Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Thomas Nelson -- Closing the Trap
Let us leave temporarily Thomas Nelson’s efforts to support George Washington’s attempt to trap British General Cornwallis and focus on the French naval contributions and British naval and military blunders that led to American and French victory. 
The Battle of the Capes, so vital to George Washington’s victory at Yorktown, commenced September 5.  Luck played a considerable part in the French naval victory.
Here are four useful maps.
British Admiral George Rodney, responsible for neutralizing the French fleet in American waters, prior to returning to London because of ill health, had sent a dispatch to Admiral Mariot Arbuthnot in New York warning him that a large French squadron was heading west across the Atlantic and that “you may be upon your guard.”  By the time the dispatch reached New York, Arthunot had been replaced by Admiral Thomas Graves, a self-important, lackadaisical, obdurate commander.  Ignoring Rodney’s warning, Graves sailed his fleet along the Atlantic coast north of New York in search of a possible French convoy of merchantmen rumored to be transporting to America money, clothing, and military stores, the convoy “escorted by one ship of the line, another armed en flute, and two frigates.  … The admiralty [had] advised Graves that the British Government felt a most serious blow would be struck if the colonies were deprived of these essential succours, and gave orders to the commander of the North American fleet to keep a sharp lookout for the convoy and to determine upon the most likely places to station cruisers for the purpose of intercepting it” (Capes 1).  Graves, therefore, was absent when a second dispatch sent by Rodney, declaring that French Admiral Francois de Grasse was in the West Indies and Graves should take his fleet to Virginia, arrived.  The captain of the sloop of war that had carried the dispatch to New York had thereupon sailed eastward in search for Graves.  Attacked by three Yankee privateers, he was forced to throw the message overboard.
Admiral Samuel Hood, in the West Indies, had thereafter replaced Rodney.  The “energetic Hood—who knew that de Grasse was somewhere in the vicinity, but who was unsure whether he had sailed for the mainland or was still in the Caribbean—headed at once for New York with fourteen warships, determined to join Admiral Graves and seek out de Grasse or [Admiral Comte de] Barras [at Newport, Rhode Island] before they [de Grasse and Barras] could combine forces” (Ketchum 188).  En route he looked in at the Chesapeake Bay and saw only several picket vessels on patrol for General Cornwallis.  De Grasse had left the West Indies almost a week ahead of Hood but had sailed up the American coast past Charleston, where he captured three British ships.  Hood, some distance out in the Atlantic, had sailed past de Grasse without seeing him.  As Hood sped for New York, de Grasse, hugging the coastline, entered Chesapeake Bay with his transports carrying 3,000 soldiers and supplies and thirty warships.
Arriving in New York, Hood discovered that Graves believed that de Grasse had probably gone to Havana to join the Spaniards and Washington and Rochambeau were in motion in the Jerseys to threaten Staten Island.  Hood declared “that no time was to be lost, that they should sail immediately” for Virginia.  That evening Graves received a message that Barras had left Rhode Island and was sailing south.  However, Graves, feeling the need to repair five of his ten warships, delayed leaving for the Chesapeake.  When his fleet departed, he had nineteen ships, carrying nineteen hundred guns.  It never caught sight of Barras’s much slower force, which succeeded to elude him.
The squadron arriving off the Chesapeake on the morning of September 5, the lookout of the lead British ship “called out that he saw a forest of masts in the harbor, about ten miles distant.  The captain didn’t believe him; they must be trees, he said.  It was soon apparent, however, that they were not trees but French ships, and they were putting to sea with decks cleared for action.  De Grasse had twenty-four ships of the line, carrying seventeen hundred guns” (Ketchum 190).
It was the hurricane season along the Virginia capes.  The outcome of the impending battle would be determined substantially by the quirky winds and currents.  Around three o’clock “the French ships were ordered to run full so the entire fleet could produce the heaviest possible fire when they came alongside the British; about an hour later the action began” (Ketchum 190) at a distance of a musket shot.
