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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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Debunking Our Historical Myths

"All history, so far as it is not supported by contemporary evidence, is romance." So observed Dr. Samuel Johnson to James Boswell, his biographer. No period of history has been subject to more romantic enhancement than the American Revolution.
Dr. Johnson's sage remark was brought to mind by the holiday we just observed. We should more properly call it:

America’s Erroneous Birthday
The Fourth of July is universally regarded as America's birthday. Some say because the Declaration of Independence was adopted on that date in 1776 in Philadelphia. Others say it marks the date on which the history-making document was signed by the members of that first Continental Congress. It may come as a surprise to discover that these are legends. Moreover, they are legends that have been given the ring of truth by several famous errors.
Not the least of these errors is John Trumbull's historically inaccurate painting, "The Declaration of Independence," which hangs in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol and is reproduced on the obverse of the two-dollar bill.
In their old age, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both mistakenly recalled that the document had been signed on July 4th, adding to a fiction that apparently will not die. Despite its date of July 4th, the Continental Congress actually voted in favor of independence on July 2nd. Two days later it adopted the wording of Jefferson’s Declaration.
In New York, the colony’s Provincial Congress gave its assent on July 9th. At 6 p.m. that same day the Declaration was read to Washington's troops mustered in the Common (now City Hall Park). A rowdy crowd of soldiers and civilians then marched down Broadway to Bowling Green, where they toppled the equestrian statue of George III erected in 1770.  The head was put on a spike, and the rest of the statue, two tons of lead, was hauled to Connecticut to be made into musket balls for the use of Continental troops.
As for signing the document, Jefferson’s rough draft of the Declaration was not ordered to be engrossed (penned) on parchment until July 19, 1776--more than two weeks after the Fourth of July.
In fact, no one actually signed the document until August 2nd, when all delegates present did so. At least six of the 56 signatures were added later. Matthew Thornton from New Hampshire was not a member of the Continental Congress when the Declaration was drawn up. He was elected in the fall of 1776 and received permission to sign in November when he took his seat.
Thomas McKean, of Delaware, seems to have been the first to publicly challenge the idea that the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4th. McKean discovered that his name did not appear as a signer in the early printed journals of the Continental Congress and complained. The exact date of his signing is not known, but it probably was after Jan 18, 1777.
Four conservative members of the Continental Congress refused to sign the document on principle. These were John Dickinson of Pennsylvania; James Duane, who became a mayor of New York City (Duane Street is named for him); Robert R. Livingston (Robert Fulton’s future patron and partner); and John Jay, of Bedford, N.Y., later governor and first chief justice of the Supreme Court.
Some members of the Continental Congress never signed--for good reason: Generals George Washington, John Sullivan, Christopher Gadsden and George Clinton were all serving in the field. Fiery radical Patrick Henry did not sign; he had resigned precipitously from the Continental Congress in February of 1776 and returned to Virginia.
In British eyes, signing such a document represented a treasonable act, so delay on the part of any signers is understandable. When Lewis Morris, then third lord of the manor of Morrisania in Westchester (now part of the borough of the Bronx), was about to sign, he was reminded that doing so would risk death and confiscation of his manor, which lay in the path of the fighting.
 "Damn the consequences, give me the pen," he is said to have replied. He signed with a flourish; his Westchester estate was ravaged in retaliation. The homes of 15 of the signers of the Declaration were destroyed.

