Marking Lower Manhattan History: Saratoga, Yorktown Commemorations

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Trinity Church CemeteryThis year on Sunday October 15, 2017at 2:30 pm in Trinity Churchyard, the Lower Manhattan Historical Association (LMHA) with other groups will celebrate the Fourth Annual Commemoration of the American victories at the Battles of Saratoga (October 17, 1777) and Yorktown (October 19, 1781).

Whereas the Battle of Bunker Hill has been celebrated with a parade in Boston since 1786, New York perhaps because of its status as a City of immigrants has been somewhat slower in recognizing its very rich Revolutionary War history. Thus it is perhaps not completely surprising that it is 225 years behind Boston in commemorating these two most important battles in the Revolutionary War which are directly connected with sites in Lower Manhattan.

This year’s celebration comes at a time when the nature of historical monuments and celebrations are to a greater extent than ever being brought into questions. New York City’s Mayor Bill DiBlasio has recently appointed an 18 person committee to review Public monuments in the City to review “symbols of hate” on City property. Initially the Mayor suggested as a candidate for removal the marker on Lower Broadway to Marechal Henri Petain, the French World War I hero who in World War II headed the Vichy government that collaborated in the Nazi removal of French Jews to the concentration camps. More recently, however it has been suggested by various groups that the list of candidates for removal be expanded to include monuments to Peter Stuyvesant (for his notorious anti-Semitic views); Christopher Columbus (for his alleged abuse of Native Americans) and Thomas Jefferson (a prominent slaveholder). While the exact role of this Mayor advisory Committee is at this point unclear, it was apparently created in response to questions raised elsewhere about monuments to Southern slaveholders , such as that in Charlottesville to Robert E. Lee.

A significant problem independent of inappropriate monuments is that there are many very important individuals and events of which most New Yorkers are completely ignorant to which there are no monuments or plaques.

The Saratoga/Yorktown ceremony in Trinity Churchyard which is now in its fifth year is designed to some extent to deal with this issue. Basically, the ceremony consists of having various patriotic groups lay wreaths on the graves of three critically important American Revolutionary War generals buried in Trinity Churchyard, and a ceremony last year attended by the French consul general honoring the tremendous French participation in the American Revolution. The three revolutionary generals are General Horatio Gates, Alexander Hamilton, and Marinus Willett. The wreath on the outsized tomb of Alexander Hamilton at the south end of the Churchyard is lain by a representative of the Alexander Hamilton Awareness Society (usually Nolan Asch) in recognition of Hamilton’s critical role (although technically only a Colonel) at the climactic battle of Yorktown in 1781 where George Washington placed him in charge of the American assault on Redoubt No. 10. This attack led to the surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown and the end of the military portion of the American Revolution. As a result of Lin Miranda’s musical and Ron Chernow’s biography, Hamilton and his achievements are well known to most New Yorkers and Americans.

General Horatio Gates and Col. Marinus Willett are somewhat less well known, and particularly the story of General Gates indicates the uncertainties that can arise in connection with historical markers. General Gates was the general in command of the American troops at the Battle of Saratoga, the clear turning point of the Revolutionary War. A passed over British supply officer, Gates was placed in command of the American troops in the Northern sector by the Continental Congress in August 1777 at a time when defeat seemed highly likely and the American cause seemed almost hopeless. Two months later, on October 17, 1777 the entire 10,000 man British army under Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne surrendered to Gates in one of the most stunning American military victories in American history. Notwithstanding these undisputed facts, there has for more than 200 years been controversy over whether Gates, or subordinate officers such as Benedict Arnold were really responsible for the victory at Saratoga. After the victory Washington sent his young aide Alexander Hamilton to negotiate for with Gates for the troops under his command. Furthermore, there was some discussion in 1778 among the representatives in Congress (particularly from Massachussetts) in the wake of Gates victory about replacing Washington as commander in chief of the entire army with Gates. Gates later in the War was appointed by Congress to command the American troops at the Battle of Camden in South Carolina where he was disastrously defeated and accused to cowardice. After the Revolutionary War he lived in Virginia, somewhat in disgrace, but in 1790 he and his second wife moved up to New York, where he became active in veterans affairs. He became a political opponent of Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Party, and in the critical elections of 1800 he ran at the request of Aaron Burr and the Tammany Society for the New York State Assembly on the anti-Federalist pro Jefferson ticket. His success in this effort led to the election of Thomas Jefferson and the rise of the Democratic party and the Tammany society that would largely control New York City politics for the next 150 years.

