Friday, December 23, 2016


I consider North Carolina the arena of storms. It's where the 6,000 foot high Black Mountains constrain the invading cold dry Canadian air, so that it clashes with the moist tropical on-shore winds born from the Gulf Stream,  just off Cape Hatteras. The spinning earth puts a twist on the collision of these conflicting air currents, and the jet stream rushes each cyclonic eddy away, drawing in even more warm air, dropping the barometric pressure at the ever tightening center of each newborn tempest. The leading edge of these storms is first felt by the farmers and seamen of New Jersey, New York and New England coming from the northeast, which is why the storms came to be called Nor'easters
Christmas morning of 1776 in the Delaware River Valley was overcast, with temperatures well below freezing in a soft northeast wind. After a meager breakfast, the foot soldiers of the Continental army were told there would be no drilling, but were issued fresh flints for their muskets, and told to pack three days rations.  After almost a year of service they knew what this meant. They were soon going into action. The few who had paper, composed letters to loved ones at home. Most spent the morning struggling to repair their clothing,  tying rags about their disintegrating shoes,  fashioning their new blankets into repairs for overcoats and pants and gloves.  In those hours, even the most fanatical must have wondered what the hell they were doing, suffering for a commander who had so far had brought them nothing but defeat, retreat and misery.
After noon, as the thermometer struggled to climb under lowering clouds, the men were were told to leave their personal effects in their huts and tent dugouts, and form into companies. The roll was called, and then the companies formed into battalions. The men were now issued 60 musket balls and powder, and about three in the afternoon, with the winter solstice sun fading, 2,400 marched eight abreast in tight formations, three miles south to the ferry operated by Samuel McConkey.  Major John Wilkinson, following on horseback, tracked his unit's progress through the hard packed week old snow “tinged here and there with blood from the feet of the men who wore broken shoes.”  Near the ferry the troops formed up again, hidden from the river by high ground, to wait for darkness in a spitting rain. And to pass the time, the officers read to them a new pamphlet from the quill pen of Thomas Paine.
Ben Franklin had recruited Thomas Paine (above) to the American cause two years earlier, just as the ruling English conservatives were about to have the author of “Common Sense” arrested.  Paine served on Washington's staff, and suffered the grinding retreat across New Jersey, inspired by the experience to scribble out a new monograph. Once safely across the Delaware, Paine had hurried ahead to Philadelphia, but found the government gone, and the town filled with “fears and falsehoods”. It had taken him ten days to find a printer who could have “The American Crises” produced as a pamphlet, but it's inspiring cadence would prove as effective for the American cause as a broadside from a 44 gun man-of-war.
These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet... it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated. Britain, with an army to enforce her tyranny, has declared that she has a right...”to bind us in all cases whatsoever,”....Even the expression is impious; for so unlimited a power can belong only to God...There is a natural firmness in some minds which cannot be unlocked by trifles, but which, when unlocked, discovers a cabinet of fortitude; and I reckon it among those kind of public blessings...that God hath blessed (General Washington) with...a mind that can even flourish upon care....”
The 44 year old George Washington had personally planned the entire crossing, having the Durham boats brought down river over several nights and hidden behind Taylor Island near the ferry point. The Congress had not provided funding for a dedicated staff, so Washington surrounded himself with fellow FFVs, members of the First Families of Virginia, a social class he understood and could trust. But his new responsibilities also brought him into a new world. A year ago, when he first arrived in Boston he had been accompanied by a “body slave”, dressed in an exotic oriental costume. But he had noticed the reaction of men like Hancock and Adams, and he was beginning to doubt slavery was economically viable or morally defensible for a man leading a war for freedom. In a year, he would be writing to the manager of his Virginia plantation that he intended to free all his slaves in his will. The password he gave to his command this night was "Victory". And the answer was to be, "Or Death."
The first to be polled across the Delaware River in the gathering winter gloom were 40 mounted dragoons under Captain William Washington (second cousin to the General), and including future President Lieutenant. James Monroe, another FFV'er. Their assignment was to ride three miles north of Trenton and block the road to Princeton for six hours, then rejoin the army either at Trenton, or back on the Pennsylvania shore. 
