“Whose People Will Be Our People?”

This was the title of the November 18 sermon by Senior Pastor, Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen, at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.[1]

Preparing for the Word

The Prelude for the service was Franz Joseph Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto (Movements I and II) that was performed by Douglas Carlsen, trumpet (Minnesota Orchestra) and Melanie Ohnstad, organ.

Associate Pastor, Rev.  Alanna Simone Tyler, then led the congregation in the following unison Prayer of Confession:

  • “O Holy One, we gather today aware that we fall short of your hopes for us. We are a people divided. We do not trust one another. We forget we belong to the whole human family, not merely to our little circle. We do not accept the stranger as if it were you, O Christ. Forgive us, and make us one again, with you and with those from whom we are estranged.”

Listening for the Word

The Scriptures: Ruth 1: 1-18 (NRSV):

“In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.”

“Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had considered his people and given them food. So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, ‘Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.’ Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. They said to her, ‘No, we will return with you to your people.’ But Naomi said, ‘Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.’ Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.”

“So she said, ‘See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.’”

“But Ruth said, ‘Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!’”

“When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.”

The Sermon:

“Few stories in Hebrew Scripture are as central to our Christian narrative, and are as reflective of what God is up to in Jesus, as the account of Naomi and Ruth.”

In many ways it’s a thoroughly modern story, a tale of love and survival, of refugees and immigrants, of loyalty and generosity, of family legacy and the quiet strength of women.” (Emphasis added.)

“Naomi, an Israelite, marries a man from Bethlehem. They flee famine in Israel and travel as refugees to the land of Moab to the east, beyond the river Jordan, where they settle as a family.”

“But after a time Naomi’s husband dies, and with no one to provide for her and being a refugee from a foreign land, she faces serious hardship. Fortunately, her sons have grown up. They marry women of Moab, Orpah and Ruth, and can now care for their mother.”

“We often view the story of Ruth as the tale of individuals and the decisions they make. But their lives, and this story, are lived in a much broader context. Naomi, from Israel, and Ruth, from Moab, represent two nations historically in conflict. Their people are enemies.” (Emphasis added.)

“To get a feel for the unsettling power of this narrative, imagine it set in the modern Middle East. If we replace Moab with Palestinian Gaza, and Bethlehem with Israeli Tel Aviv, we begin to get a sense of the larger, treacherous, complicated implications of this story.” (Emphasis added.)

“For a time all is well for Naomi in her new life in Moab, but then tragedy strikes again. Both sons die, leaving her vulnerable once more. The only hope for Naomi is to return to Bethlehem where she has relatives on whom she might be able to depend. She learns the famine that caused them to leave in the first place is over, and she decides to go home.”

“When Naomi sets off for Bethlehem, her two daughters-in-law decide to go with her, but Naomi stops them. She tells them to go home to their own people, where they have a chance of surviving, of marrying again and starting new families, and being among their own people. Orpah chooses to return home, but Ruth’s love and loyalty compel her to go with her mother-in-law, who tries again to dissuade her. I imagine them standing on the banks of the Jordan, the border between Moab and Judah, the southern kingdom of Israel, Naomi urging her to return home one last time. But Ruth stands her ground.”

“’Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you!’ she says to Naomi.”

  • Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried.’ (Ruth 1:17-18)” (Emphasis added.)

“It’s a stunning soliloquy, with far-reaching consequences. With her words, Ruth reframes and redefines existing norms and realigns historic assumptions. She chooses to ignore the accepted boundaries between people and nations. She sets self aside and declares her intention to use love as the measure by which she will live.” (Emphasis added.)

The story of Ruth points to the dangers of exaggerated nationalism and the risks of restrictive boundaries within the human family. The story upends old rules about identity, and proposes new ways of thinking about relationships. It shows that grace and generous love can disrupt historic patterns of exclusivity.” (Emphasis added.)

“After Ruth’s words, Naomi really has no choice, so the two of them set off together for Bethlehem, climbing up into the hills of Judah from the Jordan Valley. Once they get there, they have no means of sustaining themselves. In order to provide food for the two of them, Ruth goes to glean in the fields with other poor, hungry people, picking up leftovers after the harvest. She happens to do this, to glean, in the field of Boaz, a kinsman of her dead husband’s family.”

“Boaz sees her and is attracted to her, and asks about her and, eventually, with a little encouragement from Ruth, falls in love with her. They have a son named Obed, whose wife has a son named Jesse. Remember the prophetic prediction that ‘a shoot will come out of the stump of Jesse?’ That shoot would be David, son of Jesse, great-grandson of Ruth – David, who would become king of Israel, and from whose line the Messiah would one day come, as the prophets of old had foretold.” (Emphasis added.)

“In other words, without the courage and strength of Naomi and the perseverance and love of Ruth, the story would end. There would have been no Obed, no Jesse, no David – and, eventually, no Jesus. The entire biblical story for Christians rests on this one foreign enemy woman, a young widow who leaves her own people, with great risk, goes with her mother-in-law, to support her, because it was the right and just thing to do. As the Shaker poem the choir sang earlier says, ‘Love will do the thing that’s right.’”

“’Where you go I will go, ‘Ruth says. ‘Where you lodge I will lodge. Your people will be my people, and your God my God.’”

