If you haven’t done it yet, you need to go to Washington, D.C. and look up the Declaration of Independence. There, among the signatures, you’ll find the name of a 17-mile long road on Long Island. Seriously, it’s right there, along with the names of John Hancock, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. The name is William Floyd.
You need to know the man, William Floyd, especially if you live on Long Island. To understand why, come back with me to the Long Island of 1776, just weeks before the signing of the Declaration of Independence
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It’s May of 1776, and you’re a Mattituck fisherman. As you row out to the middle of the Sound, you see a convoy of British tall ships carrying more than 3,000 British soldiers from Boston to New York. If they catch you, you’ll be impressed into the British navy, so you row as fast as you can back to shore.
By June, you’ve transferred your fishing business to East Hampton and the south shore, only to encounter the same problem. Over several weeks, the British send several convoys of war ships, troop transport ships, frigates and supply boats from Halifax, Nova Scotia, past Montauk, and into New York Harbor.
By mid-July, only weeks after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, there are more than 400 British ships and boats in New York Harbor. From Montauk to Brooklyn, Long Islanders go about their business while the largest armada ever assembled in the Western world passes by just miles from their beaches. By comparison, the Spanish Armada, which was supposed to conquer all of England, had only 130 ships. The Battle at Trafalgar, 29 years later, involved only 70 ships. Not until the D-Day Invasion, nearly 170 years later, would the world see a larger invasion force.
As far as the British are concerned, it’s the beginning of the end of the war for New York City and Long Island. In August, with more than 34,000 men, the British initiate the largest battle of the Revolutionary War. British troops vastly outnumber Washington’s militia of 12,000 men, and they outmaneuver the Americans as well. The British do everything they need to do to ensure that the Battle of Long Island is over before it starts.
Where are you while this is happening? As an able-bodied man, you are required to serve in the East Hampton colonial militia. Washington has ordered your troop to stand by, in case he needs reinforcements. Your troop and other militia groups from Montauk and Southampton soon get a message to march as quickly as you can to Brooklyn, but by the time you get to Riverhead, you get word that the battle is over, that Washington is retreating to upper Manhattan. You can’t go back home because you know that the British soldiers are already on their way to arrest you. So, you and hundreds of other men make your way to the nearest beaches to find boats that will take you to Connecticut, where the Patriots are in control.
You settle in the port town of New Haven. During the next several weeks, as word of the abuse the patriots suffer at the hands of the British and Hessian soldiers spreads, you watch as thousands of Long Island men, women, and children find whatever means they can to cross the Sound to Connecticut. By the end of October, a third of the population of Suffolk County has left their homes in a mass evacuation that has been called Long Island’s Dunkirk.
William Floyd’s wife, Hannah, and her three children are among the evacuees. William is a wealthy Long Island landowner, a leader in his community, and a former militia captain, making him a natural to have been selected to represent New York at the Continental Congress. It’s up to him and the other Founding Fathers to declare our independence from England and then to guide our infant country through the war that follows. Unfortunately, that means that Floyd stays in Philadelphia, dealing with the flood of activities resulting from the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Hannah knows that Floyd’s home and family will be a target for the invading British, so taking with them whatever they can carry, Hannah and her children dash across Long Island to the north shore, cross the Sound in an open boat, and settle in Middletown, Connecticut.
It’s not until weeks later that Floyd leaves Philadelphia for Middletown, with no chance to see what’s happened to his property. The British soldiers have taken over his house in Mastic, and are using it as a barracks and stable. Floyd was well known and highly regarded on Long Island and, even in New Haven, you hear about his difficulties. With no money and with nothing to sell, Floyd resorts to asking friends and the Continental Congress for handouts to support his family. Then, in 1781, his beloved Hannah dies at the age of 41.
When Floyd returns to Mastic in 1783, his house has been wrecked, the trees on his property have been cut down, and his farm has been destroyed. William Floyd remarries, moves to upstate New York, and continues to serve his country in other capacities, but nothing can compensate him for his losses during the War.
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Now, return with me to the present, to our comfortable life in the Hamptons. We are celebrating our nation’s birthday and the blessings of being its citizens. Let’s have a party, make a lot of noise, and show the world how proud we are to be Americans. And, someplace in our celebration, let’s remember that we owe at least a portion of our good fortune to the sacrifice of a man whose name graces a not-so-famous road and a very important piece of paper.
