Making Good on the Promise

After a busy Fourth of July, I have finally had an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of this day.

The Declaration of Independence was a bold and unprecedented statement: it not only severed ties with England, but also outlined America’s grievances for the benefit of the nations of the world among whom the young upstart wished to take a place. That Declaration, however, was not worth the paper upon which it was printed without someone to enforce it. That someone was the Continental Army.

A few days after the Declaration arrived in New York, General Washington had it read to his troops, because he knew that they were the ones who would have to make it stick. At that moment the British were assembling in New York Harbor the largest invasion force to that point in history. Its mission was to subdue the rebellious colonies and restore British rule. The soldiers of the Continental Army did not know it yet, but it would take them five long years to guarantee the United States would remain independent.

Very few of the soldiers who assembled in New York In July 1776 would be with the Colors through the war. Some gave up and went home. Some were crippled by wounds. Many were killed in combat. Many more succumbed to illness. Thousands were captured and died miserably of disease, exposure, and neglect in British custody. But some endured. These patriots formed the core around which Washington rebuilt the Continental Army again and again. They lost often, but they won enough to convince the French to join the fight, and they took their place alongside their allies in the siege lines at Yorktown.

Independence was not given: it had to be won at terrific cost. Those “winter soldiers” paid for it with their blood, sweat, tears, and lives. We are in their debt.

Happy Reading!

Robert Krenzel Facebook Author Page: https://www.facebook.com/RobertKrenzelAuthor/

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The British Are Coming!

the-british-are-comingSome writers might find it counterintuitive to plug other writers’ work, but for me it is only fitting. Rick Atkinson is a best-selling author and has won the Pulitzer Prize for both Journalism and History. I have had the pleasure of interacting with Mr. Atkinson on two occasions, and both were rewarding.

The first was around 2005. He was speaking to my class at the Army Staff College, and I had the honor of introducing him. We chatted only briefly, but I found him to be knowledgeable, articulate, and personable.

More significantly, perhaps, about ten years later when I was struggling through publication of my first novel, This Glorious Cause, it occurred to me to reach out to Rick Atkinson for advice. I thought it a long shot, but to my surprise and delight, he responded to my email very quickly, and was immensely supportive. His support had such an impact on me that I vowed to pay it forward. I have, in fact, been able to offer at least a little bit of advice to several aspiring authors, ranging in age from teenager to sixty-something.
When I contacted Mr. Atkinson, he had begun work on a trilogy about the American Revolution. That trilogy has finally come to fruition! The British are Coming is available for pre-order!

The Revolution Trilogy

With his Liberation Trilogy, Rick Atkinson shone a new light on the Second World War. I cannot wait to see what he has done with the American War of Independence. If you enjoy the Gideon Hawke Series and want to learn more about the Revolution, I can think of no better place to start.

Happy Reading!

Bayonets

“…with zeal and with bayonets only, it was resolved to follow Greene’s army to the end of the world.” –Brigadier General Charles O’Hara, Commander of the Brigade of Guards, 1781.

In the combat zones of the 21st Century one can find a dizzying array of weaponry, from ballistic missiles to barrel bombs, assault rifles to rocket launchers, hand grenades to IEDs, drones to chemical agents. If you were to inspect the kit of a soldier in any one of the many conflicts scattered around the world, chances are that in the midst of the GPS units, radios, and high-capacity magazines you will find a relic from an earlier time: the bayonet.

The bayonet had its origin in the early days of firearms. Early muzzle-loading weapons were slow to fire and unreliable. Infantry formations in those days often consisted of musketeers and pikemen: the pikemen, wielding their long spears, would keep enemy infantry or cavalry from overrunning the musketeers after the first volley. While firearms technology improved, the musket’s rate of fire remained too low to prevent a determined enemy from closing to within arm’s reach. “If only there was a way to turn those long, sturdy muskets into spears!” Enter the bayonet.

