Short News, Inebrious Fourth Edition

Ritmeier's C.W. Bitters, c. 1906.Bracing Tonics. A CRM excavation at the site of a former Manhattan beer garden unveiled a trove of 19th-century bitters bottles. Bitters — tonics that combined herbs and spices along with a hefty dose of alcohol — were used as digestives and medicines at the time, even by otherwise abstinent teetotalers. From the relief writing on the bottles (which today are highly collectible), the archaeologists were able to track down the original recipes, which they then recreated and shared. Also worth noting: in the comments, an author plugged this apothecary recipe book.

Flipping my Lid. Speaking of cocktail books, I recently downloaded food writer Corin Hirsch’s Forgotten Drinks of Colonial New England, which includes recipes I intend to inflict upon our guests this July Fourth. I’ve always wanted to try flip. I’ve had switchel before, but didn’t care for it.

Columbia Uber Ailes. And in not-so-alternate-history news, Fox News reached through a tear and stole the logo for BioShock Infinite.

Image of Ritmeier’s C.W. Bitters, c. 1906, on display at the Wisconsin Historical Museum, Madison, Wisconsin.

Whaleboat Men of Long Island Sound

Shooting the Harpoon at a Whale by John Heaviside Clark.

During the American Revolution, the sailors of “armed boats” who raided the shores of Long Island didn’t play around:

“[T]wo boates crossed on the fourteenth instant,” wrote Caleb Brewster to New York governor George Clinton in the summer of 1781. “[They] went up about twelve at night to the houses of Capt. Ebenezer Miller and Andrew Miller, demanded entrance which was granted, as soon as the door was opened they demanded his arms which he gave up; his son hearing a noise below stairs got up out of bed shoved up the chamber windo. One of the party without ever speaking to him, shot him dead in the windo …”

You can read my whole article at the Journal of the American Revolution.

Something to consider is why the whaleboats — even the officially commissioned whaleboats — were so prone to abuse. The Connecticut records show little evidence of similar complaints about the privateers or either the state or Continental navies. Did the smaller complements (7-10 men) on the whaleboats or the lower costs of entry — a boat and a £2,000 bond (or not) — attract less honorable sailors nobody else would hire? Or were most sailors already inclined to dastardly deeds and only the officers of the larger vessels kept them disciplined?

There Must Be Some Mistake…

Journal of the American Revolution… because Todd Andrlik at the Journal of the American Revolution has lumped my responses to a questionnaire with those of historians far, far more knowledgeable than me. All this week, great minds like Gordon S. Wood, J.L. Bell, and others have been answering whether American independence was inevitable, who the most underrated and overrated revolutionaries were, whether the US could have thrived without slavery from its very beginning, and when the dividing line between Patriots and Loyalists was drawn.

That Inestimable Blessing, Freedom

In May 1779, two slaves named Prime and Prince dictated, or at least cowrote, a petition for emancipation, which was submitted to the Connecticut Assembly.

Your Honours who are nobly contending, in the Cause of Liberty, whose Conduct excites the Admiration, and Reverence, of all the great Empires of the World, will not resent our thus freely animadverting, on this detestable Practice; altho our Skins are different in Colour, from those who we serve, yet Reason & Revelation join to declare, that we are the Creatures of that God who made of one Blood, and Kindred, all the Nations of the Earth; we perceive by our own Reflection, that we are endowed, with the same Faculties, with our Masters, and there is nothing, that leads us to a Belief, or Suspicion, that we are any more obliged to serve them, than they us, and the more we Consider of this Matter, the more we are Convinced, of our Right (by the Law’s of Nature and by the whole Tenor, of the Christian Religion, so far as we have been taught) to be free.

The petition is as heartbreaking as it is poetic, and is worth reading in its entirety. Both the Lower and the Upper Houses rejected the petition; however, the following year, laws were passed freeing slaves younger than 7 (or born in the state after the law’s passage) when they reached 25, and prohibiting the sale of Connecticut slaves outside the state.

