Following The Footnotes Of The Revolutionary War

Originally published on September 1, 2012 6:37 pm

When we think of the seminal moments in the birth of the United States of America, many people would point to the battles of Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill. But according to Robert Sullivan, the founding landscape of our nation is not in Massachusetts. It is in and around New York.

In his new book, My American Revolution: Crossing the Delaware and I-78, Sullivan writes that the majority of battles in the Revolutionary War were fought in the middle colonies: New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania.

In the book, he retraces the steps of Washington and his soldiers on a 30-mile trek north from the Delaware River. Sullivan tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz, the journey took him through the Watchung Mountains, a low mountain range in New Jersey, that played a key role in the Revolution. It is where Washington lit fires as warning signals to those in New York, when he saw movement by the British force.

Sullivan wanted to do his own reenactment. He managed to use a mirror and the sun's reflection to send a signal to his daughter 20 miles away in Brooklyn. Through the process, Sullivan discovered something about those signal posts. They have been critical points throughout our history.

He tells Raz, they were used as anti-Soviet missile sites by the American military. "And then at 9/11 each one of these sites had become exactly a place where people went ... to see the towers come down," he says. "These high points mattered to us strategically."

Boston has its Liberty Trail, but Sullivan says, Revolutionary landmarks in and around New York tend to go unnoticed. It could be because the British were often on the winning side of the battles fought there. "We don't champion them naturally. It's hard to champion great losses and defeats and evacuations." Like the Battle of Brooklyn, which wound up being the first big fight and failure of the Revolution.

"It was an evacuation," Sullivan tells Raz. The British "cornered Washington up into what is today Brooklyn Heights." But the Marbleheaders, a brigade from Massachusetts, rowed Washington and his troops to safety across the East River.

Though these sites might seem trivial today, Sullivan wants to champion them as footnotes of history — "and make the footnotes the top part," he tells Raz. "What we stand in is the kind of everyday landscape that seems to be no big deal in history. And so this kind of footnoted history is more about humility and understanding that you can't fight certain things."

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It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Massachusetts likes to call itself the cradle of liberty, but an argument could be made on behalf of Brooklyn. A man making that case is writer Robert Sullivan. In his new book, he revisits the sights of some of the turning points in the Revolutionary War, and many of them happen within an hour's drive of Battery Park in Manhattan. In fact, most of the battles of the war were fought in the middle colonies: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania.

So Sullivan set out to relive this forgotten history. He began by retracing the steps of George Washington and his troops who trekked 30 miles up from the Delaware River and through the Watchung Mountains of New Jersey to Morristown in 1776. His new book is called "My American Revolution: Crossing the Delaware and I-78."

ROBERT SULLIVAN: When you walk through the mountains, you can completely see the strategy of the war. And when I got back to New York, I thought this is it. This is what I want to do. I would try to do in the New York area, rather than re-enactments - and I don't really have a good term for this - re-emplacements. So I'd go back to the place in that particular season and think about the history then and now.

RAZ: Here's something interesting, which is that you point out the first big battle of the revolution is the Battle of Brooklyn. There was an evacuation.

SULLIVAN: There was an evacuation. All of Washington's troops, they built these kind of wonderful battlements all across the hills of Brooklyn. And the British, basically after landing in the harbor, kind of went around the back and cut through the passes in the hills. And then they came from over around Bed-Stuy - the British did - and they came back from Bay Ridge, and they sort of cornered Washington up into what is today Brooklyn Heights.

And then he sat up in the hill for two days and suddenly was convinced by his generals that he ought to get down to the Brooklyn ferry really quickly. And these guys from Massachusetts, the marble headers, who are kind of the - maybe they're sung, but they should be more sung heroes of the revolution - they say, don't worry. We'll take care of everything. They rode everybody across overnight.

And there's this really wonderful moment in the morning. The British diaries describe a British soldier coming down the Brooklyn ferry in the morning - and they think the whole army's going to be there but they're gone - and they see one tall redheaded guy in a cape, an officer, getting in the last boat, and they take a couple shots at that boat. And everybody has always thought that that was Washington.

RAZ: You try to actually personally re-enact the evacuation of Brooklyn. You wanted to take a rowboat and just go across the East River from Brooklyn to Manhattan. But apparently, you can't do this. This is not legal.

SULLIVAN: There's a lot of permitting involved with that. So at some point, I think: OK, I want to try a re-enactment. But what is that in the landscape? What is there? And as a kid, I've lived all around the New York area. And when we lived in New Jersey, my father used to talk about the signals that Washington put up on the mountains in New Jersey, the Watchung Mountains. And he had these signal posts. And at the signal posts, they'd light a fire if there was movement of the British forces, and you could see that fire in New York 20 miles away.

And I thought: This is it. I'll re-enact the signal. I'll go up on the hill, and I'll use a mirror. And in the morning, when the sun is right, I'll signal back, and somebody will be able to see me in New York. So I try with friends, I try my wife. I try with my landlords up on the roof of our house. And eventually, I'm just down to my daughter, who at the time is around 14, and she's hanging out windows. And at last, I do a signal back to her, and she sees me - few things have I been so excited about.

But in the course of trying to find the right spot to signal from, I realize that these signal posts had become anti-Soviet missile sites that the American military used. And then at 9/11, each one of these sites had become exactly a place where people went at 9/11 to see the towers come down.

RAZ: Because they were high points.

SULLIVAN: They were high points. And these high points mattered to us strategically.

RAZ: You go to Boston. And anybody can walk the Freedom Trail, which is incredible. Why isn't there anything like that in New York?

SULLIVAN: Well, I don't know, but I could say it's an advantage, that, you know, these are all the footnotes of history. And that's why we don't champion them naturally. You know, it's hard to champion great losses and retreats and evacuations.

RAZ: Because the Battle of Brooklyn was a disaster...

SULLIVAN: A disaster.

RAZ: ...for the -a collateral for the militiamen, the Americans.

SULLIVAN: But then one of the greatest things I think you can say about Washington is he learned from these mistakes. He learns lay in the mountains, stay back, engage them bit by bit. So this idea of the footnotes of history, that's what I try to write in this book. I tried to turn it over and make the footnotes at the top part. But I also like the idea that footnotes and feet and what we stand in is the kind of everyday landscape that seems to be no big deal in history. And so this kind of footnoted history is - it's more about humility and an understanding that you can't fight certain things.

RAZ: Robert Sullivan is the author of the new book "My American Revolution: Crossing the Delaware and the I-78." And, Robert Sullivan, thank you so much.

SULLIVAN: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.