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The Battle of Saratoga and Local History: Lessons from Zelenskyy and Putin

President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky gives a battle flag signed by members of the Ukrainian military to U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Vice President Kamala Harris as he addresses a joint meeting of Congress in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol on December 21, 2022 in Washington, DC. Anna Moneymaker/ Getty Images

Voldymor Zelenskyy and Vladimir Putin, two historical figures in the present, have given the United States history lessons about our own past. In one case the action was deliberate: Zelenskyy’s deliberate reference to the Battle of Saratoga. In the other case. It was through his actions and not a speech. Together they present the American history community as well as the American people with lessons to be learned and/or ignored.


Putin has been raining a barrage of missiles on the Ukrainian nation. A lot of the media focus here has been on the infrastructure which has been destroyed. Putin’s goal seems to be, if I may draw on an historical reference from General Curtis LeMay from the Vietnam War, is to bomb Ukraine back into the stone age. He seeks to decimate the ability of the country to provide electric power and water to its people. By now we have all seen eerie shots of people walking darkened streets save for a flashlight or a candle.

What struck me about the historical significance of what Putin was and is doing is an article in The New York Times from December 29 (print) with the title “A Culture Under Fire: Russia’s invasion has systematically destroyed Ukrainian cultural sites, a Times investigation found” (with a followup article “Cultural Heritage as a Battlefront: Tallying the damage to museums and Cathedrals during the war in Ukraine,” December 31 print)  We know about recent efforts by both ISIS and the Taliban to destroy the non-Islamic objects unacceptable to them. We also know about the genocidal actions by Russia in Ukraine. But this article forced me to come face to face with the cultural assault on the country as well.

Pay attention to what Putin is choosing to destroy as reported in the article.

It [the barrage] has also dealt a grievance blow to Ukrainian culture: to its museums and monuments, its grand universities and rural libraries, its historic churches and contemporary mosaics. 

Now think about the American counterparts to the items listed above. Imagine their destruction even with no people being destroyed. How would we react?

The article continues:

Libraries, architectural treasures, statues, churches, houses of culture, museums, cinemas, sports facilities, theaters and archaeological sites have been damaged or destroyed. 

Put aside the pontifications of academics and eggheads and recognize the truth of what Putin is doing. He has targeted the Ukrainian culture and heritage for destruction. If something has not been bombed, then it has been looted. The 5-page article identifies many of the locations by name and includes many pictures. The Ukrainian memory of its own heritage is being dismantled. One day the infrastructure will be rebuilt. The people will once again have electricity and running water. But the same cannot be said for books, artifacts, paintings, and statues which have been destroyed. It will be like rebuilding after an earthquake where everything before 2022 has been destroyed.   

Nothing comparable is happening here. I do not mean to compare Putin’s actions to the toppling of statues and renaming of streets. Instead I am referring to something more insidious – the budgets for culture and the arts; the teaching of history and the humanities in public schools; the visiting to the local history sites in your own community. These items tend to be first on the chopping block for “saving” money by reducing the budget. They are peripherals not essential to the well-being of a community or the development of a child. Putin knows better. He knows how important all the things listed above are for the health and well-being of a community. His scorched earth actions to obliterate the cultural heritage of Ukraine is not an accident, it is not collateral damage. It is a targeting of a people.

In looking at what Putin has targeted, we should think about what we need to preserve, what we need to teach, what we need to visit to sustain a healthy community … and to educate newcomers to our country, our states, and our municipalities about what it means to be an American. We need to keep expanding our history markers, and museums to include the history which has happened and the new history which is being created even as these words are being typed. Putin has told us what is important through his efforts to destroy it in Ukraine. Let it be a lesson to us.


By contrast, Zelenskyy has reminded us very specifically what should be important to us. Standing in the chambers of Congress, Zelenskyy said the Ukrainian fight today was like the Battle of Saratoga to us. Those words reminded me of the Gettysburg Address when Lincoln linked the war in his present to an action four-score and seven years earlier. He could take for granted that his audience knew he meant the Declaration of Independence.

