Sarah Vowell’s “Lafayette In The Somewhat United States”

WashingtonLafayetteIn today’s unrelenting 24/7 news cycle of domestic political squabbling, international insurgencies and terrorism, and crushing economic conditions, it’s easy for most Americans to lament the early 21st-century as a period where the world has simply lost its collective mind. Taking a step back a couple hundred years to the late 18th-century in Sarah Vowell’s wildly entertaining Lafayette In The Somewhat United States, readers are easily transported to a period where the citizens of Europe and the American Colonies could have easily drawn the same conclusion in an era where broadsheets stood in for the Drudge Report, Politico, CNN and Fox News.

SVBooksSarah Vowell’s previous books offer unique journeys through American history

NPR, Daily Show and history nerd darling Vowell has made a career mining US history for the formative stories and personalities which have shaped us into the frustrating and wonderful mess we Americans are today. In her previous works, Presidential assassinations, dogmatic religious zeal, patriotism, colonizing of native peoples and other complicated parts of our centuries of experience have all been covered through travelogues and overviews of writings which all contribute to our American experience through the modern day. It is only fitting then that Vowell has eventually arrived at the very origin story of the United States with the period of the American War of Independence. As always though, Vowell has chosen to come at this era through the not-so-likely lens of an enlightened and angry fatherless teenage French aristocratic immigrant who is often ignored in most of our modern memory: Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier de Lafayette, or the Marquis de Lafayette.

SVLafayette

Vowell’s book provides an overview of the period with Lafayette as its star and a supporting cast of European and American aristocrats, playwrights, arms dealers, politicians, farmers, artisans, militarists, merchants, wives and strivers of the idealistic and violent era. Lafayette is portrayed as a young guy of the Enlightenment seeking personal glory, riches and yes, some political change on a worldwide stage. From the letters, diary entries and articles of the day quoted heavily throughout the book, Lafayette and these other folks are largely represented from their educated, wealthy one-percenter status which allowed them to reshape history. Although gunpowder and battlefields loom large in the story, Vowell shows it was in lavish dinner party conversations, drunken alehouse arguments and heady congressional debates where the real work of Revolution got done.

12045330_10206929315365760_4299028010311909902_oSarah Vowell at her reading and book signing at Book Court in Brooklyn, NY on October 20, 2010

Vowell’s journey takes her to out-of-the-way field trips in Europe, oddball artifacts displayed under glass and Revolution-era National Park Service sites stateside. In this she also brings her book, as she does in all her work, into the present during the government shutdown of said National Park Service sites in our modern political era of dysfunction. Like all good history, Vowell’s connection between past and present paints the picture of how our hundreds of years of squabbling and infighting sits at the American core. This is ground Vowell has covered in all her books, showing what a mess we are, how we never really learn our lesson and that we always manage to survive and get things done. Depending on your leanings and perspective, this might be a comfort or a challenge to your own experience.

That a bunch of talc-wigged guys (and women) would grow a cohort of “self-respecting, financially strapped terrorists” warring against the British monarchy into “state sponsored terrorists” backed by the French monarchy is a truly weird American story. By the time we get to the Battle of Yorktown, the War of Independence is effectively won by Lafayette, Rochambeau and their French forces, cementing the remarkable patriotic American tale into world history largely with a French accent. Lafayette In The Somewhat United States is also a tale perfect for Sarah Vowell’s smart voice.

Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales

NathanHalesHazardousTalesAs a young fan of history in 1970s and 80s, my bookshelves were brimming with illustrated history books. Classics Illustrated comics, David Macaulay’s books and Dover history coloring books were all favorites. In my teen and college years of comic book fandom, I was introduced to the Pulitzer Prize-winning Holocaust graphic novel Maus by Art Spiegelman. Decades later, I loaded up my own boys’ shelves with beautiful books from Dorling Kindersley on such subjects as ancient history, the American Civil War and World War II. Now, as the kids have grown, they’ve made their own reading discoveries and turned me on to newer series. One of my current favorites is Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales.

