Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Ancient Weapons and Helmet from the Balkans

My wife is my trusty guide to the museums of New York City. Today she led me to New York University's Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, on East 86th Street not far from Central Park.


The current exhibit of interest is Ritual and Memory, Balkan artifacts from the 5th millennia to the first century BCE. About noon a graduate student in archaeology arrived to lead a tour. No one else was there, so we got a 20 minute guided tour for just the two of us. Nice. Of course, I was most impressed by the bronze age weapons and later Thracian ceremonial helmet. I’ll let the photos of the artifacts and the accompanying museum text do the talking.

As always, click on the photos, especially the musuem text, to enlarge the images.

The exhibit is up through February 19. The link is here.
It is notable that institutions from several nations collaborated on this exhibit.


Masks are not required but welcome. The price? Free. Not often you can say that about NYC events. If you are in the city by that date and are interested, it is worth the detour. They ask you to check in, but all they want to know is your zip code.

Friday, January 6, 2023

Book Reviews: Two books about the American Revolution - In the Hurricane’s Eye by Nathaniel Philbrick and A Narrative of a Revolutionary Soldier by Joseph Plumb Martin

I previously read and enjoyed Philbrick’s “Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the fate of the American Revolution”. Spotting another book by him at the library made this an easy choice: take it out. The full title is “In the Hurricane’s Eye; The Genius of George Washington and the Victory at Yorktown”.  I wondered about the genius part. A good way through the book I realized he was talking about Washington’s political genius, which set the fledging nation on the path of a stable democracy which has stood us in good stead these past two centuries and more. One hopes it will weather the pressures of modern social media politics. But I digress.

I thought Yorktown was cut and dried: the French Navy chased off the Royal Navy, Washington and the French besieged Cornwallis, end of story. But it was not such a simple thing. Philbrick goes into detail about the naval and diplomatic underpinnings of the Allied victory. The reason so much naval power was around in 1781 was due to a deadly round of hurricanes in the Caribbean the previous year. The Royal Navy lost at least 6 ships. Some 15 to 20,000 islanders died. Both French and British Navies decided to get their fleets out of the Caribbean during the hurricane season in 1781, even though both prized the lucrative sugar islands. This set the stage for major fleet action off the Atlantic coast of North America. Philbrick details much that I had never considered. The book includes a description of Greene’s campaign in the Carolinas to explain why Cornwallis marched to Virginia.


In the meantime, the first two mutinies by long-suffering Continental Line troops had taken place. I thought these occurred after Yorktown. Washington realized that the restive troops had to be paid with something more substantial than nearly worthless Continental paper money before sending them off on the long march from New York to Virginia. Francisco Saavedra, a Spanish ex-military diplomat in Cuba was instrumental in both insuring the whole French Caribbean fleet sailed north and in raising a loan from Cuban planters. This enabled De Grasse to loan actual coin to Washington. The troops received, for the first and last time in the war, a month’s pay in actual specie.


Before the main event, two naval squadrons (each about 5 or 6 ships of the line) had tangled. The British fired at French hulls, causing greater losses. The French fired at British rigging, disabling enough ships for the British to fear a renewal of combat. The French squadron, unsure of how much damage they had caused, sailed off. Cornwallis was safe for the moment. I had never heard of this earlier fight.


The main event, the Battle of the Chesapeake, saw only the vans of each fleet engaged. The British came off worse and in time sailed back to New York to refit. This sealed Cornwallis’ fate, since he could not escape from the combined French and Continental armies. But it had taken a lot more things falling into place to arrive at this than I’d been aware of.


The book goes on to note the many ways Washington went on to mold the American nation, from quashing the nascent coup at Newburgh, yielding power with grace when resigning command of the army and stepping down after two terms as president.


I am quite pleased with the book. Along the way, he used  numerous quotes from the memoir of enlisted man Joseph Plumb Martin. I was aware of this fellow before but this got me off my butt to get a copy on my Kindle. And so, on to the next book review.

Martin was born in Connecticut, mostly raised in Massachusetts. He enlisted in a Connecticut regiment and fought at Long Island (or Brooklyn as we New Yorkers prefer to call it), Kips Bay, Harlem Heights and White Plains, along with smaller scrapes here and there. He mustered out, then re-enlisted in 1777. He fought at Germantown, the siege of Fort Mifflin, wintered at Valley Forge, fought at Monmouth and various skirmishes in New York's Westchester County between Cowboys and Skinners. Finally, when the Continental Light Infantry (led by Alexander Hamilton) charged the British redoubt at Yorktown, Martin was one of the sappers tasked with hacking a path through the British abatis!


Martin was a good writer. He apologized for his lack of literary finesse. This makes his work much easier for modern readers, being spared 18th century flourishes and falderol. Mainly, he and his comrades suffered – unpaid, poorly equipped, very rarely fed in decent quantity, often sleeping under the stars and sometimes sent on fool’s missions. A number of the expeditions he was sent on were abortive: sometimes the enemy had been warned and reinforced, sometimes weather interfered, etc.


He was a spirited young man who sometimes got into trouble during lulls in the fighting. Some had me laughing out loud. He also recalls the ongoing struggle of enlisted men to do things the officers would prefer they didn’t. His racial attitudes were about what one would expect from a man of his era, not the worst, not the most enlightened.  He ended up getting shafted, as just about all Continental Line veterans did. His Narrative ends with the war, along with a short argument against those who looked down on Continental Line veterans and resented their paltry, extremely belated pensions. It is unfortunate that he felt it necessary to do so.


Philbrick did further research on Martin. After the war, he moved to what would become the state of Maine. A number of wealthy men aimed to become major landlords, based on purchased contracts. These documents dated back before the revolution. Martin’s farm was on land owned by General Knox, Washington’s chief of artillery and a hero of the revolution.  Unable to make the rent, Martin wrote a letter to Knox asking that as a veteran he be given some leeway. Knox did not respond favorably and Martin had to move, ending up landless. At the start of the book, Martin wished for 6 feet of ground to lay his bones in.


All I can say is, if you are interested in the American Revolution, get these books. I would love to have a heavily annotated hard copy of Martin’s book with maps.