About six, as the sun set and the wind increased, the light rain began to come down harder, and to turn into sleet. Washington sent a note to Lieutenant Colonel John Cadwalader, preparing to cross over at Bordentown, “I am determined, as the night is favorable, to cross the River.” .  But the night was not favorable. One soldier described conditions as a “violent storm of rain, hail, and snow [the nor’easter] coupled with the ice flows and high winds, (which) slowed operations.”  Said another, "It blew a hurricane."
In direct command of the crossing was 26 year old barrel chested 280 pound Henry Knox (above) . Henry helped throw tea into Boston Harbor, had witnessed the Boston Massacre, and it was Henry who had manhandled captured cannon 100 miles across snowbound Massachusetts to Dorchester Heights, forcing the British to evacuate Boston. 
Henry had barely escaped British capture after the disaster at Manhattan, and now Washington was relying on Henry's booming voice to keep the 2,400 infantry, 18 cannon and 100 draft horses ferried safely and efficiently across the 300 yard water. Noted John Greenwood, “no sooner had the sun set than it began to drizzle, and when we came to the river, it rained.”
Washington went across with the second wave, landing on the New Jersey shore about 7:00 pm. He stood on the bank, “...wrapped in his cloak, superintending the landing of his troops. He is calm and collected, but very determined. The storm is changing to sleet and cuts like a knife.” Said Greenwood, “...it commenced to snow about eleven, and the river ran strong with ice. “ Henry Knox said , “It hailed with great violence.” 
With each minute, the crossing fell farther behind schedule. Washington considered canceling the attack, but as there was no alternative, he sat on a box and kept his concerns to himself.  By midnight, all the infantry were over, and Knox started to load the 18 cannon, their draft horses and ammunition. It was Knox who took the cannon out of order, in case Washington decided to attack with only infantry. By the time the big Durham boats could be adjusted to carry their new load, it was snowing heavily. Wrote Greenwood later, "The noise of the soldiers coming over and clearing away the ice, the rattling of the cannon wheels on the frozen ground, and the cheerfulness of my fellow-comrades... I felt great pleasure..."
At the same time, and some 20 miles to the south, near Bristol, Pennsylvania,  Colonel Cadewalder ferried his 1,500 infantry across the river, to begin his diversionary attack against Bordentown. But river ice kept his artillery on the Pennsylvania shore. Not wanting to move without artillery support, after midnight Cadewalder pulled his infantry back to Pennsylvania. Thus, Washington's diversion did not bring von Dunop rushing back to Bordentown, just 9 miles or half day's march south of Trenton. As Napoleon would say a generation later, “I do not want a good general, I want a lucky one.”
The last gun and dray horse landed on the Jersey shore, about 3 in the morning of Thursday, 26 December, 1776 - Boxing Day. At about 4 am, as the army set off on the nine mile march to Trenton, the snow, which had slowed, whirled down the Delaware Valley  with renewed force. Private Greenwood captured the night decades later. "During the whole night it alternately hailed, rained, snowed, and blew tremendously...when we halted on the road, I sat down on the stump of a tree and was so benumbed with cold that I wanted to go to sleep; had I been passed unnoticed....(but) Sergeant Madden came and rousing me up, made me walk about. We then began to march again...until the dawn of day, about half-past seven in the morning."  By eight in the morning, Washington's small army was in position to attack. The men could not know, the hardest part of the operation was already over.   
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I wish I had been in the Alexandrian suburb of Eleusis, in July of 169 B.C. when for a few brief moments the past and future were divided by a line in the sand. On one side stood the royal egomaniac Antiochus IV, whose army was just four miles from capturing the Pharaoh of Egypt. Standing in his way was one old man, the Roman ambassador, Gaius Popillius, armed with just a piece of parchment - a decree from “the Senate and the People of Rome”.  It ordered the upstart Syrian to turn his Slecuid army around, and go home. Antiochus IV was infuriated, and bluntly told the old Roman he had to consult his advisers.  Probably he intended on riding back to his cavalry and ordering them to run the old man down.   But Gaius would have none of that. Grabbing a stick the old man drew a circle around the King and insisted, if Antiochus stepped over the line without first agreeing to turn his army back,  it would mean war with Rome. It was the original line drawn in the sand, and for one of the few times in history, it actually worked.  Antiochus IV went home. It came to be called the “Day of Eleusis”, and because of that day, we celebrate a holiday – just not the one you're thinking about, probably.