The petition was transcribed by Jonathan Sturges, a justice and judge of probate who was very active in Fairfield’s defense and management during the Revolution; later he was a member of the state delegation to the ratification of the Constitution and a member of the first U.S. Congress. And while there is suspicion about the true authorship of the petition, as historian Vincent Rosivach has pointed out, the language echoes that of other slave petitions of the period, such that the 1779 document is not likely the product of Sturges’s quill alone.

What’s more interesting is the petitioner Prime was owned by Samuel Sturges, Jonathan’s younger brother. This is a strange scenario, in which victory would have resulted in diminishing the estate of the proponent’s close family. Perhaps emancipation was never a goal of Jonathan’s and the action was simply a ploy to demonstrate the impossibility of abolition, to cool the tempers of disgruntled slaves before they boiled over — to obscure the obvious contradiction between freedom from king and parliament and bondage to Yankee fat cats. Hey, we tried. It didn’t happen. Now get back to work.

Or maybe that’s too cynical. I’ve read the Rosivach article, and if I recall correctly, his characterization of Samuel Sturges as “undistinguished” is verbatim. This is some minor ignorance on his part (in his defense, Rosivach probably referenced Donald Jacobus’s History and Genealogy of the Families of Old Fairfield, which lists only the public offices and military honors held by an individual, not the private accomplishments). Actually, Samuel Sturges was a prosperous businessman who co-owned “a suitable store for receiving goods & provisions” with Samuel Smedley along Black Rock Harbor. Smedley himself manumitted two slaves — York, and his son Boston (who may or may not have fallen under the 1780 freedom-at-25 law) — and left each of them money in his will. These actions, along with Jonathan’s penmanship and Samuel Sturges’s seeming acquiescence in Prime’s role, suggest some of Fairfield’s elite shared the sentiments expressed in the two men’s poignant request for liberty.

Historians Seeking Rent

Via J.L. Bell’s Twitter feed come several reactions to Andrew Burnstein and Nancy Isenberg’s Salon essay wishing for “a restraining order on the big-budget popularizers of history (many of them trained in journalism)”:

We have to fight mediocrity as well as plagiarism – the two are more closely related than you realize. Journalists doing history tend to be superficial and formulaic. To the historian’s mind, they don’t care enough about accuracy.

I bet. Their argument is eyebrow-raising for its pettiness and cherry-picking. Civil War Memory has such a perfect response that I can only agree; and David Silbey succinctly lists the ad hominems and non sequiturs of Burnstein and Isenberg’s argument. They bean David McCullough’s John Adams — “There are far better books on Adams than McCullough’s” — but never cite a single defect, instead somehow illogically lumping him in with plagiarists. Is that because “[t]he public seems to like what is most easily digestible” in their history and in their Salon articles?

Gordon Wood commented on academic vs. journalist historians back in 2009:

Academic historians have not forgotten how to tell a story. Instead, most of them have purposefully chosen not to tell stories; that is, they have chosen not to write narrative history. Narrative history is a particular kind of history-writing whose popularity comes from the fact that it resembles a story. It lays out the events of the past in chronological order, with a beginning, middle and end. … Instead of writing this kind of narrative history, most academic historians, especially at the beginning of their careers, write what might be described as analytic history, specialized and often narrowly focused monographs usually based on their PhD dissertations.

This is an important distinction, and Wood is right that most academics don’t write narrative histories. I would agree with him further — except that even when academics do write narrative history, they’re still not very good.

Take William C. Davis’s The Pirates Laffite. Davis is a brilliant historian who has written the most authoritative account of the Laffite brothers ever put to paper, and will likely remain so for decades at least. It’s a narrative history, beginning with the earliest known information regarding the Laffites and continuing chronologically. The book is also barely readable. Davis swarms the reader with so much information that the story is buried beneath a landfill of data. The text isn’t broken up well, and every few pages I had to flip back to reread why we had gone on a tangent about some secondary or tertiary character and remind myself how he related to the Laffites. I wish Davis had abridged the book for general consumption, then kept the original manuscript as an e-pub available for hardcore Laffite scholars.

