Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Debunking More Historical Myths


        American history is replete with enhanced incidents that actually turn out to be myths when they are closely examined. Here are a few more to set the historical record straight:

The Pound Ridge $12 Million Flag
An auction record was set on June 14, 2006, when the winning bid for a flag from the American Revolution reached the improbably high bid of $12,360,000 at a Sotheby's auction. (Previously the record paid for a Revolutionary War flag was $700,000.) Appropriately, the date was Flag Day.
The fragile, hand-stitched and hand-painted silk pennant of the 2nd Regiment of Continental Light Dragoons that fetched this price was allegedly "captured" at Pound Ridge, N.Y., on July 2, 1779, by one of the most despised British officers during the Revolution, Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton.
This flag and three others actually captured by him in May of 1780 in South Carolina were auctioned by a Tarleton descendant in Britain who could "no longer afford to keep them because of the high cost of insurance."
For all four flags, an exciting total of $17,416,000 changed hands. In the words of one observer, "this was more than the cost of the entire Revolutionary War."
Banastre (nicknamed "Bloody Ban") Tarleton was a short, redheaded cavalry colonel from Liverpool who gave up the study of law and accepted a commission bought for him in the King's Dragoon Guards. Only 21 when he became a lieutenant in 1775, Tarleton rocketed to the rank of lieutenant colonel quickly because of his reckless daring.
Many of his troopers in the British Legion were volunteers recruited among the sons of Tory families in New York, one of the most loyal of the original colonies. Outfitted in a distinctive green uniform, his British Legion was stationed at Mile Square in Yonkers.
To the north, at Pound Ridge, was a troop of about 90 American cavalry from Connecticut, the 2nd Continental Light Dragoons under Col. Elisha Sheldon. Pound Ridge was also the home of Maj. Ebenezer Lockwood, a widely respected patriot who served in the New York Provincial Congress.
Tarleton was ordered to make a surprise raid on Pound Ridge and capture Lockwood on whose head a reward of forty guineas had been set. (A guinea was a gold coin equivalent to 21 shillings; the pound was worth 20 shillings.) An American spy, Leonard Kinnicut, warned Col. Sheldon of the impending raid, although he could not tell him when it would happen.
Tarleton chose a rainy night to move his 360 mounted British and Hessian troops toward Pound Ridge. Firearms were useless in a drenching rain, and sentries were less likely to be alert. Moving north by way of Bedford, they arrived at Pound Ridge on the morning of July 2, 1779, and drove Sheldon back about two miles before militiamen started gathering and Tarrleton had to withdraw. Lockwood escaped, and a frustrated Tarleton torched his home and the church.
Sheldon eventually chased Tarleton and his troops from Pound Ridge to what is now Mount Kisco.  On his way back to Mile Square, Tarleton reported burning a few houses that day, including one in Bedford belonging to Benjamin Hayes because the colonists persisted in firing upon Tarleton from their homes.  
And although his raid on Pound Ridge was a failure, Tarleton made much of the "captured" rebel flag of the Second Regiment of the Continental Light Dragoons. Instead of having been wrested from the hands of the enemy in a bloody battle, the flag had been found among officers' baggage in one of the houses the raiding party had ransacked. How much of the $12.36 million paid for this object was based on Tarleton’s inflation of a lie into a legend we shall never know.