Nathan Hale is the actual name of the Utah-based author and artist of a variety of best-selling children’s graphic novels. His Hazardous Tales series focuses on US history with a wit and flair aimed at engaging kids in wonderful little vignettes of the past. His war-themed books include looks at the American War of Independence (One Dead Spy (2012)) the American Civil War (Big Bad Ironclad! (2012)) and World War I (Treaties, Trenches, Mud and Blood (2014)). He’s also taken on non-war subjects with the doomed Western settlers of the Donner Dinner Party (2013) and the story of abolitionist Harriet Tubman in The Underground Abductor (2015).

NHSpyPageFamed American spy Nathan Hale is introduced in “One Dead Spy”

Hale’s three war books introduce children to three different conflicts from three centuries of the American story. One Dead Spy outlines the American Revolution through the lens of famed Colonial spy Nathan Hale, his exploits, capture and martyred execution in September 1776. The first half of the book moves from Hale’s years at Yale to the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, the Battle of Bunker Hill, the capture of Fort Ticonderoga and the Siege of Boston. In the second half, the story shifts to the war in and around New York City and Long Island, making it of particular interest for my sons living amid the ground covered by the Battle of Brooklyn. Other historical characters including George Washington (naturally), Ethan Allen, Benedict Arnold and the colorfully-written Henry Knox all make cameos, each adding to the overall narrative which ends with Hale’s hanging just as the war was gearing up into its later years and eventual victory for the American colonists.

NHIroncladsPageCivil War naval combat from “Big Bad Ironclad!”

The American Civil War gets its treatment in Big Bad Ironclad which tells the story of the nation-defining conflict through the epic development and battle of the first US ironclad ships in March 1862. With so many stories to be told from the Civil War, this book’s focus on the relatively ignored naval side of the conflict makes for another interesting tale. A colorful cast of well-known and marginal characters, including Abraham Lincoln, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, Swedish immigrant inventor John Ericcsson and US naval hero William Cushing, frame the story. Drawn in blues, grays and blacks, the historic figures and events helps to place this sideshow to the American Civil War as a not-to-be-forgotten part of American history.

NHTrenchesPageEuropean alliances explained in “Treaties, Trenches, Mud and Blood”

My favorite of Hale’s three war books is Treaties, Trenches, Mud and Blood which does an amazing job of explaining the complex causes and series of alliances which contributed to the outbreak of the Great War in August 1914. The story begins in the obvious place with assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria by the somewhat hapless Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo in June 1914. After the entertaining opening act, the book moves to outline the intricacies of the allied European nations. Using the cartoon and comic book convention of animals as characters, each country is cast as a different creature — UK (bulldog), Russia (bear), France (rooster), Austria-Hungary (owl), Germany (eagle). You might think explaining geopolitical politics would be a yawn in a children’s book, but Hale carries it off such that even adults would benefit from the World war II overview.

The story marches onward to 1914, erupting in the war depicted in a dramatic double-page spread of assembly line of manpower grinding to battle with the Greek god of war Ares overseeing the entire coming slaughter. Weapons, the introduction of tanks and trench warfare all get their due in the second half of the book, but it’s the pre-war framing of European empires in conflict which makes this book a standout intro to the war for all ages.

AlamoThe forthcoming “Alamo All Stars”

The upcoming sixth book in the series, Alamo All Stars, will appeal to Texans and Texans at heart with the tale of the heroic defense of the Alamo in 1836. With the school year just under way, all of Hale’s Hazardous Tales are worthy of reading lists, no matter the age. Each book also contains a bibliography and more factual information at the back of the book, making all these books a great jumping-off place for budding historians and maybe some future wargamers, too.

Getting Ready For HMGS Fall In! 2015

WaterlooRobinsonPainting

FALL IN!™ 2015 (Nov. 6 – 8)

Convention Theme: “Campaign of the 100 Days”

Lancaster Host Resort & Conference Center

Lancaster, PA

Less than two months from now, a number of us from Metropolitan Wargamers in Brooklyn, NY will be attending this year’s HMGS Fall In! convention the weekend of November 6-8, 2015 in Lancaster, PA. I, some fellow club members and my brother have a variety of games from different periods we’re presenting in several scales, and the events will be geared toward a variety of levels of gamer experience from beginner to veteran.

Here’s a rundown of our scheduled games so far which you can find along with hundreds of other games listed online in the convention’s event list.

