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October 7, 2011
Hours of Darkness (2)By Greyhawk
18 April, 1775: Two men stood in the moonlit darkness on the shore of the Charles River, gazing across the water towards Boston, their eyes searching for a boat...
21 October, 1861: Two men stood in the pre-dawn darkness on the Virginia side of the Potomac, their eyes turned back across the water, looking for boats. Today there could be battle...
18 April, 1775: Tomorrow there could be battle. They'd already seen the signal from the opposite shore - two lights in the tower of the old North Church - meaning the British soldiers would be crossing the river this night. Not on the boat they were waiting for - the good Lord willing, that craft would deliver the man who'd arranged that signal with them a few days before: Paul Revere - whose crossing wouldn't be made without danger; not far off floated the Somerset, a British man-of-war...
21 October, 1861: The men were colonels, commanders of the two Massachusetts regiments from which elements had crossed the Potomac from Maryland on this small-scale invasion of Virginia. A raid was probably a better word for it. The mission was simple - take out a rebel camp and return to Maryland. Unless, the orders added (with a significant amount of room for interpretation), a strong position was found in Virginia that could be held until reinforcements arrived.
The older of the two men, Col. William Lee, of Marblehead, commanded the 20th Massachusetts Infantry. His unit's role in this mission was support - only two companies of his regiment were here - but he'd elected to accompany them, leaving his number two man in charge at camp in Maryland. His counterpart here on the Virginia shore had more troops and the main mission - to lead five companies of his 15th Massachusetts Regiment inland to take out that camp; Lee's smaller force was to remain on Ball's Bluff to cover any retreat. But back on Harrison's Island, perhaps one hundred yards out in the river from where they now stood, were five more companies of Lee's 20th - the designated reinforcements, under Major Paul Revere.
The sun was beginning to rise. It was time for the 15th to move out, and the 20th to take their positions. Lee followed his counterpart to the top of the bluff.
If only there were more boats... it had taken most of the previous night for even this small combined force to cross the water in the few they had available. They might have hoped to discover one or two additional tucked away somewhere here on the Virginia side, but there were none to be seen. They would have to make do with what they had... though Lee would prefer having more men on this mission - and knew that once any real battle began it would be too late for them to be sent; Revere crossing over would be a welcome sight indeed.
18 April, 1775: Revere crossing over would be a welcome sight, thought Richard Devens as he waited. He wondered if he'd been captured, or delayed... Earlier that day Devens, while returning to Charlestown from a joint meeting of the Committee of Public Safety and the Committee of Supplies (among the members: Col. Jeremiah Lee of Marblehead) at a town called Menotomy, had encountered a suspicious number of British soldiers on the road. That they were out and about somewhere along his route - and likely waiting for riders spreading the alarm - was information Revere would need.
"On the 18th of April, '75, Tuesday," Devens recorded, "the committee of safety, of which I was then a member, and the committee of supplies, sat at Newell's tavern, at Menotomy. A great number of British officers dined at Cambridge. After we had finished the business of the day, we adjourned to meet at Woburn on the morrow. Left to lodge at Newell's: Gerry, Orne, and Lee. Mr. Watson and myself came off in my chaise at sunset. On the road we met a great number of B. O. [British officers] and their servants on horseback, who had dined that day at Cambridge. We rode some way after we met them, and then turned back and rode through them, went and informed our friends at Newell's." Thus informed, Gerry (Elbridge Gerry - later the fifth Vice President of the United States under James Madison) sent a messenger to alert John Hancock and Sam Adams at Lexington; Devens resumed his trip back to Charlestown, where his suspicion that the soldiers he'd encountered were something more than curious sightseers was confirmed by the warning signal from Boston. Now he waited for Paul Revere.
In his own testimony on the night's events, Revere would tell a simple tale of his crossing:
But others would offer the sort of details that build legends - "that while Paul and his two comrades were on their way to the boat, it was suddenly remembered that they had nothing with which to muffle the sound of their oars. One of the two stopped before a certain house at the North End of the town, and made a peculiar signal. An upper window was softly raised, and a hurried colloquy took place in whispers, at the end of which something white fell noiselessly to the ground. It proved to be a woolen undergarment, still warm from contact with the person of the little rebel."
On the opposite shore Richard Devens waited in the moonlight - not knowing if the first boat he'd see would contain Revere or the vanguard of the British army the two lanterns had told him were coming by sea. Devens had dispatched another rider upon sighting those signal lamps, but Revere would get here, too, he was sure. For now there was little to do but wait.
21 October, 1861: Paul Revere knew if his five companies on Harrison's Island were needed on the Virginia shore they'd be needed quickly - and for that they'd need more boats. Besides the problem of numbers, none of the few available here looked capable of transporting the cannon he was expected to bring along. It wasn't in his nature to accept delays - so he sent some of his men back to the Maryland side of the island to fetch a larger one left there. Beyond that, there was little to do but wait.
