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I think that anyone who has studied the Civil War, knows that it got started when the Confederates attacked Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861…officially anyway. Of course, the Civil War was all about slavery, and the North and South could not agree on the issue. As with all wars, there was some posturing before the war actually got started. Each side tries to scare the other into compliance, but sometimes that just doesn’t work out. The strange thing about the Civil War was that the “posturing stage” of the war ended up being a comedy of errors, when an inexperienced gunner accidently discharged his cannon into the fort on March 12, 1861. After the error, in which no one was hurt or killed, thankfully, the Confederates had to row over and apologize for the mistake. That strikes me as really funny, because everyone knew the war was coming, but just not when it would start.

All that “practice” apparently didn’t help either, because when the war actually started, they fired over 3,000 shells at the fort without injuring a single Union soldier. Nevertheless, the men at the fort were apparently intimidated, because they surrendered and a Confederate officer named Roger Pryor rowed out to negotiate the terms. As the discussion progressed, Pryor casually got up, poured himself a glass of whiskey. Probably not the best idea. He downed it in one gulp, before finding out that it was actually a bottle of medical iodine that happened to be nearby. Pryor’s “Three Stooges” moment ended with army doctors frantically pumping his stomach while nervous Union officers wondered how they were going to explain poisoning the negotiator. I can see it all now. The Union doctors were scrambling to save Pryor’s life, all the while thinking that the Confederate soldiers were going to accuse them of trying to murder him. Fortunately, Pryor survived, but the comedy of errors did not end there. In what would become one last screw-up, and to mark the surrender, the Union commander ordered his gunners to fire a salute. Once again, the “training” given was lacking or the soldiers were just careless. The gunners piled cartridges next to their cannons…in a high wind. The resulting explosion killed two of their own men, the only casualties of the siege.

The war had at least one other comedy of errors, this time in Congress. In 1858, tensions between pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions were so heated that a huge brawl broke out between at least 30 Congressmen on the House floor. This was not just an argument, it was a brawl, and it only came to an end when Mississippi’s William Barksdale had his wig knocked off. Since Barksdale never admitted to wearing a wig, he quickly snatched it back up and put it on inside out, causing everyone to stop fighting and start laughing instead. Barksdale didn’t think it funny, but I do.

Most of us have heard the name Sandy Hook because of the school shooting that took place in an elementary school with the same name in Newtown, Connecticut. That tragedy was not the first time the name Sandy Hook had been at the center of attention, however. Most people know that along United States coastal areas, there are many lighthouses. The lighthouses might not be so necessary these days, because of GPS tracking, but before all of the technology that we have today, lighthouses were the only way for a ship to know if they were coming dangerously close to a stretch of land. Such was the case with the Sandy Hook lighthouse in 1776. The problem they were having with the lighthouse, however, is that it was thought that the lighthouse would also help the British ships to invade New York City. It was a very real concern, and posed a grave danger to the Provincial Congress of New York.

The Sandy Hook lighthouse was located on a piece of land that was disputed territory in those days. The land sits directly across the bay from New York City, making it an important shipping lane, but a dangerous one too. In early 1761, the Provincial Congress of New York set up lotteries to raise money for the construction of a lighthouse. A lighthouse in this area had been under discussion for nearly a century before it was initiated by Colonial Governor Edmund Andread. Forty three New York merchants proposed the lotteries to the Provincial Council, after losing 20,000 sterling pounds to shipwrecks in 1761. The money was collected, and the Sandy Hook lighthouse was built. It first shone its beam on June 11, 1764. It served it’s purpose quite well…in fact maybe too well…at least during the Revolutionary War. Ships weren’t sinking, but in a big way, it left New York City quite vulnerable to attack. So, after just fifteen years of use, the New York Provincial Congress decided that the lighthouse had to be dismantled. Then came the controversy. A committee of the New York Provincial Congress told Major William Malcolm to “use your best discretion to render the light-house entirely useless.” They wanted him to remove the lens and lamps so that the lighthouse could no longer warn ships of possible hazards on the rocky shore. He succeeded. Colonel George Taylor reported to the committee six days later, that Malcolm had given him eight copper lamps, two tackle falls and blocks, three casks, and a part of a cast of oil from the dismantling of the beacon.