At five o’clock the wind shifted and de Grasse signaled his captains to lay on canvas and head after the enemy as best they could.  Graves’s squadron, severely punished, took advantage of the wind and kept its distance until sunset when the engagement ended.  On September 6, the wind being feeble, both fleets made repairs.  The following day was also calm.  Repairs continued.  On September 8 the wind shifted and Graves attacked.  De Grasse reacted immediately.  Recognized his peril, Graves ordered his fleet to turn and run before the wind.  By the night of September 8, the two fleets had drifted about a hundred miles to the south to the latitude of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.  No longer seeing the British fleet, de Grasse, fearing “a change in the wind might permit the British fleet to get ahead of him and attack Barras, who was carrying the vitally important siege artillery, signaled his captains to return to the Chesapeake” (Ketchum 191).
“Luck—or Providence—had been with the Americans in every instance that counted.  First of all, Graves never received Rodney’s warning.  Then, inexplicably, the British under Graves failed to attack de Grasse’s ships one by one as they emerged from Chesapeake Bay.  Another stroke of luck was that the lethargic Graves—not the aggressive Rodney-- … was commanding the British squadron.  Yet another was that Barras and his ships made it safely from Rhode Island to Virginia without detection by either Hood or Graves.  In the naval engagement that decided the Yorktown campaign, only one ship was lost, and that was scuttled by the British” (Ketchum 191-192).
Early on, General Cornwallis had had the opportunity to escape the planned allied entrapment.  “At the moment the French fleet appeared on August 31, Cornwallis’s avenue of escape was wide open.  De Grasse had not disembarked any troops, and the army under Washington and Rochambeau was several weeks’ march away….”  Cornwallis, however, stayed put.  ”His best chance of keeping his army intact would have been to attack Lafayette’s weak force …, but at this moment he received Clinton’s promise of relief and opted for inaction, while his soldiers continued working day and night on the outworks …” (Ketchum 204).
“As late as September 8, Cornwallis had no reason to think he would not be relieved and rescued.   French troops [de Grasse]—3,800 of them—had landed.  Lafayette was at Williamsburg, and reportedly the allied armies would arrive soon.  Nevertheless, the British were ready for them and had taken a very strong position just outside town …” (Ketchum 206).
The following day Admiral Graves sent a shocking message to Commanding General Henry Clinton.  He “was sorry to inform the general that ‘the enemy have so great a naval force in the Chesapeake that they are absolute masters of its navigation.’    The French appeared to have suffered, he continued, but his fleet had taken much heavier damage” (Ketchum 206).  On September 14, having received Graves’s message, Clinton held a council of war.  The key questions to be debated and answered were that since Cornwallis’s “garrison could evidently defend the post for at least three weeks, was it advisable to commit a reinforcement of five or six thousand men ‘to the hazards of the sea during our present inferiority and endeavor to relieve Lord Cornwallis at all costs” or “should they await further accounts from Admiral Graves and see how Admiral Robert Digby’s squadron [reportedly to have left England] might affect their chances of success” (Ketchum 207).  After much discussion their decision was to wait for more favorable accounts from Graves or for Digby’s arrival.  “How these senior military officers could possibly imagine that Graves would give them a more favorable account is difficult to imagine, but since Digby had not been sighted and no one knew how many vessels he had with him, surely it would be safe to delay decision until he arrived” (Ketchum 207).  (Digby arrived September 24 with three ships of the line)  On September 17 Clinton held another council of war.  Having been informed by Cornwallis that he had provisions for six weeks, “once again they stalled for time, deciding that any attempt to ‘throw in supplies and reinforcements ought to be deferred until it could be undertaken with less danger than at present.’  … Since an army could not act there alone without the cooperation of the fleet, it would be ‘highly improper to add considerably to the numbers already in Virginia’ until such time as the presence of the fleet became practicable” (Ketchum 208. 209).