Friday, November 6th Events

F: 351 Rivoli – 1797 – 1:00-6:00 PM

Period: Napoleonic, Scale: 10mm, Rules: TBD

Re-fight the Battle of Rivoli that crushed the first coalition and set Napoleon on a trajectory toward consulate and empire. Will 23,000 French repeat their historical victory over Alvinczi’s 28,000 Austrians? Or will Napoleon’s rise end in the fields of Piedmont? A follow-up to the truly spectacular award-winning Battle of Marengo on a custom-built terrain board from previous HMGS conventions which you can view here.

F: 257 Battle Of Waterloo 200th Anniversary – 3:00-8:00 PM

Period: Napoleonic, Scale: 15mm, Rules: Home Rules

Play one of the greatest battles in history on the 200th anniversary — Waterloo. Napoleon’s French attack the Anglo-Dutch army led by the Duke of Wellington. Time tested home rules perfect for anyone new to Napoleonics or for experienced players. Fast play for convention yet with all the detail and pageantry of the era. This game is being run by my brother who presents games of the Napoleonic Wars in 6mm, 15mm and 28mm with gorgeous hand-crafted tables and his beautifully painted figures, so this one will also be a treat.

F: 374 Barkmann’s Corner – July 17, 1944 – 4:00-6:00 PM

Period: World War II, Scale: 15mm, Rules: Flames Of War

It’s the summer of 1944. Famed German tank ace Ernst Barkmann is rolling through Normandy commanding his Panther and looking to halt the Allied advance. Amid the bocage of the French countryside, a US armored column encounters Barkmann in a showdown at a crossroads which will become legend. A great learning game for people new to FOW (including kids with adults). I’ve run this short scenario before (report and pics here) and it’s a blast to play if you like pushing tanks around the table.

F: 377 A Peaceful Exchange Of Prisoners…Hopefully. Wheeling, VA, 1777 – 6:00-10:00 PM

Period: American War for Independence, Scale: 25mm, Rules: Muskets And Tomahawks

A British/Indian delegation during the American War of Independence has arrived in wheeling to discuss a prisoner exchange. Both commanders hope the exchange goes off everything might go off without a hitch, and everyone might go home happy. But this is a wargaming convention, so don’t count on it. Winning will require negotiation, flexibility, deceit, and the element of surprise. Each player has his her own victory conditions. A club member who is a college instructor with expertise on American Colonial warfare is running this game, so it’s sure to be laced with colorful historic narrative.

 Friday (night pick-up game): Churchill’s Nightmare – 8:00-11:PM

Period: World War II, Scale: 1:200, Rules: Naval Home Rules

Can the British home fleet stop the German breakthrough into the Atlantic?

Saturday, November 7th Events

S: 376 St. Oedenrode – September 17-24, 1944 – 2:00-6:00 PM

Period: World War II, Scale: 15mm, Rules: Flames Of War

It’s the autumn of 1944. As part of Operation Market Garden, the US 502nd Parachute Infantry regiment has parachuted into Holland and seized an important bridge on the Dommel river at St. Oedenrode. Rushing to counter attack are German Fallschrimjager regiments supported by artillery and armor. Can the allies hold the bridge until reserves arrive or will the axis rush to retake the objective? A great learning game for people new to FOW (including kids with adults). This is another scenario I’ve run several times before (report and pics here), and I’m also working on some new models to bring along in time for the convention.

Saturday (night pick-up game): Engagement in the Mediterranean – 8:00-11:PM

Period: World War II, Scale: 1:200, Rules: Naval Home Rules

Can the British Mediterranean fleet stop the Italian fleet?

Come to Fall In! and meet the Members of Metropolitan Wargamers

We’ll also be planning to run other games including two games based on the 1980s movie classics Mad Max and Red Dawn. You will be able to spot the members of Metropolitan Wargamers wearing our new club shirts celebrating over three decades of gaming in New York City. We’re certain to have a some other surprises at the convention, so sign up for Fall In! and we’ll see you in Lancaster in November.

Boardgames of the American Revolution, Part I

DOI

Last month, Quartz published a crowd-sourced online survey of how the rest of the world learns about the American Revolution in school. For most outside the US, the war is variably seen as a sideshow to other 18th-century European conflicts, an extension of the Enlightenment or ignored altogether. Children in the United States itself often leave school and march into adult citizenship with only the broadest mythic stories and American patriotic heroes of the war under their belts.

