Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Legend of Lydia Darragh in the American Revolution

Who is Lydia Darragh? Like Betsy Ross, the story of Lydia Darragh (also spelled 'Darrah' and Darrach') is wrapped in legend, and some of the facts are difficult to differentiate from the myths. One thing we do know is that Lydia Darragh, an Irish immigrant to America, would become a popular symbol of heroism and courage in America's War for Independence.

Born in 1729 in Dublin, the future war hero married William Darragh, a son of an Irish clergyman and tutor to Lydia's family. Several years after their marriage, the Darraghs immigrated to America, taking up residence in Philadelphia. Lydia Darragh became a widwife, helping other women through childbirth and giving birth to nine of her own (four of whom died in infancy).

When General William Howe's British army occupied Philadelphia in late September 1777, Philadelphia residents loyal to the American cause, such as Lydia Darragh, resorted to clandestine means to frustrate the British war effort. Even though Darragh and her family were Quakers, their eldest son served with the 2nd Pennsylvania Regiment. The American cause and the Continental Army clearly had their sympathies. During the British occupation, Lydia Darragh reportedly eavesdropped on British officer conversations in and around her home, and then sent coded information through British lines to the Americans as best she could. The details of Darragh's activities are difficult to pin down, as the main source of information is Ann Darragh, Lydia's daughter, who told the stories years after the events. Unfortunately, some of Ann's accounts don't jibe with other records from the Revolutionary War period, calling many of them into question.

The stage for Lydia Darragh's most famous alleged exploit was when General Howe personally occupied the home of her neighbor, John Cadwalader, making it his residence. The British then asked the Darraghs to vacate their home, making it available for British officer meetings. Lydia Darragh protested, saying that she'd already sent two of her children away and that there was nowhere for them to go. In her appeals to General Howe, she encountered a second cousin from Ireland, Captain Barrington, who served with the British army. Barrington's intervention is what apparently allowed the Darraghs to remain in their home, provided they set aside space for officer meetings and accommodate officer requests (such as retiring early when sensitive meetings were to take place). According to her daughter, Ann, Lydia Darragh used this arrangement as an opportunity to provide General Washington with much needed intelligence.

On December 2, 1777, Lydia received a request that she and her family retire by 8 o'clock, to make way for an important meeting. She pretended to go to sleep, but instead listened to the soldiers through the door, learning that the British planned to make a surprise attack on the Continental Army camped at Whitemarsh on December 4. As the meeting wrapped up, Lydia returned to her bedroom and feigned sleep as a British officer by the name of Major John Andre knocked three times. On the third knock, she answered and Major Andre informed her that the meeting was over and they were leaving her home.

The next morning, Darragh was granted permission to leave the city to buy flour. Her real plan, however, was to get the intelligence she gathered into American hands. According to Ann Darragh, Lydia gave the information to an American cavalry officer. According to Elias Boudinot, the Continental Commisary of Prisoners, Lydia found him while he was dining at the Rising Sun Tavern and gave him a "dirty old needle book" which contained hidden a "piece of paper rolled into the form of a pipe shank." That piece of paper, says Boudinot, contained the information of British plans to attack Washington's army on December 4.

Whatever the specifics, it does seem evident that Lydia Darragh played a key role in the American Revolution in December 1777 by warning General Washington (somehow) of a surprise British attack, allowing him to be fully prepared for it. For this reason, it is fair to regard Lydia Darragh is indeed a hero of the American Revolution.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Foundation for Writing Great Essays on the American Revolution

Those who want to make writing American history essays, including Revolutionary War essays, a painless exercise need the right mindset, focus, and tools. With these things in place, you have the makings of a great history essay. Writing history essays can, in fact, be a breeze. Here are three things, I believe, will insure you have the right foundation in place. Do these three things and your essay on the American Revolution will be off to a great start.

Understand the "Big Picture" of the American Revolution

You've heard the saying: "Don't lose sight of the forest for the trees." That applies to essay writing. Your essay will probably be focused on a particular aspect, personality, battle, or event in the Revolutionary War. But in order for you to properly address that aspect, you must understand the Big Picture. George Washington was not the greatest battle tactician (he actually lost more battles than he won), but he had an amazingly thorough grasp of the overarching, strategic challenges facing both the British and the thirteen colonies. It was this "Big Picture" perspective that enabled him to lead the ill-equipped, under-fed, poorly clothed, (at first) inadequately trained American Continental Army to eventual victory over the most efficient and best trained army of the world. By understanding the basics of the Revolutionary War, you'll be able to address the issues within your essay in the proper context, giving them their due attention and weight.

