"Sharp, quirky, and occasionally nettlesome", Walking the Berkshires is my personal blog, an eclectic weaving of human narrative, natural history, and other personal passions with the Berkshire and Litchfield Hills as both its backdrop and point of departure. I am interested in how land and people, past and present manifest in the broader landscape and social fabric of our communities. The opinions I express here are mine alone. Never had ads, never will.
I grew up at a rural boarding school in New York's Hudson Valley. The formative years were 1976-1982, before I went off to boarding school myself. The students in those days still wore their hair long, and the girls favored long overcoats and fedoras. I idolized the high school students who were actors, and the ones who played guitar on the steps of their dorms and faced their huge stereo speakers out windows towards the quad.
Disco was dead on arrival, but not the Grateful Dead, nor were the Talking Heads. Classic Rock was not yet a commercial radio format; it was what your older cousins or big sister turned you on to, before they left home and moved on to new sounds.
Back then you discovered new music in used record stores, from dorm mates who hailed from hipper locales, or over the weak signal of some backwater college radio station. Forget about wanting my MTV; there was no cable and barely any television reception so we went without. We traded tapes until the clones lost all fidelity. We taped pennies to the stylus to hold the groove.
Today my vinyl sits in the attic, waiting for me to gather up the components needed to reassemble an analog stereo system with those huge, Boston Acoustics speakers from my parent's living room that now sit mute and unconnected. I bought my last vinyl recording in 1989 - a used one at that from Plastic Fantastic Records store, that one-time music collector's mecca out on the Main Line. I'm not sure what market there is today for an original recording of Bob Weir's solo album Face, but I have it upstairs, along with lots of other music from my youth that was old even then.
I have writtenbefore about music as touchstones of the past, reflections of the person and the place I was at the time. If I find myself driving along, up and down the dial, and suddenly I hear "Rudie Can't Fail" or "Like a Rolling Stone" - or, God help me, "Sugar Magnolia", then I drive down other highways of the mind, back in that familiar groove when I was 12, or 16, or 20. I am still a tourist, though, an observer from the future, when the switch gets flipped and the music comes from "another times forgotten space."
The soundtrack of my life today is much harder to pin down. The source material is different, for one thing, and my environment is not rich in new sound. I am singing more, though, as often as not around a reenactor's campfire - "Give me the punch ladle, I'll fathom the bowl" - and sometimes lyrics of my own devising. You won't be hearing any of these on the radio, though they sometimes find their way onto Youtube.
I still love a righteous groove, plenty of bottom, and hot horn hits. I'm partial to songs that last more than 3 minutes. In this age of earbuds and bowling alone, sometimes I want to lift the sash and let some mighty music off the leash. Perhaps on the first warm day of Spring, when all these pupating houses disgorge their blinking butterflies, I'll find what is hip in the old vinyl stacks.
I was among those hardy souls who made it the full 9 1/2 miles from Washington's Crossing to Trenton on New Years Eve Day. You can read the After Action Report I wrote for my fellow marchers in the 1st NJ here. I'll only add that our hosts for this event from Outwater's Militia and the Old Barracks Museum did an outstanding job!
While my left knee still reminds me that I did something highly unusual in straight last shoes last weekend, I would not have missed it for anything.
I wore my spatterdash gaiters, with the buttoned moved yet again to attempt a tight fit, with mixed results. Still, they stayed in place, which is the main thing, and protected the lower part of my knit wool mustard yellow stockings that are my favortie winter wear. It was a warm day, reaching the high 40s, but I was still glad to have fingerless gloves in the afternoon when the temperature started to drop. I also wore my new Benjamin Warner model knapsack that I sewed myself from a Stuart Lilie kit. The extra weight was not an issue, especially because I was able to sling my musket rather than carry it at the shoulder.
It was murder on the feet, but my stoclings held up and my shoes did not wear out and that was remarkable given the hard surfaces we travelled. We followed in the footsteps of General Greene's Column from McKonkey's Ferry and had a running fight down the streets of Trenton leapfrogging by platoons and hitting the Hessians (and their allies from the Crown Forces) from several sides. I greatly admire those who portrayed the Germans at this event, and rarely get to see so many Hessians in one place. Nor was it common for the Jersey Brigade to field nearly 20 men together, as was the case for the first of two battles that day.
