The Forage War: Spanktown

On February 23rd, 1777 the British and Americans fought one of the largest battles of the Forage War at Spanktown, near modern-day Rahway, NJ.

Increasingly frustrated by American attacks on their foraging parties, the British command unleashed Lieutenant Colonel Charles Mahwood, the aggressive British commander who very nearly won the day at Princeton. With four British infantry regiments, plus a battalion each of light infantry and grenadiers, Mahwood was well-equipped to challenge any American Continental or Militia units that stood in his way.

Happening upon a small American foraging party covered by a brigade of New Jersey Continentals on a nearby hilltop, Mahwood deployed his troops for battle. He launched a grenadier company on a wide flanking movement, preparatory to a massed bayonet assault. The British moved confidently, prepared to overcome American resistance with cold steel. Then the Americans sprang the trap.

spanktown

Possible deployments at Spanktown, from A Nest of Hornets

The New Jersey units were bait. Hiding in ambush was a Pennsylvania Brigade including Colonel Edward Hand’s 1st Pennsylvania (formerly called both Thompson’s Rifle Battalion and the First Continental Regiment). The grenadier company unwittingly marched across the front of the hidden Pennsylvanians, who sprang from concealment and fired a volley which annihilated the flanking force. Both the New Jersey and Pennsylvania brigades now maneuvered aggressively against Mahwood’s remaining troops who, outnumbered and outflanked, fell back. The light infantry and grenadier battalions fought a brief rearguard action as the infantry regiments withdrew. Lieutenant Colonel Mahwood must be credited with escaping with most of his force intact, but the retreat soon turned into a route.

 

The British were not only driven from the field with significant losses, but the Americans pursued them all the way to the British stronghold in the Amboys. It must have been an agonizing defeat for the British hero of Princeton. More importantly, it foretold the successes of a Continental Army that, in eight months’ time, would bring General John Burgoyne to heel at Saratoga.

You can experience the Battle of Spanktown from a participant’s point of view in the novel A Nest of Hornets.

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

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Tedious but Enlightening Research

As I have said before, one of the great challenges of writing historical fiction is GETTING IT RIGHT! While it was a treat to visit the Saratoga Battlefield, research is not all fun in the sun!

For the first three novels in the Gideon Hawke Series I was fortunate enough to find print books with rosters of the actual units to which I assigned Gideon Hawke. Those days are over! In Book 4, A Constant Thunder, Gideon and a few of his comrades decide to join Morgan’s Provisional Rifle Corps. In doing so they march into a unit for which records are scarce! We know a great deal about the exploits of Morgan’s Riflemen, but rosters are difficult to come by, and the sources available are often incomplete or contradictory. The most helpful source I have been able to find is a list of participants in the Battles at Saratoga prepared by Heritage Hunters of Saratoga County, NY. It is a lengthy list, not quite complete, but it provides basic information on known participants. For example:

WRIGHT, Barrick             NY

             Drummer, Capt. Wright’s co., Col. Van Cortlandt’s regt., from 14 Jan 1777 to Jan 1782. 

So, I went the tedious exercise of pouring through tens of thousands of names looking for the phrase: “Captain James Parr’s co.; Col. Morgan’s Battalion.” I don’t think the list is quite complete: I only came up with 32 names, including Captain Parr, a sergeant, a corporal, and a few dozen privates; other sources claim Parr marched with a few lieutenants and 50 enlisted men. There are also a few discrepancies in the assignments of a few other members of Morgan’s Rifles: in one instance, Private Timothy Murphy is listed as belonging to Captain Hawkins Boone’s Company, but other sources indicate he was in Parr’s Company. While there may be a few inaccuracies, I am confident I have gotten a feel for the actual men who marched north in August, 1777 to reinforce the Northern Department against Burgoyne. This was a long and tedious exercise, but it had unintended benefits. You see, an exercise like this yields fertile ground for an author with an imagination. Here is one example:

CHURCH, John                   CT          

              Served under Gen. Arnold; helped Arnold from his horse when he was wounded at Saratoga.

Additional military information: Served under Arnold at Quebec, 1775. Other: He was born 1755 in Chester CT; died 1834 in Winchester CT. He married Deborah Spence, 1780; they had at least one son, Isaac who married Sylvia Maria Clark and one daughter, Lucy, who married Asa Gilbert Olds.  He was placed on pension in 1832, for over nine month’s actual service as private in the Connecticut troops.