The prophet Micah asks, ‘What does the Lord require of us’ Ruth, a foreigner not under the law of the Hebrews, instinctively knows the answer: ‘To do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.’” (Emphasis added.)

The story of Ruth is a parable for our time. It may not be Moab and Israel, but in America today we live as if we were enemies of one another. There’s no longer a common understanding of what unites us as a people. We think the worst of those with whom we disagree. Everything has a zero-sum quality to it. Either you’re with me or you’re against me.” (Emphases added.)

“Your people cannot possibly be my people.”

“American individualism has always been in creative and generative tension with the call to live as one community. These days, however, that tension has largely been displaced by rampant sectarianism. Very few now try even to talk across the divide anymore. Rigid partisanship precludes the possibility of building a shared purpose as a people. We cannot see beyond our own firm boundaries.”

“Presidential historian Michael Beschloss spoke at the Westminster Town Hall Forum last Tuesday. More than 1700 people were here. The sanctuary and Westminster Hall were filled to overflowing.” [2]

“We were surprised by the crowd. Why did so many people come? The midterm elections were over and the relentless campaigning was behind us , and I think people wanted to take a longer view of where things stand in America. We had just marked the 100th anniversary of the Armistice ending the First World War. And our national Day of Thanksgiving is nearly upon us, always a time to pause and reflect on the road we as a people have trod, and on the journey ahead. People came that day to find hope for the future of our nation.”

“The questions asked of Beschloss at the Town Hall Forum focused less on any particular president, current or historic, and more on the present contentiousness in our land. People wrote question expressing serious anxiety about the health of our democracy. They wanted to hear from a professional historian whether things are as bad as they seem. They are, in his view.“

“Beschloss is deeply concerned about the nation and its future. In his study of history, he said, he knew of few times in our country’s life as fraught with division and discord, and the potential for worse, as ours. Even as he expressed hope about the enduring strength of American democracy, he warned about the risk of conflict escalating into violence.”

“This is not only a Republican-Democrat problem, or a conservative-progressive matter. It’s not even solely a political problem, nor merely a lack of civility. It’s something far more than that.”

“It’s the same question Ruth faced, a question of identity and belonging: whose people will be my people? Our people?”

“It shows up in the rural-urban divide. It can be seen in the widening gulf between those with a high level of economic comfort and those who have been left behind – and in the policies aimed at keeping things like that. We see it in unresolved racial disparities among us. It’s there in the backlash against immigrants. There’s a growing education gap and a perception of elitism among us.”

“We’re all caught up in it. We’re all caught up in the cultural dividing lines that cut across the nation. And naturally we think the “other side” is at fault; but none of us is innocent.”

“Beschloss said that when American presidents have found themselves leading in a time of war they always become more religious. He described Lincoln coming to Washington as an agnostic, and maybe even an atheist,, but as he sent men off to fight and die on the battlefield he turned to the Bible and to prayer for wisdom and strength and succor. We can hear it in his speeches; he quoted scripture all the time. He needed something beyond his own resources to bear the terrible burden and to help resolve the national crisis.”

“We need something, as well, beyond our own limited resources. What we’re facing, I think, can be described as a spiritual problem. We’re too mired in mundane, daily outrage to see things from a higher point of view.” (Emphasis added.)

“In contrast, Ruth refuses to let the prevailing perception of reality – that Moab and Israel are enemies – define her own point of view. She chooses to live according to a different reality. She seeks a deeper, broader, more generous perspective on the human family. She lifts her vision above the discord and looks beyond it. She wants to see things more as God intends them to be, not as the world sees them.”

“We’re in a moment where our nation lacks that kind of moral vision, a vision that looks beyond the immediacies of our divided house, a vision summoning us to conceive anew the possibilities the American experiment was meant to offer. We cannot keep living like this; there’s simply too much at stake not to try to reclaim the values at the heart of our democracy – values never perfectly implemented, but that have served as aspirational measures of our life together.”

This is a Naomi and Ruth moment, and the question facing us is: whose people will be our people?” (Emphasis added.)

As Christians, we believe that Jesus embodies God’s response to that question.” (Emphasis added.)

“In the coming season we will we speak of this one who is born in Bethlehem, the descendant of David. We will speak of him as Emmanuel, God with us.”

Jesus does with all humanity what Ruth does with Naomi. He lives for others and loves them unconditionally, even at the risk of losing his own life.” (Emphasis added.)

In Jesus, and in Ruth, we have the blueprint for human community: a generosity of spirit that starts by saying, “Your people will be our people.” (Emphasis added.)

“Thanks be to God.”

Reflections

This sermon provided historical and contemporary contexts that made the story of Ruth and Naomi more powerful.

Naomi and Ruth were from countries, Israel and Moab respectively, that were enemies. Yet Ruth “reframes and redefines existing norms and realigns historic assumptions.” She “chooses to ignore the accepted boundaries between people and nations” and thereby “shows that grace and generous love can disrupt historic patterns of exclusivity.”

“Jesus does with all humanity what Ruth does with Naomi. He lives for others and loves them unconditionally.”