I've posted a fair number of images from the March and Battles on Facebook which can be viewed here and here and my friend Janice Erikson Smith has an album there with some great images of the streetfighting and battles from the sidelines. For those who don't do Facebook, here is a taste of what was an exhausting but also thrilling end to 2011.
When I knew for certain back in the fall of 2009 that my marriage was not going to continue, I started to ask myself questions about what I wanted in my uncertain future. I knew I needed friends, and something to do I was passionate about. I thought it might be time to get back into reenacting, since it had been nearly three decades since my brief stint as a Northern Confederate. My interest in family history and the Revolutionary War period, not to mention a connection made through this blog to a fellow student of history who was also a reenactor, made joining the 1st New Jersey (Continental Line) a potential good fit, and early this year I started to pull together my kit and delve in to this new hobby.
It has exceeded my every expectation. The dedication of my fellow living historians, the comraderie and welcome I received has been a true pleasure to experience. An unexpected bonus is the willingness of my new partner to find a way to be involved in this hobby on terms that work for her and allow us to participate as fully as we wish.
From Training Day in early April at Washington's Crossing (in ill-made breeches) to the 9 1/2 mile march we made from there to Trenton just yesterday, I certainly jumped in with both feet this year. Among the many highlights were singing at Wyoming (and the songs and broadsheets that came after); getting to know some of our honored adversaries in the 35th Regt of Foote, especially its sometimes batman; the crab feast at Mt. Harmon that made up for the theft of the King's sausages; Hut weekend at Jockey Hollow and the chance to live and work as the Continentals did (in much better weather), cooking brisket for our comrades at Cold Spring; rowing the Battoe Moon by moonlight; Constant Belcher (that fraud!); and the footsore march to Trenton.
I also enjoyed the chance to stand guard at Mt. Harmon, the large-scale engagements at the full Line events, and finding opportunities to enage with the public. I'm looking forward to finding ways to do more of that in camp next year, and give them as good an experience there as we try to do on the field.
I truly appreciate the wonderful craftsmanship and service provided by many sutlers in this hobby. Special props to Mona Hubardtt who knits the finest linen and wool stockings available, J. J. for the excellent and affordable regimental coat; Charlie of Charlie's Boatworks in Frenchboro, ME for collaborating on the wonderful soldier's box; David Hannon of Minuteman Armoury; Pete and Wendy from Middlesex Village Trading Company; James Moore of 18th Century Bibles for their superior offerings; and Ted and Sue Huesken of Rancocas Merchant along with our own 1st NJ. You do a tremendous service to our hobby and appreciation of the material culture of this period and we could not do it without people like you.
To Larry, and David, and William, and Marie, and Tom, and Heather; and George, and Scott, and Paul, Thad; and Talya; and especially all my good friends in the 1st and 2nd Jersey; I raise my tricorn in a Happy New Year's "Huzzah!" I'll see you in the field come Spring, if not before.
Talya and I travelled to Philadelphia last weekend to take part in a Revolutionary War Reenactment at Fort Mifflin, located just north of the airport on what was once called Mud Island. The site was a key position during the Philadelphia campaign in 1777 and endured a massive bombardment that took the lives of nearly 1/3 of its defenders. The original fort was destroyed, but L'Enfant laid out a new one in 1796 that was expanded in the early 19th century and remained in use until the 1950s.
This is an annual event that involves tactical demonstrations and short battles and includes overnight accomodations in bombproof casements that once houses Confederate prisoners. There is no tented encampment and much less for the noncombatant members of the unit to do, but Talya made it work for her by electing to spend the night with our friends in the City, while I got the full after hours experience.