Antiochus IV was King of the Slecuid Empire, centered in Syria and stretching from India on the east and now to the border with Egypt on the west. He was called Epiphanes, “God Manifest” on his monuments, and Epimanes behind his back - “The Mad One”. And as he sullenly retreated eastward across the Sinai, he got madder and madder. You see, some jackass in Judea had spread a rumor that Antiochus IV had been  killed in battle. Maybe the Romans had spread the story to weaken Antiochus in his rear, and maybe Antiochus had spread it himself, to flush out any trouble makers among his conquered peoples.  But whoever spread it, the hottest hot head in Judea, a religious fanatic named Mattathias ben Johanan, was eager to believe the rumor. With about a thousand of his followers, Matthathias came charging out of the hills to capture the temple in Jerusalem and drive the high priest Menelaus into the wilderness
Now, few people in Jerusalem would miss Menelaus. He had become high priest because his brother Onias had been high priest before him. But when Onias had sent Menelaus to deliver the yearly taxes to Antiochus IV,  Menelaus had included a little extra from himself, a bribe, and suddenly Onias was no longer high priest, Menelaus was. So you can see why Antiochus IV tended not to think very highly of the high priests of Judisiam, and now, neither did the people of Jerusalem.  Menelaus slipped a little more in public opinion when his brother Onias died while cleaning his sword -  bad luck. So the Jews of Jerusalem were not really sorry to see Menelaus running for the hills.
But Antiochus IV(above) was sorry. Menelaus might have been a sniveling bottom feeder, but he was the King's sniveling bottom feeder. And then there was that whole “got to show them whose the boss” dynamic going on. And Antiochus IV had an army which  had been expecting a rich sacking of Alexandria, which the Romans had put the kibosh to. So in the dog days of August 169 B.C., everything was pointing toward a very bad day for Jerusalem. And it came.
It seems – oops - somebody had left the city gates open. So the Slecuid army marched right in, as the trouble maker Mattathias slipped out the back door. First the Slecuid  soldiers stripped the Jewish temple of everything of value -  everything not already sold to pay taxes to Antiochus IV, or stolen earlier by the Babylonians and the Egyptians when they each sacked Jerusalem.  Really there couldn't have been that much left to steal. But whatever was left, Antiochus IV took it. And then, according to the holy text, Second Macabbees, “And he commanded his soldiers to cut down relentlessly every one they met and to slay those who went into the houses.”.
The primary non-religious source for what happened was the Jewish radical turned Roman informer, Josephus. He says that over three days Antiochus IV murdered 44,000 people in Jerusalem,  and sold another 44,000 women and children into slavery. Antiochus IV then built a citadel right next to the Jewish temple, which he stocked with a permanent garrison. Then he had the Jewish temple re-dedicated. On the altar where Menelaus had sacrificed goats to honor Yahweh, the Greek priests now sacrificed pigs to honor Zeus. Antiochus IV also issued a decree forbidding circumcision - (who was the lucky guy who got to check on that? ). It seemed the Jews had finally ticked off one King too many. Surely they had learned their lesson.
But, a year later human nature, or maybe it was Yahweh,  intervened. In 168 BC, the rising empire of Parthia captured the Afghanistan city of Heart (Hair-it). This was an important because  the region around Herat was the bread basket of  Slecuid empire, and sat astride their primary  trade route with India. We're talking a major loss of taxes, here.  So Antiochus IV had to turn eastward to deal with the upstart Parthians. But he did not forget the troublesome Jews.  He ordered his governor of Syria, a nobleman named Lysias  “to conquer Judea, enslave its inhabitants, utterly destroy Jerusalem and abolish the whole nation."