Although General Gates, according to his two or three biographers, was clearly buried in Trinity Churchyard when he died in 1806, his gravestone was apparently lost sometime in the 19th century and thus we don’t know exactly where it is. He was largely forgotten for more than 150 years after his death (perhaps because of the avalanche of Washington biographers who regularly denigrated his role). Five years ago, Charlotte Van Horne, Squarcy, then a member of a New York City Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution (“DAR”) took an all night walking tour sponsored by the Fraunces

Tavern Museum and alerted Denise Van Buren, then the New York State Regent of the DAR about General Gates’ unmarked grave. Ms. Van Buren contacted Trinity Church and made having the DAR sponsor a marker to General Gates one of her Regents projects. With the strong support of the Trinity Church management, on October 21, 2012, more than 150 members of the DAR and others attended a ceremony for the dedication of the marker in Trinity Churchyard.

The marking of General Gates grave in 2012 had significant importance. It served as a catalyst for the subsequent Saratoga/Yorktown celebrations, and in part for the formation of the Lower Manhattan historical Association, which has since sponsored three July 4 parades in Lower Manhattan and other activities such as the revival of Evacuation Day at Bowling Green. Although marking the unmarked grave of the most important Revolutionary War general buried in New York State is something one might have expected some branch of the City government or other more established historical organizations in the City to have undertaken, the fact is that they did not, leaving the effort to the DAR. Representatives of the DAR and the Sons of the American Revolution now annually lay the wreath on his marker as part of the Saratoga/Yorktown ceremony.

Another example of such an underappreciated important figure in New York City’s history is Marinus Willett, the third general on whose grave a wreath will be laid at the Saratoga/Yorktown ceremony. Marinus Willett was a New York cabinet maker who was an active member of the Sons of Liberty and first came to public prominence on June 5, 1775 when at 60 Broad Street he jumped in front of a convoy of British troops to protest their bringing heavy arms to the British in Boston in preparation for the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Willett later served during the Revolutionary War as an important commander in the Mohawk Valley. He is credited as second in command to Peter Gansevoort with the successful defense of Fort Stanwix, which prevented the British from attacking from behind General Gates at Saratoga. After the War he returned to New York City where he served as the City’s Sheriff, and was an active anti-Federalist, member of the Tammany Society, and founder of the New York City democratic party. In 1790, at George Washington’s request, he visited the Creek Indians in Georgia, and convinced 27 Creek Indian chiefs to come up to New York, where after partying with the Tammany Society, they signed the Treaty of New York, settling the Creek War with the United States. This was a huge diplomatic success for the new United States, which established the rights of American citizens to settle in what is today Georgia and Alabama. Willett thereafter was actively involved with the Democratic party and the Tammany Society (he was reportedly an observer at the Burr/Hamilton duel in 1804) and was appointed Mayor of New York in 1807. In 1814 at the age of 74 he gave a stirring speech on the steps of City Hall rallying the New York militias to defend the City against a threatened British attack during the War of 1812. He died at the age of 91, and was buried in Trinity Churchyard (his grave has always been marked on the Southeast side of the Churchyard). It is said that his funeral in 1831 was one of the largest in the City’s history with more than 10,000 people attending and it was said that he would never be forgotten. Although he is somewhat better known and recognized upstate ( visitors to the Fort Stanwix National Park facility in Rome New York are greeted at the Marinus Willett Visitors Center) Very few people in New York City, where he spent the overwhelming majority of his career, know who he is. At the Saratoga/Yorktown ceremony, the wreath layer from the National Democratic Club, after recounting this history and stating that it was said at his funeral in 1831 he would never be forgotten, usually asks “how many of you have ever heard of him before today?”

There are many historical plaques and monuments in Lower Manhattan, which have been placed by various organizations. The Sons of the Revolution of the State of New York, owners of Fraunces Tavern, and whose President Ambrose Richardson is the Vice President of the LMHA and the Master of Ceremonies of the Saratoga Yorktown Celebration, has placed more than 20 such plaques in the past 125 years. One such plaque at 60 Broad Street honors Marinus Willett at the spot where he began his public career by jumping in front of the British Convoy going to Boston.