It is easiest for nearly everyone to first experience love in a family and define yourself as a member of that family. Then as we grow up we enlarge the family group to include friends and neighbors, eventually people from a geographical area and then a nation. All of these groups are logical and hopefully enriching.

The challenge then is to understand and treasure all human beings who are outside these groups. We are offered opportunities to do so by reading about people in other cultures and lands, by seeking to engage with nearby neighbors with different cultures and traditions, by welcoming newcomers of all faiths and traditions to our cities and towns and by traveling to other lands.

I have been blessed in this quest by a superb education; by living and studying for two years in the United Kingdom; by traveling to many other countries in Europe, North America and Latin America and a few countries in the Middle East, Asia and Africa; by being a pro bono asylum lawyer for Salvadorans, Somalis, Colombians and men from Afghanistan and Burma; by learning and teaching international human rights law; by researching and writing blog posts about Cuba, Cameroon and other countries and issues; and by getting to know their peoples and by getting to know people in Minnesota from many other countries.

Especially meaningful for me has been involvement in Westminster’s Global Partnerships in Cuba, Cameroon and Palestine and learning more about these countries’ histories, traditions and problems and establishing friendships with individuals in these countries. For example, this past May, individuals from these three counties visited Westminster in Minneapolis and we all shared our joys and challenges. Especially enriching were three worship services focused on each of our partnerships.

For example, our May 20, 2018, service on Pentecost Sunday featured our Palestinian brothers and sisters from our partner congregation, Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem.[3]

We had Palestinian music from the Georges Lammam Ensemble (San Francisco, California). Rev. Munther Isaac, the Senior Pastor of our partner congregation, provided the Pastoral Prayer and led the unison Lord’s Prayer. My new friend, Adel Nasser from Bethlehem, chanted the Twenty-third Psalm in Arabic.

Then Rev. Mitri Raheb, the President of Dar-Al-Kalima University in Bethlehem, had an illuminating conversational sermon with Rev. Hart-Andersen that was centered on the Biblical text (Acts 2: 1-12). This passage talks about a gathering in Jerusalem of  people “from every nation under heaven,” each speaking “in the native language of each” and yet hearing, “each of us, in our own native language” and thus understanding one another. Here are some of the highlights of that conversation:

  • Hart-Andersen said the text emphasized that all of these people were in one place together, affirming the vast display of God’s creative goodness in the human family when no one has to surrender his or her own identity and thereby affirms the identity of every human being.
  • This is what God wants in the human family, Hart-Andersen continued. Make space for people who are different. The miracle of Pentecost is the existence of bridges over these differences and the destruction of walls that we tend to build around our own little groups.
  • Hart-Andersen also pointed out that Minnesota today is like that earlier gathering at Pentecost with over 100 different language groups in the State.
  • Raheb agreed, saying that Palestine is also very diverse and God wants diversity in the human family. As a result, there is a need to build bridges between different groups, and the Covenant Agreement between Westminster and Christmas Lutheran Church expressly calls for building bridges between the U.S. and Palestine. He also treasures the gathering this month of Cubans and Cameroonians with the Palestinians and Americans because it helped to build bridges among all four of these groups. We were experiencing Pentecost in Minneapolis.
  • Raheb also mentioned that the original Pentecost featured the miracle of understanding among the people speaking different languages. The Holy Spirit provided the software enabling this understanding.
  • Hart-Andersen said the diversity of the human family compels us to build bridges. The mission of the church is to resist walls that keep us apart.
  • Raheb emphasized that Acts 2:1-12 is a foundational text for Arabic Christianity as it mentions Arabs as being present on Pentecost.
  • He also contrasted Pentecost with the Genesis account (Chapter 11) of “the whole earth [having] one language and the same words” and the resulting arrogance to attempt to build a tower to the heavens. God responded by confusing their language” so that they would not understand one another and stop building the tower of Babel. This is emblematic of empires throughout history that have attempted to impose one language on all parts of the empire.

Yes, we all are brothers and sisters in Christ!

=========================================

[1]  The text of the sermon is available on the church’s website.

[2] See Beschloss Discusses “Presidents of War” at Westminster Town Hall Forum, dwkcomentaries.com (Nov. 15, 2018).

[3] The bulletin and an audio recording for this May 20 service are available on the Westminster website.

 

U.S. First Congress: Debates Slavery, 1790

Anyone who has studied any American history knows that slavery existed at the adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1788 and that the Constitution’s original Article I, Section 2 apportioned representatives in the House of Representatives “according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians no taxed, three fifths of all other Persons [i.e., slaves].” (Emphasis added.)[1]

In addition, the First Congress in 1789 implicitly recognizing slavery when it enacted statues for an U.S. census and U.S. naturalization citizenship requirements. [2]

As the First Congress prepared to commence operations, emancipation advocates were seeking regulation of the slave trade or abolition of slavery while defenders of the “peculiar institution” contemplated secession if that happened. The latter’s House representation, of course, was bolstered by having their population increased by 60% (3/5th) of the number of their slaves.[3]

The emancipation advocates were led by Quakers who starting in early February 1790 “way-laid” and “assailed” Senators and Congressmen with pamphlets and diagrams of overcrowded slaves ships while urging support of anti-slavery petitions. One such petition asked Congress “with a sense of religious duty” to end “the gross national iniquity of trafficking in the persons of fellow men” and “the inhuman tyranny and blood guiltiness inseparable from it.” Another petition that was signed by Benjamin Franklin called for use of “all justifiable measures to loosen the bonds of Slavery & promote a general enjoyment of the blessings of Freedom.”

