Friday, November 24, 2006

On This Day in 1776

On November 24, 1776, the Continental Army was camped in Newark, New Jersey, pausing in its headlong retreat from New York. Since August, the army under the command of General George Washington had suffered disaster after disaster. The defeats had begun with the army's first large-scale battle, at Brooklyn, in which 300 American soldiers had been killed, and over 1000 taken prisoner, out of an army of only 20,000 men. In the months that followed, Washington had lost three more battles, at Kips Bay, White Plains and Fort Washington, and had given up Fort Lee without a fight. Through casualties, disease, desertion and expired enlistments, the Continental Army was down to about 35oo soldiers.

Encamped that day with the Rhode Island volunteers was Thomas Paine (pictured at the upper right), the author of Common Sense, who had recently volunteered as a civilian aide on the staff of General Nathaniel Greene. The following account comes from David McCullough's history of that fateful time, 1776:

"Sick at heart over the suffering and despair he saw, but inspired by the undaunted resolution of many around him, Paine is said to have committed his thoughts to paper during the retreat, writing at night on a drumhead by the light of a campfire. He himself, however, said it was not until later, at Philadelphia, that in a "passion of patriotism," he began what he called The Crisis, with the immortal opening lines:
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 it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman."
A month later, on Christmas night, General Washington crossed the Delaware River with some 2200 troops, practically all of his command that remained fit for duty, and defeated the Hessian forces at Trenton. Though undoubtedly a turning point, years of suffering, privation and defeats, lay ahead for the Continental Army, before the surrender of the British at Yorktown on October 19, 1781. A year later would come the terrible winter encampment at Valley Forge. Yet, it is not for nothing that we refer to the "Spirit of '76."

In contrast today, we have in America the "Spirit of 2006," when the nation has been thoroughly demoralized by the loss of around 3000 U.S. soldiers since March 23, 2003, a period of three years and seven months. Of course, Washington also had his critics in the media and the populace in 1776, and then as now New York City was a center of opposition to the war. In those days, they were called "Tories."

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