Who Created the Stars and Stripes?
June 14th is celebrated as Flag Day because on that date in 1776, Congress passed a resolution vaguely defining what the American flag should look like. It said, "Resolved that the flag of the United States be 13 stripes alternate red and white, that the union be 13 stars white in a blue field representing a new constellation." No specification was made for the arrangement of the stars.
Many authorities believe that the "Bennington Flag," flown at the battle of Bennington, Vt.,  in August of 1777, was the first to be carried by American ground forces in battle. Its blue field, nine stripes deep, has an arch of only 11 seven-pointed stars over the numerals "76," with two stars added at the top corners.
Unfortunately, the design of the Bennington flag does not meet the requirements of the Flag Resolution. A significant difference is that the top and bottom stripes are white, rather than the prescribed red.
Another claim is that the Stars and Stripes were first flown over Fort Stanwix (on the site of modern Rome, N.Y.), which held out against British Col. Barry St. Leger's raiding expedition into the Mohawk Valley in 1777. Marinus Willett supplied the makings of this flag from British uniforms he captured at Peekskill.
A flag historian later decided that this "was not the Stars and Stripes, but a flag of the same design as that raised by George Washington at Cambridge, Mass., on taking command of the Continental Army" on July 3, 1775.
That flag had 13 alternating red and white stripes and the joined crosses of St. George and St. Andrew in the canton (the rectangle at the upper corner next to the staff). Washington's Cambridge flag was a modified version of the British Meteor Flag, so named not for its design but because of the terror it supposedly struck in Britain's foes.
In the American version, six horizontal white stripes were imposed on its red field, thus forming 13 alternate red and white stripes.
According to a definitive history of the American flag, "while Congress never formally adopted it, this banner soon became known as the ‘Union Flag,' the 'Grand Union Flag,' the 'Congress Flag,' and the 'Colours of the United Colonies.’"
Other famous flags antedated the Flag Resolution. These included the Bunker Hill Flag (probably a red flag with a green tree in the canton); the Gadsden, or South Carolina Rattlesnake Flag ("Don't Tread on Me"); the New England Pine Tree Flag ("An Appeal to Heaven"); and the Crescent Flag, with a crescent moon in the upper left corner and the word "Liberty" emblazoned across the bottom), first flown at the siege of Charleston, S.C., in 1776.

Did Betsy Ross Sew the First Flag?
Don’t bet on it. Every schoolchild knows--and will proudly tell you--that Betsy Ross made the first American flag in Philadelphia for George Washington. According to the legend, Washington, Robert Morris--who raised money to finance the Continental Army--and George Ross, Betsy’s uncle, ordered it. The three were members of the Continental Congress; the date is supposed to have been in May of 1776, thus antedating the Flag Resolution.
But did this widowed upholsterer actually sew the first flag? Popularly called the "Betsy Ross pattern," the flag in question has 13 five-pointed white stars in a wreath, or circle, on a blue field, and with seven red and six white stripes.
Historians do not regard that flag as a serious contender for the honor of being the first American flag. Documentary evidence exists that Betsy was paid in 1777 for "making ships' colours, etc."
In fact, the story of the Betsy Ross flag did not surface until it was told in 1870, almost a hundred years after the event, by her grandson, William Canby, who claimed it was a family tradition.
Canby’s account was supported by affidavits offered by Betsy Ross's granddaughter, daughter and niece, which described, many years after the fact, how Betsy Ross recounted the story of her flag. But no contemporaneous records exist attesting to her primacy in the making of a 1776 flag.
One contemporary contender was poet and artist Francis Hopkinson. A signer of the Declaration of Independence from New Jersey, Hopkinson played a role in designing the seals of the American Philosophical Society, the State of New Jersey and the University of Pennsylvania.
In 1780, Hopkinson wrote to the Admiralty Board that he was pleased they liked the seal he had designed for them, and requested recognition for this and "other devices" he itemized, including designs for Continental currency.
Topping his list, however, was his claim that he had created the "Stars and Stripes." Hopkinson petitioned Congress and requested only "a Quarter Cask of the public wine" for his "labours of fancy," evidence perhaps of his desire more for recognition than for payment. After much wrangling, his invoice was not paid because it lacked supporting vouchers. Congress decided in 1781 that too many people had worked on the design of the flag for any one person to be given credit as its creator.
Such fanciful distortions from the time of the Revolution only prove the truth of another of Samuel Johnson's remarks recorded by Boswell: "Many things which are false are transmitted from book to book and gain credit in the world."

