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Unexpected Deaths and Historical Memory

How should we remember 9/11? I began to think about this more as the date for the opening of the 9/11 Museum neared. By coincidence, I was invited by City Wonders to take one of its tours and I chose the 9/11 Memorial Tour. This was just prior to the opening of the museum in May.

9/11 and that tour are responsible for the recent series of posts on remembering the dead. For me, it is important to understand 9/11 in context. That means not only the historical context in which the event occurred but the historical context in which we remember historical events. Our Thanksgivings, Christmases, and Passovers aren’t the same as our ancestors, nor is Memorial/Decoration Day. As a result, I began to write about different ways and circumstances in which we remember those who have died.

One post was directed towards leaders like our presidents. Whereas for example, ancient Egypt has its pyramids, Sphinx and Valley of the Kings, we have presidential libraries, presidential memorials, and Mount Rushmore which is in the news with the attempt to have the NPS recognize the work of chief carver Luigi Del Bianco of New York.

A second post addressed burial of the ordinary person. Over time, such burials migrated from under one’s house to church graveyards to the picturesque rural cemeteries such as one finds along the Hudson. I neglected to mention Potter’s Field, the burial sites for those who have no family, no money, or neither. For example, from City Island in the Bronx, one can gaze upon Hart Island, originally purchased by Thomas Pell in colonial times, used as a Civil War prison, and now home to a potter’s field with over 1,000,000 dead.

A third post touched upon those who have fallen in battle, especially away from home. The time from the Civil War to World War II was the tragic golden age for mass cemeteries of dead soldiers. Fields stretched forever with acres upon acres of neatly lined crosses to those who had died on the battlefield.

Since these wars were fought outside New York, our state does not have comparable battlefield cemeteries. Still wars were fought here. The current efforts to honor the Maryland and Delaware regiments who fought and died in Brooklyn during the American Revolution at the proposed Marylander Burial Site, and the Fishkill Supply Depot just identifying a soldier from New Hampshire who died there during the same war, attest that at the birth of this country people from other colonies died in our state. The fight to remember those who died so our country could be born continues as evident in this recent plea:

The archaeological examination conducted in Fishkill this past May reminds us of how the nation’s single largest Revolutionary War burial ground remains threatened by commercial development. As we celebrate our nation’s birthday, let’s pay homage to its first heroes by joining the fight against any further disturbance to the historic military base known as the Fishkill Supply Depot (FSD).

Remembered deaths aren’t always those of people who chose to put their lives in harms way or who have led a full life. Sometimes mass deaths of civilians occur. These are usually unexpected. For example, as recently recalled in a report by BBC news, on June 15, 1904 more than 1,000 people died due to a fire on the paddle steamer Slocum. The German immigrant community on the Lower East Side intended to enjoy the 17th annual picnic held by St. Mark’s Lutheran Church with a cruise up the East River to Long Island. The tragedy is commemorated with a still-working drinking fountain in Tompkins Square Park, once the center of Kleindeutschland, now known as Alphabet City. The German presence on the Lower East today is tiny and one wonders how many people know the story behind the fountain they drink from.

A more famous New York City tragedy is the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on March 25, 1911, where 146 people died. A similar and larger tragedy in Bangladesh serves as a reminder that the unsafe conditions faced by these workers have not vanished from the earth. In anticipation of the centennial in 2011, the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition was formed which includes dozens upon dozens of organizations. According to its mission statement, “it is spearheading the building of a public art memorial to honor the legacy of the Triangle factory workers.” This means there is no such memorial at present. The story of the death of these garment workers is sometimes told as part of the school curriculum. At present there is a memorial display of quilts of the Triangle Fire and Bangladesh incidents at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine near Columbia University.

Perhaps the single most famous of civilian tragedies occurred just a year later on April 15, 1912, with the sinking of the Titanic. The ship was sailing to New York on its maiden voyage. The passengers included New Yorkers some of whom survived and were buried here. Its story is well known with movies either about the Titanic directly or based on similar experiences and of course through the discovery of the ship itself in a remarkable achievement of underwater archaeology. It’s story lives on.