Southern reaction to these petitions was “explosive.” They accused the Quakers of “intemperate and unwarrantable meddling,” of “an intolerant spirit of persecution” against the slave states, of disloyalty and cowardice during the Revolutionary War (because on religious principles they did not bear arms) and the promotion of “Insurrections & bloodshed & persecution.” A Georgia Congressman said religion “from Genesis to Revelations” had approved of slavery.

The three petitions were referred to a House select committee, which later reported that Congress had no power to emancipate slaves or interfere with the slave trade before 1808. On the other hand, the committee said, Congress had the power to put a tax on imported slaves and thereby motivate slave-owners and slave states to improve their treatment of slaves.

Thereafter the pro-slavery forces went on the attack. Their leader quoted Scripture, suggested that nothing could be done about it, that the new country needed exports to Africa and that slaves were incapable of mastering freedom. Some of the nation’s leaders personally opposed slavery—George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison-even though they were slave owners, but remained quiet in Congress because they feared loss of Southern support for other measures or a breakup of the new country.

The result? The House concluded that all power to end slavery and tax imported slaves rested with the states. In short, it was an endorsement of the status quo and the protection of slavery.

Fergus Bordewich, the author of a leading book on the First Congress, concludes that the “most consequential failure of the First Congress was its evasion of the corrosive problem of slavery. . . . Even members who loathed slavery feared that the new government could not risk an open debate on the subject without splintering . . . . [Thus,] for the next seven decades this evasion encouraged southerners to bully any northern politicians who challenged slavery by threatening secession and war, as the number of enslaved Americans swelled from 323,000 in 1790 to almost 4 million in 1861, and the moral problem of slavery became ever more deeply enmeshed with the politics of states’ rights.”[4]

=====================================

[1] The above provision of the original Constitution was deleted by Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment thereto, which was adopted after the Civil War in 1868 and which states: “Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed.”

[2] U.S. First Congress: Establishment of Racial Categories for the U.S. Census and U.S. Citizenship Naturalization, 1790, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 20, 2017).

[3] Bordewich, the First Congress at 3,6, 75-77, 104, 112, 124-25, 149, 151-52, 172, 178, 183, 195-96, 198-220, 223-24, 230, 244-45, 249, 276, 279-80 (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2016). http://www.simonandschuster.com/books/The-First-Congress/Fergus-M-Bordewich/9781451691931

[4] Id. at 304.

The American Revolutionary War’s End in New York City,1783

The American Revolutionary War formally ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris on September 3, 1783. At that time the British were nearing the end of their seven-year occupation of New York City after their victory over the colonists in York Island (Manhattan) in September 1776.[1]

Several weeks before the signing of the Treaty, Sir John Carleton, who was in charge of the British forces in the City, advised the President of the Continental Congress that the British were proceeding as fast as possible with the withdrawal of military personnel, Loyalists and liberated slaves, but that he could not then provide an estimated date for the completion of that process.

Thereafter the British evacuated more than 29,000 military personnel, Loyalists and liberated slaves although the Treaty of Paris required them to return the slaves to their owners. The process was completed on November 25th.

Washington & Clinton Entry into New York City

After the evacuation was complete that day, General Washington, New York Governor George Clinton and men in the Continental Army marched down Broadway to the Battery to formally take possession of the City.

Fraunces Tavern

Approximately a week later (on December 4th), General Washington invited the officers of the Continental Army to join him for a farewell dinner at noon at the City’s Fraunces Tavern at 54 Pearl Street.[3]

Washington’s Farewell, Fraunces Tavern

When all were assembled in the Tavern’s dining room, Washington filled his glass with wine and said, “With a heart full of love and gratitude I now take leave of you. I most devoutly wish that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable.”

After each of the officers had taken a glass of wine, General Washington said, “I cannot come to each of you but shall feel obliged if each of you will come and take me by the hand.”‘ As the officers did so, Washington was in tears.

The British evacuation of the City plays a prominent role in a fascinating novel, The Book of Negroes, by Canadian novelist Lawrence Hill.[2] The novel follows Aminata Diallo, a girl who is abducted at age 11 from her West African village in the mid- 18th century and sold into slavery in the U.S. She is intelligent and learns how to read and write. She is in New York City at the end of the American Revolutionary War, and because she is literate is hired by the British to facilitate their evacuation of the city.

Book of Negroes (page)

Her task is to create the Book of Negroes, an actual historical document that lists 3,000 freed Loyalist slaves who requested permission to leave the U.S. in order to resettle in Nova Scotia.[4] There are many other intriguing facets of her life that are covered in this amazing novel.

———————————————-

[1] Various aspects of the American Revolutionary War have been discussed in prior posts.

[2]  The Fraunces Tavern had opened for business in 1762 in a former mansion that was built in 1719. It is still in business today along with its Fraunces Museum. When I was an associate attorney with a nearby Wall Street law firm, 1966-1970, colleagues and I had dinner there several times.