There is usually light attendance from our regiment at Fort Mifflin (it being much more of a 2nd NJ tradition), but still was surprisingly well represented on Saturday. We had five muskets and 3 distaff, along with two children, and one of our number showed up later that night having deserted us for the privateers. We fell out with the 2nd NJ , and took part in their revels that evening. No evidence of the ghosts that are said to infest the place. Perhaps a werewolf in sheep's clothing (please consult image of Capt. Murphy, below for evidence).
These pictures were taken either by me or by Talya Leodari. Good times.
There is but one verified veteran of WWI left alive out of the millions who served in the Great War. She is Florence Green, 110 years old, who in 1918 was an officer's mess steward in the Women's Royal Air Corps. She was recently "rediscovered" as a veteran of the Great War in January, 2010. She is also one of an estimated 300-400 supercentenarians worldwide who are >110 years old. 81 of these have been verified.
Extreme longevity is a rare curiosity. From what I can tell, those who achieve it and are able to articulate their thoughts on the subject tend to be quite astonished that they alone of their generation have survived. The last combat veterans of the War to End all Wars also routinely expressed their frustration that war is still a core human activity. In twenty years when the soldiers of "The Greatest Generation" are winnowed down to the last individuals, I wonder if it will be the same for them.
It is not only the experience of past wars that recedes when there are none that live who remember it. How we remember and understand those times becomes a matter of historiography and storytelling. Our memorials have more to say as artifacts of the society that created them than the events and individuals they commemorate. Whether carved in stone as Je me souviens or repeated by millions at Passover seders, the injunction "never forget" reinforces values and attitudes in the present time . It may or may not reflect the experience,and motivations of those we remember who were social actors in earlier times.
Memories are revisited and revised over a lifetime of reflection. What an eyewitness feels in the moment, the emotions it generates, and how that person responds to these stimuli is highly significant both to social historians as well as to psychologists trying to interpret individual and collective behaviors. I understand the emotion "fear" but not in the way that those in combat may experience it. Those who fight in modern wars with modern sensibilities may respond quite differently from those combatants with the world views of other times and societies. If there is no one left to tell us how it felt at the time, we are left trying to interpret whatever remains in the surviving historical record of what they chose to record.
As a genealogist, I often confront the regret that comes from no longer being able to ask a living relative about details from the past that I must now try to glean from other sources. As a society, there is now only one tangible living link to the Great War, and it is too great an expectation to place on her to be Virgil to our Dante. Our responsibility to the past is both to remember and to revisit those memories, to test our assumptions and gain a deeper understanding about ourselves as well as those who have gone before. Ultimately, for good or ill, the past is what we make of it. So too our destinies.
Disclaimer: The following is a piece of regrettably too clever satire, written for the amusement of my reenacting friends, that I can ruefully confirm is a tongue-in-cheek fabrication. There are a number of references in the body of the message and in the so-called Journal of Constant Belcher, starting with his name, that we hoped would be tip offs. We had no intention of creating a hoax and apologise to those who care deeply, as do we both, about this period and its scholarly research. We all dream about finding the real thing. This is not it, but if you will forgive us our tresspasses, Constant Belcher may yet return, ala his fictional inspirations Harry Flashman and Blackadder's Baldrick.
My friend and reenacting comrade in arms Larry Schmidt and I were deep in our research into the original color of the field of our regimental flag – he favors a minty green (which he claims is "refreshing"), while I am holding out for Jersey drab – when we made an extraordinary discovery. We recently visited the Spanktown Society of Friends in Carteret, New Jersey. We were ushered into a disused storeroom at the back of the building, the oldest part of this structure that Larry is convinced is all that remains of the historic Blazing Star Tavern from which you may recall Col. Ogden launched his raid against the loyalists on Staten Island in 1777.
We had come to view what we were told was an 18th century American haversack of soiled onsaberg linen on which someone had painted the shield of the 1st NJ in an early American primitive style. However, we could see right away that it was actually a grease stain that looked vaguely like a bearded man with undressed hair which is clearly not 18thcentury. While Larry is not unconvinced that it may in fact be a representation of Edward Hyde, Lord Cornbury, one of the colony's first royal governors who reputedly dressed in women's clothing to effect a likeness to his cousin, Queen Anne, I remain skeptical.