Malcolm’s efforts failed, because the lighthouse was quickly put back into service by the merchants in the area, with the installation of lamps and reflectors. The Patriots attempted to knock the light out again on June 1st, by placing cannon on boats and attempting to blow away the British paraphernalia, damaging some of it before they were chased away. Malcolm’s efforts did not prevent the British from invading New York City. The new states of New York and New Jersey fought over ownership of the lighthouse until the federal government assumed control of all US lighthouses in 1787. As of 1996, the Sandy Hook lighthouse, the oldest original lighthouse in the United States, became a historic landmark, and passed into the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. It is still in operation as part of the Gateway National Recreation Area.

trenton-nj-mapThe year was 1776, and it was Christmas Day, but for the men with George Washington, it was not a day of celebration…not exactly anyway. They were in the middle of fighting a war, and the fighting didn’t just stop because it was Christmas, not this year anyway. This was to be an unusual Christmas as far as wartime Christmases went. In 1776, it was difficult to fight a war in the wintertime, because the slower modes of travel. Most times in a war, the armies took the Winter off from warring, but this army was not laying up for the Winter. This war would continue on…no matter what the weather was like.

Things looked bad that year. The Continental Army had suffered a series of defeats in their battle against the British oppression. After some successful maneuvers, Colonel Henry Knox came to the attention of General George Washington who worked to place him in overall command to the Continental Army. Under his command, the Continentals brought 18 cannon over the river…3 washington-crossing-the-delawarePounders, 4 Pounders, some 6 Pounders, horses to pull the carriages, and enough ammunition for the coming battle. The 6 Pounders, weighing as much as 1,750 pounds were the most difficult to transport to the far side of the river. But in the end all the trouble of moving this large artillery train to Trenton proved its worth. Knox would place the bulk of his artillery at the top of the town where its fire commanded the center of Trenton.

The plan devised by Knox and Washington was to conduct a surprise attack upon a Hessian garrison of roughly 1,400 soldiers located in and around Trenton, New Jersey. Washington hoped that a quick victory at Trenton would bolster sagging morale in his army and encourage more men to join the ranks of the Continentals in the coming new year. After several councils of war, General George Washington set the date for the river crossing for Christmas night 1776. It was an unprecedented plan, because the expectation was always that the armies would hold up somewhere for the winter. No one had attacked in winter before, and especially on Christmas. George Washington led 2,400 troops on a daring nighttime crossing of the icy Delaware River. Stealing into New Jersey, on December 26 the Continental forces launched the surprise attack on Trenton.

washington-marches-to-trentonThe gamble paid off. Many of the Hessians were still disoriented from the previous night’s holiday bender, and colonial forces defeated them with minimal bloodshed. While Washington had pulled off a shock victory, his army was unequipped to hold the city and he was forced to re-cross the Delaware that same day…with nearly 1,000 Hessian prisoners in tow. Washington would go on to score successive victories at the Battles of the Assunpink Creek and Princeton, and his audacious crossing of the frozen Delaware served as a crucial rallying cry for the beleaguered Continental Army. The Revolutionary War would be won by the Continental Army of course, and the rules of warfare changed forever.

william-washingtonThe Revolutionary War is an interesting war in many ways, because while they were limited in the weapons of warfare, they still managed to wage war in a very effective way. Especially in that approximately 12,000 men were killed in action, and the number of men who died from disease, was far more than that. About all the soldiers had to fight with were cannons, and rifles…of the most antiquated sort. Nevertheless, they did the job…most of the time. The biggest problems included a lack of ammunition, and the weight of the cannons.