Current NYC map with marker for                  Fraunces Tavern

[3]  In the U.S., Australia and New Zealand, the novel was published under the title Someone Knows My Name.

[4] The actual Book of Negroes is now online.

The American Revolutionary War: The Battle of White Plains (New York), October 1776

Immediately after General George Washington’s victory at Harlem Heights on September 16, 1776, he and the Continental Army remained at the northern end of York Island (Manhattan).[1]

Twenty-six days later (October 12th) General William Howe made his next move. He had 90 British flat-boats with 4,000 troops row up the East River to Throggs Neck, a narrow peninsula that demarcates the passage between that River and Long Island Sound. There the troops disembarked with the objective of establishing a line across the island to the Hudson River and thereby encircling the Continental Army and preventing their escaping from York Island. The British inland advance, however, was blocked by swamps and some Continental troops.

Howe responded by having his troops return to the boats and go three miles north to Pell’s Point (or Pelham). There on October 18th, the British troops again disembarked with the same objective.  Inland were 750 Continental Army men under the command of Col. John Glover, who positioned his troops behind a series of stone walls and attacked the British advance units. As the British overran each position, the American troops fell back and reorganized behind the next wall. After several such attacks, the British broke off, and the Americans retreated.

This battle or skirmish delayed British movements long enough for Washington to move the main Continental army 18 miles north to White Plains, thereby avoiding being surrounded on Manhattan.

In White Plains by October 22nd Washington established a defensive line near the village anchored by Purdy Hill on one end and Hatfield Hill at the other end. Across the line and the Bronx River was Chatterton’s Hill, which was left undefended.

White Plains Battle map
Battle of White Plains
British soldiers, White Plains (reinactment)
Continental Army soldiers, White Plains (reinactment)

When General Howe and the British troops arrived in White Plains on October 28th, Howe immediately recognized the importance of Chatterton’s Hill and made it the focus of their attack.

Washington’s attempt to mount a defense of that Hill failed, and the British won the battle with 300 Americans killed, wounded and captured. One of those killed on the battlefield was my maternal fifth great-grandfather, Perley Brown.[2]

The two sides remained in their positions for the next two days. On October 31st General Howe planned to attack the Americans, but heavy rain prevented this move. That night, under the protection of t he rain, Washington withdrew his troops to the north. The next day, November 1st, Howe again found that Washington had eluded his grasp.

Washington continued his retreat to the north and then west over the Hudson River into New Jersey for their further retreat to Pennsylvania in late December. The British returned to Manhattan.


[1] In addition to the hyperlinked sources in this post, it also draws from Arthur Merrill, The Battle of White Plains (Analysis Press; Chappaqua, NY, 1975); David McCullough, 1776 at 229-34(New York; Simon & Schuster 2005); T. Harry Williams, Richard N. Current & Frank Freidel, A History of the United States [To 1876], at 151 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1959); Henry Steele Commager & Richard B. Morris, The Spirit of ‘Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants, Ch. Eleven (New York: Harper & Row, 1967).  From 1969 through early 1970, I was a lawyer for a Wall Street law firm working for IBM on the IBM antitrust cases and spent a lot of time at a special office for the cases in White Plains. Unfortunately I did not scout out the sites of this battle.

[2]  Carol Willits Brown, William Brown–English Immigrant of Hatfield and Leicester, Massachusetts, and His Descendants c. 1669-1994 at 17 (Gateway Press; Baltimore, MD 1994).

The American Revolutionary War: The Battle of Harlem Heights (New York), September 1776

On the morning of August 30, 1776, it was apparent that the British had totally routed the colonists in the Battle of Brooklyn (Long Island). But the British commander, General Howe, did not press their advantage and immediately attack the American forces on the southern end of York Island (now Manhattan).

General Washington at his New York City headquarters obviously knew that the British would be attacking the City and the Island, but did not know where or when.

The Battle of Brooklyn was mentioned in a September 3rd letter from my maternal fifth great-grandfather, Perley Brown, to his wife from New York City. He also said that British ships were now “within ear shot” of the City and that he and the others “expect the [British] Regulars will try to take the City.” Another such letter from him on September 9th said “the Enemy have got a Brestwork [sic] about seven miles above the City [in Brooklyn Heights] on long island and they fire actrost [sic] to a foart [sic] of ours [sic] and our men at them.” He added, “they have wounded two men and kild [sic] one.”[1]

On September 12th (the day after the unsuccessful Staten Island Peace Conference), Washington decided to abandon New York City and ordered the main part of the Continental Army to move north on the island as soon as possible to King’s Bridge connecting the island with what is now the Bronx.[2]

Harlem Heights map

By September 14th most of this American force had reached the Harlem Heights[3] on the west side of the island and King’s Bridge at the northern end of the island. The balance of the forces remained at the southern end of the island.

British ships at Kips Bay

On the morning of the 15th five British frigates sailed up the East River and near Kips Bay (on the east side of Manhattan and just south of the present-day U.N. Headquarters) started a cannon bombardment of the island. Thereafter 13,000 British troops left the ships and invaded the island from the east in flat-boats. Some of the British soldiers immediately marched south to occupy New York City.