In any event, we were extremely disappointed to have followed another promising lead down a false trail, but then noticed a bundle of rags that at first we took for something even Adam Young of the 2nd NJ - the most ragged Continental of the them all - might refuse to wear, but which actually proved to be an old book wrapped in tow cloth. What we found inside literally blew our minds.
It appears to be a journal, in appallingly poor handwriting, written by an enlisted man in Colonel Ogden’s 1st New Jersey. As you all know, anything written by enlisted men is rare enough from this period. Aside from the 1776 diary of Timothy Tuttle, there is no other contemporary journal of its kind known from our regiment. While it is very difficult to decipher, appears to have been written in a variety of natural inks, and has many loose pages all out of order, Larry and I have made enough progress to be able to say with certainty that the author is one Constant Belcher of Elizabethtown and that he was for a period the waiter or batman of my own direct ancestor, Brigade Major Aaron Ogden, the brother of Colonel Matthias Ogden!
Like Ogden, Belcher is an old Elizabeth New Jersey name, and The Belcher-Ogden House in Elizabeth, also known as the Governor Jonathan Belcher Mansion, is another intriguing connection between these families. I had no idea that Maj. Ogden had a batman named Belcher, and never conceived that he might have left a journal of his experiences. Larry and I promptly made a $10 contribution to the Spanktown Yearly Meeting and they let us take the tow cloth and its contents.
We are now busily trying to decipher and transcribe the Journal of Constant Belcher and prepare it for scholarly publication. It is hard going, but each of us has taken sections and we will share the results with you as we have them. We have decided to omit the ligatures and archaic spellings of standard names and places, and to add punctuation where needed for clarity, but otherwise to leave the entries as Belcher wrote them. Because of my interest in Sullivan’s Staten Island Raid, I am delighted to be able to share with you now the relevant section from Belcher’s Journal:
“Aug 21st - We marcht to Blazing Star this day wair Colo. Ogden told us to leaf our Knapsacks - those that had them - taking only our musquets, cartouch pouches, Bayonets and market wallets to carry off lawful plunder. He must have meant us to wear our Small cloathes as well but made no Mention of them, and some in Capt. Conway’s and Capt. McMyer’s Cos. were reprimanded for appearing in ranks in naught but the clothes of Adam. Maj. Bloomfield told me to make a place for his horse in the boat for the crossing to Cuckoldstown. I gave it green pippins from his haversack so that it might ease our passage with a copious wind.
Augt. 22 – Colo. Ogden took command of our force, which was some militia and our Regiment and the 3rd regiment, as Col. Dayton thought it best not to be associated with any scheme of General Sullivan’s who is an addle pated Hector and like to get poor soldiers kilt. Thair was but 3 boats betwixt 500 men and we were near enough awash as we were a-going into Fresh Kills on the flood tide. I lost my shoes in the marsh but got another pair from the Greens after we took their camp. My share of the plunder come to 6 pair trousers, three regimentals of the 1st NJV, 8 cocked hats with white tape, a powder horn scrimshandered with some English Doxie in a shift with a helmet with a pair of lions, three Silver Pocket watches, some ladies stays in a Most pleasing Scarlet colour, some first quality sausages, and a Pickering’s Musquet tool. Colo. Ogden said we must take one of the Schooners that fell into our Hands and return to Elizabethtown with our prisoners and Plunder and I went aboard since it was Clear as day that we had not enuf boats for our own return if we had to be Hasty about it. Heard them firing up Island and was snugg back in Elizabethtown when Genl. Sullivan brought back his division except his rear Guard whot got left behind as I knew they would. Found my powder horn was filled with spirits and got drunk as a wheel barrow.”
I am so excited by this discovery. Larry and I feel it will absolutely change our understanding of the Revolution from the common man's perspective, and is sure to get a few noses out of joint on RevList. For one thing, we won't have to throw out our Pickering's Tools anymore as inauthentic!