The fighting was brutal, with wins and losses on both sides. After nearly a year of the backcountry conflict between Colonel William Washington, who was General George Washington’s second cousin once removed, and the British commander, Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton, who was infamous for Tarleton’s Quarter, the murder of colonial prisoners of war on May 29, 1780 at Waxhaws, Colonel Washington had retreated to North Carolina the previous October. Orders came from Brigadier General Daniel, commanding Washington to return to the South Carolina theater. Colonel Washington still lacked the proper artillery to properly fight off the Loyalists, who were under the command of Colonel Rowland Rugeley. quaker_guns_in_the_fort_on_the_heights

On this day, December 4, 1780, a force of Continental dragoons commanded by Colonel Washington cornered Colonel Rugeley and his followers in Rugeley’s house and barn near Camden, South Carolina. He told his cavalrymen to dismount and surround the barn. While out of Rugeley’s sight, Washington’s men fabricated a pine log to resemble a cannon. This was a Quaker gun trick, named so because the Quakers used it to be intimidating without breaching their pacifist vow of non-violence, and for Colonel William Washington and his men, it worked beautifully. Washington faced the log cannon toward the buildings in which the Loyalists had barricaded themselves and threatened bombardment, if they did not surrender. Shortly after that, Rugeley surrendered his entire force without a single shot being fired. It was an amazing use of strategy, illusion, and forethought on the part of Colonel Washington, and quite likely saved the lives of many of his men.
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When Lord Charles Cornwallis, commander of the British armies in America, was informed of the pacifist victory, he told Tarleton that Rugeley’s performance ensured he would never rise to the rank of brigadier general. I suppose Cornwallis thought that Tarleton’s men weren’t properly trained. A few weeks later, Tarleton would himself face an even worse humiliation at the hands of General Daniel Morgan during the devastating Battle of Cowpens. The brutal civil war for the hearts and minds of the Carolina backcountry had finally begun to favor the Patriots. Of course, as we now know, the final outcome would be victory and independence for the American Patriots.

Aunt Laure and the deerAunt Laura and the OstrichFamilies have long loved to visit places like museums and zoos. It give them a chance to have an outing with the kids whereby they are out of the house, and yet learning something too. My grandmother, Anna Schumacher Spencer was no exception to that rule. For the first ten years of her eldest child, my Aunt Laura Spencer Fredrick’s life, Grandma didn’t have any other children. I’ve never known just why that was. The family history doesn’t tell of miscarriages or lost babies, but until my Uncle Bill Spencer came along, ten years after his sister, Laura, and then was quickly followed by brother, Allen Spencer (my dad), and then Aunt Ruth Spencer Wolfe, that was simply the case. Grandma and Aunt Laura were very close, and did lots of things together. The pictures of that time frame show visits with family, time spent picking flowers, and a trip to the zoo, which brings me to my story.

As I said, Grandma was very close with her daughter, and took lots of pictures of her and with her. Because of that closeness, she didn’t pay as much attention to the things or animals around Aunt Laura, but rather paid attention to Aunt Laura in the photo. It really was a matter of what subject she felt was the most important in the picture…obviously for Grandma that was Aunt Laura. She wanted to be able to tell of all the events of Aunt Laura’s young life, and Grandma did a great job of that.

As Uncle Bill began going through all the pictures and writing up the family history, he came across many pictures that rather frustrated him. That’s where his opinion on the pictures Grandma had taken came out. It wasn’t that Uncle Bill didn’t like the pictures of his sister, because he did…they were very close as children. The problem for him occurred with the picture of his sister, Laure standing by a cannon. Needless to say, I have to agree with Uncle Bill to a large degree. While the pictures of Aunt Laura with the zoo animals are great, I didn’t know what the cannon was at all, until Uncle Bill clarified that for me. Instead of taking the picture with a side view of the cannon, Grandma has taken it with a back view. It was pretty much impossible to know what it was without being told or maybe having a background that clarified it for you. Uncle Bill was rather annoyed, and commented on the picture with, “Come on Mom!”

That picture wasn’t the only one that Uncle Bill was upset with either. Another picture that was very good, but was not taken by Grandma, irritated him nevertheless. It was a picture marked only as, “Mother’s niece.” I’m Albertine's nieceAunt Laura and the Cannonsure that, like most people, Grandma figured that she would always know who it was, but what she wasn’t thinking about was that the rest of the people, who would someday look at the picture, would never know who it was. Again, it was a matter of what Grandma saw as important and what Uncle Bill saw as important. Sadly, Grandma is gone now, so we cannot ask who this niece might have been. She didn’t mean to do these things to upset her son, of course, it was just that what she saw and what he saw as important, were two very different things. And in this case, quite upsetting to my uncle.

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