On September 16, Cornwallis wrote to Clinton: “‘I am of opinion that you can do me no effectual service but by coming directly to this place’” (Ketchum 208).  “Given the situation in which the possibility of rescue was virtually nil, he [Cornwallis] had only one option, which was to escape at any cost before the arrival of Washington’s [and Rochambeau’s] troops shut the trap.  … Major Alexander Ross, Cornwallis’s aide, persuaded the earl that Clinton’s promise of relief left him no choice but to hold his post.  This was absurd, and Cornwallis had to know it …” (Ketchum 205). 
Having arrived in Virginia September 13 ahead of their armies, Washington and Rochambeau met almost immediately with de Grasse on the admiral’s flag ship.  De Grasse told them that he had been instructed to leave on October 15, “but he would, on his own, stretch that until the end of the month.  That gave Washington almost six weeks in which to force Cornwallis to surrender” (Ketchum 210).  Several days later, having learned that Admiral Digby had arrived in New York, de Grasse informed Washington by messenger “that since the enemy was now nearly equal to him in strength [not so] and it would be imprudent to remain in a position where he could not readily attack them, he would leave several frigates to block the James and two ships at the mouth of the York while he put to sea with the fleet.  ‘I will sail with my forces towards New York,’ he said, ‘and I may possibly do more for the common cause than by remaining here as an idle spectator.  … I shall set sail as soon as the wind permits’” (Ketchum 211-212).  Washington sent Lafayette immediately to meet with de Grasse to attempt to change his mind.  Rochambeau sent a letter to de Grasse via Lafayette.  Before the Frenchman arrived, probably because his officers had expressed their disapproval of his plan, de Grasse recanted his decision.
On September 28, Washington, Rochambeau, and the two allied armies began their march from Williamsburg to the environs of Yorktown.  The French had about 7,800 troops.  The Americans (counting 3,000 Virginia militia commanded by Thomas Nelson) had 8,845.  “Astonishingly, … the roads that the British should have defended foot by foot were uncontested” (Ketchum 214).  The army “formed camp in a great curve extending from York River.  … The French held the left flank while the Americans held the right.  Nelson and his troops, stationed at the extreme right, made up a reserve for Lafayette’s regulars” (Evans 118).  Countering the French and American forces were about 7,200 British soldiers.  The trap was set.
Works cited:
Evans, Emory G.  Thomas Nelson of Yorktown: Revolutionary Virginian.  (Charlottesville, Virginia: The University Press of Virginia, 1975).  Print.
Ketchum, Richard M.  Victory at Yorktown: The Campaign That Won the Revolution.  (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2004).  Print.
“Second Naval Battle of the Virginia Capes (1781).”  Net.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Writing "Alsoomse and Wanchese" -- First Chapter
Every fiction writer strives in his first chapter to pique his readers’ interest.  Here is the first sentence of the first chapter of my work in progress, “Alsoomse and Wanchese.” 
Using her moistened scrap of deerskin, Alsoomse removed decayed skin cells from the left humerus of her mother’s skeleton.
Seventeen year old Alsoomse is preparing her mother’s skeletal remains for ossuary burial.
North Carolina Algonquian ossuary burials were conducted every several years.  They were ritual reburials of the remains of loved ones who had died and been interred after the previous community ossuary burial.  Historian David Leroy Oberg explains their purpose.
“Death, and the resulting grief, could disrupt a community, leaving those who mourned bereft of reason.  The reburial of all who had died since the last [ossuary] ceremony served to unify the community and tie it to the land it lived upon.  Whatever the differences in status in Algonquian communities, all could expect the same treatment in the end.  All belonged, and all were worthy of being remembered and reintegrated after death into the village community.  Ossuary burial, a ritual that required the participation of all in ways that must seem foreign to us, helped set things right, and preserved the balance between the world of the seen and the unseen, the natural and the supernatural, and the living and the dead” (Oberg 28).
Alsoomse has chosen to cleanse her mother’s bones without her cousin’s assistance.  Her labor is a deeply emotional experience.  She confides to her mother, Nadie, her needs, anxieties, and aspirations.  “Tell me everything I have forgotten.  Help me,” she declares.  She asks her mother questions and imagines receiving answers.