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Tuesday, July 03, 2012

General Daniel Butterfield: Tarnished Hero


We often forget that history is not only shaped by events, but it is also made by individuals.
A case in point is Gen. Daniel Butterfield. The circumstances of his modification of an existing bugle call to create the mournful Taps we know today were explored in these pages last week.
But Butterfield himself is a perplexing and enigmatic figure whose career deserves close examination.
His rise in the military was meteoric by any standard. Shortly after the 1861 Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, he joined the Army in Washington, D.C., on April 16, as a first sergeant
Despite having little military background other than part-time militia service, within two weeks he obtained a commission as a colonel in the 12th New York Infantry. By July he was in command of a brigade. By September he was a brigadier general.
Butterfield joined the Fifth Corps of Gen. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac for the unsuccessful Peninsula Campaign to capture Richmond, Virginia. While his troops recuperated at Harrison's Landing  after the grueling withdrawal that culminated the campaign, he experimented with bugle calls.
Butterfield continued in command of a brigade at the disastrous second battle of Bull Run and the battle of Antietam, a Union victory but also the bloodiest day of the war.
In the battle of Fredericksburg, he commanded the Fifth Corps, one of the two corps that failed to take the key position of Marye's Heights, despite 16 frontal attacks.
When Gen. Joseph Hooker was given command of the Army of the Potomac in January 1863, he set a bad example for the conduct of generals and their staffs by creating a backstabbing network of political cronies that included his chief of staff, Daniel Butterfield, now a major general.
During this period, his headquarters was described by cavalry officer Charles F. Adams, Jr., as “a combination of a bar-room and a brothel."
As an officer, Butterfield was thoroughly disliked by other officers. After he was wounded at Gettysburg in July of 1863 by a fragment of a spent artillery shell, a fellow officer wrote, "Fortunately for him and the joy of all, he has gone home." But their elation was short-lived. Butterfield returned to headquarters after a brief recuperation. Following his mustering out of the volunteer forces in 1865, he returned to private life.

The Gold Conspiracy
During the Civil War, the United States government issued large sums of paper money backed only by credit. In the war years, the U.S. national debt rose from $64 million to over $2.8 billion.
After the war ended, the government began a policy of buying back “greenbacks” with gold and using the paper money to buy U.S. bonds. In 1869, two crafty speculators, Jay Gould and Jim Fisk, sought to profit from this practice by cornering the gold market. 
The conspirators needed two additional key players: someone with access to newly elected President Ulysses S. Grant and someone willing to tip them off when the government intended to sell gold.
They found the first in Abel Corbin, a 61-year-old widower who had married Grant’s younger sister, 37-year-old Jennie. The other player who would leak insider information to them was Daniel Butterfield.
Corbin convinced Grant to appoint Butterfield as assistant secretary of the treasury. Stationed in New York in the sub-treasury building on Wall Street, his job was to handle sales of gold by the government in the nearby exchange called the Gold Room.
Corbin arranged a meeting with Gould, who immediately handed Butterfield a personal check for $10,000. The new appointee, whose annual salary was $8,000, quietly pocketed the money.
In order to gain leverage for the gold scam, Gould purchased the Tenth National Bank in New York, a Wall Street bank with a reputation for making sweetheart deals with favored clients.
Whenever Grant visited New York, Corbin arranged for the conspirators to meet with the president. Gould's pitch to Grant was that it would be advantageous to Western farmers if the price of gold went up since a bumper grain crop was forecast and gold was the medium of payment for international transactions. Grant listened but remained noncommittal. Gould mistook Grant's silence for agreement.
On September 1, 1869, Gould instructed his brokers to purchase $1.5 million in gold for Corbin's account and another 1.5 million for Butterfield. For every dollar increase in the price of gold, each would net a $15,000 profit.
Gould and Fisk began buying gold aggressively. By Wednesday, September 22, gold closed at $141, up almost four dollars. Gould and Fisk together owned some $50-$60 million in gold. That day’s price rise generated a profit of over $1.75 million for the two conspirators. Gold closed on September 23 at $144.50, up another $3.50.
During the two-week gold-buying frenzy, treasury secretary George Boutwell in Washington had followed developments closely. On the evening of Thursday, September 23 he met with Grant and reported that gold's gyrations had caused the stock market and commerce to nearly come to a halt. Furious at having been used, Grant instructed Boutwell to sell gold "to save the country from a panic" if the price advanced on Friday morning.
By 9:30 the next morning, the price of gold was at $150, with the conspirators snapping up every offer. By 11 o'clock the price had crept up to $155 and was edging toward $160.
The treasury secretary reported these numbers to Grant and suggested that the government sell $3 million in gold from the New York sub-treasury. "You’d better make it $5 million,” said Grant. Boutwell hurried back to his office and dictated a telegram to Butterfield, splitting the difference:

Black Friday
To keep Butterfield from tipping off the conspirators, Boutwell issued a simultaneous press release. The news hit the gold exchange like a bombshell. Gold, which had been hovering between $160 and $162, plummeted to $133 in minutes. Dozens of brokerages and hundreds of gold buyers went bankrupt. The day would become known as Black Friday. It would take years for American business and agriculture to recover.
 Jay Gould and Jim Fisk survived simply by refusing to pay for the gold they had ordered. Butterfield was allowed to resign his Treasury post.
In testimony before a committee investigating the gold conspiracy, Butterfield raised eyebrows by insisting the $10,000 he accepted from Gould was an interest-free real estate loan with no documentation or repayment date.
To escape further scrutiny, Butterfield took his family on an extended tour of Europe. For two years he lived off his investments, studying the London and Paris postal systems, and waiting for the heat to die down back home.
He returned to New York from Europe two years later and rejoined the American Express Company, the business his father had founded. Butterfield prospered, branching into ventures ranging from steamboats to apartment houses to banks. He ran twice for Congress on the Republican ticket and was a serious contender for that party’s nomination for governor in the 1890s.
 Successful and wealthy, he lived in grand style on Cragside, his estate overlooking the Hudson in Cold Spring, N.Y. Thirty years after the event, he managed to wangle a Medal of Honor in 1892 for his action during the battle at Gaines' Mill on June 27, 1862. One of 1,522 such medals awarded during or after the Civil War, the citation read: "Seized the colors of the 83rd Pennsylvania Volunteers at a critical moment and, under a galling fire of the enemy, encouraged the depleted ranks to renewed exertion.”
On Memorial Day in 1901, Daniel Butterfield dedicated the monument he had erected at the Fredericksburg battlefield to commemorate the service of his Fifth Corps. A short time later, he died of a stroke on July 17, 1901, at his home in Cold Spring at the age of 70.
Although not a West Point graduate, Butterfield was buried in the West Point Cemetery, where his towering grave monument is one of the largest and most ornate. His wife, Julia Lorillard Butterfield, survived him. She continued to live at Cragside, and died on August 6, 1913, four months short of her 90th birthday.
The Butterfield house and grounds eventually passed into the hands of the Fathers of Mercy, a Roman Catholic congregation of missionary priests founded in France. It was destroyed in a spectacular fire the night of December 20, 1979.

The Butterfield Statue Controversy
An amusing sidebar to the Daniel Butterfield story concerns a statue of him commissioned by his widow. In her will, Mrs. Butterfield had specifically directed the executors "to cause to be erected in the Borough of Manhattan, near or in Central Park, a colossal statue of Gen. Daniel Butterfield, representing him wearing a cocked hat and standing with his arms folded, as shown in a picture of him in a bronze bas relief in the rooms of the Historical Society at Utica, New York."
While the statue was being created, a running battle began between the executors of the will and sculptor Gutzon Borglum, who would later design and carve Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota. Borglum had been asked to modify the statue so often and so extensively that the exasperated sculptor signed his name on the top of Butterfield's head. "That's the only part of the original statue in which they didn't make one change," he commented wryly.
Borglum's statue was cast by the Gorham Company and erected on February 23, 1918, not near or in Central Park but in Sakura Park, at West 122 Street Street, east of Grant's Tomb. ("Sakura" means "cherry tree" in Japanese.) Opened in 1912, the park was planted with cherry trees as a gift from the Japanese people.
The sculptor had agreed to create and erect the statue for $54,000 and had been paid $21,600. Claiming that the sculpture was not artistic, did not resemble General Butterfield and was not colossal, the executors of Mrs. Butterfield's will refused to pay the balance, so Borglum sued. A year and a half later, a jury viewed the statue and returned the verdict that the sculptor had complied with the terms of the contract.
Whether the balance, which covered the casting of the statue, was ever paid is not known. Mrs. Butterfield’s estate was worth millions, and money was not a problem.

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