Early bayonets had a plug the owner shoved in the muzzle of his firearm, making the weapon incapable of firing until the soldier could spend some quality time getting it out. The technology evolved to include rings and sockets. By the time of the American Revolution the state of the art bayonet had a socket to secure it securely to the muzzle of the firearm, and business end consisting of a spike-like blade, around a foot-and-a-half long. The weapon could be loaded and fired with bayonet fixed, although it tended to get in the way of loading, slowing the process down slightly.

Throughout history soldiers have found many household uses for the bayonet: tent peg, candlestick holder, cooking spit, probe (I have personally used a bayonet to search the occasional haystack-it can be used to search for landmines, but that is not recommended), etc. While it can be helpful around camp, the bayonet is, at its heart, a weapon. It arguably reached its zenith as a weapon of war during the American War for Independence.

The British forces in American were quick to take stock of their enemy once the war broke out. American troops, especially militia, were handy with firearms. Given a prepared defensive position, such as the breastwork on Breed’s Hill in the battle that became known as Bunker Hill, the Americans would stand their ground and pour devastating volleys into the best troops the British could muster. They were not so tenacious, however, when faced with the bayonet’s “cold steel.” Many of the American troops, particularly the militia, finished their own firearms, which they used for hunting and other household chores; hunting weapons did not come with bayonets. Thus, few of the militiamen on Breed’s Hill were so equipped; when American ammunition ran low, the British surged forward, leading with the tips of their bayonets, and the Americans ran for it. That lesson was certainly not lost on the British.

Battle_of_bunker_hill_by_percy_moran

 

After the evacuation of Boston the British retrained and adjusted their tactics in response to the lessons of 1775. Starting in the summer of 1776 the British would attack in open order, with space between men. They would not stop to trade volleys with the Americans. Instead, the British infantry would minimize its exposure to American fire by jogging or running toward the American positions. They might stop once to fire a single volley, but then would charge in with bayonets. This played out in the Battle of Long Island with several American positions being quickly overwhelmed by British and Hessian bayonet charges.

Needless to say, this presented quite a problem for the Americans. The solution involved organization, logistics, training, and leadership.

George Washington quickly realized that the militia was a “broken reed,” and that he would have to rely on a long-service, regular army along European lines. This regular, “Continental” Army, would be as uniformly equipped as possible; ideally each regiment would be equipped with a single model of military-grade musket, each with a bayonet. Once equipped, troops were trained in bayonet combat, giving them the confidence to face down their adversaries. The final ingredient was tactical leaders who knew how and when to employ the cold steel.

Assault_on_Redoubt_10_at_YorktownThese reforms paid dividends. In the skirmish at Drake’s Farm, in February, 1777, (retold in my book A Nest of Hornets)Colonel Charles Scott and his 5th Regiment of Virginia Continentals were ambushed by a British Brigade.  Rather than stand fast and allow his men to be pounded by artillery and encircled by enemy infantry, Colonel Scott led his men in a bayonet charge that broke a British grenadier battalion. This threw his enemy into confusion and bought Scott time to conduct a fighting withdrawal.  At Saratoga, in September and October, 1777, Continental brigades not only held their ground against British regulars, but also launched several successful bayonet charges (A Constant Thunder). At Cowpens, in January, 1781, Brigadier General Daniel Morgan took advantage of British aggressiveness: he had his men feign retreat, and then turn, fire, and launch a bayonet charge against the exhausted British, winning the day and effectively destroying the entire British force. In the climactic act of the war, at Yorktown, In October, 1781, Redoubts 9 and 10 were carried by Franco-American nighttime bayonet charges.

When the British landed on Long Island in the summer of 1776, they were convinced that they prod the Americans back into obedience to the Crown with the tips of their bayonets. Five long years later, the drama would culminate with French and American bayonets hemming in a British army at Yorktown. In future American wars the bayonet would be put to use: it would be wielded to great effect at places like Chapultepec, Little Round Top, the Argonne forest, and Iwo Jima. But perhaps never before or since the American Revolution were a war and a weapon so inextricably linked.

