At our October meeting, Round Tablers had occasion to be proud as well as fascinated. Two of our members, Andrea Meyer and John Burke, told us about their research into one of the mysteries of the Revolution, the identity of the woman known only as 355. It is a puzzle they have probed, singly and together, for many years. What they found was electrifying. 355 was a member of the so-called Culper spy ring, based on Long Island with agents in New York. She was almost certainly a friend of Major John Andre, chief of British intelligence. When Andre was in New York, the Culpers's information was rich; when he was away with Sir Henry Clinton on his invasion of South Carolina, General Washington was soon grousing that they were wasting money on the Culpers. Then came the bonanza -- the report that an American major general was about to betray the American cause. How much Agent 355 told the Americans will never be known in detail. But it soon became apparent that they knew a great deal. When the trap closed on Andre, and Arnold escaped to New York, the traitor triggered a roundup of suspects in British-occupied territory. Agent 355 was arrested and apparently died aboard one of the vile prison ships in New York harbor. This assumption was challenged by an historian who claimed that no women were sent to the prison ships. John Burke read his way through the 14,000 names in the British archives and found several women. Who was 355? Our speakers ventured a well-educated guess: Betty Floyd, a cousin of the Townsends who ran the Culper ring. Whereupon our two speakers left us with a breathless question: was the whole story of Andre being captured by accident in Westchester County disinformation to cover how totally the Americans had penetrated the plot? We all went home musing -- and doubly proud of our homegrown speakers.
Tom Fleming reviewed George Washington and Benedict Arnold. A Tale of Two Patriots by Dave R. Palmer. Regnery Publishing. Few if any writers are better qualified to handle this historic comparison than Dave R. Palmer. A retired lieutenant general, former superintendent of West Point, and the author of the monumental history of the fortress in its Revolutionary days, The River and the Rock, and many other books, Dave Palmer understands how leadership works in a war. He takes us through the Revolution, seeing it with the eyes of both men, and convincingly describes what made them outstanding leaders. He helps us understand how Benedict Arnold became Washington's favorite fighting general and George Washington became his mentor and protector against his numerous enemies. How this friendship deteriorated on Arnold's side is a heartbreaking story, a blend of Arnold's contentious temperament and the meanness and persistence with which his enemies pursued him. The book builds irresistibly to that riveting moment at West Point, when the truth of Arnold's treason becomes incontrovertible, and a heartbroken Washington cries: "Arnold has betrayed us!"
The superbly realized drama of the story would be reward enough for almost any reader. But General Palmer gives us a bonus-- a final chapter entitled Character. Here is where his years of experience as a soldier and an historian coalesce. He asks what the word really means, and discusses how long philosophers have analyzed and argued about it. His analysis of the two men's characters enables us to see why George Washington achieved greatness and Benedict Arnold obloquy. It also adds profoundly to our admiration for this superb book.
Tom also reviewed A Hero and a Spy, The Revolutionary War Correspondence of Benedict Arnold, edited by Russell M. Lea. Heritage Books, 2006. This is a good companion volume to Dave Palmer's book. Lea does an excellent job of compiling Arnold's letters, which are an ideal way to study his troubled personality. The book contains over 100 letters written by Arnold and 75 written to him. Lea's commentaries linking the letters are well done.
Jim English reviewed Dark Bargain: Slavery, Profits and the Struggle for the Constitution by Lawrence Goldstone. The author paints a dire picture of compromise and conciliation to the demands of the Southern states at the Constitutional Convention. The southerners were led by John Rutledge of South Carolina. Goldstone calls Rutledge the father of the Constitution, rather than James Madison. His heroes are Oliver Ellsworth and Roger Sherman of Connecticut, who persuaded the northerners to accept the compromise on which Rutledge insisted. The author admits that the evil of slavery had to be accepted in order for a great nation to be born. He quotes Madison: "Great as the evil is, a dismemberment of the Union would be worse." Goldstone concludes his no-holds-barred portrait by noting that our Constitution righted itself on this issue 78 years later -- a matter of no small importance.