Tragedies also occur on a small scale. For example, on July 26, 2013, a night-time collision with a construction barge for the new Tappan Zee bridge left two people dead, a woman one month before her wedding and a man who was to be the best man at that wedding. The families of the deceased have launched a mission to build a lighthouse on the pier that would have the practical effect of guiding mariners while simultaneously serving as a tribute to the victims.

Finally, on a more historical note, consider this announcement from Johnson Hall State Historic Site involving not a tragedy, but a common way in which people who die in the line of duty are remembered.

Death and Diplomacy: The 240th Anniversary of Sir William Johnson’s Final Council, Death and Funeral” will be held on July 20 and 21. A re-enactment of the final July, 1774 diplomatic Indian Council, and the death of Sir William Johnson, is scheduled for Saturday the 20th, along with trade and blacksmithing demonstrations, an Open House and a lecture on “The Wampum Chronicle: A Rotinonhsoin:ni Cultural History” at 11am by Darren Bonaparte, Mohawk storyteller and author.

On Sunday the 21st, Sir William’s funeral procession from Johnson Hall to St. John’s Church will be re-enacted, as will the funeral service at the Church. Johnson Hall will be draped in period mourning for an Open House from 10am to 1pm and 3pm to 5pm. The Hall will remain draped in mourning through September 14.

I mention these examples as part of the preparatory work I did before engaging the issue of remembering 9/11. These front-page incidents both large scale and small have been remembered and forgotten in ways that are relevant to the remembering of 9/11, an event which included civilians who did not know that they were targets on a battlefield and first-responders who knew they were putting their lives on the line. Only now, a little over a decade later, is the remembering assuming physical form with the plaza and the museum. The examples of other tragedies provide here should serve as lessons for how we need to remember 9/11.

Photo: The General Slocum disaster memorial in Tompkins Square Park, once part of the Little Germany community. Photo by Wikimedia user Antigravityece.

6 thoughts on “Unexpected Deaths and Historical Memory

  1. Excellent Post. Peter.Memorials to the dead of all types are the essence of the past and a central part of history. One further site you might have mentioned is Trinity Churchyard in Lower Manhattan which I consider to be perhaps the most important historical site in New York State if not the country. Among the historical figures buried there are Alexander Hamilton, Robert Fulton, General Horatio Gates, Col. Marinus Willett, and Captain James Lawrence. Recently Trinity Church has been more open to permitting ceremonies commemorating important events with respect to which people buried there have been related. For example, on August 12, 2014 at 12 pm there will be a ceremony there honoring Albert Gallatin, Jefferson’s longserving secretary of the Treasury, who very few know is also buried there. There are also ceremonies honoring Hamilton, Gates and Willett on July 4, and in mid October around the anniversaries of the American victories at Saratoga and Yorktown.

    1. Thank you Jim. I will be writing more about Trinity Church where I saw you for the Alexander Hamilton Awareness Society memorial to Hamilton and my subsequent return to the 9/11 Memorial Plaza.

  2. I don’t think I would categorize 9/11 as a tragedy although, on an esoteric level, some may beg to differ. The combination of events collectively referred to as 9/11 were an attack on American symbols: the WTC, the Pentagon and, presumably, the White House. The victims included civilian and military personnel on the planes and in the WTC and Pentagon. Some died when they rose up to take back a high-jacked jet. Many law enforcement officers, fire fighters and other emergency personnel died after charging into the burning towers, the total loss unparalleled in history. Many more have died since as a result of illnesses caused by the rescue efforts at Ground Zero. In the darkest moments our greatest attributes have shone through, just as we’ve done before. 9/11 wasn’t a tragedy, it was a massacre. No matter how you slice it, it was a terrorist attack perpetrated by an organization that does not believe in equality of women, freedom of speech or religion. Their deaths were unexpected, but the events weren’t put in motion by a carelessly tossed cigarette, an iceberg or other chance occurrence. They were murdered in a calculated, planned manner. I just can’t put the two on the same level.