My interest in the American War of Independence has fluctuated over time since growing up as a kid amid the United States Bicentennial fervor of the mid-1970s. Having been in Brooklyn for almost two decades now, I’ve developed a growing interest in the war as I live and commute daily through the ground fought over during the Battle of Brooklyn and Battle of New York in 1776. Over the past year or two I’ve also been working through a minor obsession with boardgames of the American War of Independence. I’ve played many and collected a few ranging from classics of the early 1970s to modern games varied in scope and mechanics.

Presented here is by no means a complete list of games themed on America’s defining early conflict, but an overview of the ones I’ve played or chosen to add to my inventory of wargames. Style, scope and time commitments vary with these games, offering interested gamers – both new and experienced – an opportunity to play and learn about the American Revolution anew with each tabletop session.

AMRevSPI

The American Revolution 1775-1783 (SPI)

Simulation Publications Inc (SPI) rolled out The American Revolution 1775-1783 in 1972 a few years ahead of the Bicentennial celebration, and launched some revolutionary new aspects to wargaming along with it. Breaking from the tradition of a hex-based wargame map of the time, SPI’s game is laid out in a graphic abstract series of areas and regions with their own victory point values. Rules for the game are slim, and reference charts for turn sequence, movement, winter attrition, combat and reinforcements by turn season and year are all printed right on the map. The overall design, from the slick Helvetica font on the plain white box edition to the map itself has a great retro feel that sets it apart from other games of the early 70s. I’ve played In short, the game feels very ‘modern’ despite being more than forty years old.

AmRevSPIgameSPI’s The American Revolution 1775-1783

Cardboard chits with simple iconic graphics display force strength for the two main sides of the war, and movement is standardized in terrain marked simply as either as wilderness or open. Colonial forces move more effectively in wilderness areas than the British, making it easier for them to evade confrontation with the superior English troops. Staying away from the British until enough Colonial forces can be raised is key to any success for the Revolution.

The arrival of additional British troops into ports is scheduled specifically according to the year and season of the game outlined at the edge of the board, and Colonial forces are raised and deployed through a random die roll levy. The mechanics whereby Colonial Militia and Tory forces deploy I find to be pretty accurately reflective of the regional politics of the era. Tories appear only once when British Regulars enter a region, and Colonial Militia take up arms against the British when they first enter a region they do not control and each time the British lose control. French forces arrive after a ‘major success’ (five or more losses by the British) in combat by the Colonials. All these well-thought deployment mechanisms stand out as big historical differentiators for me with this game.

Combat is resolved through a die roll check on a simple table in a corner of the board which can result in very bloody losses to both sides as they meet in battle. First losses in battle always go to Tories of Militia forces which historically often left battlefields when the going got tough. Sieges are pretty simple with forces defending in forts getting triple their combat strength and attackers outside the fort doubling their value when counter-attacked by the fortified foes. Victory for the British comes by controlling a value of 51 victory points on the board, and the Colonials can win with three ‘major success’ battles. In all its abstract area movement and control, SPI’s game offers a slick game that captures just enough of the nuanced history of the period to more than satisfy.

 IMG_6366

1776 (Avalon Hill)

The other big game to come out before the Bicentennial was Avalon Hill’s 1776 from 1974. With rules running almost three times as long as those in SPI’s game, 1776 is often viewed as the more detailed play experience of the two. Some 400 counters represent infantry, artillery and dragoons for the Continental Army, British Regulars, Colonial and Tory Militia, French Regulars, Indians, and British and French naval units. The large mounted hex maps are filled with detailed terrain with each feature effecting movement and combat in different ways. Other tables for combat and turn sequence are contained on a series of additional reference charts, and tactical cards and scenario sheets round out the components in the hefty box.

IMG_6370Avalon Hill’s 1776

I’ve only recently picked up a copy of 1776 and I’m not certain when I’m going to be able to find an opponent to give this one a proper play. A read through the lengthy rules outline the game from a quick beginner’s experience to specific historic scenarios within the war to a full campaign mode covering the entire war. Advanced rules go deep in simulating the role of supply, forts, entrenchments, naval movement and combat, river movement by bateaux, wintering effects, French entrance to the war and the arrival of additional troops throughout the chosen game. Combat is achieved by a ratio of force size and a die roll modified by factors of supply, defense from forts and trenches and presence of artillery. Control of specific locations within a region is the key factor to the game, creating an interestingly complex dynamic for the raising additional forces as well as a path of victory. Aside from the game itself, the splendid designer notes offer a great general meditation on the trade-offs inherent to historic war simulation balanced with playability. For the gamer really wanting to roll their sleeves up with the intricacies of the American Revolution, 1776 is probably the game.