In 167 B.C. Lysias dispatched four divisions to accomplish this task. As they marched on Jerusalem, Mattathias, who had reappeared,  now  organized the faithful.  However, because he was a religious fanatic, Mattathias insisted that all his soldiers strictly adhere to Jewish law - that's what they were fighting for, wasn't it?  Unfortunately the Slecuid army did not recognize the Jewish Sabbath, and on a Saturday they attacked the first Jewish village in their way. Following the law, and Mattathias' orders, the villagers refused to do any work on the sabbath, even refusing to lift a weapon to defend themselves. All 1,000 of them were slaughtered. After this Mattathias was replaced as leader of the revolt by his son, Judah. And under him, the Jews decided to compromise on the religious issues and fight, twenty-four, seven.
It turns out the new Jewish leader, Judah ben Mattathias was pretty good at it. In 166 B.C. Judah fell on the Slecuid supply base at Emmaus, killing its 3,000 man garrison, capturing a huge cache of weapons and food, and forcing half the Seleucid army to retreat. A year later he beat the other half of the Slecuid army at Beth-zur, forcing them, again, to retreat. It was battles like this that earned him the nickname of Judah the Hammer, or in Hebrew, Judah Maccabees. Shortly after this victory, word again arrived that Antioschus IV was dead. Except this time he really was. He'd been in Babylon, struggling to prepare a counter attack against the Parthians, when he suddenly dropped dead. He might have been sick, or maybe it was Yahwah's payback,  but I think it more likely, he'd been poisoned. In any case, his young son, Antiochus V, now inherited what was left of the empire.
Lysias immediately had himself declared Antioschus V's guardian, which put the Governor in charge of the entire empire. Lysias ordered an end to efforts to retake Heart, and in 165 B.C. he marched for a third time on Jerusalem. Third times the charm, right? This time Lysias came by the southern road, catching the Hammer off guard. This time Lysias actually laid siege to Jerusalem. This time it looked as if the clock had run out for the Jews. This time there was nobody to save them. And then out of nowhere appeared a guy named Phillip, (the royal governor of Babylon, actually), who had been with Antioschus IV when he died. Phillip claimed that on his death bed Antioschus IV had asked him, Phillip, to raise the king's son, now known as Antioschus V.  That would make Phillip the regent, not Lysias.  Lysias did not believe a word of it. Would you? But Lysias still had to deal with Philip’s army. And one morning Judah looked out from walls of Jerusalem, and saw...nobody. The entire Slecuid army had mysteriously disappeared. It was a miracle. As long as you did not notice the whole Slecuid civil war going on.
Judah Maccabees ordered a a new altar built for the temple, and declared 8 days of “sacrifice and songs” for its re-dedication. The pigs were out, Yahweh was back in. There was only one problem. Tradition said in re-dedicating the Temple required the temple's  menorah lamps to burn every night, all night, during the celebration. But there was only enough oil for one night. What to do?
Now if it was me, I would have ordered the nine lamps on the menorah to be publicly lit at sundown each night, as usual. And then a half hour after sundown,  after the faithful had gone home to bed, the priests would quietly extinguish the lamps. This way, instead of burning through all the oil in one eight hour winter's night, the lamps would burn for a about an hour each night, for eight nights. And I think that maybe that was what the Hammer did. But then, I am a non-believer. And priest are in the business of believing, even in miracles. And the truth is, miracles don't happen without a little help from somebody. Who that help comes from depends on who and what you believe in. Anyway....
It was the first Hanukkah, the first festival of the lights. Two thousand years later it is not a very important Jewish holiday, and about the only one in which women play a leading role. Each of the eight nights a woman first lights the “shamash”, the central candle or lamp, used to illuminate the entire ritual. On each successive night , the shamash is then used to light one candle more each nigh until all are burning. In each Jewish home they are displayed in a window or an exterior door, “to illuminate the house outside” the home. And as they do so, the women recite the Hanukkah prayer.
“We light these lights for the miracles and the wonders, for the redemption and the battles that you made for our forefathers, in those days at this season, through your holy priests. During all eight days of Hanukkah these lights are sacred, and we are not permitted to make ordinary use of them except for to look at them in order to express thanks and praise to Your great Name for Your miracles, Your wonders and Your salivations.”