    1. You are absolutely right about in your description of Osama’s assault on humanity. It was a terrorist action intended to massacre people. I was trying to differentiate among the different people involved. For those who committed the action it was a deliberate act of terror; for those who were just going to work without any perception that they were about to become a target, I used the word the tragedy; for the responders who willingly put their lives on the line, I would use the word hero. I will be writing more about this subject when I describe my visits to the 9/11 Memorial Plaza. Thanks for writing.

  3. Both as a strategic diversion, and as part of an attempt to control the Chesapeake, British forces attacked and burned Washington, and, on 11th September 1814, were moving on Baltimore, where Francis Scott Key would write of seeing the “Star Spangled Banner” through the dawn’s early light after Fort McHenry survived a major bombardment and rocket attack. Similar operations were underway in the west near Lakes Erie and Ontario, and in raids along the Atlantic seaboard. But the main attack was focused on up-state New York and the Champlain Valley. Colonel David Fitz-Enz points out that there were no other regular US Army troops between the garrison at Plattsburg (which had been depleted to send troops to face the threat in the west) and Baltimore.

    The “Star Spangled Banner”
    1795 – 1818 — 15 Stars and 15 Stripes

    A major event both in the history of the United States of America, and in the European wars of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, was the simultaneous battles of Plattsburg and Lake Champlain. On the 11th of September 1814, outnumbered and outgunned American land and naval forces fought the invaders to a standstill. At the crucial point of the battle, the Commodore of the American naval forces on Lake Champlain, Thomas Macdonough, carried out a brilliant manoeuvre, rotating his ships using kedge anchors and spring lines to expose the enemy to fire from fresh batteries. This sudden fire superiority devastated the Royal Navy ships (winds, unanticipated by the English commander, but known to Macdonough, had placed them within range of the American carronades), resulting in their complete defeat. Macdonough’s conduct of the battle was a model of tactical preparation and execution. Having lost the naval component of their joint invasion plan, the British land forces withdrew to Canada, ending the threat to the Hudson and Champlain valleys, and the threat to partition the United States.

    The Duke of Wellington, involved in the planning, had determined that the English invasion force would not repeat “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne’s error of marching south without waterborne communications and logistical support. That expedition had come to a disastrous end, with the English defeat and surrender at Saratoga, 17th October 1777 – which convinced the French to enter the American War for Independence, as an ally, recognizing the United States as a sovereign country. This northern invasion of the United States was by a force of veterans, fresh from victory in Europe, approximately twice the size of the force which would be so decisively defeated and turned back by General Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans, 8th January 1815 (after the Treaty of Ghent, ending the war, had been signed, but before it had been ratified). David Curtis Skaggs (Naval History, Oct 2013) cites Samuel Eliot Morison as concurring with Alfred Thayer Mahan, Macdonough’s victory “merits the epithet ‘decisive’.”

    While the significance of this battle on Lake Champlain is often eclipsed by the spectacular defense of Fort McHenry and Baltimore, enhanced in the popular memory by the poetry of Francis Scott Key, which would later become the national anthem, the fact is that the enemy’s major effort was committed to the Champlain Valley campaign.

    The deciding battle of the war was on Lake Champlain on 11th September 1814 (“9/11”). This was the judgment of Winston Churchill in his A History of the English Speaking Peoples, who stated that the defeat at Plattsburg crippled the British advance and was the most decisive engagement of the war [cited by Colonel David G. Fitz-Enz, US Army (Ret.). The Final Invasion: Plattsburg, The War of 1812’s Most Decisive Battle (Lanham, MD: Cooper Square Press, 2001)].

    The victor was Master Commandant, Commodore Thomas Macdonough of the US Navy, one of the more notable of “Preble’s Boys” from the war with the Barbary Pirates, grandson of James MacDonough, an Irish immigrant from Kildare (in Ireland’s eastern Province of Leinster – the finest of horse country), and son of one of Washington’s officers (Major Thomas McDonough of the Delaware Regiment). [The spelling of the name actually changed with each of the first three generations of this particular branch of the Mac Donnachadha in North America.] The flagship of the American squadron was, appropriately, named SARATOGA.