Who Burned Bedford? And When?
The unincorporated hamlet that calls itself Bedford Village was established in 1680, but visitors are always surprised that no house in Bedford antedates the American Revolution. The reason is simple: Nine days after Banastre Tarleton burned a single house in Bedford during his raid on Pound Ridge, the entire hamlet of Bedford was burned, save for one house belonging to a widow with Tory sentiments that was later demolished.
For nearly 200 years, historians dated the burning of Bedford on July 2, 1779, during Tarleton’s surprise raid on Pound Ridge and blamed Tarleton for torching the community.
In 1974, two local historians, Dorothy Hinitt and Frances Duncombe, published a book titled The Burning of Bedford that conclusively proved Bedford was burned on July 11, not July 2, 1779. Despite their intensive research, however, they never discovered who led the July 11 British attack force, which included many who had participated in the July 2 raid on Pound Ridge.
Six years later, while researching Bedford history for its 1980 tricentennial celebration, Ronald Reynolds discovered the answer in the diaries of Archibald Robertson, who served with the Royal Engineers. Robertson  was a friend of British general Sir Henry Clinton, who ordered the July 11 attack on Bedford in the hope of capturing Irish-born Col. Stephen Moylan, whose 4th Continental Light Dragoons guarded the Bedford area.
British cavalry, 400 strong, arrived in Bedford on July 11 to find that Moylan’s dragoons had left Bedford the day before to defend Connecticut shore towns under attack by a formidable British force. Clinton had mounted a punitive expedition to punish Connecticut for attacking British shipping on Long Island Sound and for supplying the rebel army.
Frustrated at finding their quarry gone and still angry at having been fired upon by Bedford residents during the earlier Pound Ridge raid, cavalry troopers led by Lt. Col. Samuel Birch of the 17th Light Dragoons burned Bedford on July 11. Thanks to diligent research, a 200-year-old mystery was finally solved. Samuel Birch, not Banastre Tarleton was the arsonist.

Did Mrs. Murray Stall the British?
Flouting all historical evidence, circumstantial and factual, the myth has persisted that Mary Lindley Murray gave a party for British officers that delayed their invasion of Manhattan Island.
It's a delightful fiction but one that does not bear close examination. On September 15, 1776, the British made an impressive amphibious landing at Kip's Bay (on the East River at about what is now 34th Street in Manhattan). So overwhelming was the initial bombardment of the American militia’s position by British warships, the defenders retreated almost without firing a shot.
According to some historians, Gen. Israel Putnam's 3,000 troops and 67 guns in lower Manhattan could have been easily captured had British troops pushed across this sparsely settled part of the narrow island of Manhattan to the shore of the Hudson, a little more than a mile to the west.
But, in a widely accepted story, patriotic Mrs. Robert Murray, whose house occupied the elevation then called Inclenberg (now Murray Hill), diverted invading British staff officers by inviting them to stop for refreshments.
This charming account first saw the light of day in the journal kept by a tireless diarist of the period, Continental Army surgeon James Thacher.
Later writers imaginatively embellished the Murray myth. One had Mrs. Murray employing "feminine delaying wiles." Another told how she beguiled "the gallant Britons with smiles and pleasant conversation and a profusion of cakes and wine." Still another described how the British officers "lingered over their wine, quaffing and laughing and bantering with their patriotic hostess about the ludicrous panic and discomfiture of her countrymen."
Was Mrs. Murray indeed a patriotic siren, a veritable American Circe, as so many writers portrayed her? The truth is she was a 50-year-old Quaker lady, the wife of a prosperous merchant and the mother of twelve children--a middle-aged woman oddly cast in the improbable role of vamp and temptress.
Because the gently sloping hill on which the Murray mansion stood was an objective of the first wave of the landing force, Mrs. Murray may  have invited the British officers into her parlor--but not very likely "to enjoy her old Madeira," as one writer put it. She had little choice. The British had selected her house to serve as their temporary headquarters.
Given that the British officers were fresh from victory at Brooklyn Heights and spoiling for a another fight, Madeira, even if it existed in the Murray household, would hardly have delayed the advance of the entire British landing force bent on evicting American troops and occupying New York City.
 The British delay in pushing forward has a more prosaic explanation.
Gen. Sir William Howe had ordered the first division of about 4,000 men under Gen. Henry Clinton to land at Kip’s Bay and seize and hold Murray Hill until the 9,000 men of the second division could be landed and brought into action. It was not until 5 p.m. that Howe’s entire force was ashore.
While Howe waited for the second wave to join him as planned, George Washington took advantage of the gift of time to reform his troops in strong natural defensive positions on Morningside Heights (then called Harlem Heights), near the site of the present Columbia University, where work had already been begun on a three-line defense in depth.
The repulse of Howe's impetuous advance guard in a running battle on the Heights the next day taught the British commander something about Washington's generalship. It marked the first time soldiers under his command had bested the British in a direct confrontation. This "brisk little skirmish," as Washington called it, did much to lift his troops’ flagging spirits.

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