IMG_6365

Liberty: The American Revolution 1775-83 (Columbia Games)

Liberty: The American Revolution 1775-1783, published by Columbia Games in 2003, bridges the gap from traditional wargames to the present with relatively swift play, wooden blocks to represent British, Colonial, French and Native American forces, and simple cards driving force activation and supply during each game turn. The long game map consists of large hexes with forest, swamp and river terrain features which affect movement as well as geographic supply towns and key victory point locations. British and French West Indies ports allow for additional options in naval movement and combat. The game strikes a balance between simple rules and rich re-playability, and my time with the game has seen victories for either side depending on the session.

IMG_6372

Liberty: The American Revolution 1775-83 by Columbia Games

In each year of the game, a hand of five dealt cards activate forces and re-supply existing forces which have taken step losses in previous turns. Actions may either move forces already on the map or bring new units onto the board by selecting from a random pool of blocks. A limited number of Native American blocks are allied with the British player only, and French forces may arrive randomly after the first turn beginning in 1776. Colonial forces arrive in controlled supply areas, British and French forces arrive by sea to available ports and Tory Militia rise from British-controlled supply areas. When opposing forces move into contact, combat is resolved by simple die rolls depending on the quality and strength of the blocks available. Blocks are reduced in strength and then eliminated as ‘prisoners’ which may be exchanged at the end of the turn and returned to each player’s pool of available forces. At the end of combat, forces may have the option to withdraw or stay in the fight. Weather plays a random role in the game, potentially limiting combat during a turn year, and troops may be also eliminated in a wintering phase at the end of turn. Victory is tallied at the end of each hand of cards and year with the British winning with 30 supply points and the Colonials by driving the British to under 12 supply points.

1775box

1775: Rebellion (Academy Games)

I’ve written previously in detail about 2013’s 1775: Rebellion from the Birth of America series from Academy Games, one of my favorite quick-playing boardgames of the American Revolution. The game plays different from most in the period with two to four players able to command the American Continental Army, Patriot Militia, British Army and Loyalist forces in a game driven by card activation and randomized turn order.

IMG_2757

1775: Rebellion from Academy Games

The four main forces plus French, Hessian and Native American allies are all represented by simple colored cubes moving and warring over a gorgeous game board representing the the colonies, territories and Canadian provinces of the northeastern American continent of the late 18th-century. Cards drive the action with movement, period-specific events and personalities, and special color-coded dice resolve combat as forces are either destroyed or flee to return in later turns. Areas flip to British or American control as combat is resolved. When two special Treaty of Paris cards are played, the game ends with victory rewarded to the player holding the most control of the board. If I’m going to play the American Revolution with a relatively inexperienced player or non-gamer, this is my go-to game for the period.

Worthington1776KS

New York 1776 and Trenton 1776 (Worthington Publishing)

In 2014, Worthington Publishing launched their ambitious Campaigns of the American Revolution series with New York 1776 followed by Trenton 1776 in 2015. These strategic block games, funded through popular Kickstarter campaigns I backed, take players through specific stages of the war beginning with the action on Long Island and in and around New York City in the summer and fall of 1776 and continuing the conflict into New Jersey in the winter of 1776 and 1777.

While the games do not directly connect to each other in a grand campaign, each two-hour game is well-scaled to the strategy inherent to each series of battles in the early years of the war. Randomized turn order, variable numbers of turn actions and the block components provide a fog of war mechanic to the game as forces move by themselves or as groups under the command of the many leaders present on each side. Movement is broadly point-to-point on game boards simply illustrated with towns, ports, forts or other key geographic points of control. Combat goes off as forces meet on the map with infantry, artillery, leaders and fortified positions playing into results that can include withdrawals, retreats, fleeing Militia and follow up attacks. Command plays several roles in these games, including being able to move groups of forces and other scenario-specific special rules in battle, deployment and victory conditions.