Two explanatory hypotheses have come down through the years concerning the cause of death of General Enoch Poor. The standard narrative is that he took sick toward the end of August, 1780, and succumbed to his illness early in the second week of September. The other theory alleges that he was mortally injured in an illegal duel with a subordinate officer that was in turn the subject of a massive (and effective) cover up.
Each theory has its proponents, but a good researcher tests assumptions and weighs evidence before accepting one version or the other as the more likely, and that is the task I have set for myself in this series. This post deals with the conventional story of the death of General Poor, and the following will consider the alternate hypothesis.
A number of primary sources, including contemporary letters and journals, reference the death and funeral of General Poor and make mention of the cause of death. Among these are the following:
The diary of Col Israel Angell (2nd RI Regt.) - "September 9th , 1780. Clear and Very Cool. Recd News this Morning of the Death of the Honourable Brigadier General Poor, who departed this Life after a Short Illness of the putrid feavor."
The Diary of Lt. William S. Pennington of New Jersey, (2nd Artillery Regt. Continental Army) - "Saturday, 9th. Last night died Brigadier-General Poor, of a short illness. He is much regretted by all ranks of the Army, as he was a brave officer and a worthy member of society."
Military Journal of the Revolution by James Thatcher, M.D. (Jackson's Additional Continental Regiment), - "[September] 10th. We are now lamenting the loss of Brigadier-General Poor, who died last night of putrid fever."
Journal of Maj. Jeremiah Fogg, A.D.C. to General Poor (2nd NH Regt.)- "My general is gone. A cruel stubborn billious fever has deprived us of the second man in the world…"
Lt. Col. Henry Dearborn's Journal [September 8] “this evining ye Honbe. Brigadeer Genl. Poor departed this life after labouring under a severe bilious fever 13 days, very universally lamented by the Genls. & other officers of the army."
Maj. David Humphreys (A.D.C. to George Washington) to Jeremiah Wadsworth, "10 September 1780,Genl Poor who Died of a fever is to be buried this day”
Maj. Joseph Bass to Col. Joshua. Wentworth. "On the 8th inst. at night, died the worthy Gen. Poor,of a putrid nervous fever: very much lamented by all ranks in the army ; and on the 10th he was buried at Hachinsach with all the honors of war...The army has lost a good officer : our Brigade in particular will feel the loss of him ; for he was like a father,both to officers and men. He did honor to the State he came from. His funeral was the grandest I ever saw in this way. I pity his poor wife and family."
Some of these writers were very close to General Poor - Dearborn and Bass served in the New Hampshire line in his old brigade, and Fogg was still on his staff at the time of his death. The Angell and Pennington Journals suggest that the cause of his death was widely known in Washington's main army very soon after his passing.
While Washington's orders in the days that followed dealt with the funeral and the auction of General Poor's effects, they do not mention the cause of his death at all.
September 9th- "After Orders - Brigadier General Poor will be interred tomorrow afternoon at Hackensack Church; the funeral procession will commence at four o'clock from Brewer's house in front of the Infantry."
September 12th - "Part of the Effects of the late Brigadier General Poor among which are several suits of Cloaths, a genteel small sword, sash, Epauletts, and many other articles will be vendued at Lieutenant Colonel Dearborn's Marquee in the New Hampshire brigade tomorrow morning ten o'clock."
"It is with extreme regret, I announce the death of Brigadier General Poor the 9th instant, an officer of distinguished merit, who as a citizen and a Soldier had every claim to the esteem of his Country."
Aside from these communications, Washington's Papers are silent on General Poor himself, even as officer of the Day, from the time he was ordered to join his new command in early August until his funeral was announced on September 9th. Nor was he not at the Council of War convened by Washington on September 6th.
The loss of General Poor was overshadowed by the unwelcome news that Washington received from the south at this time that General Gate's army had been badly beaten at Camden, South Carolina, and would soon be overtaken by Benedict Arnold's defection. Still, there were rumors that General Poor had not died of disease but in a duel, the echos of which have rippled down through the years to the present day. We will examine the evidence for this claim in the next post in this series.