“How do you know who to marry?  How will I know who is kind?”
“What does a man like Father see in a woman’s soul?”
“Why must weroances, priests, and husbands decide who I must be?”
“How much of life’s misery is the result of the wishes of the gods?”
All the while Alsoomse labors and grieves, she begrudges the absence of her brother, Wanchese. 
Was their mother’s final burial so unimportant? She needed him. He needed to be the worthy brother she craved.
How often he had disappointed her! Pivoting on her right knee, she stared through the stately trunks of long-leaf pine toward the water’s edge hoping to glimpse a canoe approaching from Dasemunkepeuc, the village where their weroance Wingina -- Wanchese’s substitute father and mentor – mostly lived. Where Wanchese spent most of his time striving to advance himself!
Wanchese is indeed one of four Algonquians crossing Pamlico Sound from Dasemunkapeuc ( to attend the ossuary burial.  The others are Wingina, the chief weroance of six mostly coastal villages including Dasemunkapeuc and Roanoke; Eracano, Wingina’s brother-in-law; and Wanchese’s disliked distant cousin, Askook.  As Wanchese and Askook paddle the canoe across the Sound, Wanchese reflects upon how his father’s murder by the Pomouik (See my Oct. 16 post “Two Important Events) and the death of his brother Kitchi have affected him.  He admits that he has not been supportive enough of his mother and sister.
How he had raged after his father’s murder! How he had imagined brutal retribution! He, fifteen, had not yet become a man! How his mother had comforted him, needing herself to be consoled. He wondered now if all her efforts to soothe him had helped her. He wanted to believe that it had!
 It was after Kitchi’s death that she had needed him most. Instead, he had moped, bristled, raged. Alsoomse had loathed him. His aunt had lectured him. His best friend Osacan had tried to reason with him. Granganimeo himself had spoken to him, had then sent him across the shallow waters to his brother, Wingina, who had succeeded their father Wematin as chief weroance. Wingina had put him to work. Gradually, Wanchese had emerged from his funk.  Not soon enough to show Nadie that he was worthy of her devotion.
About Alsoomse: How much thought had he given about how she had suffered? How often had he sat beside her the past thirteen moons, he across the great waters fixated in his sphere of pain? She needed somebody better than he. She needed a husband, who would cherish and protect her.
None of his friends had showed an interest in Alsoomse.  It was not that she was less desirable looking than most of the maturing girls he had seen at Roanoke or Dasemunkepeuc. What was she now, seventeen? A bit old. Opinionated. Too much a questioner. Too much the meddler. Why couldn’t she accept who she was, a female meant to do female work for her village’s benefit?
We learn of Wanchese’s activities away from Roanoke.
Living in Dasemunkepeuc, he had at Wingina’s behest traveled with two older companions to distant villages outside the weroance’s confederation to deliver and receive personal messages.  He had traveled also to Secotan – his mother’s childhood village – and Aquascogooc and once to neighboring Pomeiooc, whose weroance was now challenging Wingina’s authority. Wanchese was proud of these assignments.  Other braves his age native of Dasemunkepeuc were entirely capable of doing this work. “Wingina is training you,” Tetepano had told him during his, Cossine’s, and Wanchese’s recent trip to Weapemeoc. Wanchese hadn’t asked why.  He knew that Wingina’s father Wematin had relied on Wanchese’s father Matunaagd to lead his braves in battle. Whatever his purpose, Wingina had chosen to elevate Wanchese’s status.
The chapter ends with Wanchese’s arrival at his aunt’s (and before her death his mother’s) long house.
Permitted to break away, Wanchese strode up the sandy bank toward the pathway that lead to the village. Shadows of pine branches moved across his bare shoulders. Drifting smoke marked his entrance to the village grounds. Up the lane separating the nine houses he hurried, oblivious of the sounds of Askook’s footfalls behind him. He saw the top of his aunt’s long house. Three women – Alsoomse, his aunt, and his cousin Sokanon – were bent, their arms and hands working, over a reed mat. He hoped they were mostly finished.