Now, I have walked on the very spot behind the Breymann Redoubt where Benedict Arnold was wounded, so Private Church and I have trod upon the same ground, albeit separated by 239 years of time. For me having this bit of information makes Private John Church a fascinating and familiar character. I am not quite sure how yet, but I am certain he will have a cameo in A Constant Thunder.

More importantly for me, reviewing this list of names has brought me closer to the subject matter by making Saratoga very much more personal. I did not originally want to engage in such a tedious task, but once I did I stumbled upon poignant entries such as this:

EASTMAN, Joseph             NH

              1st N. H. Regiment.  Died 30 Oct 1777 of wounds received at Saratoga.

This entry provides very little information about Joseph Eastman, other than his name and unit, but I know enough about the clashes at Freeman’s Farm and Bemis Heights to know that on both occasions the 1st New Hampshire Regiment went toe-to-toe with the best the British Army had to offer, and it covered itself with glory. I also know enough about those battles and about 18th Century medicine to deduce that Private Eastman fell on October 7th, 1777, and endured over three weeks of agony before succumbing to his wounds. I also found hard evidence confirming that the regiments heavily engaged at Freeman’s Farm and Bemis Heights paid dearly for their role. The list is replete with members of units like the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd New Hampshire Regiments, Dearborn’s Light Infantry, or the Albany County Militia, who suffered many killed or mortally wounded on September 19th and October 7th, 1777.

It is my sincere hope that in some small way A Constant Thunder will help preserve the memory of soldiers like Drummer Wright, Private Church, and Private Eastman: Americans who fought in fields many miles from their homes, and who in many cases gave what Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion.”

Many thanks to the men and women who did the inglorious work of preserving, compiling, and organizing these data, helping to preserve the legacy of the Americans who fought their fledgling Nation’s independence along the banks of the Hudson in 1777.

Heritage Hunters of Saratoga County, NY: American Participants at the Battles of Saratoga: http://saratoganygenweb.com/sarapk.htm#Top

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

Gideon Hawke Novels Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/GideonHawkeNovels/

Musical Inspiration

Sometimes my imagination needs a jump start. Sometimes it needs some help keeping it “in the zone.” Sometimes it just needs a taste of the historical period I am writing about to keep the juices flowing. At times like these music is my source for inspiration. I know some writers prefer to write in absolute quiet, but not me!

I have managed to find a number of albums from Fife & Drum groups; these are excellent for taking me back to the Eighteenth Century. I find these especially useful during the action scenes, when Gideon Hawke and his mates are trading shots with the British or Hessians. While in the Army I participated in enough ceremonies to understand the power of martial music over a group of soldiers, so when I wrote one of my favorite scenes, the fight on Breed’s Hill (a.k.a. the Battle of Bunker Hill), I had The British Grenadiers playing on a continuous loop. The effect was so profound I included a snatch of the tune into the text, and I got in the habit of including the “rat-tat-tat” of the drums urging the British forward.  Of course, when I write scenes in which the Americans have the upper hand, there is no substitute for Yankee Doodle! That song was born as a British insult toward the American “Provincials” but was embraced by the Americans and became a symbol of American resistance. Many a British soldier fell on the battlefield to the accompaniment of Yankee Doodle.

But it’s not all fifes and drums, of course! I also have a couple of go-to contemporary (-ish) groups and artists whom I can rely upon to help me focus. I find that Lord Huron, with their sweeping instrumentals, smooth vocals, and gritty lyrics help me put my world aside focus on Gideon Hawke’s world. (I am listening to them right now, in fact!) What’s more, I can always count on their song She Lit a Fire to help me get in touch with Gideon’s feelings for Ruth. On the other hand, I think Brother brilliantly captures the emotions that men feel toward one another as they face hardship or combat together; that song reminds me of the relationship between Gideon and Andrew Johnston.

When I need to slow things down a bit, or feel especially inspired, Sarah McLachlan never lets me down. If nothing else I find that her incredible talent helps me to de-stress. When I am exploring characters and relationships, Sarah’s music helps me get in touch with a completely different set of emotions. She also throws in a few curveballs; her song Monsters was one of the inspirations behind the character of Kate Scott, who makes quite a splash in my forthcoming novel A Nest of Hornets.

Of course, it was not all fun and games during the Revolution. War takes a toll, and I find that many of the songs on the Dire Straits album Brothers in Arms evokes those feelings of war-weariness and loss. (Yes, I realize I just dated myself, and I’m OK with that!) I feel the title song brilliantly communicates the feelings of brotherly love in extremis.