Lysias defeated and killed Philip in 163 B.C.. But in 162 B.C. Lysias was defeated by Demetrius I, who had been Antiochus IV's older brother and Antiochus V's uncle. Being the older brother, Demetrius was supposed to have been made King first. But when their father died, Demetrius was being held as the official hostage in Rome. So it turned out Antiochus IV had been a usurper, which made his defeat in 162 B.C.,  payback. Demetrius executed both Lysias, and the boy king Antiochus V. Demetrius then tried to reconquer the Jews, but the Fighting Maccabees  held him off for ten years, until Demetrius was killed by a new usurper in 150 B.C. It was the end of Slecuid empire.
The next empire to come marching down the coast road of Judea would be the Romans. And they and the Jews would have their own problems, strongly reminiscent of the ones the Jews and Slecuid's had shared. They say some people never learn. But I think most people never learn, certainly not in the middle east.
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Thursday, December 22, 2016


I gott'a admit, there was one lesson in military science that General George Washington never learned – Keep It Simple, Stupid. Consider George's plan for his greatest victory: First, 3,000 men under Lieutenant Colonel John Cadwalader would slip across the icy Delaware river near Bristol, Pennsylvania, and threaten the redcoats and their hired mercenaries (the Hessians) billeted around Bordentown, New Jersey. Once the British were distracted, Washington himself would lead 2, 500 men across McKonkey's Ferry, 15 miles to the north, and march 7 miles south to attack the 1,500 Hessian troops camped at Trenton, while 700 militiamen under General James Ewing would cross just south of  Trenton, and block the Hessian's retreat.   If all these moving parts managed to work, Washington plan would be judge brilliant. Luckily for Washington, it did not work.
There was no reason why it should. The Continental Army had numbered 20,000 men outside New York in August. But by Friday, 20 December, 1776, it was reduced to less than 6,000 exhausted, starving, freezing, dispirited and nearly naked men, huddled on the south bank of the Delaware River, Washington admitted most of his men were “so thinly clad as to be unfit for service.” Desertions were melting the army into slush, and half of the enlistments were up on New Year's Day, “I rather think the design of General Howe is to possess himself of Philadelphia this winter,” Washington warned Congress, “and in truth I do not see what is to hinder him...”. In February the Delaware River would likely freeze over, and Howe's 30,000 men could march across the ice into the American capital. Knowing this, the bickering Continental Congress had already retreated to Baltimore. It all made Washington's grandiose plan seem a pipe dream. But Washington did have a few advantages.
First, there was the Delaware River (above) , named after Thomas West, the Third Baron De la Ware. Iron ore and grains were carried by 40 foot long flat bottom Durham boats on the upper river as it cut a gap southeastwards through the last ridges of the Appalachian mountains to the 8 foot falls at Trenton. The river turned southward 20 miles later at Bordentown, before the last 30 mile reach to the Philadelphia docks. When Washington retreated across the mile wide river he had gathered every Durham boat capable of carrying artillery or cavalry withing 70 miles upstream, onto the south bank. And with American defenses dug in at every ford, it left General Howe the choice of either building a new fleet of boats, or waiting for the freeze.
The second item in Washington's favor was the well known and well hated Tory, John Honeyman, a butcher and weaver from Griggstown, New Jersey. In mid-December Honeyman was captured and dragged before General Washington for a personal interrogation.  The truth was, Honeyman was a spy for Washington.  In private the butcher informed his spymaster that General Howe was not waiting for the river to freeze. On Saturday, 14 December Howe had ordered his 20,000 regulars to disperse into winter quarters in northern New Jersey, where the accommodations and accommodating companionship were plentiful.  That left 10,000 Hessian's in a string of outposts within mutually supporting distance across southern New Jersey.
Then on Saturday, 21 December 1776, the amazing John Honeyman somehow managed to escape Washington's clutches and cross the Delaware, where he sought refuge with Colonel Johann Gottlieb
Rall, commanding the three regiments of Hessians at Trenton. While being congratulated for his escape, Honeyman assured Rall the Americans could not possibly mount any operations until spring. This confirmed Rall's personal appraisal of the undisciplined Americans, and convinced him he needed no trenches to defend Trenton. “Let them come!”, he boasted, “We'll at them with the bayonet!”
