Thursday, May 23, 2013

A Yankee Doodle Memorial

This is Memorial Day weekend.  For most Americans just another reason to have a party, go to ball games or watch the Indianapolis 500 or Preakness.

But for some, especially those who have a military connection, Memorial Day is truly something special because it is the one day that commemorates those who have fallen in the service of their country. Memorial Day was promulgated on 5 May 1868 by General John Logan, the Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, a Civil War veterans group made up of northern vets -sort of the American legion/VFW of its day. To honor Civil War fallen, flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate dead on 30 May although most southern sympathizers clung to separate holidays to commemorate their fallen. This changed after World War 1 when  veterans of both regions who had served side by side began to be honored as well.

General John A. Logan

The trauma of the Civil War, followed by that of the Great War brought industrial age carnage to new heights and the need for some sense of spiritual closure for those fallen in massed attacks such as those at Gettysburg, Cold Harbor, or the Marne and the Meuse-Argonne offensives.  To honor them, huge cemeteries and memorials span the nation and the battlefields of Europe and Asia honoring the hundreds of thousands of fallen. By "modern" standards casualties during the War for Independence were laughable and most soldiers died from sickness and starvation while in service to their nation.

But our First Patriots cherished and honored their fallen no less. And after the war, the need to honor those who gave all for an idea sanctified both the idea and those whose sacrifice enabled it.  Here are just a few examples:

General Montgomery Memorial
at St. Paul's
The first commemoration was ordered by the Continental Congress in 1776 to honor General Richard Montgomery, who fell during the American assault on Quebec, Canada. Our first fallen general's monument was designed and built under the supervision of Benjamin Franklin by one of France's best artists, King Louis XVI's personal sculptor, Jean Jacques Caffieri. Shipped to America upon completion, it rested  in Edenton, NC.  Although Congress originally intended to place it in Philadelphia, it ultimately ended up in
New York City, where in 1788, it was installed under the direction of France's Pierre Charles L'Enfant (who later designed Washington, DC)  beneath the portico of St. Paul's Chapel, which served as George Washington's church during his time in New York as the United States' first president in 1789, and where it remains to this day. Montgomery's body, which was originally interred on the site of his death in Quebec, was moved to St. Paul's in 1818.

Those who read my earlier blogs also know that I began the Yankee Doodle Spies idea, and particularly The Patriot Spy, because as a boy I was inspired by the Maryland Monument in Brooklyn's Prospect Park (scroll down to read of it). But an important and little known monument was erected at the site of the Brooklyn Navy Yard.  Why? Because there the remains of perhaps as a many as 15,000 First Patriots were interred there.  These were prisoners of war, the victims of the notorious British prison ships anchored as "hulks," that is de-masted sailing ships,docked in an area called Wallabout Bay.  These First Patriots later became known as the "Prison Ship Martyrs."

Unveiling Prison Ship Memorial at Ft Greene Park 1908

For years after the war, the bones of Martyrs would wash up on shore and finally  a monument was erected near the site of the hulks at the famed Brooklyn Navy Yard at a place called Vinegar Hill.  In the mid 19th century a stone crypt was erected at nearby Fort Greene Park and the bones were interred there. Fort Greene was  one of several forts erected by Washington to defend Brooklyn from the British in 1776 (you can read about that in The Patriot Spy). In the late 19th century the martyrs remains were once again moved to a new Fort Greene monument  - a tall (148 foot) obelisk that looked down on Brooklyn. When President Taft dedicated it in 1908, it was one of the finest structures in the nation and a fitting final resting place for the Prison Ship Martyrs.

General Wooster Monument

One of my recent blogs was on Connecticut's General David Wooster who was killed in the fighting that followed the British/Loyalist raid on the arsenal at Danbury, CT. On June 17, 1777, Congress voted that a
suitable monument should be erected in his memory, but measures were never inaugurated to execute the resolution. His grave was not identified until 1854, when Connecticut legislature laid the cornerstone of a monument. Today, a monument 30 feet  high marks his final resting place at Mount Moriah in Danbury. Coincidentally, Wooster fought at Quebec as Montgomery's second in command and took much unjust blame for the campaign and its result.

Many argue that Philadelphia, our nation's  first capital, marks the spiritual, political and geographic center of the American War for Independence and in 1954 an impressive monument was built to commemorate those who fell in the war. The Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier is  located in
Philadelphia's Washington Square. It honors the thousands of soldiers who died during the American Revolutionary War,but especially those who were buried in mass graves in that park.
The actual  plaque upon the tomb of the Unknown Soldier reads: "Beneath this stone rests a soldier of Washington's army who died to give you liberty."

Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier

Bunker Hill Monument
If Philadelphia was the heart of the new nation, Boston was the heart and soul of the rebellion that forged the nation. The entire area is virtual monument to the American Revolution but I'll single out one for this piece - the Bunker Hill Monument. The battle of Bunker Hill (which took place on Breed's Hill) is legendary, and for years General Washington (vainly) sought to replicate the scenario of entrenched Americans mowing down disciplined British troops who calmly marched into a hale of rebel lead. The first monument on the site was an 18-foot wooden pillar with a gilt urn erected in 1794 by King Solomon's Lodge of Masons to honor fallen patriot and mason, Dr. Joseph Warren. In 1823, a group of prominent citizens formed the Bunker Hill Monument Association to construct a more permanent and significant monument to commemorate the famous battle. The existing monument was finally completed in 1842 and dedicated on June 17, 1843, in a major national ceremony. The exhibit lodge was built in the late nineteenth century to house a statue of Dr. Warren.

So this weekend and throughout the year, we should remember all Americans who died in their nation's service. But we should especially recollect those who died to establish the nation and the idea of a free and independent people. Wherever and however you decide to celebrate the occasion, take a moment to think of those who had no Arlington - the fallen at Saratoga, Brandywine, Brooklyn, Harlem, Paoli, Bennington, Germantown, Charleston, King's Mountain, Guilford Court House, Valley Forge, Yorktown, and  hundreds of battlefields fields so small only the local patriots know of them. Give them a roaring "Huzzah" for duty well done.


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