There are many more, of course. Were someone to browse my musical selections I am sure the term “eclectic” would come to mind (or perhaps something a bit harsher). Whether it’s rock or reggae, Buffet or the Beatles, AC/DC or the Maytals, it all has a place, and I am certain that the flavor of the music comes through on the pages. I hope my readers enjoy the beat!

I am curious to hear what music inspires other authors, or if readers have favorite background music to accompany a good a good book. What say you?

 

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

Gideon Hawke Novels Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/GideonHawkeNovels/

Quill and Ink: Post Traumatic Stress in the American Revolution

This is a topic that is very important to me, but which can be very difficult to discuss.

As a career soldier I served on six operational deployments, including two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. Each of those experiences left me forever changed; in some ways for the better, and in some ways, well, not. When I set out to write historical fiction set in the American Revolution I am not sure I realized how cathartic it would be for me. One thing is certain: after I dragged my protagonist, Gideon Hawke, through the wringer a few times I started to think, “This sixteen year-old is going to have a hard time dealing with all this.” Perhaps unconsciously this helped me to highlight the effects war has on its victims and participants.

For the record: the 1770s were a very different time, and the American Revolution was a very different war from what we experience today. There were a few factors which may have contributed to lessening the effects of what we now call Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS) on Eighteenth Century soldiers. First of all, society was different. There was more of a sense of community; people were more likely to pass their time in each other’s company than alone. Without television, radio, the internet, or mobile devices, people were less likely to seek “alone time.” As Sebastian Junger points out in his recent book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, the isolation of late-Twentieth and early-Twenty-First Century life has contributed significantly to the impact of PTS in our society.

Secondly, death and injury were far more common. In modern America a person can easily go through life happily munching away on poultry, pork, and beef without ever seeing an animal slaughtered. Likewise, except in certain areas it is an anomaly to see a dead human body. Again, Colonial/Revolutionary America was different. Infant mortality was much higher, life was shorter, and more people lived off the fruits of their labors. Certainly the industrialized meat packing industry was non-existent, so people were more accustomed to seeing blood spilled. People in general were less sensitive to some forms of potential trauma.

Furthermore, many American Revolutionary War soldiers served short enlistments, meaning that they would be exposed to military life for only a short time and then return home. They might serve in the war again, or they might not. Some served long stints, but most did not; we now know all too well about the compounding effects of multiple, extended, repeated exposures to trauma. Many of my friends have, like me, served long stints in dangerous conditions, over and over again. Some Revolutionary War soldiers, like Gideon Hawke, did serve for extended periods, and paid the price.

TombRegardless of how different society may have been in the 1770s to 1780s, people were still people, and war was still war. The human body reacted to danger and near-death in essentially the same way. So, when people in the 1770s and 1780s were exposed to trauma, many exhibited symptoms of would today be labeled PTS: insomnia, nightmares, nervousness, hypersensitivity, gastrointestinal issues, substance abuse, hearing voices, suicide, and so on. There were other manifestations which are less common today. For example, soldiers who had killed enemy combatants in hand-to-hand combat sometimes reported seeing the “ghosts” of their vanquished foes. But many of the symptoms would be very familiar to a modern combat veteran. Whatever the symptoms, science had not yet come to terms with PTS, and had not made the link between, for example, a soldier’s honorable service and behavior that could be viewed as bizarre if not frightening. The closest contemporary science may have come was applying the term “nostalgia” to this condition; it implied a link to homesickness, and did nothing to help those suffering from PTS.

In the Gideon Hawke Series I have endeavored to show the effects of PTS in my characters. While he is often euphoric during combat, afterwards Gideon suffers from insomnia and nightmares; he is sometimes physically ill after an engagement; he is occasionally unable to control his emotions; he has contemplated suicide. His friend, Andrew Johnston, also suffers from insomnia, but in addition he sees the ghost of an Indian youth he stabbed to death many years prior. In my work in progress, her work in a military hospital is beginning to take a toll on Gideon’s love, Ruth Munroe. The war will continue to take a toll.

Believe it or not, it is hard for me to see these characters suffer from their invisible wounds (they do live in my head, after all). But in spite of any sympathetic reservations I might have, I feel obligated to see to it that they suffer, if only to honor the invisible wounds suffered by so many of my brothers and sisters in arms. Myself included.

To experience the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress through the eyes of Gideon Hawke, I suggest reading Times That Try Men’s Souls. https://www.amazon.com/Times-That-Try-Mens-Souls/dp/1635030420/

To learn more about the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress in modern combat veterans, or to get help for yourself or someone you love, I strongly recommend the non-profit organization Invisible Wound. https://www.facebook.com/InvisibleWound/