The sun rose. Not long after he thought he heard shots fired from somewhere beyond Ball's Bluff...
April, 1775: Devens wasn't the only member of the revolutionary committees to lose sleep that night. Back in Menotomy, others would, too.
The great man of Marblehead in the colonial day was Colonel Jeremiah Lee, whose still elegant mansion is to be seen there. Unlike many of the gentry of his time, Colonel Lee was a thorough-going patriot. He was, with Orne and Gerry, a delegate to the first and second Provincial Congresses of 1774. When the famous Revolutionary Committee of Safety and Supplies was formed, he became and continued a member until his death in May, 1775. Colonel Lee was with the committee on the day before the battle of Lexington, and with Gerry and Orne remained to pass the night at the Black Horse tavern in Menotomy, now Arlington. When the British advance reached this house it was surrounded, the halfdressed patriots having barely time to escape to a neighboring corn-field, where they threw themselves upon the ground until the search was over. From the exposure incident to this adventure Lee got his death.
"He furthered the cause of independence in risky, undercover capacities - including the clandestine procurement of weapons from France and Spain," reads this brief modern biography. "His covert activities, the secrecy of his meetings with John Hancock and Sam Adams, and his early and tragic death explain why Jeremiah Lee plunged into obscurity, and remained absent from the history books both then and now."
Others in his family took up the cause. His nephew and protege, William Raymond Lee, was commissioned a captain in one of the first regiments formed after Lexington and Concord - within two years he was a Colonel and commanded his own. William's son would serve in the War of 1812. His grandson, also named William Raymond Lee, would later attend West Point - where his classmates included Robert E Lee of Virginia (possibly a distant relation) and Jefferson Davis from Mississippi. Years later, on the morning of October 21, 1861, he was a colonel and regimental commander himself, at Ball's Bluff in Virginia, preparing a message for his Major, Paul Revere.
October, 1861: Henry Abbott of the 20th Massachusetts had accompanied his commander, Colonel Lee, to the final planning session with the commander of the 15th prior to the raid. Two days after what turned out to be a battle, he described that meeting in a letter to his mother. "I never heard of [a] more clearsighted, cooler or more satisfactory statement of a plan" than the one developed that night, he wrote. For this, Abbott (not surprisingly) gave all credit to his commander, who, he added, stated repeatedly that night his belief "that in case of defeat no retreat was possible. We must either conquer or die."
Abbott described Lee as "in the merriest of moods" - in contrast to the 15th's commander, Colonel Charles Devens. Devens, Abbott wrote, "seemed like a man who had made up his mind he was going on a forlorn hope." If both descriptions were accurate, their moods had no bearing on their fates. After the battle Devens would make his way - wounded - back to the island. Lee, along with Paul Revere (the latter also wounded) and hundreds of other soldiers would be numbered among the prisoners in Virginia.
Devens would survive the Civil War, during which he was promoted to Brigadier General (later Brevet Major General). From 1873 to 1891 he was an associate justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, with a four year break from '77 to '81 when he served as Attorney General of the United States in the Cabinet of President Rutherford B. Hayes.
"Charles Devens was born in Charlestown, Mass., April 4, 1820," read the brief biography prepared for the dedication of his statue in Worcester on July 4th, 1906. "He was the son of Charles and Mary (Lithgow) Devens, and a great-grandson of Richard Devens, who was a member of the Committee of Safety and Commissary General of Massachusetts during the Revolutionary War..."
18 April, 1775: "They landed me on Charlestown side," Revere wrote. "Richard Devens, Esq.who was one of the Committee of Safty, came to me, & told me, that he came down the Road from Lexington, after Sundown, that evening; that He met ten British Officers, all well mounted, & armed, going up the Road."
"I then took a horse from Mr. Larkin's barn," Devens recalled in his own testimony - the midnight rider would need a ride, of course - then he "sent off P. Revere..."
21 October, 1861: It took a damned long time for a courier to bring a message by boat back to the island; the morning was near half over as Revere read the latest from Colonel Lee. He and Devens had indeed encountered the enemy, and were "determined to fight."
Major Revere ordered his men to the boats. The waiting had ended, it was time to join Lee and Devens. Paul Revere was going to war.
Epilogue - 21 October, 1861: It took decidedly longer for a courier to bring a message from Virginia to the island, cross the island and take another boat to the Maryland shore. From there he traveled to General Stone's headquarters a few miles down the river to deliver it.
The General wished - not for the first time - there was a better way. The rebel sympathizers on this side were suspected of sending messages to their friends in Virginia at night via lights - thus making all his division's movements known to the enemy - but obviously such signals were useless in daylight hours... At least Stone could telegraph McClellan in Washington - whatever he knew, his commander could be told immediately. Now he sent an optimistic message, indicating his forces had engaged the enemy, and he believed they could occupy Leesburg that day.