Jack Buchanan told us about Landon Carter's Uneasy Kingdom: Revolution and Rebellion on a Southern Plantation by Rhys Isaac. Jack said Isaac, a Pulitzer Prize winner for his earlier book, The Transformation of Virginia, 1740-1790, establishes the theme of his book in two succinct paragraphs. One describes European civilization as shaped by patriarchal monarchies, with citizens who were subjects. The other paragraph describe the Declaration of Independence as one of the great events in history because it destroyed this patriarchal monarchy as the keystone of the cosmic arch of public and private authority. Jack liked these paragraphs because they asserted the American Revolution was a true revolution. Too many academic historians deny this. Isaac demonstrates his thesis with the story of Landon Carter, an enormously wealthy Virginia planter, far higher on the social scale than George Washington. Carter supported the Revolution; but as it progressed, he became aware that it would soon destroy the world he inhabited. There he was the king of his plantation-centered universe; slaves obeyed his every whim; he could even tell his son whom he could and could not marry. Jack praised the book as a riveting combination of psychology and history.
Mark Domowne reviewed The Incendiary: The Misadventures of John the Painter, First Modern Terrorist, by Jessica Warner. The book is the story of the man who tried to sabotage the British fleet by burning down Portsmouth, one of its biggest dockyards in 1777. James Aitken travelled under numerous aliases. He was a house painter by trade. He went to America as an indentured servant, ran away to the Caribbean and returned to England in 1775, where he enlisted in the British Army. He promptly deserted and became a convert to the American Revolution. Aitken demonstrated how easy it was to panic an entire society. Alarmed British citizens initiated patrols around other dockyards and similar potential targets. Only when John the Painter was hanged did a modicum of calm return. Needless to say, John did not make any friends for the American cause. Mark praised Ms Warner's research and recommended the book as an offbeat look at the restless underside of English society.
Dear Round Tablers:
While you are rushing around this Christmas season buying presents for children and grandchildren, here are two books for young readers to keep in mind -- written by two of your very own members:
Tom Fleming has produced Everybody's Revolution, A New Look at the People Who Won America's Freedom. It is packed with graphic anecdotes about the Irish, Germans, Jews, Blacks, Women and Indians who fought for America's independence. Arthur Lefkowitz has written an equally fine book, The Story of the Turtle, America's First Submarine. It tells the amazing saga of David Bushnell, who designed and launched a one man submarine in Long Island Sound in 1775 and brought it to New York, where The Turtle came very close to sinking the flagship of the British fleet.
In October, two very good historians received Round Table awards for writing the best books of 2005 on the American Revolution. At our show, James Grant won for John Adams, Party of One. The Philadelphia Round Table gave their annual Thomas Fleming Award to Major Glenn Williams, AUS. Ret., for Year of the Hangman, George Washington's Campaign Against the Iroquois. The book examines the war on the frontier.
George Washington had his own brand of whiskey? Come on. Not only is this true, Washington's brand is about to be reborn and may eventually challenge Canadian Club and other modern recipes for delirium tremens. George got into the business at the end of his life. He produced 11,000 gallons of rye whiskey and flavored brandies in 1797. "It was a major commercial operation," says Dennis Pogue, historian at contemporary Mount Vernon. "It was as good as any whiskey that was being made." The reborn distillery, which will open this year, cost $2 million plus. Almost all the cash came from the distilled spirits industry, who want to broaden people's understanding of the place of alcohol in American history. For the time being, the five copper stills and brick ovens in the rebuilt sandstone building will produce whiskey only for special occasions. But Mount Vernon officials are seriously considering bottling and selling George's booze in your neighborhood liquor store.
On Saturday, March 31, 2007, the 43rd Regiment of Foot (reenactors branch) will sponsor a symposium on the 18th Century fighting man entitled "Lock, Stock and Barrel: The World of the Revolutionary Soldier." This full day program will take place at the Valley Forge Hilton. There will be a series of hour long presentations by more than a dozen of the nation's most recognized authorities on the military experience of the Revolution. The day will conclude with a keynote presentation and festivities at Valley Forge Park's Visitors Center. A welcome reception for participants will be hosted at the center by Park Superintendent Mike Caldwell on Friday evening.
