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The American Scholar
Vol. 15 - Winter 1945-1946 No. 1
pp 65-68

A Day of War

Howard Fast

 
 

DECEMBER 21, 1778 was a day of war, one day out of the several thousand days during which America fought for her independence. Nothing of great import happened: no major battles were fought, no great decisions rendered. For Mr. Draper and Mr. Folsom, who published The Independent Ledger and the American Advertiser, at the corner of Winter Street in Boston, it was another routine day, and as such, it lost itself in the maw of history.
Today, indeed, it is very difficult to discover any more about these two gentlemen of the press than that they were good patriots, and, in my opinion, good newspaper men. In that war, as in this one, there were hot patriots, lukewarm ones, and some very, very cold ones. Any issue of the Independent Ledger told you where Draper and Folsom stood — and this particular Monday of 1778 was no exception.
Some editors would say, war news on the front page, and that finishes it. Draper and Folsom were of a more elastic turn of mind, and when, the day before, Tom Paine's seventh Crisis paper had arrived by post from Philadelphia, smoking hot with anger, demolishing the arguments for a negotiated peace, they threw out their front page and ran the seventh Crisis. Today, we call it orientation; they considered it of some value too.
Take the matter of privateers, merchant ships privately fitted out, but armed with guns and commissioned by the government to raid enemy commerce. The cool patriots disliked this practice; Draper and Folsom approved of it heartily, and ran the following dispatch from Philadelphia prominently on page two:

Philadelphia, Nov. 26.
On Friday arrived in this port Capt. Martin, in a letter of marque schooner, from the Island of St. Croix, which he left the 28th of October. ... On the 9th of November he took a schooner from New York (occupied by the British) for St. Augustine, which had sailed in company with a fleet of a hundred and nineteen sail, with 5,000 troops on board, bound to the British West India Islands ...

Naturally, such small matters elude history; but you may be sure that the loyal citizens of Boston smacked their lips as they read this over their coffee. They had dealt with their own quislings sometime back, when they retook their city; now, for a quisling schooner to be cut out of an enemy convoy, under the noses of battleships, tickled their Yankee fancy in precisely the right place. In column three of page two, they found another dispatch that made them nod with satisfaction:

Fish-kill, December 10.
His excellency Gen. Washington passed through this town on the 1st. inst. on his way to Jersey. The day following the Marquis de la Fayette left this town for Boston, where he is to embark for France.

The Fishkill correspondent was exact but uninspired; he gave you the facts and let you work the rest out for yourself. Today, no doubt, military security would forbid this kind of information, the more so since the General and the Marquis were moving through country nominally held by the British. On the other hand, the Bostonians could take pleasure in the ineffectiveness of British occupation.
This was a red-letter day for Fishkill and the local correspondent. In the next story, he really spreads himself:

Fish-kill, December 10.
On Saturday last, about twenty British ships, brigs, and smaller vessels made an expedition up the North River [the Hudson], as far as King's Ferry, where they destroyed two or three huts, and took off a barrel of stinking fish; they seemed disposed to do further mischief, but a large detachment was sent off by General M'Dougal, which arriv'd in time to defend the place. — They went off with precipitation. On their way down the river they burnt in a wanton, cowardly manner, two or three defenseless houses at or near Tarry-Town.

How the art of journalism has fallen! It's true that some of the facts seem uncertain (for instance, the leeway left in describing the number of houses burned), but there is no doubting which side this correspondent is on. Twenty British ships deploy up the Hudson, but our Fishkill man will grant them no more booty than one barrel of stinking fish. More power to him! And that line: "They went off with precipitation." There is, indeed, classic understatement, "wanton and cowardly...." Today, that would draw a sharp word from the editor: leave opinions out and report the facts. I take my hat off to the unknown correspondent; I'm all for his opinions. And speaking of opinion, Draper and Folsom sneak in this item — entirely hearsay, I'm afraid, and without even a dateline:

A correspondent says, the inhabitants of New York are heartily sick of their protectors, and wish the time may speedily come when they may be left to themselves; the greater part would rather leave themselves to Whig mercy than British clemency and protection any longer.

Well, one can see the need for this sort of thing. New York has been occupied by the enemy for over two years, and the citizens of Boston would like to think that a bona fide underground was in operation. Unfortunately, too many citizens of New York have turned traitor, and when the enemy leaves, several thousand of them will go with him, rather than take their chances with the angry revolutionists. Nor is any revolt within the city brewing. Though one is led to suspect that Draper and Folsom cooked up this item themselves, one can forgive them. They're fighting a war.
However, even with a good part of our land devastated by war and occupied by the enemy, life goes on. Two small ads are both homely and reassuring:

To be sold, A LARGE, HANDSOME IRON STOVE
Enquire of the Printers.
And even more earthy:

WANTED, A NURSE WITH
a good Breast of MILK,
either in Town or Country,
For further Particulars enquire of the printers.

A people's war being concerned with culture and the arts, as well as with the main business of defeating the enemy, we find on page three a good-sized advertisement for a book:

NOW IN THE PRESS,
And in about three weeks will be completed,
THE PUBLICATION OF
Hubbard's History of the
Indian Wars
In New-England.

But the final touch, which clinches the argument that the histories have lost everything but the dates and the barest facts, occurs in the lower left hand corner of page three. It is an unostentatious dispatch, concerning British troops of occupation in Queens Village, on Long Island:

A few nights ago a drove of one of the neighbour's hogs got out of their enclosure, when finding themselves released from confinement, they kicked up their heels, grunted, and ran directly toward the enemy's quarters, upon approaching which, the advanced sentries hearing an unusual noise, concluded they were going to be attacked, gave the alarm to the rear guards, who immediately communicated it to the main body, when they all in one universal consternation fled, leaving most of their arms behind them, and ran helter skelter down to their boats, launched them, and embarked before they discovered their mistake. — Thus were 150 brave Veterans employed in the fruitless attempt to conquer America, completely routed by a herd of swine, even without the Devil's having entered into them.

HOWARD FAST is the author of several historical novels, including Citizen Tom Paine and Freedom Road. Mr. Fast is now working on a book on John Altgeld.

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