We know what the Battle of Saratoga means to Zelenskyy. What does it mean to Americans?

It was somewhat amusing in the talk show discussions after Zelenskyy’s speech, to listen to people draw of their knowledge of what the Battle of Saratoga meant to the founding of the country. When did they last come in contact with that battle? A book they read? A site they visited? A class they took in college? A class they took in high school? A class they took even earlier?

A quick review of the more than 200+ sessions at the annual conference of the American Historical Association going on January 5-8, 2023, in Philadelphia showed none related to the American Revolution yet alone to the Battle of Saratoga. True there are other conferences more focused in time which may include sessions on the American Revolution and possibly even on the Battle of Saratoga.

Now considered these two lectures:

“How Indigenous People Helped Start and Win the American Revolution” by Woody Holton (December 16, 2022) at the Native Americans Study Center


“The Compleat Victory: Saratoga and the American Revolution,” Colonel (Ret.) Kevin Weddle, Ph.D. at Marist College (April 13, 2022), a college with close ties to nearby West Point.

The second lecture comports with what Zelenskyy meant; the first one subsumes Saratoga into a larger talk about the role of Indigenous people with the battle being secondary.

Drilling down, if one were to take a course in American history in college, what if anything would be taught about the Battle of Saratoga?

If one takes a(n elective?) course in American history in high school, what if anything would be taught about the Battle of Saratoga?

If one takes a class in American history in middle school (as one typically does here in New York), what if anything would be taught about the Battle of Saratoga?

One cannot help but wonder if all the members of Congress are even familiar with the Battle of Saratoga. They recognize from Zelenskyy’s speech that it must have been an important battle but beyond that what do they know about it?

As we approach the 250th anniversary of the Battle of Saratoga, what should we do?

The American Revolution 250th Commission created at the federal level will be out of existence by the summer of 2027 when the 250th anniversary of the Battle of Saratoga occurs. The Commission’s focus is July 4 in Philadelphia. Someone needs to inform the Commission (again) of this shortcoming especially now that Zelenskyy has made a point of emphasizing its importance. The end date should be extended.

New York State, where the Commission does extend beyond 2027, should invite Zelenskyy to attend whatever festivities and events will be held in conjunction with the 250th anniversary.

At least one of the national history organizations (SHEAR?) should considered holding its annual summer conference in Saratoga in 2027 perhaps in partnership with Skidmore College.

There should be a review of the social studies curriculum and teacher professional development programs to ensure that American students are as familiar with the Battle of Saratoga as the President of Ukraine.

Putin has shown us in his destructions what we should maintain here in the United States as part of our cultural and historic heritage.

Zelenskyy has shown what we as Americans should all know about our past. The United States of America will be much better off if Americans are at least as familiar with the Battle of Saratoga at the birth of the country as it is with Gettysburg when it divided.

What Was the Turning Point of the American Revolution?

John Neilson Farmhouse, the only standing structure on Saratoga Battlefield from the time of the Battles of Saratoga

What was the turning point of the American Revolution? The standard answer is the Battle of Saratoga in October, 1777.  The British under General Johnny Burgoyne sought to divide and conquer the fledgling United States. Through a three-pronged attack, the British, who already occupied New York City, would separate New England from Pennsylvania and Virginia thereby bringing the would-be country to its knees. As many Americans know, the plan was unsuccessful and it was at Saratoga where the floundering effort finally failed. The British surrender there caught the attention of the French who then allied with the United States. The rest, as they say, is history.

During the Teacherhostels/Historyhostels I led, we visited many sites in New York associated with the American Revolution including Saratoga. During one program, I detected a pattern among the various sites: they all claimed to be the turning point of the American Revolution! Once I caught on to this pattern, I shared my observation with the teachers. You can guess what happened next. At our next stop, after about five minutes into the talk, the docent of the site exclaimed that the site was the turning point of the American Revolution. The teachers then began to laugh. I felt sorry for the docent who was not privy to the information I had just mentioned to the teachers before we walked into the museum.