Alsoomse glanced his way; she saw him. She rose, took two tentative steps, rushed to him. They embraced.
“You came,” she murmured, the right side of her face pressed against his chest.
He stroked her hair. “I’m here to stay,” he said. For awhile, he thought.
Like every writer of fiction, I am hopeful my first chapter will cause curious readers to want to read the entire book.
Work cited:
Oberg, Michael Leroy.  The Head in Edward Nugent’s Hand: Roanoke’s Forgotten Indians.  (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008).  Print.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

"Caleb's Crossing"
by Geraldine Brooks
The narrative skills of this Pulitzer-Prize winning author impressed me.  There was not one occasion when I paused to note an awkward phrase or cringe at stilted or unnecessary dialogue.  All of the important characters were well-rounded and authentic to the second half of the 17th Century yet universally identifiable.  Sensory detail was evocative.  The thought processes of the narrator character were interesting and realistic. 
Here is an example of narrative eloquence.  Late in the story the main character, Bethia Mayfield, an old woman soon to die, tells us: “God is gathering me, little by little.  He has already taken much but he has left me my sight, and for that I am thankful.  I can still see the glory of his sunrise through the wavy panes of my chamber window.  I can still watch the wind riffle across the water, the osprey’s sudden plunge from the sky, the thunderheads gathering in billowing, wine-dark blooms.  I sit here, propped up like a poppet, and I watch.  I watch, and I remember.  Now, when everything else has gone, this is what remains: vision and memories.”
At the story’s beginning Bethia, twelve, lives with her preacher father, housekeeping mother, and jealous, discontented brother Makepeace on what today is Martha’s Vineyard.  Her father’s purpose in life is to convert the Algonquian “salvages” living on the island to Christianity.  “‘For several years I drank the dust of those huts, helping in whatever practical thing I could do for them, happy to win the ears of even one or two for a few words about Christ.  And now, at last, I begin to distill in their minds the pure liquor of the gospel.  To take a people who were traveling apace the broadway to hell, and to be able to turn them, and set their face to God….  It is what we must strive for.  They are an admirable people, in many ways, if you trouble to know them.’”  He had taken to live in his house an outcast of the local tribe, a man named Iacoomis, possessing a quick mind, to learn English.  The native, in turn, sought to teach Preacher Mayfield Wampanaontoaonk speech to assist Mayfield’s mission.  Bethia, possessing also a sharp mind, “confined to the hearth and the dooryard as adult business ebbs and flows around her,” had learned Iacoomis’s language faster and better than her father.  It is both her ability to speak the native language and her independent spirit and thirst for knowledge that causes her to live a life fraught with inner and external conflict.
It is Bethia’s independent nature and aversion to obey Puritan dictates especially concerning the role of girls and women that cause her to explore secretly the far reaches and shorelines of the island.  During her explorations she encounters a local native boy approximately her age.  Being able to speak his language, they develop a friendly relationship that becomes strong and enduring.  His English name will be Caleb.   Part of the fascination of this novel is how their lives intertwine.  Many of the best scenes in the novel are the interchanges they have that reflect both their divergent cultural viewpoints and their deep friendship and great concern for each other’s welfare.  Their relationship transcends the bigotry toward “salvages” prevalent among the British settlers and the resultant hostility harbored by the native inhabitants, protective of their territory, culture, and religious practices and beliefs.  Bethia’s actions at the end of the novel regarding Caleb’s welfare epitomizes the singularity of their relationship.
Of particular interest to me were the conflicts, inner and external, that Bethia must confront. 