    “The Almighty has been pleased
    to grant us a signal victory…”

    (Commodore Thomas Macdonough, U.S. SHIP SARATOGA, off Platsburg,
    Sept. 11th, 1814, to Secretary of the Navy)

    Macdonough’s victory, though dearly gained after a hard fight, was brilliant and complete. Having been denied control of the waterways, the English could not continue their invasion.

    Historian David Fitz-Enz, in “11 September 1814” (Military Illustrated, Number 172), points out that because of the American victory at Plattsburg/Lake Champlain, and the failure of the strategic diversionary attempt to capture Baltimore, the English negotiators were unable to acquire any land south of the existing Canadian border, or to gain control of the Great Lakes, and so sued for the status quo ante of 1812. Consequently the Peace of Ghent was signed on 24th December 1814. See: Thomas McDonough: Master of Command in the Early U.S. Navy (Library of Naval Biography) by David Curtis Skaggs (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2003); see also: Rear Admiral Joseph F. Callo, “1812 Victory at Sea,” Military History, March 2011; George C. Daughan. 1812: The Navy’s War (New York: Basic Books, 2011); David Curtis Skaggs, “More Important Than Perry’s Victory,” Naval History, October 2013; Rodney Macdonough. Life of Commodore Thomas Macdonough. (Boston, 1909); Charles Geoffrey Muller. Hero of Two Seas: The Story of Midshipman Thomas Macdonough (McKay, 1968); Michael J. O’Brien. A Hidden Phase of American History: “Ireland’s Part in America’s Struggle for Liberty”. (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1920).

    Thomas Macdonough (1783 – 1825) was rewarded with promotion to full captain, and, subsequently, with the command of the USS OHIO, a ship-of-the-line. Always the sailor, Captain Thomas Macdonough later insisted on returning to a more active sea duty; his last command was “Old Ironsides,” the USS CONSTITUTION, on Mediterranean patrol. Accompanied by his son, Thomas Macdonough died passing Gibraltar on 10th November 1825. After a state funeral in New York, he was buried in his late wife’s family plot in the Riverside Cemetery in Middletown, Connecticut. †
    “Macdonough in this battle [Lake Champlain] won a higher fame than any other [naval] commander of the war, British or American. He had a decidedly superior force to contend against, the officers and men of the two sides being about on a par in every respect; and it was solely owing to his foresight and resource that we won the victory. He forced the British to engage at a disadvantage by his excellent choice of position; and he prepared beforehand for every possible contingency. His personal prowess had already been shown at the cost of the rovers of Tripoli, and in this action he helped fight the guns as ably as the best sailor. His skill, seamanship, quick eye, readiness of resource, and indomitable pluck, are beyond all praise.”–Theodore Roosevelt, 1882, in his first book,
    The Naval War of 1812 (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1889).

    Four US Navy warships have been named USS MACDONOUGH for Commodore Thomas Macdonough, plus one World War II Liberty Ship:

    • USS Macdonough (DD-9), an early destroyer, launched in 1900 (World War I) 1919
    • USS Macdonough (DD-331), a Clemson-class destroyer, 1920 – 1930
    • USS Macdonough (DD-351), a Farragut-class destroyer, 1934 (World War II) 1945
    • USS Macdonough (DLG-8 / DDG-39), was a Farragut-class guided missile frigate (destroyer leader), launched in 1959 and served until 1992
    SS Thomas Macdonough, a World War II Liberty ship

    by Derek Warfield,
    with Liam Murphy (National Maritime Historical Society)
    and David Fitz-Enz

  4. Being in the middle of the Battle of Plattsburgh Commemoration ( 14 days of activities) leaves one opportunities to bring the following to visitors, Peter. Thanks for this opportunity: “We know that it is a difficult item to become acquainted with for individuals that live in other parts of New York State, let alone for individuals who live out of state. The item is the date of surrender of the invading British, , the Duke of Wellington’s veterans from the Peninsula War, to the American forces in Plattsburgh , NY, and on Lake Champlain on the 11th of September 1814. This had a tremendous impression on the Treaty of Ghent and was considered the final invasion of NYS until the attack in New York City. For further info click on “ – history”. On the 11th of each year memorial services are held in Riverside Cemetery in the city of Plattsburgh where fallen from both sides are buried.

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