Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Debunking a Few More Historical Myths


The American Revolution was unique in that many military actions took place in Westchester and the lower Hudson Valley. Recent research in primary sources has revealed some versions of events here to be myths.

The Myth that Patriots Burned New York
Ironically, a week after their landing at Kip’s Bay, on Sept. 21, 1776, the British were robbed of a portion of their prize by the destruction of about a third of New York City in a disastrous fire that destroyed 493 houses before British troops and local citizens could extinguish the flames.
Because the city's volunteer firemen had left with the American troops, the fire spread with intense speed. The conflagration, which started in a house near Whitehall Slip, inconvenienced caused the British because they had counted on billeting troops in the city.
In the belief that Americans had deliberately fired the city, enraged British soldiers killed a number of citizens. British soldiers and sailors called out to fight the fire pillaged many houses.
Observing the red glow on the southern horizon from his position at the Roger Morris house on Harlem Heights, Washington commented, “Providence or some good honest fellow has done more for us than we were disposed to do for ourselves.”
The British claimed that the fire had been planned with the knowledge of George Washington, but the General and the Continental Congress denied the existence of any plot. In fact, Congress had specifically prohibited the destruction of the city.

The Hessians of Croton’s Hessian Hill
Repetition of inaccurate information often embeds it in local history. Hessian Hill, northeast of Mt. Airy, in the village of Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y., takes its name because local legend claims Hessian troops were quartered there during the winter of 1779-80. The time frame is wrong. Hessian troops indeed may have occupied it during the summer months of 1779, but they were long gone before the winter of 1779-1780.
British General Sir Henry Clinton sailed up the Hudson in a fleet of some 70 vessels on May 30, 1779, with an army of about 5,000. Clinton's troops occupied Stony Point on the west bank. A force under British Gen. John Vaughan landed at Verplanck Point on June 1st and captured its Fort Lafayette.
Stony Point was captured by Americans under Mad Anthony Wayne a month and a half later on July 16, 1779, in an impressive victory planned by George Washington. Wayne later swore that he would storm Hell if Washington made the preparations.
Although Americans abandoned the position, crucial to a key ferry crossing of the Hudson, three days after its capture, the British concluded that it was indefensible and evacuated it permanently later in the year. The Continental Army used the crossing in its march from Westchester to Yorktown, Virginia, two years later.
After Washington reinforced American troops at Peekskill, the British withdrew from the area north of the Croton River and abandoned Verplanck Point on October 21st, well before the cold of winter arrived.

Were German Mercenaries only Hessians?
No. Although many German mercenaries were from Hesse-Kassel and Hesse-Hanau, other states, especially Brunswick, also supplied troops. One explanation why all German troops were incorrectly called "Hessians" may lie in the fact that their three successive commanders were all Hessians.
The practice of hiring foreign soldiers was common up to the 18th century, although mercenaries could not keep Constantinople from falling to the Turks in the 15th century. Most small professional armies found it necessary to employ auxiliaries in foreign wars of long duration.
Only 17,313 of the 29,867 German soldiers who reached these shores returned home. About five thousand deserted and another 7,754 found graves in America, from disease as well as battle.
German mercenaries were despised for their cruelty, even by the British. They gained no battle laurels in America and did not win a single battle in which they were exclusively pitted against Americans.
The most notable German defeats included their Christmas surprise at Trenton, N.J., their drubbing at Bennington, Vt., and General Knyphausen's failed raid against American forces under Gen. Nathanael Greene at Springfield, N.J.
Instead of learning from their experiences in America, German mercenaries returned home unshaken in their faith in the outmoded military tactics of Frederick the Great and the myth of their own invincibility.
This illusion persisted until one October day in 1806 when Napoleon’s highly trained and adaptable army crushed two great Prussian armies in a matter of hours in twin victories at Jena and Auerstedt. Ruthless German efficiency on the battlefield had given way to outworn precision on the parade ground with disastrous results.

The Patriots’ Superior Propaganda Skills
The distorted view of the American Revolution that was perpetuated so long is a tribute to American mastery of the art of propaganda.
Early in the struggle, patriots like Sam Adams realized that to stir up their fellow citizens and to win friends abroad, they had to circulate their own version of every incident and do it quickly.
Take, for example, the reporting of the running battle at Lexington and Concord. Thanks to the prevailing westerly winds, the average sailing time from America to England was one month, (In the opposite direction, the voyage took two months.)
British General Thomas Gage's report of the incident on April 18th and 19th in 1775 was dispatched aboard the ship Sukey on April 22nd and reached London on June 10th, having taken the extraordinarily long time of 49 days.
Although the American version of the affair went out four days later on April 26, it arrived at the end of May. The Americans cleverly outwitted General Gage by sending Capt. John Darby's ship Quero ”in ballast” (i.e., without cargo). Gage's slower ship was heavily laden and took longer.
American propaganda techniques occasionally backfired. A good example of this occurred a half century after Lexington and Concord, when the Americans--who had labored to show that they had not fired the first shot--had difficulty in proving that any Americans had fired at all.

Myths about Militias
Large standing armies represent a relatively recent innovation in the art of warfare. The almost continuous wars in America in the hundred years before the Revolution were fought by British troops, reinforced by local militias called "Provincials" by the British.
Battles against the rebelling colonists during the Revolution were fought by British regulars, German mercenaries and Tory militia. British professional military men tended to take a dim view of the capabilities of the colonial militias.
Yet during the American Revolution, it was these same militiamen who gathered so quickly at Lexington and Concord, who placed Boston under siege, who fought at Bunker Hill, and who formed the nucleus of the fledgling Continental Army.
At the same time, because they were part-time soldiers subject to their home state's authority, militia units were often unreliable. After the battle of Long Island, of the 8,000 Connecticut militiamen serving under Washington in August of 1776, only 2,000 could be located after the battle. The others had simply drifted away and went back home.
The second battle of Saratoga in 1777 was the turning point of the Revolution Immediately before that engagement, Gen. John Stark's New Hampshire militia, only recently the heroes at the battle of Bennington, joined Gen. Horatio Gates's command early one morning. Because their enlistments were up, they jeopardized the eventual victory by leaving before noon.
"Few events in the war so proved the utter failure of the militia system," an American historian later wrote. Paradoxically, if led by experienced officers who understood their inherent weakness, the militia could—and did—fight like regular soldiers.

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