NY1776gameplayWorthington Publishing’s New York 1776

New York 1776 presents the largest meeting of troops during the American Revolution with the professional British army and navy, along with their hired Hessian allies, looking to halt the uprising of the new American Colonial army and Militia in the early months of the war. Controlling the waterways and supply routes around New York with the British navy plays a big part in the British player’s path to either capturing Washington or controlling New York by game’s end. For the Colonial player, the game is largely one of avoiding the mass of better rated British troops, preventing their control of New York or reducing the superior British army by 20 points.

IMG_6368Worthington Publishing’s Trenton 1776

In Trenton 1776, the action moves to smaller scale engagements in New Jersey as the British looked to smash the Colonial army and Militia retreating from their defeat in New York. With Washington in command, he risks bold counterattacks to push the British back out of southern New Jersey or simply moving to safety south of the Delaware. Howe’s pursuing British army must mass its forces against the rebel army at key towns and river crossings and hopefully push to seize Philadelphia as the icy winter settles in. With similar rules but at a smaller scale than New York 1776, multiple plays of Trenton 1776 can really show players how cautious or aggressive decisions can make or break a campaign.

GMTLibertyDeath

Liberty Or Death: The American Insurrection (GMT Games)

I’m really looking forward to the release of Liberty Or Death: The American Resurrection, due out late this year. The sixth game in the counterinsurgency (COIN) series from GMT Games, I’ve had this one on pre-order based on my love for the other COIN games. Playing from solo to four players, Liberty Or Death will present the war as one of insurgent and counterinsurgency forces of American Colonials, British, French and Native Americans warring for control of the North American continent. As in the other COIN games, shifting alliances, varied turn order, separate victory conditions, irregular forces and historically-themed event cards will each play into a game which will greatly expand beyond the typical presentation of the war as one between just two opposing nations. Early reports from game tests and some sneak looks at artwork make this my personally most anticipated game of the year, and I’ll surely be back with a full report in the coming months.

So where to start with the American Revolution?

The 1970s era SPI and Avalon Hill games will appeal the most to experienced strategy players looking to really dig into hours of the broad complexity of some or all the war within a very traditional wargame. On the flipside, the Worthington Publishing games provide short but replayable intros to gaming the period for younger players or those just getting into block games. The Columbia Games take on the war splits the difference by offering up relatively simple mechanics of a card-activated block game representing the entire war over a couple hours of play. The Academy Games game expands play to four players and allied forces in an abstracted area control strategy game that likewise covers the entire war in mix of card and dice action. The forthcoming game from GMT Games will reinvent the conflict anew within the context of four separate interests vying for victory.

Players wishing to play through advanced strategic simulation of 18th-century warfare will be rewarded by time invested in the Avalon Hill and SPI games. The Columbia Games and Worthington Publishing games will also provide a satisfying  combat simulation albeit at a much simplified level. To experience more abstracted combat as well as the interplay of politics, alliances and events within the period of the war, the Academy Games and GMT Games games provide both relatively fast play as well as more of a learning experience about broader aspects of the American Revolution.

Each game above paints the American Revolution large or small, and together they are a fine reflection of the evolving mechanics of wargaming over the past forty years. There are numerous additional games of the American Revolution, some focusing on specific regional campaigns and many others presenting the full war. Games still on my shortlist to try include 2010’s Washington’s War from GMT Games and its 1994 predecessor We The People by Avalon Hill which helped launch the modern trend in card-driven wargaming.

There’s a point of entry for gamers of every type to get in on the War of Independence and relive what Thomas Paine famously called, “the times that try men’s souls.”

The Ratzer Maps At The Brooklyn Historical Society

IMG_5425

Now in its final weeks at the Brooklyn Historical Society, the tiny second floor exhibition Unlocking Two Revolutionary War Maps: The Ratzer Maps at BHS showcases two incredibly important maps of the American War of Independence and the 1776 Battle of Long Island in particular. Alternately known as the Battle of New York and the now-popular Battle of Brooklyn, the Battle of Long Island was the first of the new nation after announcing its independence on July 4, 1776 and the largest of the entire war. For anyone with an interest in the American Revolution or 18th-century New York history, these maps unlock a close-up view of the ground fought over between the British Empire and the upstart Colonials nearly 240 years ago.

