On Sunday, October 4, under the auspices of the New York Military Affairs Symposium, two Round Tablers, Jack Buchanan and Tom Fleming, spoke to a crowded room at the New York Historical Society about the controversial Mel Gibson movie, The Patriot. Jack, author of a brilliant history of the war in the South, The Road to Guilford Court House, took a critical look. A friend had told him that the producer claimed to have read and reread his book. When Jack saw the film, he found no evidence of this purported devotion. He thought The Patriot failed both as history and as entertainment. He particularly deplored its failure to depict the struggle in South Carolina as a civil war. ``I saw only one Tory,'' he said. Instead of burning civilians in a church to show British savagery, he wondered why the filmmakers did not use actual evidence of just how cruel Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton could be -- the massacre at Waxhaws. He suggested several young militiamen who appeared in his book as far more appealing characters than anyone depicted in the film.
Tom Fleming said he agreed with everything Jack said -- but he still thought The Patriot was the best Revolutionary War movie Hollywood has made so far. Why? Because all the others have been so bad. If the history in The Patriot was murky, how about the ending of Drums Along The Mohawk, the John Ford film about the siege of Fort Stanwix in 1777? After Henry Fonda outruns a half dozen Indians and gets the reinforcements that lift the siege, another runner bursts breathlessly into the midst of the celebrating Americans to announce that Cornwallis had surrendered at Yorktown and the war was over! Independence had been won -- in 1777! No better demonstration of Hollywood's indifference to history exists.
Tom next eviscerated another contender, the musical, 1776, for the way it portrayed Richard Henry Lee as a babbling birdbrain, Ben Franklin as an equally brainless lecher, and James Wilson, arguably the most brilliant intellect in America, as an idiot and a coward in the bargain. Worst of all was the handling of Jefferson's relationship with his wife, who is translated to Philadelphia to relieve his sexual frustration so he can get on with the Declaration of Independence.
Tom said he certainly would have followed a lot of Jack's suggestions if he had written the Patriot script. But he discerned some positive points in the film, particularly the evolution of the Mel Gibson character, Benjamin Martin, from a self-absorbed revenge seeker to a man who seized the American flag and made it clear he was fighting for his country in the climactic battle.
The question and answer session that followed was very lively. Someone said it was the most interesting two hours he had ever spent in the New York Historical Society.
Tom Fleming has been busy on the lecture circuit. On Nov. 16, he few to Austin Texas to give a talk at the Lyndon Johnson Presidential Library, ``Thirteen Ways We Could Have Lost the American Revolution.'' Previously, on Oct. 22, he journeyed to Princeton to give the opening talk in a series on the Revolution sponsored by the New Jersey Department of Parks. His topic was New Jersey's role in the Revolution. When discussing his native state, Tom can get carried away. It must have something to do with all those terrible New Jersey jokes. He claimed that for a long time Boston's Brahmins did most of the writing about the Revolution, obscuring the fact that New Jersey did most of the fighting. He backed up this bravado with some sobering statistics. There were no less than 238 battles and skirmishes fought in the Garden State, the most of any of the precariously united original thirteen states. He described no less than four wars fought in New Jersey: the ``big'' or formal battles between the armies at Trenton, Princeton, Monmouth and Springfield, the numerous smaller clashes of the guerilla war between loyalists and rebels, the secret war fought between the two intelligence systems and the political war fought by Governor William Livingston and his 12 man council of safety, who met no less than 400 times to sit in often lethal judgment on loyalists. By the time Tom finished, even a New Yorker would be tempted to think maybe Tom is right to be proud of ``the cockpit of the Revolution.''
After so many unsavory stories about Thomas Jefferson, what a relief to report a positive one. A group of Virginia farmers are succeeding where the author of the great Declaration failed miserably: they are producing good- tasting bottles of wine from homegrown grapes. Although Tom brought cuttings home from his sojourn in Paris and grew grapes for no less than 55 years, there is no evidence that he was able to produce a single bottle of drinkable wine. That did not stop him from drinking the nectar of the gods from other sources. Between 1822 and 1824, the Sage of Monticello and his guests finished off 1,203 bottles of the stuff. Now, wines of quality are being produced at the Barboursville Winery, only 20 miles northeast of Monticello, and several other wineries around the state. Maybe we can lay hands on a few samples for an upcoming dinner.
Therese McNally recently went to a lecture by Gore Vidal, who had ventured from Italy to plug his new book, The Golden Age. She asked him after his talk whether he thought the United States was more of a Hamiltonian empire (i.e., in Gore's terminology, pragmatist) or a Burrite empire, which Gore called ``strategist.'' He had already concluded it was no longer a republic. Gore replied that America had pretensions to pragmatism but was more ``strategically'' aligned to serve the corporate state. He called it ``Hamiltonism metastasized.''
