Schemes of the Blackest Dye

Next Thursday I’ll be a panelist at the Fairfield Museum for a discussion of espionage in Connecticut during the Rev War. I’ll be joined by UConn’s Rachel Smith, who dissects the show TURN at her blog, TURN to a Historian, and Black Rock historian Robert Foley.

From Nathan Hale to the Culper spy ring to conspiracies big and small, Connecticut and the coast of Long Island seethed with skulduggery in large part because only about two-thirds of the population felt the red, white, and blue — the rest still pledged fidelity to the House of Hanover. Smedley and friends once caught some Loyalists on the Sound who, upon interrogation, confessed a “Scheme of the blackest dye”:

John McKey of Norwalk later testified that on April 15, a Charles McNeill of Redding approached him saying that a colonel in the British army had in his possession lieutenant’s commissions for each of them. The British were galvanizing the loyalists into a fifth column to be called the Royal Americans. Their first job was to construct an intelligence network that would relay information about Continental troops to the British.

Plots! Treachery! Whaleboat battles! Next Thursday, April 7, at the museum. It’s free! modestly priced!

Short News, Literary Agency Edition

War of the Pamphlets. To promote the publication of a new, two-volume reprint collection of Revolutionary era pamphlets, the Library of America has posted an interview with editor Gordon S. Wood. Self-published luminaries Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, and John Dickinson make appearances, as does Thomas Paine:

He was our first public intellectual, and unlike the other pamphleteers, he lived solely by his pen. As such, he aimed at a much broader audience than did the others, one encompassing the middling class of artisans, tradesmen, and tavern-goers. Unlike the elite writers who bolstered their arguments with legal citations and references to the whole of Western culture going back to the ancients, Paine did not expect his readers to know more than the Bible and the English Book of Common Prayer.

Run Your Own Race. I love running as a metaphor for writing. There are sprints and long slogs, uphills that burn your quads and downhills that kill your knees, and most of all, the work that no one sees, the runs you put in just to show up. Kristine Kathryn Rusch makes the same analogy, arguing that every writer runs at his or her own pace:

I mentioned New York, which had 50,564 finishers in 2014, which made it the biggest marathon ever. Average “important” marathons usually have 35-40,000 finishers.

That’s a lot of runners, most of whom have no hope of crossing the finish line first.

Note I didn’t mention “winning,” because runners are very clear about the varied definitions of winning. Winning for a non-elite athlete might be a personal best.

Affordable Smith. Remember back in 2010 when I complained that inexpensive editions of Clark Ashton Smith’s work were largely unavailable to casual readers interested in learning more about him? Well, after years of financial troubles and improprieties — which finally ended with the company being bought by another publisher — Night Shade Books has begun releasing its five-volume collection of Smith’s work in paperback and for Kindle. Volume One is already out, with the next to appear in January.

JAR Annual 2015 Available for Pre-Order

JAR2015_300x450The 2015 edition of the Journal of the American Revolution is now available for pre-order.

Every year, Westholme Publishing releases a reprint collection of essays that first appeared on the Journal website. This year’s volume includes my essay about the whaleboat raiding that occurred on Long Island Sound, where Patriots and Loyalists alike gave as good as they got:

“[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 …”

During the Revolution, American Patriots employed a number of tactics to overcome their extreme disadvantage in the face of the overwhelming power of the British navy: a Continental navy, state navies, and privateers (some with Continental commissions and others commissioned by states). The whaleboat raiders — or “armed boats,” as they were called at the time — were a low subclass of the state-commissioned privateers, and as I point out in my essay, it’s questionable whether many of the raiders had commissions at all. In the chaos of war, the only equipment you needed to go robbing and pillaging on the opposite shore was a boat and some buddies, and if New England in 1776 was anything like New England in 2015 where every third house has a tarp-covered boat in its driveway, then this was not a high benchmark to reach. It probably attracted some men of dubious character.

The Annual Volume 2015 also includes essays from such notables as J.L. Bell, Benjamin Huggins, and JAR editor Hugh T. Harrington. Out in May, it makes a great Father’s Day gift!

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.

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.