Everyone's heard of the battle of Flamborough Head, where The Bonhomme Richard, captained by John Paul Jones, slugged it out by moonlight with the British frigate, Serapis. But does anyone remember what happened to the Richard? A few ARRT navy buffs will recall that it sank the next day -- but exactly where? That's what an expedition launched from the Avery Point campus of the University of Connecticut is trying to find out. The day before he left for England, the organizer of the hunt, Captain John "Jack" Ringelberg, USN Ret, pondered a map on his computer. Off Flamborough Head, the North Sea is 200 feet deep. Over the map was a grid of overlapping rectangles plotted from first hand reports and estimates of where the Richard might have drifted before she sank. "We're looking at 50 square miles," Captain Ringelberg said. "My hope is to end up with one to three high probability targets." It won't be easy. The search can only be conducted during July and August. At any other time of the year "you're going to get beaten to death," he said. The North Sea is rough water. The hope is to locate Richard using magnetometers that can detect her metal cannon. There's also competition. Among others, writer Clive Cussler, whose novels feature sunken ships, has been looking for Jones's ship for years. In his Navy days, Captain Ringelberg headed an experimental diving team. If he finds any signals, he plans to go down for a look next summer. "It would be a greater discovery than The Titanic," he says. To which we Round Tablers can only reply: "Amen and Good diving!"
Fasten your historical seatbelts, folks. The Middlebury Institute in Burlington Vermont, a think tank devoted to the history of separatism, secession and self determination, held a weekend conference on November 3-4 at the Wyndham Burlington Hotel. The head of the Institute, Kirk Sale, noted that Vermont was the perfect setting for such a conference. It was independent from 1777 to 1791, only joining the federal union when they decided the United States offered them a better deal than the British empire. People from 16 secessionist organizations in 18 states, including Hawaii, Alaska, South Carolina (of course), Tennessee and (surprise surprise) Vermont spent two days claiming that "any political entity has the right to separate itself from a larger body of which it is a part." They base this principle on the American experience in the "Secessionist War" of 1776.
Now it can be told. For the last four months your treasurer has been in contact with the staff of one of Hollywood's major producers, David Gerber. Born in Brooklyn, Mr. Gerber served during WWII in the Army Air Corps and survived being shot down over Germany. Moving to Hollywood, he began working in the new TV industry. His credits read like a who's who of TV History; "Batman", "Room 222", "Police Story" , "Police Woman", "In the Heart of the Night", "Nanny and the Professor" and "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir." He also found time to work in the movies, serving recently as executive producer of Flight 93.
Mr. Gerber has received numerous awards --Emmys, Golden Globes, Peabodys. Earlier this year a fire destroyed his office and all his awards. He has been securing replacements from the Hollywood community but one award was harder to obtain-- his ARRT Achievement Award for 1984 for his mini-series, George Washington. He sent me a photograph of it, so we have the exact wording. He values our praise as much as his Globes and Emmys. Shortly Mr. Gerber will receive a replacement. Like the original it will be on metal and wood and from Fraunces Tavern, which is where the RT met 22 years ago.
Looking for a gift for the revolutionaries in your life? Your treasurer recommends "Colonial and Revolution Songs" by Keith and Rusty McNeil. The McNeils have been working on a project to record American history through folk songs. The results have been wonderful. Each album contains recorded and historical notes and well played songs, some famous, many unknown today. Besides the Revolution they have completed sets for the Civil War, Moving West, Cowboys, Western Railroads, Working and Union Songs and California. Check their website at: http://www.mcneilmusic.com or phone 909 780 2322. WEM Records, Van Buren Blvd. Riverside, CA 92504
The answer to October's quiz was General Hugh Mercer, MD. He was killed in the battle of Princeton, buried at Laurel Hill in Philadelphia and lived in Fredericksburg, the boyhood home of George Washington. Gen. Mercer is the great grandfather of Gen. George Patton.
My three buildings are named after John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. What am I?
A free dinner to the lucky (also smart) winners!
Dues for the coming year are payable by December 31. if you haven't paid, get ye to a mailbox!