BLOG +plus+


February 6,  2006

 Some 225 years ago, Delawareans welcomed with proverbial open arms a veritable horde of soldiers -- American, French and a miscellaneous assortment of other European varieties. Little wonder that. The troops were on their way to a place called Yorktown on a peninsula in eastern Virginia to settle once and for all whether these 13 colonies were and by right ought to be free and independent of the British crown.

Well, that too.

At the ends of those open arms were fingers longing to grasp the coin the Europeans among them carried -- pieces of eight and Spanish milled dollars, real hard currency for the purveyors of food, fodder, tools and the various and sundry things and services that an army on the march needs. For most, it had been for six or more lean years that they had to subsist on paper which was not worth a Continental.

Come September next there will be a commemoration of that long-ago march which, its organizers hope and expect, will signal the beginning of an extended period during which dollars -- plastic and paper worth considerably more than a Continental -- will flow into Delaware coffers.

The observance this autumn will mark the victorious end of the Revolutionary War. Contrary to what we may have learned in school, Yorktown wasn't actually the end of the war for independence, but it was its culmination and its last major battle. The surrender of General Charles Cornwallis's Red Coats induced the war-weary Brits to agree to talk and that led to an independence-recognizing treaty two years later.

What will be observed prior to the anniversary of the battle -- the weekend of Sept. 28 through Oct. 1 in Delaware -- will be the march along the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route. Between Sept. 4 and 9 in the year 1781 more soldiers passed through northern Delaware than the 50,000 people who lived in the state at the time. They marched from Claymont through Wilmington, Newport and Christiana to the Maryland border along the Baltimore -- now Old Baltimore -- Road.

Commemorating the event 225 years and three weeks after the fact is part of the coordination that goes with a nine-state event. The largely volunteer effort is known by the 21st Century catchname, W-3-R.

Kim Burdick, president of the Delaware W-3-R organization and national executive co-chairman of the whole thing, said what promises to be the biggest single historical observance since the Bicentennial a quarter century ago is intended to enkindle the patriotic spirit and acquaint folks with aspects of their heritage about which they were, at best, only vaguely aware and, for the most part, ignorant.

Planning is nearly complete for a series of lectures, re-enactments, open houses and such during the commemorative weekend. Burdick pointed out that some of the structures that were around then are still here.

A peripheral, but not insignificant, benefit, she said will be a continuous flow of tourists -- and, to be sure, tourist dollars -- along what the National Park Service is expected to commission a National Historic Trail between Boston and Yorktown. The route through Delaware happens to coincide with the planned Maine-to-Florida East Coast Greenway and that it is hoped, will augment historical interest with ecological, biking and hiking interest.

What until now has been pretty much glossed over in history class is the fact that we Americans literally couldn't have kicked British tail at Yorktown were it not for French allies. Specifically, it could not have been accomplished

Go to fullsize image

absent the services of the expeditionary force commanded by Lieutenant General Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, le Comte de Rochambeau. A professional soldier, the count placed himself and his troops under the command of General George Washington, whom, strictly speaking, he could have claimed to outrank. A French fleet commanded by Admiral Admiral François de Grasse took care of a British fleet at the Battle of the Capes, preventing them from relieving the surrounded Cornwallis.

comte de Rochambeau



Another little-known fact is that the American forces included a significant number of free blacks. Remembering their roles and contributions will be a feature of the Delaware commemoration, Burdick said.

Still to come after the battle was a further French connection. A unit in Rochambeau's force, Lauzun's Legion, a regiment commanded by Colonel Armand-Louis de Gontaut, the Duc de Lauzun, wintered in Wilmington. The enlisted men were put up in Delaware Academy on the site of what is now the Grand Opera House. Officers were quartered in local homes.

Most of those soldiers sailed home in 1783, but some remained to form the nucleus of a French-American component of the state's population. Most renowned was Eugene Phillippe Cappelle, a military surgeon who became one of the founders of the Academy of Medicine and who now rests in Old Swedes Cemetery.

The commemoration next autumn will "provide a fresh look at our history," Burdick said. Although only a minor Revolutionary battle was fought on Delaware soil -- a skirmish at Cooch's Bridge -- Delaware played a prominent part in the war.  "We're the 'first state' for a reason," she said.

 Hawkeye, Hot Lips, Radar and Colonel Blake have long since passed on. And now they're being followed by M*A*S*H itself. The U.S. Army will donate the last Mobile Army Surgical Hospital to Pakistan, where the unit has been caring for survivors of last year's massive earthquake.

Mash units have been replaced by smaller casualty surgical hospitals that sit closer to battlegrounds and the wounded, according to an Associated Press article. Doctors in the new units make quick decisions in the field and stabilize patients before flying them to bigger hospitals.

While the last real one will live on, at least for a while, in Pakistan, the fictional Korean War-era 4077th will no doubt survive forever in reruns. After all, there were more episodes in the television series than there were days in the war. And the reruns somehow manage never to loose their freshness.

 Did you catch the atrocious rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner at the start of the Super Bowl? It was the worst of what has become a tradition of bad presentations at sports events. They should be outlawed. No one honors America by mutilating the anthem.

 By the end of summer, a venerable Delaware Valley institution will pass into history. Federated Department Stores is shutting down the Strawbridge & Clothier chain and consolidating its outlets with the Macy's chain. In shopping centers like Christiana Mall, where both stores exist, the Macy's will survive. Elsewhere, Strawbridge will use the Macy's name.

Strawbrige & Clothier began as a dry goods store founded in 1862 by Quakers Justus Clayton Strawbridge and Isaac Hallowell Clothier. Six years later, the business was located in a three-story brick building on the northeast corner of Market and 8th Streets in downtown Philadelphia which had been Thomas Jefferson's office while he served as Secretary of State. The old building was soon replaced by a five-story department store offering a variety of fixed price merchandise under one roof. The present building was built in 1928.

Strawbridge joins John Wanamaker, Gimbel Brothers, Lit Brothers and the rest as memories from a time when visiting department stores was both an adventure and a pleasure.

 Those of us who routinely toss out white envelopes which come bulk mail have to be careful. One may contain a government check. The light-brown variety carrying Social Security, tax refunds and the like are being phased out in the name of making it easier for letter-sorting machines to read bar codes.

© 2006. All rights reserved.

Click here to express your opinion

Access previous commentaries

Return to Delaforum cover

What is your opinion about the topic of this article?
Click here to express your views.