IMG_5426The “Percy Map” used during the Battle of Brooklyn in 1776 (left) and the restored 1770 “Ratzer Map” (right) at the Brooklyn Historical Society

Drawn by British cartographer Bernard Ratzer in 1766-1767, the Ratzer Map is one of the seminal documents of early New York. The BHS copy of the full 1770 edition of the Ratzer Map is only one of four in known existence and showcases an early snapshot of Manhattan and nearby Brooklyn in their early days where farms and rural roads still dominated the landscape. The smaller map on display, showing only the lower portion of the Ratzer Map, was carried by British General Hugh Percy during the Battle of Long Island in August 1776. The Percy Map is now co-owned by the BHS and nearby Green-Wood Cemetery, the high ground for much of the battle, and was first put on public view in the summer on 2014 at the cemetery. The current exhibit of these maps at the BHS after a restoration of the full Ratzer map in 2011 is a wonder of 18th-century map making and 21st-century preservation.

schecterbfnyBarnet Schecter’s classic “The Battle For New York” from 2002

The exhibit features text from BHS President Deborah Schwartz and historian Barnet Schecter whose compellingly-detailed The Battle For New York: The City At the Heart Of The American Revolution has become the standard narrative of the battle. Additionally, the BHS has produced a free educational resource entitled Exploring Pre-Revolutionary New York: The Ratzer Map which digs into much of the historical detail found in the map including panoramic views of the shoreline and major landmarks of the era.

History can feel so large and abstract, buried in long ago events which are difficult to square with the present day. The Ratzer Maps at the BHS bring history remarkably into the present and allow a modern viewer to trace pivotal events along lines carefully set down on paper and battlefields more than two centuries ago.

Touching History at the Military History Society of Rochester

mhsrlogo

I have logged many, many hours over the years visiting battlefields, historical homes, living heritage sites, reenactments, roadside markers and all sorts of art, history and military museums. Near the top of these experiences was a full day I spent at the Imperial War Museum a few years back while working in London for over a month. With over two million visitors a year and some 11 millions artifacts, the IWM is hard to beat for immersing yourself in the history of warfare.

This past week I had a very different, yet truly remarkable experience in my first visit to the Military History Society of Rochester. Located up a flight of stairs in a warehouse inhabited by various artist galleries and studios, the MHSR occupies roughly 2000 square feet of space packed with all manner of historical artifacts focused on telling the story of the US military through the local lens of Rochester, NY.

IMG_4891

A timeline of US long arms from the American War of Independence through the Korean War at the MHSR

Founded several years ago by Chuck Baylis as the American Civil War Artillery Association, the group’s mission has since grown beyond his original collection of Civil War artifacts to encompass American wars from the Revolution to the present. The first room still focuses on the Civil War including detailed displays on artillery, uniforms and the 140th New York Volunteer Regiment formed in Rochester in 1862. A timeline of American long arms from the American War of Independence through the Korean War covers an entire wall.

IMG_4890

A timeline of military uniforms from the American War of Independence through the present at the MHSR

In the rear space of the museum, the focus swings to 20th-century with displays on World War I, World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam and present day wars. Uniforms, guns, swords, equipment hang from the walls, rest on shelves and lay slung over mannequins. Scale model airplanes hang from the ceiling, model vehicles rest on the floors and cases and a D-Day diorama sits nearby. Throughout the museum are some 2000 books as well as countless other letters, maps, photos, schematics, deck plans, prints, posters and other ephemera for perusal or research.

IMG_4887

 A US .50 caliber machine gun at the MHSR

Baylis has been joined by a number of passionate volunteers who can be found at the museum during its operating hours on Thursdays, Fridays and some Saturdays. Civil War reenactor, historian and wargamer Mike Vasile (co-author of the excellent Arena Games: Gladiatorial Combat rules) is responsible for many of the scale dioramas throughout the museum. Scale ship modeller Timothy Igoe of Historia Militaris Shipways has contributed several naval models to the collection and is currently undertaking a build of the USS Rochester (CA-2) for the museum. Retired Social Studies teacher Orton Begner rounds out the group with a deep knowledge of every object on hand.