Obviously, all these locations cannot be the turning point of the American Revolution. No doubt American Revolution scholars/professors could easily demolish the arguments made to support these claims. Equally obviously, such a decimation would entirely miss the point. The observable phenomena is that the American Revolution is the foundational event for the creation of this country and everyone wanted to connect their community to that event. By claiming to be the turning point, these people assert that the American Revolution is their story regardless of whether or not they were a biological son or daughter of the American Revolution. Through the claim of being the turning point, these people were proudly declaring and affirming their identity as Americans.

Lately this desire to connect to the American Revolution has expanded beyond a geographical link. Now the link is being claimed based on race, gender, class, and ethnicity. It as if everyone wants to get into the act. The story of the American Revolution isn’t just purview of heroic dead white men. On the contrary, the true story includes a demographically diverse range of a portion of colonists united in their commitment and willingness to sacrifice their lives on behalf of the new born country. They didn’t want the United States to be still-born or die in infancy but to grow and thrive. Just as all these geographical communities link themselves to the story of the American Revolution born on the fourth of July, so increasing number of demographic communities have sought in recent years to make the American Revolution part of their heritage as well.

The most striking current example of connecting a demographically-diverse constituency to the American Revolution is, of course, Hamilton, the musical. When I attended the American Revolution Reborn conference in Philadelphia in 2013 (the subject of five posts), it is reasonable to conclude that no one present anticipated that the American Revolution would be reborn as a musical and one dedicated to Hamilton, of all people. The recent exhibition about him at the New-York Historical Society did not engender such warm and lavish praise on him as a representative of the demographically-changing American population. Quite the contrary. Back then it was more of: here’s another boring exhibition by a staid elitist organization about a dead white man. Who knew?  Now it hosted the summer of Hamilton!


Meryl Streep and the American Revolution (Hollywood Reporter)

As it turns out, our connecting all Americans to the American Revolution is essential if We the People are to continue to exist. Our connecting to the American Revolution is essential to the health and strength of the social fabric of this country. If it unravels or is torn asunder, then the United States ceases to exist. Luminaries like Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King all connected with the Declaration of Independence in some way as did the Seneca Falls Convention and George M. Cohan. Lin-Manuel Miranda is part of a long and hallowed tradition of breathing life into America’s heritage to renew it. Meryl Streep’s shout out to Deborah Sampson at the Democratic National Convention is the most recent highly visible example of linking oneself to that foundational event.

I was reminded of the importance of being the turning point of the American of the great defeat in the American Revolution 240 years ago today. It is called the Battle of Brooklyn or of Long Island or of New York. It has multiple names with Brooklyn now asserting itself and its connection to the American Revolution. (There is no shame anymore in having a 718 area code rather than 212!)  Regardless of the name, the battle marked a major defeat for the country that had just declared its independence the previous month. Suddenly out of nowhere a British fleet with over 30,000 people, a veritable city of its own, appeared on the horizon. As the New Yorkers gazed out to the ocean on August 22, all they could see was this massive flotilla. There were no satellites then to track the movement westward of the level 5 Howe Hurricane from England. It is difficult today to convey the impact the British fleet had then. Perhaps the closest example of this shock-and-awe armada is the fictional appearance of the spaceships in the movie Independence Day before it obliterates the White House [the movie combines American Revolution and War of 1812 resonances].

britishIndependence Day

The British fleet in the lower bay (Harpers Magazine, 1876) and Independence Day

The battle on August 27 is not as well-known as some others, after all we lost. Barnet Schecter tirelessly tells the story of the battle for New York in person and in a book of the same title. John Glover fans strive to sustain the memory of the heroic Massachusetts fisherman/merchant who led the evacuation of the Continental army from Long Island to Manhattan under a providential fog during the night of August 29-30. This escape was made possible in part due to the valiant efforts of the First Maryland Regiment to delay the British to provide Washington the time needed to cross over. Hundreds of Marylanders sacrificed themselves in what was in effect a suicidal but critical mission. Brooklynite Bob Furman has led the effort to identify and commemorate the sites in Gowanus where the Maryland 400 fought and where the British dumped the bodies afterwards (as Lance Ashworth struggles to do at the Fishkill Depot at the cemetery there). The book about the Regiment is titled Washington’s Immortals: The Untold Story of an Elite Regiment Who Changed the Course of the Revolution by Patrick O’Donnell by perhaps no coincidence whatsoever attests the “turning point” ethos.