How do you do this? Set aside 30 minutes to one hour. And in that time, read through Wikipedia's overview of the American Revolution, along with about 3-5 websites or articles that address the timeline of the American Revolution. Get a handle on the key figures of the Revolutionary War, the major events, and the general chronological order of the conflict.

If you want to take this to the next level (time-wise), then head to your local library or over to Amazon and check out The Complete Idiot's Guide to the American Revolution by Alan Axelrod or US History for Dummies by Steve Wiegand (and read the American Revolution section).

Clarify Your Teacher's or Professor's Expectations

Years ago, I had an employer that impressed upon me the critical importance of understanding the "conditions of satisfaction" when taking on a work project. If you are given an assignment (whether in school or on the job), it's imperative that you understand what the person giving the assignment expects of you. To put this in blunt, academic terms: What specifically will it take for you to get an 'A'?

The best way to find this out is to ask. Set an appointment with your teacher/professor and ask: "What specifically are you looking for in this essay? What do I need to do in order to get an A?" Chances are that you'll hear something about research, argumentation, sentence construction, etc., etc. Write all that down. Ask as many questions as you need until you understand exactly what's expected of your essay on the American Revolution.

It's also a good idea to document this meeting with your professor or teacher. That way, if there's a problem later with your grade, you can go back to the professor/teacher with your notes. And, in the worst case scenario, you have notes from that meeting that you can take to the principal, dean, administrator, or whomever. Hopefully, that won't be necessary and you shouldn't expect that. But it's always good to have documentation.

Identify the Grader's Personality and/or "Hot Buttons"

Don't kiss up or be insincere. I want to make that clear from the outset. But it's always a good idea to know something of the person who will be grading your paper, presumably your teacher/professor. What do you know of his/her personality, interests, style, tastes, etc.?

Remember that essays are different from math worksheets or multiple-choice tests. With the latter, there's little wiggle room. The standards are clear. With essays, there is a degree of subjectivity. While most professors and teachers have some kind of rubric to make their grading as objective as possible, there will always be a level of judgment and discretion that seeps into the grader's mind. It's inevitable.

Your task is to find out what the grader is looking for. If your teacher/professor is a "get down to business" type, then don't waste a lot of space in your essay with ramblings and such. If he or she is looking for stories, anecdotes, illustrations, and such rather than tedious statistics or boring academic prose, that's good to know too. If your teacher/professor has a low opinion of Thomas Jefferson, and you decide to write an essay singing his praises as the greatest American in U.S. history, then you had better make your essay persuasive and (preferably) as non-offensive as possible to the one grading it.

These three things will give you the right foundation for a great essay on the American Revolution. The rest is up to you. Future posts will address some more intermediate and advanced tips for writing great Revolutionary War essays.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Experience the Wonder of the First Permanent English Settlement in Jamestown

Think history is boring? Take a trip to Jamestown. Anyone who visits the Jamestown settlement with an open mind and makes an honest effort to understand what those English settlers faced in 1607 will come away with a new appreciation for history. And that's why a trip to Jamestown may be just what your school or family needs.

History teachers and parents who want their kids to better appreciate history have to compete today with iPods, cell phones, television, and Facebook. Yet a person, no matter her age, can't help but be impressed with the adventure our ancestors endured at the Jamestown 1607 settlement. This is what makes a trip to the Jamestown settlement such a potential life-changing event. I remember the first time I went with my grandfather many years ago. I was a young child, absolutely enthralled by the ships and the fort and all that was there. And while I can't remember all the details of that distant memory, I remember how it helped shape my love for history from that day forward.

Those who visit Jamestown can likewise experience the story of America's beginnings, for it was at Jamestown that England established its first permanent colony in the New World. Sponsored by the Virginia Company, a group of 104 men and boys began the Jamestown settlement in 1607 on the banks of Virginia's James River.

Those who visit Jamestown today can take in the various exhibition galleries and learn about life in the 17th and 18th centuries. The community suffered terrible hardships in its early years, but survived, thanks in part to the leadership of John Smith. Their endurance made them the first permanent English settlement in the New World, which could not be said of the two previous ill-fated attempts in Roanoke.

Today at Jamestown Settlement, the story of these survivors is told through gallery exhibits, film, and costumed historical interpreters who describe and demonstrate daily life in the early 17th century. Visitors can board replicas of the three ships that sailed from England to Virginia in 1607. It's these ships that I remember the most from my youthful trip. You can also explore life-size re-creations of the colonists' fort and a Powhatan village.

If you're looking for a place to visit where history can truly come alive, Jamestown is one of the best places to experience.