cut off salmon spawning.  Although laws may have required fish ladders, they were not always built.  Courts sometimes allowed hatcheries instead of ladders.  But hatchery fish may compete with and negatively impact wild fish.

0D122480-3CF5-4057-999B-2E0765D892B5Nuclear power plants have had an impact.  Increased, more efficient fishing, may have contributed to fewer fish spawning, living and growing.  A side issue is the conflict between Native American fishing rights and white sportsmen recreational fishing.

I always like single food books, caviar, blue fish, salt, tomatoes, cod, lobster, and now  a salmon re-read.  My sister now lives outside Olympia.  Norval buys local salmon and smokes and dries it, I’ve thought about doing that.  We like smoked salmon.  I also will be more conscious about the salmon we buy in the market.  Not just wild or farmed?  But the species?

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History and David McCullough

 

Senator Margaret Chase Smith had a backbone and stood up for what she believed was right. “I speak as a Republican. . . I speak as a woman. I speak as a United States Senator. I speak as an American. I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the four horsemen of calumny — fear, ignorance, bigotry, and smear.”  Smith’s Declaration of Conscience speech wasn’t made this year.  She wasn’t talking about a current political situation.  It was 1950 and her speech was aimed at Senator Joe McCarthy, who saw communists behind every bush in Washington and in every major government agency.  Enemies of the people.

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I recently read the Smith/McCarthy story in David McCullough’s “Brave Companions” (1992).  McCullough is an excellent historian, writer and I suspect teacher.  My son-in-law Rob was in his class at Cornell.  In a graduation speech at Middlebury he said, “We appear to have an unending supply of patriots who know nothing about the history of this country, nor are they interested. We have not had a President of the United States with a sense of history since John Kennedy — not since before most of you were born. It ought to be mandatory for the office. As we have a language requirement for the Foreign Service, we should have a history requirement for the White House.”

McCullough encouraged the graduates to see the country — the strip mine coal fields  in Kentucky, Antietam battlefield, Monticello and it’s gardens, the heartland.  In one chapter he revels in all that Washington, D.C. has to offer.  For McCullough, “If nothing else, seeing the country should lead you to its past, it’s story, and there is no part of your education to come that can be more absorbing or inspiring or useful to your role in society, whatever that may be.  How can we know who we are and where we are going if we don’t know anything about where we have come from and what we have been through, the courage shown, the costs paid, to be where we are?”

In “Brave Companions: portraits in history,” McCullough tells the story of interesting, sometimes forgotten Americans but it’s always a biography, a personal story in context, in a specific place.  The setting is as important as the person.

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I think “The Johnstown Flood” (1968) was the first McCullough book that I read.  It was a great story, dramatic, really riveting, so well written.  Many years later a Holy Family College graduate student used it as the basis for a history unit.  She traveled to Johnstown and created a great teaching unit.  The trip is still on my to do list.

 

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A few years later I read “The Great Bridge: the epic story of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, (1983). I remember a great, dramatic story.  It was also very long.  John Augustus Roebling of Trenton died from an accident.  His son, Washington took over supervision; and he became incapacitated with the bends, which effected many workers who were construcing the huge piers underwater, reaching for bedrock.  Then there were the cables manufactured in Roebling’s Trenton factory.    A story of tragedy and determination. A great read.

In “Brave Companions” we read about the forgotten South American explorer, Alexander von Humboldt; Harriet Beecher Stowe (“Uncle Tom’s Cabin”);  Frederick Remington (western artist); Louis Agassiz (Harvard scientist); aviators, Charles and Anne Linberg, Beryl Markham.  Of special interest was Harry Caudill, a Kentucky lawyer who awakened the country to the tragedy of strip coal mining, black lung,  and the poverty of Appalachia. I also liked reading about photographer David Plowden, until recently I  had his book, “Commonplace,” a midwest tribute.

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I particularly liked McCullough’s chapter, “Washington on the Potomac,” a homage to our Capital, it’s old hotels, monuments and plaques, government buildings and institutions, the books written about and films made.    He writes, “What I am drawn to and moved by is historical Washington, or rather the presence of history almost everywhere one turns. It is hard to imagine anyone with a sense of history not being moved. No city in the country keeps and commemorates history as this one does.  Washington insists we remember, with statues and plaques and memorials and words carved in Stone, with libraries, archives, museums, and numerous, magnificent old houses . . .”

He is captivated by images of Washington characters, Truman who is the subject of another one of his books, but also Lincoln who he senses throughout the city.  McCullough also asks (relevant today), “Why do so many politicians feel obliged to get away from the city at every chance? They claim a pressing need to get back to the real America.  To win votes, many of them like also to deride the city and mock it’s institutions.  They run against Washington, in the shabby spirit made fashionable in recent presendential campaigns.  It’s as if they find the city alien or feel that too close an asssociation with it might somehow be dishonorable.  It is if they want to get away from history when clearly history is what they need, they most of all, and now more than ever.”  Could that have been written today instead of 1956 when it was first published.

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McCullough suggests politicians spend time on the Mall, in the National History Museum, or the National Gallery. “This is our capital. It speaks of who we are, what we have accomplished, what we value.”  It was Capre corn but the bus ride Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) takes through Washington, D.C. in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” echoes McCullough.  “Prize tolerance and horse sense. And some time, somewhere along the way, do something for your country.”

I like David McCullough’s sense of history, his interest in individual “brave” stories and his emphasis on background and place.  I’ve read a few other McCullough books (“1776” and “ Greater Journey: Americans in Paris.”) but I want to read “ John Adams” and “Truman.”  “Morning on Horseback,” about Theodore Roosevelt and “The Wright Brothers” are also on my list.

But like McCullough.  We need to know our history.

 

 

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