Simultaneously the last of the American troops marched north from New York City on the west side of the island to reach their colleagues at Harlem Heights. Perley Brown was in this contingent, and in an October 4th letter to his wife said, “on the 15 of September we left new York and Before we could get out the [British] Regulars Landed on the island and intended to stop our retreat.” Perley continued, “they fired their cannon from there [sic] ships [on the Hudson River] which came very [near] to us.”

Harlem Heights Battle
Harlem Heights Battle

On September 16th 5,000 British troops reached the 1,800 American soldiers on Harlem Heights. The British attacked, and their bunglers sounded a fox-hunting call know as “gone away,” meaning that the fox is in full flight from the hounds. The Continentals, who had been in orderly retreat, were infuriated by this insult. They halted and counter-attacked. The British retreated and withdrew.

 

This battle was mentioned in Perley Brown’s October 4th letter to his wife from “Harlom [sic] Camp.” He reported, “on the 16 they came up to our lines at the upper end of the island at harlom [sic] where our Camp is now.” He added, “we had a sharp ingagement [sic] which lasted about two [h]ours” and had “about 20 kild [sic] and about 70 wounded.”

The British suffered 14 to 90 killed and 78 to 300 wounded. The Americans had 30 killed and 100 wounded.

Troop movements for Battle of Harlem HeightsThe map of Long Island and Manhattan Island shows the troop movements leading up to this Battle.

The map to the right of Long Island and Manhattan Island shows the movement of troops leading up to the Battle of Harlem Heights.

This victory, minor though it was, was the first victory of the War for General Washington and bolstered American morale.


[1] Carol Willits Brown, William Brown–English Immigrant of Hatfield and Leicester, Massachusetts, and His Descendants c. 1669-1994 at 17-25 (Gateway Press; Baltimore, MD 1994).

[2]   In addition to the hyperlinked sources in this post, it also draws from David McCullough, 1776 at 208-219 (New York; Simon & Schuster 2005); T. Harry Williams, Richard N. Current & Frank Freidel, A History of the United States [To 1876], at 151 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1959); Henry Steele Commager & Richard B. Morris, The Spirit of ‘Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants, Ch. Eleven (New York: Harper & Row, 1967).

[3]  This area is now known as Morningside Heights, 110th to 125th Streets from Riverside Drive on the west to Morningside Drive on the east. It is the home today of such institutions as Columbia University, Barnard College, Grant’s Tomb, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Union Theological Seminary and St. Luke’s Hospital.

Today’s Morningside Heights

The American Revolutionary War: Battle of Brooklyn (Long Island), New York, August 1776

During the summer of 1776, a British military force of 32,000 troops and 10,000 sailors on more than 400 ships assembled in Staten Island and the New York Harbor. They were obviously preparing for an attack on New York City at the southern end of York Island (now Manhattan).

General George Washington at his headquarters in the City obviously knew of the assembling adversary forces and of the approaching battle. But he did not know when or where the attack would come. Therefore, Washington split the Continental Army of 19,000 troops into fortified positions in the City and in Long Island across the East River from the City.

In further preparations for the forthcoming battles, the colonial forces that Spring and Summer constructed Fort Stirling on present-day Brooklyn Heights (Long Island) overlooking New York City and four other nearby forts.

British boats, Staten Island to Long Island

On August 22nd, the British made their offensive, tactical decision. They sent 15,000 troops on boats over three miles of water from Staten Island to Long Island. They landed unopposed on the shore of Gravesend Bay. (The red area in the photo to the right is the Narrows which the boats transversed.)

Brooklyn map, 1776

The troops then marched six miles inland to establish camp at the village of Flatbush. (Two days later these forces were augmented by the arrival of 5,000 Hessian troops from Staten Island.)[1]

Washington was aware of the initial British movement into Long Island, but was told it only involved 8,000 to 9,000 troops. Therefore, he thought this was a diversionary move and that the main attack would be on York Island (Manhattan). As a result, Washington only sent an additional 1,500 troops to Long Island to bring the total colonial force to 6,000 at that location.

Battle of Brooklyn Map

Five days later, August 27th, the British launched their attack. Its apparent major focus was the center of the American fortifications on the Guanus hills southeast of Brooklyn Heights. Despite the heavy colonial fortifications, the British met with little resistance at this site. In fact, however, the main British contingent advanced on the unguarded Jamaica Pass, which was the eastern-most passage through the Guana Heights.

Washington and his exhausted men fell back that day to their fortifications on Brooklyn Heights, waiting as night fell for a final British assault. Most of the American soldiers were in a trap, facing 20,000 British regulars at their front, and a mile-wide river at their backs. All the British navy had to do was to move a few warships up the East River to prevent Washington’s escape, and the war would be over, the revolution defeated.

But British General Howe did not press the British victory with an immediate pursuit of the retreating colonial forces. Instead, he halted the attack and started preparations for a siege of the American fortifications in Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill.