AND OTHER FAMOUS THINGS NOBODY SAID DURING AMERICA’S WAR FOR INDEPENDENCE
You remember them…those famous quotations that immortalized the heroes of the American Revolution. Who can forget Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death,” or John Paul Jones’ “I have not yet begun to fight?” “Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes” will always be associated with the heroes of Bunker Hill. And we all know that the Big Guy himself, George Washington, said, “I can’t tell a lie.” Right?
Uh, actually, probably not.
Granted, our first President had a reputation among many of his fellow founding brothers for his honesty. We even know that a 15-year-old George wrote “Be not apt to relate news if you know not the truth thereof.” But frankly, there’s no record of his ever having said, “I can’t tell a lie,” at least not until 1808, years after Washington’s death, when Mason Locke Weems wrote his bestseller, The Life of Washington. That’s where we first hear the story of George and that unlucky cherry tree. Weems’ source? An unnamed “excellent lady” who told Weems an anecdote that was “too true to be doubted.” No doubt, she also sold Weems a bridge in Brooklyn.
How about, “Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes?” Weems again. This time, Weems was writing about the Battle of Bunker Hill, which wasn’t really fought on Bunker Hill (it’s okay to say “I’m so confused”). Another British historian tells us that the “whites of the eyes” order was given by a Prussian general 30 years earlier in a different battle, in a different war, and on a different continent. True, the initial success of the Patriots at Breed’s Hill can be credited to the fact that they were able to get off a devastating volley of musket fire at “whites of eyes” range against the British regulars, but that’s only because our boys had time to reload after shooting off their first volley prematurely.
“Give me liberty or give me death?” Patrick Henry may have said this phrase in his 1775 speech, but we have no contemporary record of it. In fact, Henry’s speech wasn’t “reconstructed” until 33 years after the speech was delivered. As his source, the author used the recollections of several of the delegates who were present. But Henry was famous for giving blustery speeches in which, according to Thomas Jefferson, one might get the meaning without remembering the words. Perhaps the listeners remember the words from a popular play, Cato, A Tragedy, from 1712, in which the hero says, “It is not now time to talk of aught/But chains or conquest, liberty or death.”
And does Cato’s regret that he “can die but once for my country” sound suspiciously like Nathan Hale’s regret that he has “only one life to give for my country?” Hale was caught in an ill-conceived attempt to spy on the British after the Battle of Long Island. No American was present at Hale’s execution, and what Hale said wasn’t recorded. Instead, we have the statement of a British officer who was present and told an American officer that Hale had died honorably. The American officer was William Hull, Hale’s college buddy and a fellow member of Yale’s literary club, which (coincidentally?) studied Cato.
Then, there’s John Paul Jones. Jones had been involved in a bloody sea battle with a British ship off the coast of England. Nearly half the men on both ships had been killed or wounded, and Jones’ ship was literally sinking out from under him. But when asked whether he was ready to surrender, John Paul Jones is supposed to have replied, “I have not yet begun to fight!” and went on to win the battle.
So, what did Jones really say? According to eye-witness accounts, the noise of the cannon firing and of the men dying around him was so loud that no one, even the people standing nearest to Jones, could hear what he said. One of Jones’ officers started waving a flag of surrender, at which point Jones tried to shoot the poor man and, when his gun misfired, Jones threw the gun at the offending officer and knocked him out. Years later, a veteran of the battle is quoted as recalling that Jones told the British captain that he hadn’t even started fighting. But in a report that Jones himself wrote just weeks after the battle, Jones quotes what he said when he was asked to surrender, without ever mentioning the words that have come down to us through more than 230 years of history.
So, what can we get from this? Well, disappointingly, we learn that famous people didn’t always say those famous things that we thought they said. More important, however, we learn from looking at the facts that these misquoted heroes turn out to be bigger and better than we thought they were. Patrick Henry was actually risking his life when he gave his “liberty or death” speech; in fact, the entire group he was speaking to was meeting in hiding because they knew that if they were caught, they would be hung as traitors. Tragically, whether they saw the whites of their enemies’ eyes or not, many of the young volunteers who fought on Breed’s Hill died that day at the hands of their enemy, or died later in British prisons. John Paul Jones persevered and won a battle he should have lost, inspiring a nation and generations of American sailors to come. And Nathan Hale, at 21, really did give the only life he had for his country.