Exciting things are being done to restore Fort Montgomery, once the bastion that defended West Point. An association has been formed and there are plans for annual conferences featuring noted historians and authors. Members will be able to enjoy narrated trail hikes from Bear Mountain State Park to the battle site. Membership is $10.00. For $50.00 you can join the General Montgomery Club and $100 smackers gets you into the General Clinton Club. Add another hundred and you are in the General Washington Club. Each of these generous donors will be rewarded with a copy of an interesting historical manuscript. The address for those with spare cash: Fort Montgomery Battle Site Association, PO Box 376, Fort Montgomery NY 10922. All donations are tax deductible.
Joseph Rubinfine has produced another catalogue full of breathtaking prices for Revolutionary War documents. An autograph letter from signer Thomas McKean of Delaware, dated July 12, 1776, is yours for a mere $8500. A wonderful 1776 letter from signer John Hewes of North Carolina about his efforts to help fellow signer William Hooper's elderly mother is available for $20,000. Hewes is one of scarcest signer autographs. Connecticut's Roger Sherman's 1776 comments on Penobscot Indian volunteers for the American army is a bargain at $11,500. The catalogue's prices are by no means its chief interest (though they make a good newsletter item). Many of the letters are quoted at length, and are full of startling material.
A Schenectady attic has revealed an historical treasure trove in an obscure corner. The heirs of a recently deceased elderly woman invited experts to take a look at the contents of a large steamer trunk. The experts goggled with disbelief. The trunk was packed to the brim with packets of 18th and 19th century letters, deeds, maps and other original documents. The dead lady was a descendant of British general John Bradstreet, one of the heroes of the French and Indian War. The historical bonanza was assembled by Martha Bradstreet, the step-granddaughter of the general, who spent much of her life trying to regain title to the thousands of acres in upstate New York which the general was given by the British crown for his services in the war with France. The lands were confiscated by New York's rebel government during the Revolution. In the 1820s Martha retained as her attorney none other than Aaron Burr, who had returned to America from his self-imposed exile in Europe. No less than 50 hitherto unseen letters from Burr are in the collection. Some of these epistles suggest that Aaron's relationship to Martha was more than that of attorney and client. Another of Martha's close friends was General Philip Schuyler's youngest daughter, Catherine. The two women shared a hard fate: they married Irish drunks who wasted their inherited fortunes. At the center of the collection is a framed portrait of General Bradstreet, painted in 1761 by an Albany artist. It is the only likeness of him in existence.
One of the favorite stories of the American Revolution is the fate of Colonel William Ledyard, defender of Fort Griswold against an assaulting force commanded by Brigadier General Benedict Arnold of the British army, on September 6, 1781. According to the legend, after inflicting heavy casualties on the attacking British, Ledyard surrendered as they came over the fort's walls. When he handed his sword to the British officer at the head of the column, the Briton supposedly seized the hilt and ran Ledyard through the body. Arnold, it should be added, was not involved in the assault. He was busy burning the nearby town of New London while the Griswold attack took place.
The Ledyard story has been demolished in a lively booklet written by Dr. Walter L. Powell, ``Murder or Mayhem? Benedict Arnold's New London, Connecticut, Raid, 1781.'' Powell draws on eyewitness accounts to convincingly demonstrate that Ledyard never gave his sword to anyone. He was bayonetted, like many of his men, in the melee that erupted when British soldiers, already infuriated by their losses in the attack, were fired on by holdouts in the fort's barracks. A native of Connecticut, Dr. Powell is currently the Historic Preservation Officer for the Borough of Gettysburg.
Visitors to Williamsburg hear a lot about George Wythe, Thomas Jefferson's mentor. But who remembers Jefferson's teacher at William and Mary, Dr. William Small?
A graduate of Marischal College in his native Scotland, Small began training the 16 year old Jefferson in 1760. The Scotsman initiated the lecture system at William and Mary. He also used the Socratic method of inquiry, speaking in English rather than in Latin, a medieval leftover still customary elsewhere.
Small introduced Jefferson and his fellow students to Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton and John Locke. In later years Jefferson called them ``the three greatest men who ever lived.'' A bit of a stretch but it gives us a glimpse of Small's impact on Jefferson.
Small returned to Scotland in 1764 but he and Jefferson continued to correspond until Small died in 1775, just as the American Revolution was coming to a boil, thanks to not a few of the ideas Small had put in Jefferson's head.
The travel section of the New York Times recently ran an article on the Adams' family homes in Quincy and Boston. The text included the by now familiar statement that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on the same day, July 4, 1826. But the writer added the claim that they were the last surviving signers. Not so. Charles Carroll of Maryland lived until 1832.
The Battlefield buildings quiz contest was won by Cathy Corley. Her answers were: 1. The Old Stone House was the last stand for the Marylanders at the Battle of Long Island. 2. Nassau Hall is on the Princeton campus. 3. Jonathan Harrington's home is on Lexington Green. 4. Henry Knox's cannon could not destroy the Chew house at Germantown. 5. The Gilpin House was Lafayette's headquarters at Brandywine. 6. The terms of surrender were negotiated at the Moore House at Yorktown. 7. Benedict Arnold was victorious on Freeman's Farm at Saratoga. 8. Hessians rallied at St. Michael's Church in Trenton. St. Michael's in Charleston, S.C. was used as a lookout.
A free drink to the first three winners!