On August 29th, the temperature dropped sharply and the rain came in torrents on the unsheltered American army. This storm prevented five British warships from advancing up the East River to encircle the Americans in Brooklyn Heights. That same day Washington ordered his troops to withdraw in the dead of night across the river to Manhattan. The storm threatened this evacuation, but at about 11:00 p.m. the wind shifted and facilitated the evacuation. John Glover’s Massachusetts sailors and fishermen with every kind of small craft started over the river from New York City to rescue Washington’s army.

Early the next morning of the 30th, many of Washington’s men were still on Long Island. But a fog appeared on the Long Island side of the East River that concealed the final movement of the American troops to Manhattan. The entire maneuver was completed by 7:00 a.m. that morning, having taken 13 hours to ferry 9,000 men, their horses and their equipment across the East River.

Later that morning the British were surprised to discover the colonial forces had escaped. After that discovery, the British occupied the American fortifications on Brooklyn Heights.

When the last shot was fired, 1,200 Americans were dead and another 1,500 wounded, captured or missing. The British suffered a mere 60 dead and 300 wounded or missing. This was the first major battle of the War and what turned out to be the largest battle of the entire War, and it was a disastrous one for the Americans.

My maternal fifth great-grandfather, Perley Brown, from Leicester (Worcester County), Massachusetts was stationed in New York City at this time and thus did not fight in this battle.[2]


[1]  In addition to the hyperlinked sources in this post, it also draws from David McCullough, 1776 at 122-197 (New York; Simon & Schuster 2005); T. Harry Williams, Richard N. Current & Frank Freidel, A History of the United States [To 1876], at 151 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1959); Henry Steele Commager & Richard B. Morris, The Spirit of ‘Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants, Ch. Eleven (New York: Harper & Row, 1967). From July 1966 through March 1970, my family and I lived in Brooklyn Heights where some of the Battle of Brooklyn (Long Island) occurred. As a result, I frequently walked around this area, but unfortunately I did not scout out these historical sites.

[2] Carol Willits Brown, William Brown–English Immigrant of Hatfield and Leicester, Massachusetts, and His Descendants c. 1669-1994 at 17-23(Gateway Press; Baltimore, MD 1994).

The American Revolutionary War’s Campaign for New York and New Jersey, March 1776–January 1777

On March 17, 1776, the 11-month colonists’ Siege of Boston ended when the British troops and their dependants evacuated the town of Boston. A fleet of 120 British ships set sail for a British military base in Halifax, Nova Scotia with nearly 10,000 British troops and over 1,000 dependants. This was discussed in a prior post.

New York City, 1776
New York City area, 1776

Both sides’ attention next turned to New York City, which then was a town of 25,000 at the southern tip of the island of Manhattan (then known as York Island). This post will review what is known as the Campaign for New York and New Jersey, March 18, 1776, through January 1777.[1]

For the British, the City was an obvious strategic target. It had a large harbor from which the vastly superior British navy could easily command the area and be a base to conquer the middle colonies to the south and west. The terminus of the Hudson (or North) River into that harbor would provide the British with a route north to connect with British forces in what is now Canada and thereby potentially separate New England from the other colonies. Moreover, many British Loyalists lived in the City and thus made it a friendlier host for British troops than Boston had been.

General George Washington

The strategic importance of the City also was obvious to General George Washington. Not knowing that the British troops were going from Boston to Nova Scotia, he was worried that they would instead be sent directly to New York. Therefore, Washington immediately after the British evacuation of Boston sent some colonial regiments from Boston to New York to join the colonial forces already there under the command of General Charles Lee. Thereafter other colonial troops were sent from Boston, including my 5th maternal great-grandfather, Perley Brown, and his brothers William and Benjamin. Perley and his comrades arrived in New York City in late July on a ship from New Haven, Connecticut.[2]

These transfers of troops from Boston were not easy. The men first had to march 100 to 120 miles over five to seven days to the Connecticut ports of New Haven or New London, where they boarded sailing ships to take them via Long Island Sound to New York City.

Archibald Kennedy Mansion

General Washington himself arrived in the City on April 13th and established his headquarters in the Archibald Kennedy Mansion at No. 1 Broadway.[3]

Washington soon discovered that much work still needed to be done to finish the construction of fortifications in Brooklyn on Long Island and on York Island. He was kept busy supervising their continued construction, inspecting the troops and deciding on command assignments and troop deployments.

Another problem faced Washington in the City. The soldiers were growing sickly. Smallpox appeared causing the deaths of several of the men. In the summer heat, “camp fever” became epidemic, and poor sanitation caused dysentery. At least 3,000 to 6,000 men were ill at one time or another, and many died. One of the victims of these illnesses was William Brown (Perley’s brother), who died in a City hospital on August 27th after being sick for eight days. Also sick at this time was brother Benjamin, but his health improved so he could return to active duty.[4]

New York Harbor & Sandy Hook

The long anticipated arrival in New York of the British troops began on June 29th when 120 British ships arrived at Sandy Hook, a barrier spit jutting northward into Lower New York Bay from the New Jersey shore. Three days later (July 2nd) 9,000 British troops from their Nova Scotia base left these ships to establish their new base on the unguarded Staten Island southwest across the harbor from York Island and directly west of the present-day southern part of Brooklyn.

