History for the winners

September 27, 1996|By Richard Reeves

SAG HARBOR, N.Y. -- A retired Air Force officer named John Clark Alberts has a letter in the current issue of American Heritage magazine recalling a parade when he was a small boy in Newark, N.J. One of the marchers, a Civil War veteran, stopped, shook his hand and said, "Sonny . . . now you're only two handshakes from the Revolution."

As a small boy himself, the old soldier said he had shaken hands with a veteran of the American Revolution. Mr. Alberts said he would be shaking a boy's hand soon to put him three shakes from the events of 1775 and all that.

That is the way we felt last weekend in this little village on the end of Long Island. It was the anniversary of the village's incorporation, and the local historical society put on a little program featuring R. Jonathan Meigs, a descendant of Lt. Col. Return Jonathan Meigs, who led Americans against the British in the Battle of Sag Harbor on May 23, 1777.

The "battle" was actually a guerrilla raid, a great success, after the British had defeated George Washington's troops in Brooklyn and taken all of the island. Like all war, what happened next was not pretty. Those on Long Island who refused to sign loyalty oaths to King George III were jailed. The fields were foraged, homes burned or taken to house British soldiers, women raped and children starved.

In Connecticut, a young American army sergeant named Nathan Jennings, who had grown up in Sag Harbor, went to Meigs and Washington with a plan to attack or capture the British fort and arsenal overlooking the harbor, which was an important port of entry for provisions and soldiers of the king.

On the night of May 22, 1777, Meigs set out from Guilford, Conn., with 200 men in 10 whaling boats. They crossed Long Island Sound, portaged across the North Fork of the island, and rowed on to Sag Harbor, landing at a beach outside the settlement. With Jennings showing the way, they totally surprised the British, capturing the commander and 90 of his men, blowing up the fort and munitions they could not carry and burning 12 British schooners and 140 tons of hay, then smashing 10 hogsheads of Royal Navy rum.

Six British soldiers were killed in a skirmish. The rebels returned to Connecticut without a single casualty. Meigs was awarded an engraved sword by the Continental Congress, but Jennings had to change his name because the British vowed that one day they would track him down and execute him without trial.

War never ended

For Jennings, who moved to Philadelphia after his three-year enlistment, the war never ended because of that threat. He was not alone. As in anyplace -- Bosnia for the moment -- "victory" and "peace" are words without meaning for many.

On the East End of Long Island, many of the Americans whose lands were plundered and families destroyed by the occupiers were condemned as "Tories" -- British sympathizers or collaborators -- and some were killed or jailed, and many driven from their lands and their new country because they had been forced to sign the oaths to the king.

The aftermath of the War for Independence is generally written ++ out of American history for obvious reasons. But we did get a reminder a few weeks ago when politicians in Canada, angry over American sanctions against Canadian companies doing business with Cuba, proposed legislation seeking reparations for Canadians whose ancestors lost hearth and home after the troubles south of their border.

Revolution and nation-building are like that, of course -- violence and injustice spread at random in the name of a greater cause. In other words, winners get to write the history. In Sag Harbor, we emphasize the glorious.

Across Main Street from our house, there is a plaque in front of the house that once belonged to John Hulburt, whose Minutemen are said to be the first Americans to carry the Stars and Stripes into battle, at Fort Ticonderoga in May of 1775. The Hulbert flag showed the 13 stars of the original colonies arranged in the shape of a diamond, rather than the circle of the Betsy Ross flag officially adopted by the Continental Congress two years later.

On our side of the street, an old wooden sign marks the "Herald House." There is no plaque to its onetime owner, David Frothingham, founder of the first newspaper on Long Island. A 1791 advertisement read:

"A RUNAWAY. A Negro man named Tom, between 90 and 100 years of age. One leg slightly shorter than the other; about 4-1/2-feet high, African born, spoke very broken. Whoever will bring said Negro to his master shall receive SIX PENCE Reward ... paid by LEMUEL PIERSON. All persons are forbid harbouring said Negro at their peril."

Frothingham himself was arrested a couple of years later, after he published a letter criticizing Alexander Hamilton. He was never heard from again, though rumor has it he was exiled to Africa. Anyway, they don't teach that in the local high school, by name of Pierson High School.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 9/27/96

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