Monday, May 31, 2010

These Unknown Twenty-Two and Moore

05/31/2010 -- Set all in a straight row, they rest afield, up over the banks of the Delaware, where the river flows south toward Trenton.

They are neatly framed by a small rock wall. Behind the plain white marble slabs, each bearing a small original American flag* and a service medallion, scattered brush and a line of straight deciduous trees grow as natural backdrop.

UPDATE: Post-ceremony photo.

Just a few feet back from there, the earthen slope then sharply drops down sharply to the water's edge. In spring and summer, berry bushes first flower, then bear red and black fruits that ripen just behind their grave markers, almost as a symbolic offering of sweet remembrance for these twenty-two unknown, and Moore -- Captain James Moore that is.

They were all soldiers true in our then-beleaguered Continental Army. But these few died and were buried there in that beautiful memorial park in rural Pennsylvania, back in December of 1776 -- on Christmas day to be precise. The memorial park itself was constructed and formally dedicated back in 1929. It has a beautiful ground level tableau around the main flagpole, with each wedge bearing the name of one of the original 13 States, and the date on which it joined the Union.

The soldiers' burial in 1776 took place just as their fellow troops were beginning to muster. Washington's Army, having been reinforced during the month of December by General Sullivan leading in the troops of the fortuitously captured Charles Fox, and Horatio Gates having added another several hundred, before heading himself for Philadelphia, the force was now able to move, twenty four hundred strong, along with 18 canons and stores, and were heading for the river crossing at McKonkeys, six miles south that night, and thence on the march to Trenton, and victory.

Barely yards away, the collected Durham boats and rafts all floated past the site that Christmas day, also on their way to McKonkey's. Fresh out of hiding just upstream behind Malta Island, they were set afloat and run through the "horserace" that bypassed Wells Falls. Between the 9th & 14th of December, General Cornwallis had been reconnoitering up and down the area, on the New Jersey side, looking for boats. Obviously, one of his chief objects was to find boats that the Continental Army had used to cross over on December 7th, or any boats, for that matter. He never found any to speak of, and information sent back to England at the time reported that somewhere around what is today New Hope, PA, was where the boats were destroyed.

UPDATE: Looking upriver. Malta Island was near the buildings seen upstream.

Around New Brunswick during the retreat, General Washington had ordered a few troops ahead, to take all the boats to the Pennsylvania side, from all the way up into the Lehigh River, and even down into Delaware Bay. The boats kept and used for the Christmas Crossing where secreted behind Malta Island.

These men, these twenty three men, neither experienced nor heard of that turning victory at Trenton. Nor did they know of Trenton "II," or Princeton a few days later. Just months before, though, they had felt defeat, harsh defeat indeed. First in Brooklyn, and then escaping by boat in the night to New York, they were there when Washington's army was beaten again in the heights of upper Manhattan, what we now call Fort Washington. And again they crossed to escape, this time across the Hudson into New Jersey, where they endured the ensuing and failed struggle for Fort Lee.

And they were also there for the long flight and humiliating retreat across New Jersey, with the British army hard at their heels. The nascent American revolutionary struggle was in the balance.

But they stayed, these men. They did not desert, or head home their enlistments up, as many had. Nor were they enticed by the Loyalist views. They were Patriots. They had fully embraced the cause of liberty, memorialized in the Declaration of Independence, a document they maybe had had read to them but once, and on which the ink seemed barely dry. By the time they crossed in retreat at Trenton on December 7th, scarcely 10 percent of that Continental army marching with Washington remained. But these men were there, perhaps some of them having been wounded, or who were otherwise nursing the first deadly signs of camp fever and sickness that would tragically claim them by Christmas Day.

These men had not just heard of, but had actually lived the words of Thomas Paine, who wrote "The American Crisis," as he travelled along that sad but determined route with them.

Perhaps, just perhaps the stirring pamphleteer had looked into some of their very faces as they trudged along, none of them really knowing if they would ever succeed in throwing off the tyranny of King George and British colonial rule . . . when he began:

"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 by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman."
And they stood by it then, those twenty three men. They died within a month in camp, overcome but unbowed. Patriots all. Perhaps one or more of them had served as sentries in the rain, or signalers from the cold hilltop of Bowman's hill, or were guardians of the boats and caught their death of cold on some damp and sleety December night. We'll never know. A plaque mounted on the nearby Thompson-Neely House, the headquarters for Continental Army Brigadier General Lord Sterling (William Alexander) says that also quartered in that house were Captain William Washington, Lieutenant James Monroe, who would later become our fifth President, and Captain James Moore of the New York Artillery, who died there on Christmas Day, 1776.

Today, Memorial Day, May 31, 2010, we can look back assuredly, with 234 years of history to take into account. We know the great successes and the sometimes shortcomings of our nation. And when we do, we surely have to marvel at the faith of these twenty two unknown soldiers, and Captain Moore. Some of us even want to be able to cry out to them, and thank them for their faith in our future, a faith that caused them to put their lives on the line when times were dark and uncertain. "It's okay. It's okay!" we want to shout out to them.

The papers say that on this day all the men and women in uniform, soldiers who have given their lives for America will be honored, along with these patriots. Really, I sometimes wonder how "honor" got to be a verb. The honor was theirs. It was something in their character. We do not really honor them. They had great honor. And they gave their lives in the service of our nation. So, if anything, they honor us.

All we can really do today is acknowledge it in awe. And remind others.

* * * * *

Dozens of volunteers gave of both their time and money, and helped to restore this wonderful park to at least a decent and presentable condition over the past months. Budget problems in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania have left some areas badly overgrown, trees fallen within the manicured areas, and even facilities uncared for, with fences and shutters needing fresh coats of paint, and a few windows broken. This park and that portion downstream where the actual Christmas crossing took place, still need your help.

I'll post the names of contacts.

* The top photo shows the line, just after the grass had been trimmed and before the individual flags were reset with each stone. The morning sun coming off the river can be seen.

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At 12:32 AM, June 01, 2010, Blogger PhillyBuster said...

Excellent column and most appropriate for Memorial Day.

At 4:56 PM, June 02, 2010, Blogger John Cifelli said...

Bravo! It is important to remember that these soldiers fought for the noblest of causes. I mean to take nothing from today's troops, but these men fought for freedom and liberty, they fought for truths that are self-evident to every man.

At 5:54 PM, June 09, 2010, Blogger Thomas O. Meehan said...

Great post with very evocative pictures. It's good to know that patriot graves are close at hand to remind us of where we came from and what is at stake.


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