However, there remains no shortage of important events or individuals (such as General Gates prior to 2012) that have yet to be recognized. Our organization the LMHA was instrumental last year in having the North part of Bowling Green named Evacuation Day Plaza in honor of Evacuation Day, the day on August 25, 1783, when George Washington returned to New York City and the American Revolution was officially over. (See the Fight to Revive Evacuation Day, NY History Blog, Nov. 15, 2016 [check date John}).

Four such candidates for historical plaques or monuments in Manhattan are the following:

(1) The Icon parking garage at 29 South William Street next to Millenium High school, which was the site of the first synagogue erected in North America. At the time it was opened in 1730 by Congregation Shearith Israel, this Mill Street synagogue was financially supported by Jewish congregations throughout the world, and its opening was a source of pride to Jews throughout America. It is undoubtedly one of the most important sites in American Jewish History. No plaque marks its existence in a City with more than 2 million Jewish residents

(2) 46th Street Between 9th and 10th Hell’s Kitchen. Frances Perkins. It was here at Hartley House that a young social worker named Frances Perkins met Tammany District leader Thomas J. McManus, which started her career with the Tammany Hall organization and ultimately the key Labor adviser to Governor Al Smith, and later Franklin Roosevelt. When Roosevelt was elected President in 1932, he appointed her Federal Secretary of Labor, a position she held for all four terms of the Roosevelt administration. In this capacity, she designed most of the New Deal Social welfare programs, such as Social Security, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the WPA. and CCC. She was probably the most important female governmental official of the 20 th century. There is currently no significant plaque or monument in New York City to Frances Perkins although the National Democratic Club and the McManus midtown democrats recently applied to Community Board 4 to have the street next to Hartley House named for her.

(3) 120 West 138th Street in Harlem. Marcus Garvey’s Liberty Hall. Now a nondescript apartment building, it was on this site that in 1920 Marcus Garvey unfurled the red, green and black flag of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (“UNIA”) that would ultimately become the symbol of African independence. Garvey urged members of the UNIA to seek to liberate Africa from white colonial domination and to have black Africans control their destiny. Although considered ridiculously visionary at the time and prior to Garvey’s death in 1940, in the late 1950’a and 60’s Garvey disciples such as Kwame Nkrumah and Jomo Kenyatta would recognize and realize his vision, so that 70 years later white colonial domination of Africa was a thing of the past. Very few residents or other New Yorkers know that African independence began on this site.

(4) 135th Street and 7th Avenue in Harlem. St. Phillip’s Episcopal’s Million Dollar Houses. The purchase of these row houses in 1911 by realtor John B, Nail on behalf ot St. Phillips’ Church broke the back of the attempts by the Harlem Protective Owners society and other white realtor groups to keep Blacks out of Harlem. It paved the way for Harlem to become the leading Black community in the country. No plaque or other monument commemorates this fact or the efforts of Phillip Payton and his Afro American Realty Company in alliance with certain Jewish realtors to bring blacks to Settle in Harlem.

Perhaps rather than worrying about whether the existing monuments to such important historical figures in New York’s history such as Columbus, Peter Stuyvesant or Thomas Jefferson are worth retaining, the City should be examining whether there are historical figures or events that are not receiving the recognition that they should that the City should support.

In this regard I invite all New Yorkers and others to join our celebration of the American victories at the Battles of Saratoga and Yorktown at Trinity Churchyard on October 15. Hopefully they will find it enlightening.

Photo: Trinity Church Cemetery, courtesy Wikimedia user Gryffindor.

This entry was posted in Historic Preservation, History and tagged , on by .
James S. Kaplan

About James S. Kaplan

James S. Kaplan is a lawyer, writer and walking tour historian who is the President and one of the founders of the Lower Manhattan Historical Association. The Association annually celebrates July 4 Weekend with a parade through Lower Manhattan and the Alexander Hamilton Immigrant Achievement Awards ceremony recognizing contributions to New York City by prominent individuals born outside the United States. It also is responsible for naming Evacuation Day Plaza at Bowling Green and efforts to revive the ancient New York City holiday of Evacuation Day and for the Saratoga/Yorktown celebration in Trinity Churchyard annually held in October. Mr. Kaplan is also the founding partner of Greenberg & Kaplan, where his a practicing Tax, Estate and Guardianship lawyer.

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