Though after a bit of consideration, he appended a concern: "We are a little short of boats."
Next: Julia Cutler's Journal
Posted by Greyhawk / October 7, 2011 9:06 AM | Permalink
November 26, 2010
I think anyone who's ever pondered the "comment" option - once only available on blogs and bulletin boards, now ubiquitous on almost any web site - will appreciate this:
The so-called faculty of writing is not so much a faculty of writing as it is a faculty of thinking. When a man says, "I have an idea but I can't express it"; that man hasn't an idea but merely a vague feeling. If a man has a feeling of that kind, and will sit down for a half an hour and persistently try to put into writing what he feels, the probabilities are at least 90 percent that he will either be able to record it, or else realize that he has no idea at all. In either case, he will do himself a benefit.
That's wisdom from the past, captured for posterity at the US Naval Institute, shared via the web on the institute's 137th anniversary.
From their about page:
"The Naval Institute has three core activities," among them, History and Preservation:
The Naval Institute also has recently introduced Americans at War, a living history of Americans at war in their own words and from their own experiences. These 90-second vignettes convey powerful stories of inspiration, pride, and patriotism.
Take a look at the collection, and you'll see it's not limited to accounts from those who served on ships at sea, members of the other branches are well-represented.
I'm fortunate to have met USNI's Mary Ripley, she's responsible for the institute's oral history program (and she's the daughter of the late John Ripley, whose story is told here). She also deserves much credit for their blog. ("We're not the Navy nor any government agency. Blog and comment freely.") We met at a milblog conference - Mary knew (and I would come to realize) that milbloggers are the 21st-century version of exactly what the US Naval Institute is all about. Once that light bulb came on in my head, I mentioned a vague idea for a project to her - milblogs as the 21st century oral history that they are.
"Put that in writing," she said (of course - see first paragraph above!) - and here's part of the result.
Shortly after the first tent was pitched by the American military in Iraq a wire was connected to a computer therein, and the internet was available to a generation of Americans at war - many of whom had grown up online. From that point on, at any given moment, somewhere in Iraq a Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine was at a keyboard sharing the events of his or her day with the folks back home. While most would simply fire off an email, others took advantage of the (then) relatively new online blogging platforms to post their thoughts and experiences for the entire world to see. The milblog was born - and from that moment to this stories detailing everything from the most mundane aspects of camp life to intense combat action (often described within hours of the event) have been available on the web...
And et cetera - but since you're reading this on a milblog, you probably knew that. And you know that milblogs aren't just blogs written by troops at war, that many friends, family members, and supporters likewise documented their story of America at war online in near-real time, as those stories developed.
The diversity in membership of that group is broad, the one thing we all have in common is the impulse to make sense of the seemingly senseless, and communicate the tale - for each of us that impulse was strong enough to overcome whatever barriers prevent the vast majority of people from doing the same. Everyone at some point has some vague idea they believe should be shared - we were the people who, from some combination of internal and external urging, found and spent those many half hours persistently trying to write it down.
But where will all that be in another 137 years? Or five or ten, for that matter. That's something I've asked myself since at least 2004 - when I wrote this:
Membership in the ghost battalion has grown in the years since, and an ever growing majority of those abandoned-but-still-standing sites are vanishing. Have you checked out Lt Smash's site lately? How about Sgt Hook's? If you're a long-time milblog reader you know the first widely-read milblog from Operation Iraq Freedom and the first widely-read milblog from Afghanistan are both gone from the web. If you're a relative newcomer to this world you may never even have heard of them - or the dozens upon dozens of others who carried forth the standard they set down.
If you have a vague notion that something should be done about that, (a notion I've heard expressed more than once...) then you and I and the good folks at the US Naval Institute are in agreement. Preserving the history documented by the milbloggers is just one of the goals of the milblog project, the once-vague idea that we're now making real.
And it's a big idea, if I say so myself - too big to explain in one simple blog post, so stand by for more. Likewise, it's too big a task to be accomplished by just one person. So if you're a milblogger (and exactly what is a milblogger? is a topic for much further discussion on its own) I'm asking for your help. All I'll really need is just a little bit (maybe just one or two of those half hours...) of your time, and your willingness to tell the tale.
We've already made history, it's time to save it.
(More to follow...)
The Mudville Gazette is the on-line voice of an American warrior and his wife who stands by him. They prefer to see peaceful change render force of arms unnecessary. Until that day they stand fast with those who struggle for freedom, strike for reason, and pray for a better tomorrow.
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Original content copyright © 2003 - 2011 by Greyhawk. Fair, not-for-profit use of said material by others is encouraged, as long as acknowledgement and credit is given, to include the url of the original source post. Other arrangements can be made as needed.
Contact: greyhawk at mudvillegazette dot com