But also on that Saturday, 400 Philadelphia militia surprised a Scottish redcoat picket company at the tiny Petticoat Bridge, north of Mount Holly, New Jersey. The Scotsmen fell back on their regiment, billeted a mile north in a village called Blackhorse, and they alerted the man Howe had left in charge of most of southern New Jersey, the Hessian General Count Carl Emil Ulrich von Donop (above). The Count was a competent soldier, and ambitious enough to despise Colonel Rall, who had been left out of his chain-of-command. Disturbed by the rebels growing boldness, von Donop roused his two Hessian regiments at Bordentown and put them onto the road, south to Blackhorse.  Normally, faced with such an active response, the American militia would have scattered, but their commander, a Virginian Colonel named Samuel Griffin, got a visit from General Washington's aid, Joseph Reed, who urged the militia to hang on for a little while. But, Reed did not tell Griffin why he was asking his men to make the effort, ",..as the discovery of it may prove fatal to us".
Although ill, Griffin was willing. So on 22 December, when von Dunop's 2,000 men crossed over the Petticoat Bridge and pushed toward Mount Holly (above, center- right), the militia stayed in contact, taking causalities and even trading some long range artillery fire. But they avoided a full fight.  The dilatory shooting continued into the short day of 23 December. The Hessian planned a full assault for the morning of  24 December, but Griffin sensed the blow and retreated during the night. Frustrated, von Donop would decide to tempt the Americans and remain in Mount Holly another day. He was also, charged one of his disgruntled subordinates, enjoying the company of an attractive local widow -  who might have been seamstress Betsy Ross.  Whatever the truth, the skirmish had drawn von Dunop a full day's march south of Bordentown, even farther away from Trenton then Washington's diversion had intended to draw him.
That same Monday, 23 December, General Washington (above)  was at his modest headquarters in William Keith's Pennsylvania farm house, about 10 miles north of Trenton.. In the afternoon he was visited by the handsome, urban and catty Doctor Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and distinguished member of the Continental Congress. Dr. Rush found Washington moody. “While I was talking to him”, Rush wrote later, “I observed him to play with his pen and ink upon several small pieces of paper. One of them by accident fell upon the floor near my feet. I was struck with the inscription upon it. “Victory or Death.” Rush decided the general was depressed, and probably would have prescribed his favorite treatment - a bleeding. Luckily for the United States, Washington could not spare the time to open a vein.
The spirits of Washington's men were improving. It had snowed, the cloud cover moderating the overnight temperatures, and a supply of long promised blankets from Virginia had finally reached the army. The colonists were getting a first painful lesson -   that a nation of 50 independent sovereign states, is not a nation. A year earlier, the Continental Congress had established the soldier's daily ration as one pound each of meat and bread, a pint of milk and a quart of beer or cider per man. But the rations were almost never met. Without an internal system of roads, or a navy, the colonies occupied by the army, were really the only ones that could supply the army. And they would always short of resources. Washington's little army was in such terrible condition, that a few blankets could raise the spirits of the men. But change was on the wind.
Around noon, on Christmas Eve, 1776, Washington called his commanders to a meeting in his headquarters. It was only then that he informed them of his plan. The next evening the army would cross the river at McKonkey’s Ferry, at the mouth of Knowles' creek. The Delaware River was only 300 yards wide here, and Washington calculated it would take about six hours to carry 2,500 men to the New Jersey shore.
Once reformed, the army would march 7 miles south to Trenton, surprising Rall's Hessians before dawn and trapping them against General James Ewing's 700 man militia, which would cross after midnight at the Trenton ferry. The Hessians at Bordentown would be prevented from reinforcing by Colonel John Cadwalader's force.  After Trenton was captured, and joined by General Ewing's militia, the victorious army would march the 13 miles north to Princeton, and attack the British force there under Major General James Grant.
It was a bold plan. It took account of Colonel Rall's unprepared position at Trenton and General Howe's dispersed forces. But it could not allow for the huge storm winding up off the Carolina coast, and about to slam into the American army.
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