 

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A Helping Hand

I got stuck recently.

As I worked on Gideon Hawke #5, I have tried to convey conditions at Valley Forge during the winter of 1778. My problem: the more I dig, the less I seem to know.

March into Valley ForgeThat bears some explanation. The popular mythology of Valley Forge is well-established: a ragged, beaten Continental Army staggers into Valley Forge after losing another campaign, and huddles together, waiting for deliverance. A few months later it rises from the ashes of its campfires, retrained and revitalized, ready to take on the British. But is that correct? Probably not.

The truth, as usual, is more complicated. Was the Continental Army poorly equipped and fed at Valley Forge? Certainly! But it was also a very capable, resilient force, which took matters into its own hands to make the best of things. The challenge for someone like me: where is the balance? How do I portray this force that is struggling, but making the most of it?

I decided to reach out to the experts: the good folks at the Valley Forge National Historical Park. I submitted a couple of queries via the Park website, and was almost immediately connected to two very knowledgeable park employees. One was even good enough to spend nearly an hour on the phone with me, sharing his insights. I came away with a better understanding, and a list of recommended references. As I tear into this new information, I find I still have additional questions…some of which will probably never be answered.

The next challenge I will face: finding the balance between “myth” and “reality.” I could easily write a version of Valley Forge that would be unrecognizable to most readers. How much story do I sacrifice for historical accuracy? Can I even be sure about historical accuracy when the sources are often contradictory?

These questions are mine to sort out, and mine alone. As I do so, it is good to know there is a helping hand or two waiting to help me sort things out.

Valley Forge National Historical Park: https://www.nps.gov/vafo/index.htm

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Endurance: How Did They Do It?

Novelists do weird stuff.

It is hard to accurately write about things with which you are unfamiliar, so authors do all kinds of weird things. It is a running joke among authors that our internet search histories would at least raise some eyebrows, if not cause concern among law enforcement. (flogging…scalping…gunshot wounds…anatomy…poison…decomposition…you get the idea) But sometimes we just HAVE TO experience it! So…authors will occasionally do or try things that “normal” people would not.

The other evening after returning from work, I took my dog out into our frozen, snowy backyard to do his favorite thing: throw Frisbees for him to fetch. As I was standing there in the snow, it occurred to me that the weather conditions were not unlike those at Valley Forge in the chapter on which I had been working. As I reflected on the suffering of the soldiers, especially those without shoes, I wondered, “What is it really like to stand in the snow barefoot?” (You see where this is going, right?) In no time at all, my shoes and socks had come off, and there I was, with the thermometer at a balmy 22 degrees Fahrenheit, standing barefoot in the snow.

It wasn’t so bad at first…but then it was. Within a few minutes I was hopping back and forth, and I had the feeling of dozens of needles jabbing into my feet. I found myself walking around the yard just to get one foot at a time off the ground; and it turns out that having snow between one’s toes is rather unpleasant! I did not stay out there very long (being laid up with frostbitten feet would have awkward), but I did it long enough to know I never wanted to try it again.

Having come inside and warmed up, I had to wonder: “How did they do it?” Multiple sources corroborate the fact that many of Washington’s troops at Valley Forge (and other times and places) endured bitter winter conditions without shoes. So…how did they do it?

That question took me back to my own experiences of hearing “How did you do it?” You see, during a 24-year Army career I had to do some pretty unpleasant things. I always had shoes on my feet, but the Army has a way of testing you. It might be manning a tank in blistering desert heat (no, they don’t have air conditioning), walking the streets of an Iraqi city wearing 80-100 pounds of kit, being away from my family for 15 months, working 18 hour days for months on end, knocking on a door to tell a mom and dad their son was never coming home, or countless other unpleasant tasks. Often times when people hear things like that, their first reaction is to ask, “How did you do it?” This struck me hardest once when talking to a World War II combat veteran: I told him he accomplished amazing things, and he replied by talking about my multiple tours in Iraq. “How did you do it?”