British fleet @ Staten Island, July 1776

And the British ships kept coming with another 15,000 British and Hessian soldiers soon thereafter. On August 13th 96 more ships entered the harbor plus 20 more the next day. That summer more than 400 British ships with 1,200 cannon and 10,000 sailors under the command of Admiral Lord Richard Howe were anchored in the harbor, and more than 32,000 British and Hessian troops under the command of his brother, General Sir William Howe, were on the nearby land. This turned out to be the largest expeditionary force of the 18th century.

Admiral Lord Richard Howe
General Sir  William Howe

The British, however, did not launch an immediate attack.

Instead General Howe, on July 14th sent a messenger from Staten Island to York Island with a letter addressed to “George Washington, Esq.” conveying an offer to meet and discuss ending the rebellion. Washington’s assistant rejected the letter because it was not addressed to “General George Washington” and because there was no one there by the letter’s simple title. Three days later (July 17th) a second letter was sent; this one was addressed to “George Washington, Esq., etc.,” which also was rejected for the same reason. The next day (July 18th) the British returned to York Island to ask if General Washington would meet with Adjutant General Patterson, and Washington said “yes.”

On July 20th such a peace conference was held at the Kennedy Mansion on York Island. In the midst of polite formalities Washington said he understood that General Howe only had authority to grant pardons, but that those who had committed no wrongs wanted no pardons. This ended these British peace efforts.

In the meantime, General Washington had 19,000 colonial troops in the area, but did not know where the British planned to attack. Therefore, Washington split the Continental Army into fortified positions in Brooklyn on Long Island and in Manhattan with some held in a reserve so-called “Flying Camp” in northern New Jersey to be deployed when they knew where the British were going to attack.

The fighting phase of the campaign for New York and New Jersey began on August 22nd when the British troops invaded Long Island. Thus began what turned out to be the largest battle of the War (the Battle of Long Island or the Battle of Brooklyn) that lasted until August 30th with a British victory.

Staten Island Peace Conference

Soon thereafter– on September 11th (an ironic date in light of its 225th anniversary falling on the day of  the 9/11 attacks of 2001)–another attempt was made to end the rebellion peacefully at the Staten Island Peace Conference.

The Conference participants were Admiral Lord Howe and Continental Congressmen John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Edward Rutledge. The Americans insisted on British recognition of their recently declared independence. Admiral Lord Howe said he could not do that. Howe was also pressed to repeal the Prohibitory Act that authorized a blockade of the colonies, but he said he could not do that either. Instead, Howe offered to suspend execution of the blockade if the Americans agreed to end hostilities and make fixed financial contributions to Britain. This offer was rejected by the Americans. There was no peace agreement. The War continued.

With the exception of an American victory at Harlem Heights on York Island,  the British won all the military encounters of this campaign through Christmas Eve Day (December 24, 1776) and forced General Washington and the Continental Army to retreat from New York into New Jersey and then from New Jersey into Pennsylvania. Future posts will review the Battles of Long Island (Brooklyn), Harlem Heights and White Plains.

The British victory in this campaign looked secure at that time. But on Christmas Day (December 25th) Washington and 2,400 of his troops made their now famous “crossing the Delaware River” maneuver. They crossed the partially frozen river from Pennsylvania to return to New Jersey to make their successful surprise attack on British and Hessian troops at Trenton, New Jersey. This was followed on January 3rd with another successful colonial attack at Princeton, New Jersey and Washington’s establishing his winter headquarters in Morristown, New Jersey.

Fighting essentially ceased in January 1777 due to winter conditions.

Nevertheless, it has to be said that the British won the Campaign for New York and New Jersey and that the British occupied New York City for the duration of the War.


[1]  In addition to the hyperlinked sources in this post, it also draws from David McCullough, 1776 at 110-154 (New York; Simon & Schuster 2005). See also, e.g., T. Harry Williams, Richard N. Current & Frenk Freidel, A History of the United States [To 1876], at 151 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1959); Henry Steele Commager & Richard B. Morris, The Spirit of ‘Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants, Ch. Eleven (New York: Harper & Row, 1967). From July 1966 through March 1970, I worked for a New York City law firm with offices in the Wall Street district at the southern end of Manhattan.As a result, I frequently walked around the area where General Washington and the Continental Army troops lived and worked 190 years earlier, but unfortunately I did not scout out where things happened in the Revolutionary War.

[2] Carol Willits Brown, William Brown–English Immigrant of Hatfield and Leicester, Massachusetts, and His Descendants c. 1669-1994 at 18-19 (Gateway Press; Baltimore, MD 1994) (letter, Perley Brown to his wife Elizabeth Brown (Aug. 1, 1776)).

[3]  By July 1776, Washington moved his abode and headquarters to City Hall because it was deemed to be more secure. By the way, No. 1 Broadway now is the location of an office building known as “1 Broadway.” Facing Battery Park, it was built in 1884 and extensively remodeled in 1921.

[4]  Carol Willits Brown, William Brown–English Immigrant of Hatfield and Leicester, Massachusetts, and His Descendants c. 1669-1994 at 7, 20-21, 24-25, 31-32, 210-11 (Gateway Press; Baltimore, MD 1994) (letters, Perley Brown to his wife Elizabeth Brown (Aug. 1, 1776; Sept. 9, 1776; Oct. 4, 1776).