So, maybe George never said, “I can’t tell a lie.” Who cares? The truth behind the words is what matters.
YANKEE DOODLE’S MACARONI TUNES OUR FOUNDING FATHER’S HUMMED
Who hasn’t wondered what the words to the song, “Yankee Doodle,” mean? No matter, I’m going to tell you anyway.
“Yankee Doodle” was the American Patriot’s go-to song. They sang it marching into battle, in battle and marching home from battle. It was upbeat and funny, so you could party to it. And it was loud and annoying, which made it great for humiliating defeated British soldiers.
No question, an all-American song.
But Yankee Doodle didn’t start out as “the” Patriot theme song; in fact, it was written by a British army surgeon in 1763 to make fun of the Americans. He thought that the American militia looked so ridiculous that he called them Yankee “fools,” or as the British would say, Yankee “doodles.”
“Going to town” meant pretty much then what it means now. “Just to ride a pony?” An American minuteman might ride a draught horse or a mule; riding a pony would be the equivalent of taking a Maserati for a spin. And if he stuck a feather in his cap, it was only because he was too ignorant to realize that he should have used “a plume.”
As for the “macaroni,” in the mid-1700s, a lot of English gentlemen went to the European capitals and came back trying to impress their friends with the fancy dress and foods they had discovered. They failed to impress anybody; instead, they made buffoons of themselves, wearing big white wigs, buying expensive ponies, and eating (you guessed it) macaroni.
But how did the song go from ridiculing “Yankee fools” to becoming the Patriots’ most popular rallying cry? That happened when the American bumpkins chased the British back to Boston after Lexington and Concord, and then did serious damage to the British at Bunker Hill. Our boys knew that they had turned the tables on the most powerful military force in the world, so they celebrated by turning the song on them, as well.
Prior to the War of Independence, colonial Americans’ taste in music pretty much mirrored the taste of the British who ruled them, with Handel and Pachelbel making their strongest showings among the wealthier colonists. At the 1770 performance of Handel’s Messiah in New York, the organizer was so worried about the crowds that he asked the men to leave their swords at home and the women not to wear hoops. Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” was performed in Colonial New York by none other than Pachelbel’s own son.
But American taste among the less wealthy tended toward popular folk tunes, like “Greensleeves” and the theme song of the Three Stooges (known in 1776 as “Three Blind Mice”). Both songs had been popular in England since the reign of the Tudors. “Greensleeves” might even have been written by Henry VIII, while “Three Blind Mice” was written about Henry’s daughter, Mary. During her reign, Queen Mary tried to convert England back to Catholicism by burning Protestants at the stake. Her beleaguered subjects started calling her “Bloody Mary” or, worse still, “The Farmer’s Wife.” Three Protestant vicars were so “blinded” by their faith that they thought they could storm London with an army and unseat the Queen. Of course, the Queen’s army defeated them outside London, and she “cut off their tails with a carving knife.” Actually, she burned them at the stake, but that didn’t fit as neatly into the nursery
Another popular tune of the late 1700s was “The Anacreontic Song,” or what today we would call the tune to the “Star Spangled Banner.” True, the words to the “Star Spangled Banner” were written on a British warship that was bombing the heck out of Baltimore in 1814, but the tune had been written in 1770 for the Anacreon Society, a London gentleman’s club. In short order, the tune became so popular in America that after the War for Independence it was adapted for a song in honor of John Adams, and later for a separate song in honor of Adams’ political nemesis, Thomas Jefferson. Then, when Francis Scott Key wrote his poem, his brother-in-law suggested that it would become a big hit if Key told everybody to sing his words to the tune of “The Anacreontic Song.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
Ed Cortez’s ship models of the American Revolution will be on display at the Remsenburg Academy July 5–21. Join the author for the Opening Reception on July 5, 5 p.m.–8 p.m. featuring a concert of patriotic music at
6:30 p.m. remsenbergassociation.com