It’s a good question to which there is no good answer. I usually just say something like, “It was my job.” That’s not a very informative answer, but maybe it says it all. You see, there are times when we must simply endure. Soldiering is great for offering up such opportunities. If I were a Continental soldier at Valley Forge, I would probably have endured that bitter winter simply because there was no other reasonable alternative. They believed in their cause, and they had a job to do, so they simply did their job.

 

washington prayer at VF

I do not mean to take away anything from what those men and women accomplished; far from it! In simply doing their jobs—in simply surviving—they kept the dream alive. They did their jobs when things were at their worst. They did their jobs when things improved. They did their jobs when the weather warmed up and training started in earnest. They did their jobs when the British abandoned Philadelphia and Washington gave chase under the blistering summer sun (another thing to endure). And they did their jobs at Monmouth Courthouse, when they went toe-to-toe with the flower of the British Army and proved that the Continental Army was a force to be reckoned with.

The soldiers of Valley Forge endured because they had to. In so doing, they kept the dream of Independence alive.

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Finding Inspiration in the Not-So-Distant Past

We understand history by looking at the past through the lens of the present.

It is an inescapable fact that no person alive today was alive at the time of the American Revolution. Even if there were one or two people around, their perception of the events of that time would be limited to their perspective: what it was that they saw and experienced. People of my generation have lived through monumental events: The Space Program, the Collapse of the Soviet Union, The First Gulf War, German Reunification, The Somalia Crisis, The Balkan Crises, 9/11, the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan…just to name a few. But none of us has an omniscient view of these events. For each of us, we will always know these things from our own unique points of view.

When I write about the American Revolution, it is from my own perspective. Naturally I try to learn all I can to inform that point of view, but when finger lands on keyboard, my own experiences are shaping the story.

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C-66 in Paralovo, Kosovo in 2000.

As I write Gideon Hawke #5 I am telling the tale of Gideon Hawke at Valley Forge. Gideon finds himself in command of a company in the Pennsylvania Line. Perhaps inevitably I am looking at Gideon’s experiences through the lens of my own experience as a company commander in the U.S. Army. Unfortunately for Gideon, he will not be blessed with the amount of talent I had. I am biased, but when C Company, 1-37 Armor deployed to Kosovo in 2000, I had the privilege of working with an incredible group of men; it was an honor to serve by their sides, and frankly they made my job easy and enjoyable. Gideon will have many more difficulties than I did: his authority will even be challenged. But in his interactions with his troops, there will be more than a hint of what made the “Cobra Company” special.

 

They may be separated by an ocean and a couple of centuries, but the Cobras will find kindred spirits in the men of Hawke’s Company, 9th Pennsylvania Regiment.

Hiss!

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240 Years On…Saratoga

We are now 240 years on from the Battle of Saratoga. The clash called Freeman’s Farm took place on September 19th, 1777. The two sides dug in and probed each other until the decisive clashed misleadingly named after Bemis Heights occurred almost three weeks later. Shortly afterwards John Burgoyne would surrender his army, and his once proud name would forever be associated with defeat. (The Americans would even turn it into a verb: getting “Burgoyned” was something you DID NOT want to happen to you)

Hudson emplacementSo what? Well, Saratoga was decisive in the way few battles can claim. It more than outweighed the fall of Philadelphia to the British. While the Americans lost their capitol temporarily, the British lost an army of thousands of men for good. Saratoga was the trigger for France to entire the war on the American side, and the family squabble in America became a global war between empires. Ultimately, of course, the Americans and French would “Burgoyne” another British army at Yorktown, and the British would seek peace.