Overwhelming the reader is a flaw too. So yes, many academics have forgotten how to tell a story.

Academic historians aren’t bad people; as I’ve ranted before, what’s at issue is how they’ve sidelined themselves through their own homespun culture of (a) poor writing camouflaged as intellectualism; and (b) internecine feuding. I would also add that if Wood worries that “non-academic historians… unfortunately often write without much concern for or much knowledge of the extensive scholarship that exists,” it’s because so much of that scholarship is locked behind expensive journal subscriptions and exorbitant paywalls like Reed Elsevier — again, an unnecessary state of affairs resulting from academic culture — that academics themselves wouldn’t have access to if they weren’t academics.

Burnstein and Isenberg haven’t done their profession any favors with their imbecilic essay: it’s technocratic propaganda designed to exclude interlopers from cutting into their market share. But again, if academic historians aren’t popular in bookstores, they have only themselves to blame. Hobbled and handicapped, it’s up to the David McCulloughs of the world to take up their slack.

Rebel Fort

Historian and Samuel Smedley, Connecticut Privateer cover artist Bill Lee is very excited about his latest project:

[Lee] has been certain that a fort once stood in Black Rock Harbor in front of what is now known as St. Mary’s by the Sea in Bridgeport, based on maps created in 1779 by the British who were planning their invasion. …

Lee’s theory about the fort took a big leap forward recently when his friend, aviator and photographer Morgan Kaolian, snapped some aerial shots of the point at dead-low tide.

There, in the photographs, is the outline of what appears to be the same fort depicted in a map by for a Lt. Lawru of the British Army on July 7, 1779. Labeled “Rebel Fort” on the map, the shape of the fort mirrors that which appears in Kaolian’s photographs.

Nothing raises Bill’s dander more than dismissal of the fort, something both he and Kaolian have apparently encountered — although it’s never been clear to me if critics are denying the existence of the fort or merely bickering about its precise location. Certainly there was a Revolutionary era battery at St. Mary’s. The Public Records are full of orders sending men and munitions to the fortification “at Battery Point in Fairfield” (The Public Records of the State of Connecticut, vol. 2, 199), and Andrew Eliot, reverend of the Congregational church and an eyewitness to the July 1779 burning of the town, wrote that the eastward progress of the British along the shore was halted “by the cannon which played from Grover’s Hill” (Eliot’s letter is reprinted in Hurd, D. Hamilton, ed. History of Fairfield County, Connecticut, 283-284). Eliot also added:

Our fort yet stands. The enemy sent a row-galley to silence it, and there was constant firing between them all night. One or two attempts were made to take it by parties of troops, but it was most bravely and obstinately defended by Lieut. Isaac Jarvis, of this town, who had but twenty-three men besides himself.

This is why only a handful of houses survived in downtown Fairfield but Black Rock Harbor was untouched. The fort must have been placed close to the mouth of the Ash Creek — allowing the defenders to fire west across the creek at the marching troops — while still positioned to prevent the enemy from entering the harbor. The site of Bill’s ruin fulfills both requirements.

There’s been a great deal of development in that area, so it’s possible this particular ruin is not the fort. But I’m with Bill: now the burden of proof is on the skeptics.

Unfortunately, [Conservation Director Thomas Steinke] said, there’s been so much coastal erosion at the point by St. Mary’s by the Sea that it is unlikely that any other evidence such as cannonballs can be found. “That would have been washed away,” he said.

What an uninformed opinion. Cannonballs — even relatively small six-pound shot — don’t wash away; they sink and bury. Even if no shot is found, other artifacts and features can date the ruin. A simple Phase I investigation by the state archaeologist’s office or a CRM company would go a long way toward answering whether the rocks are a naturally occurring phenomenon, an old jetty, some other man-made structure — or the historic salvation of Black Rock Harbor.