IMG_4889

A US M1919 Browning machine gun at the MHSR

The one-to-one interaction with the MHSR’s members and the collection is what sets the museum apart from any other I’ve every visited. Everything has been well labeled, organized and put on display but hardly anything in the museum sits behind glass. Care to hold the various types of artillery rounds used in the Civil War? Want to feel the heft of a WWII era Thompson submachine gun or M-1 rifle? Would you like to take a look inside a pack carried by an American GI on D-Day? Want to lie down with a German MG-42? Ever wanted to hold a Japanese officer’s sword or 1913 “Patton Saber”? Just about everything in the museum, with the proper care, respect and assistance from one of the staff, can be touched, offering an incredibly rare opportunity to physically connect with past.

IMG_4888

 A German MG-42 and StG 44 at the MHSR

The mission to bring history alive beyond the walls of the museum also occurs with the exhibits members of the group bring to school groups and veteran events in the Rochester area. With its focus on celebrating the men and women of Western New York’s service in every branch of the military past and present, the museum is serving a unique and human mission of connecting today’s generations to a long tradition military service.

IMG_4892

My son gets some hands-on time with a Thompson submachine gun at the MHSR

In all my years of interest in history and military heritage, I have yet to find a museum as alive as the experience found at the Military History Society of Rochester. As a wargamer, the opportunity to see and handle so many objects up close is unparalleled. My time spent at the museum on my first visit was brief, but meeting the guys and seeing the collection at the museum will definitely bring me back my next time in Rochester.

Interview with Chuck Baylis of the MHSR

The Military History Society of Rochester is located in the Anderson Arts Building at 250 North Goodman Street on the second floor. Admission is free.

Battle of Brooklyn Commemoration at Green-Wood Cemetery

bobengraving

Buried and hidden amid the 21st-century streets and neighborhoods of New York City is an enormous trove of history of the nation’s formative years and the battles waged here during the American War of Independence.

I live on a former battleground where British and American troops fought the first and largest battle of the Revolution, the Battle of Brooklyn. Here in late August of 1776, just weeks after the Declaration of Independence was signed, some 35,000 British troops landed to face 10,000 Americans seeking to defend their new country. The series of engagements became a running retreat for General George Washington to the edge of Long island, over the East River, north through Manhattan and then on to safety in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

At historic Green-Wood Cemetery near my home, the Battle of Brooklyn’s 238th anniversary was commemorated this past weekend with reenactors, period weapons demonstrations, military music, a parade featuring more than eighty regimental flags and speeches by various local dignitaries. Also on display was the “Percy Map,” a contemporary map of the American positions during the battle made by British General Hugh Earl Percy. The map was recently acquired through a joint partnership between Green-Wood and the Brooklyn Historic Society and will be on display again beginning this week at the society’s exhibit “Unlocking Two Revolutionary War Era Maps.”

schecterbfny

Various local dignitaries such as Borough President Eric Adams and historian Barnet Schecter spoke during the official ceremonies held near the monument to the Battle of Brooklyn at Battle Hill in the cemetery this weekend. Schecter’s seminal 2002 book, The Battle For New York: The City At The Heart Of The American Revolution, places New York at the center of the War of Independence and grandly documents the events leading up to the Battle of Long Island and its aftermath. Using extensive primary written sources from the period, Schecter shows how the British obsession with maintaining control of New York drained precious resources from other fronts in the war and strengthened the newly-born nation’s resistance to their former English rulers. Schecter’s book documents that British General William Howe’s failure to follow-up his victories  during the August and September 1776 campaign allowed Washington’s army to retrench and prolong the war another seven years until eventual American victory.

Schecter’s book is a must-read for those of us interested in the story which unfolded here in the early days of the new American republic’s fight against overwhelming odds with the world’s most dominant military power at the time. Like the hundreds of other people in attendance at Green-Wood Cemetery, experiencing the place where the United States fought its first formative battle brought this history alive again on a sunny afternoon in Brooklyn, New York.

IMG_4128A Revolutionary War era encampment stood near the entrance to Green-Wood Cemetary

IMG_4126A variety of reenactors spoke to attendees about the soldier’s experience during the American War of Independence

IMG_4127Firing demonstrations of artillery pieces and mounted British officer reenactors helped bring the Revolutionary War period to life

IMG_4130Reenactors portraying General George Washington and his staff were present

IMG_4129The United States Marine Academy Regimental Band provided musical accompaniment for the ceremonies

IMG_4131Reenactors were recognized for their depiction of African-American contributions to the War of Independence