The guns at Saratoga are long since silent. The fields and forests that were once places of battle are now peaceful, even serene. They are excellent places for reflection, and for appreciating the efforts of those on both sides of the family squabble that gave birth to the United States of America.

To read about Saratoga from a participant’s perspective, check out A Constant Thunder.

 

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Total Eclipse of the Sun: 1778!

Did you know there was a solar eclipse just days before the Battle of Monmouth?

On June 24th, 1778, North America experienced a solar eclipse. As interesting as the celestial events might have been, terrestrial events were moving towards an even more exciting climax.

In the wake of France’s entry into the war, British Commander Lieutenant General Sir Henry Clinton was ordered to abandon Philadelphia and consolidate his forces in New York. Fearing intercept at sea by the French Navy, Clinton chose to move his combat forces overland, across New Jersey.

After much debate among his commanders, Lieutenant General George Washington decided he could not let Clinton’s march go unchallenged. By the last week of June Washington’s troops were in pursuit of the Crown forces.

As militia and some Continental forces sought to disrupt and delay the British march, the main Continental force closed to within striking distance, and looked for an opportunity to attack an isolated enemy element.

On June 28th, 1778, as the opposing forces jockeyed for position, day turned into night as the moon blocked the sun’s light.

solar-eclipseFortunately, science had progressed to the point that scientists had been able to predict the event, and rather than be seen as an omen of good or evil, the eclipse was greeted with indifference by the troops. Perhaps, at best, the moon delivered some much welcome shade to deliver the troops momentarily from the brutal summer heat.

Certainly when, a few days later on June 28th, 1778, the two armies clashed at Monmouth Courthouse, the last thing on the minds of the troops was the eclipse. They had more pressing business.

 

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Saratoga Prelude: Stanwix and Oriskany

My new novel A Constant Thunder takes the reader to the Hudson Valley in the lead up to the Battles near Saratoga. By the nature of the plot it glosses over a set of dramatic events that were part of the Hudson Valley Campaign, but took place well west of Albany: the Siege of Fort Stanwix and the Battle of Oriskany.

General John Burgoyne’s Plan for the 1777 Campaign was to divide the United States by seizing the Hudson Valley. An important component of his plan was a diversionary attack from Lake Ontario. Lieutenant Colonel Barrimore Matthew “Barry” St. Leger would command force of up to 1,000, including a few hundred British and German regular troops, augmented by several hundred Loyalists and Native American warriors. St. Leger’s command would move by boat up the Saint Lawrence River into Lake Ontario, through Oswego, NY, up Lake Oneida, over the Oneida Carrying Place, and descend the Mohawk River Valley to threaten Albany. The purpose of this drive was to draw American forces away from opposing Burgoyne’s attack down Hudson River Valley, and to raise a force of Loyalist militia, hopefully over a thousand men, from the Oswego-Albany area. In St. Leger’s way stood Fort Stanwix.

1280px-Grand_Union_Flag_svg

Grand Union Flag

Fort Stanwix was constructed during the French and Indian War, and fell into disrepair afterwards. American troops reoccupied it in 1776 and began repairs, renaming it Fort Schuyler, but it continued to be referred to as “Stanwix.” In May, 1777 Colonel Peter Gansevoort assumed command of the fort and its 750-man garrison, consisting of the 3rd New York Regiment and some Massachusetts troops.

St. Leger’s force arrived at Stanwix on August 2nd, 1777. On August 3rd Gansevoort rejected a demand for surrender, and a siege commenced. One legend has it that the Stars and Stripes flew in battle for the first time over Fort Stanwix, but the Stanwix battle flag was more likely the Grand Union Flag, first flown at Washington’s Headquarters on January 1st, 1776.