She abhors not being afforded the right to make her own decisions.  A female’s role in her society was predetermined exclusively by men.  Girls were not to be educated beyond the ability to become good housewives.  Bethia’s father stopped her education when she was nine while her plodding brother Makepeace continued to be educated, laboriously, for admittance into Harvard College.  The father tells Bethia, “‘I would do you no favor if I were to send you to your husband with a mind honed to find fault in his every argument or to better his in every particular.  A husband must rule his home, Bethia, as God rules his faithful.’”  Her father and grandfather choose for her to marry (when she is of a proper age) the son of a prosperous, upstanding neighbor.  After her father’s death, Bethia’s grandfather arranges to have her indentured to a Cambridge school master to pay for Makepeace’s college preparatory instruction.  For four years she is Master Corlett’s housekeeper.  Late in the book, speaking to her master (and future father-in law), she reflects: “My father had loved me dearly; Master Corlett, I believed, felt true affection for me.  Both were learned men who devoted their lives to teaching others.  Then why not me?  Why did they want to confine me in the prison of my own ignorance?    Once again I had spoken too freely.  I seemed too dense witted to learn the simple lesson: silence was a woman’s sole safe harbor.”  When her future husband challenges her independent spirit, she declares hotly: “‘Since God has seen fit to take my parents from me, I see no one left above me whose views on my conduct matter more to me than my own.’”  
Bethia must also deal with her society’s belief in an authoritative, punitive God.  Her faith in His existence is constant, but her nature is such that her conduct often strays beyond His dictates of behavior.  Tragic events that occur to her she believes to be God’s punishment.  Her mother dies in childbirth.  It is God’s punishment for Bethia’s sinful behavior.  “I broke the Commandments, day following day.  And I did it knowingly.    Like Eve, I thirsted after forbidden knowledge and I ate forbidden fruit.    Every inlet and outcrop of this place, I love.  We are taught early here to see Nature as a foe to be subdued.  But I came, by stages, to worship it.  You could say that for me, this island and her bounties became the first of my false gods, the original sin that begot so much idolatry.”  After her mother’s death, Bethia believes it is her duty (her reparation) to assume at age fifteen all of her mother’s duties.  After her father’s unexpected death, she feels it is God’s expectation that she accept indenture to Master Corlett to enable her brother’s continued college preparatory instruction.   
Hers, however, is an inquiring mind.  She questions, at the age of fifteen: “Who are we, really?  Are our souls shaped, our fates written in full by God, before we draw our first breath?  Do we make ourselves by the choices we our selves make?  Or are we clay merely, that is molded and pushed into the shape that our betters propose for us?”  About her father and grandfather’s selection of her future husband, “There was a little ember of anger inside me when I thought this, a hard black coal that could be fanned into a hot flame if I chose to let my thoughts give it air.  Most of the time, I did not do so.  I went on, dutiful, trying to keep in mind what father preached, that all of this was God’s plan, not his, not his father’s, nor any man’s.”  Caleb had embarked on his solitary journey into the deep woods to find his spirit guide, which would “enlighten his mind and guide his steps in myriad ways, until the end of his life.”  She, her father, and their Puritan neighbors looked upon spirit guides as manifestations of the devil.  She questions God’s supervision.  “… did God make no design for the heathen?  If so, what was father about, in his ministry to them?  Perhaps it was pride, merely, to seek these souls that God had chosen to abandon.  Perhaps it was in itself a sin….  But no.  Surely my wise father could not err so.  And why had God brought Caleb into my path if I was not meant to save him?  Why had he set us down here at all?”  Inquiry reveals incongruity, which, in turn, produces confusion, doubt and, perhaps, anger.
My criticism of “Caleb’s Crossing” – that Bethia is a rather contrived character – is mitigated by the fact that she is a damned interesting person whom every reader will care about.  The fact that she approximates a modern liberal-minded human being living in a three hundred fifty year old, close-minded society makes her especially appealing.  Because the author must adhere to the facts that are known about the historical person -- Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck – the first native graduate of Harvard University, and she has chosen to narrate the story from Bethia’s viewpoint, she must contort the events of Bethia’s life to maintain her close proximity to him.   This novel was an ambitious undertaking.  The results should mostly be applauded.