There even will be “The Battle of Brooklyn” exhibit opening at the New-York Historical Society shortly. Imagine that! According to Valerie Paley, vice president and chief historian, the Battle of Brooklyn was not the turning point of the American Revolution. I repeat: she did not say it was the turning point. She did however say it may have been the most important battle of the American Revolution. She really is saying the battle was the turning point because of what the British didn’t do. They failed to capture George Washington, the indispensable person. If you think the United States is the Great Satan and can go back in time, then you go back and kill him because without him, there would be no America. And if you can’t kill him physically then kill him through your scholarship. The British failed to apprehend him and eventually paid the price when Washington returned to New York to be inaugurated there as President of the United States.


Valerie Paley, New-York Historical Society, Bob Furman (NYT August 26, 2012)

So even though the Battle of New York/Long Island/Brooklyn was lost and New York was occupied territory until Evacuation Day, November 25, 1783, the battle set the stage for what was to come. The failure to capture Washington and his army led to Plan B: shock-and-awe was replaced with divide-and-conquer. Plan B ended in failure at Saratoga.

There is a new exhibit called “Witness to War” at the Old Stone House in Brooklyn where these events transpired. According to the website: “Ten themed areas allow visitors to explore this history and consider how war impacted the community, what choices citizens had to make at the time, battle strategies, and what makes these issues relevant in today’s world” thereby connecting people of America’s present to the people of America’s birth.

Witness to War: Appropriating Revolution brings together contemporary artists inspired by the unique history of the House and of other past revolutions in their efforts to address the most important issues of today. In a contemporary political climate where the term “revolution” (defined as “the overthrow of a government or social order in favor of a new system”) risks association with either polarizing rhetoric or cynical complacency, is there an especially appropriate role for artists to play by bringing the tactics and triumphs of the past to the forefront of our conversations.


Kim Maier, Executive Director, Old Stone House NYT Auguest 26, 2012

Kim Maier, executive director of the Old Stone House said: “It’s a story about loss, but it’s also a story about how we get to where we are today.” Now more than ever, it is important for We the People in words, music, paintings, art, processions, and re-enactments to tell the story of the American Revolution. The experiment continues, the journey goes on, for in every generation, in every place, in every person, we must be the turning point if the vision is to be realized and the dream fulfilled.

Saratoga and the Eurozone Crisis

Everyone has heard of the ongoing troubles in Greece and the Eurozone but nobody has realized the importance of Saratoga to understanding this crisis until now.

Let me explain. It seems that Greece lied in its application to join the Eurozone. Then as might be expected it failed to perform adequately and was only able to cover up its shortcomings as a third world country trying to pass as a first world country for so long. After the Greek elections when a new government took office, the truth was revealed and all hell broke loose. Continue reading “Saratoga and the Eurozone Crisis”

New Social Studies Curriculum: The Time to Act is Now

Bruce Dearstyne’s recent post, Historical Societies: Getting Past Hard Times, raises a number of disturbing issues. The story of the tribulations of the Saratoga County Historical Society is one of concern. The Institute of History, Archaeology, and Education (IHARE) has had several Teacherhostels / Historyhostels in Saratoga County mostly relating to the Battle of Saratoga and also in Waterford. Last summer as part of a Teaching American History grant, a group of teachers from Vermont stayed in Clifton Park while learning about the battle. I have had email exchanges with Brookside’s Executive Director Joy Houle about the possibility of having a Saratoga County History Conference there as was done in the Hudson Valley. Continue reading “New Social Studies Curriculum: The Time to Act is Now”