Herkimer_at_oriskany

Herkimer at Oriskany

On August 6th, relief force of about 800 militia troops, plus a group of Oneida warriors, under the command of Nicholas Herkimer was ambushed by a 450-man Native American and Loyalist force near Oriskany. The savage battle that ensued cost the Americans over 50% casualties (including Herkimer, who was mortally wounded), with their ambushers suffering over 30% casualties; at the end of the day the relief force retreated. A sortie from the fort during the battle caused significant loss of equipment and personal property to the besiegers, somewhat offsetting the defeat of the relief force. Significantly, Oriskany was the first time members of the Iroquois Confederacy fought against each other: it marked the beginning of an Iroquois civil war, and the downfall of the great Confederacy.

 

After Oriskany the Siege of Fort Stanwix continued with an ongoing British bombardment and the digging of trenches progressively closer to the fort’s walls.

On August 22nd, word reached the Iroquois in St. Leger’s force that another relief force was approaching: this time it was commanded by American Major General Benedict Arnold. Arnold has sent ahead a captured loyalist, who in exchange for his life greatly exaggerated the size of Arnold’s force. Already demoralized by the casualties at Oriskany and lost goods due to the sortie, the Iroquois abandoned St. Leger. Now hopelessly outnumbered, St. Leger launched a precipitous retreat, leaving much of his equipment to fall into the hands of the Americans.

St. Leger’s defeat secured the American flank near Albany, and allowed American General Horatio Gates to focus all of his available forces, to include Arnold and his relief force, against Burgoyne’s troops. Arnold himself would play a key role in the upcoming battles near Saratoga.

To learn more about the Saratoga Campaign from a participant’s standpoint, pre-order A Constant Thunder HERE!

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Fort Stanwix national Monument: https://www.nps.gov/fost/index.htm

Oriskany Battlefield State Historic Site: https://parks.ny.gov/historic-sites/21/details.aspx

Endangered History: The Sutfin Farm

I have visited a lot of old battlefields. My career as a soldier, and my frequent personal travel, took me to many places where history was made.

In Germany I walked in the footsteps of both Roman legionaries and Napoleon’s Grande Armee. I have gazed across the field at Waterloo, down from Lookout Mountain near Chattanooga, and into the Crater at Petersburg. I have seen century-old shell craters at Verdun and felt the sand on Omaha Beach. With my fellow officers I even stood in awe on the spot where our regimental forebears of the Greatest Generation broke through the German lines at Bastogne.

In some cases these locations were well-preserved, as though time stood still; Antietam is such a place. Sometimes monuments and natural activity have altered the landscape, as at Gettysburg. But almost always there a sense of reverence: a subconscious nod to great events of long ago. Rarely have I been appalled by what I saw in one of these places: until the Sutfin House.

The Sutfin farmhouse was built in the early 1700s; the Sutfins were apparently peaceful people, just trying to extract a living from the fertile New Jersey soil. Until, that is, the British Army marched past in June, 1778. The family wisely hid their valuables and fled. The next day, on June 28th,  the Continental Army marched by the Sutfin Farm and attacked the British rear guard at Monmouth Courthouse, just down the road. In the seesaw fighting that followed, the Sutfin home was at the epicenter of the biggest artillery duel of the American Revolution. It was an anchor for the British right flank at the climax of the battle, and it bore mute witness to the Continental counterattack at the close of the battle. Today it remains a key point of reference in understanding the flow of the battle.

Sadly, the years have not been kind. The Sutfin house today is a dilapidated, graffiti-covered abomination. It broke my heart to see what has become of what should be a historic landmark.

Sutfin Farmhouse

The Sutfin House on the Monmouth Battlefield. Photo taken on May 29th, 2017: Memorial Day.

I do not accept the status quo. I am hereby resolved that in some way Gideon Hawke and his series will work to protect and restore both the Sutfin House and the Monmouth Battlefield. It is not much, but is the least I can do to honor the memory of those who were there, and perhaps restore some of that missing sense of reverence.

 

Friends of Monmouth Battlefield: http://www.friendsofmonmouth.org/

Monmouth Battlefield State Park: http://www.state.nj.us/dep/parksandforests/parks/monbat.html

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