Sunday Gazette-Mail from Charleston, West Virginia on August 24, 1975 · Page 98
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Sunday Gazette-Mail from Charleston, West Virginia · Page 98

Charleston, West Virginia
Issue Date:
Sunday, August 24, 1975
Page 98
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Page 98 article text (OCR)

Victory on the Mohawk By Jofa Scboolfteld Gloom and wretchedness hovered over the Mohawk Valley settlement of northern New York like a thunder cloud during the hot, summer days of 1781. Not since the early years of the Revolution had the American cause seemed so hopeless. Repeated raids by Tories and Indians had ravaged the valley. Continental troops were deserting in large numbers and the militia had broken down. The spirit of the settlers was nearly crushed. Then on the afternoon of Aug. 6 there occurred an event so stirring that it raised the hopes and courage of the entire valley. Hymn-singing John Christian Shell, a prominent settler, his wife Maria, and four of his sons, barricaded themselves in a log blockhouse they had built on their farm and fought off a determined assault by 66 well-armed Tories and Indians in an afternoon of fierce fighting. The enemy force was led by Donald McDonald, a bitter Scotsman and former valley resident who had been forced to flee to Canada because of his loyalist sentiments: The raiders, bent on death and destruction, invaded the valley at about noon.. Most of the settlers had fled to Fort Dayton, four miles away. The raiding party reached Shell's farm at about 2 p.m. and promptly seized Shell's eight-year-old twin boys who were playing near the barn. Shell, his wife and four older sons, at work in the fields, managed to reach the blockhouse and secure the heavy door. The battle was on. The blockhouse was sturdy and well designed; for defense, having no windows but only small loopholes. Shell and his sons stationed themselves at the loopholes and kept up a constant fire to hold off the enemy. Maria Shell reloaded the pieces as her husband and sons fired. McDonald and his men made several attempts to set fire to the blockhouse but were repeatedly ISSUES FORUM driven back and their casualties mounted. McDonald, under a heavy cover of fire from his men, attempted to force the blockhouse door with a crowbar; but he was shot in the leg by Shell, who quickly opened the door and pulled the wounded Scots- ma n inside. McDonald was stripped of his ammunition and a silver-mounted tomahawk marked by 30 scalp notches. Troubled by the capture of their leader and having suffered several killed and wounded, the enemy withdrew to a safe distance to regroup. Shell and his family were thankful for a rest and during the lull Shell, in a loud, clearvoice sang his favorite hymn, the opening line being: "A firm fortress is our God, a good defense and weapon." When the battle resumed the raiders made.a furious attack on the blockhouse. Five of them gained the walls and thrust the muzzles of their rifles through the loopholes; but Maria Shell seized an ax and disabled the guns, bending their muzzles into right angles by her blows. It was now twilight and Shell tricked the frustrated raiders by yelling to an imaginary rescue party from Fort Dayton. The ruse I worked and the enemy fled to the woods, taking the twin boys with, them and leaving behind 11 killed and 6 wounded. The boys, who were rescued after the war, reported that 12 wounded had been .taken away by the raiders, 9 of whom died before reaching their camp in Canada. McDonald was taken to Fort Dayton the next day and died a few hours after his leg was amputated. the story of the Shells' courageous fight spread quickly and : served as an inspiration to their war-weary neighbors until peace came to, the valley at last (Copyright 1975 by John Schoolfield) From Centennial to Bicentennial The Philadelphia Exposition of 1876 marked the official opening of the nation's first century celebration, and millions of visitors came to gawk and marvel at the profusion of exhibits. In his centennial speech President Grant reminded his countrymen of the nation's stupendous progress since the days when it was new and partially settled. The United States, he asserted with pardonable exaggeration, now rivaled Europe in the arts and sciences.' "Whilst proud of what we have done," he concluded, "we regret that we have not done more." For those of us today who think the nation is morally if not economically bankrupt, it is worth recalling that many Americans in 1876 felt the same way. They worried about the economy and labor unrest and wholesale immorality; they gagged at the squalid scandals of the Grant administration. Politicians close to the President were being jailed or threatened with impeachment. The country had already suffered three years of depression, and by the Centennial, failing banks, falling wages, and rising unemployment seemed to foreshadow even darker days ahead. Then as today the older generation agonized over the "youth problem" and "crime in the streets." And what was to be done with the unruly women liberationists, demanding the vote, some even threatening to foment a rebellion? No wonder many Americans looked longingly back to what they believed to be a simpler and less harried past. America in 1876 had less reason than we to fear the future. Its enormous power would soon dazzle the world. If skeptics asked even then how this power would be used, few questioned President Grant's boast that the nation need no longer defer to the Old World. To paraphrase the speech of one poetic United States Senator, the tree of liberty planted in 1776 was "bearing golden fruit," and a grateful people now gathered around its trunk to feast on "a nation's banquet." The exuberant ceremonial rhetoric inspired by the Centennial may seem out of keeping with the tone and mood of the Bicentennial. Doubts about the national purpose that troubled a thoughtful minority in 1876 are now shared by millions of our contemporaries. The already familiar questions they raised in that year must be asked again. Does the safety of the nation depend upon the character and intelligence of the electorate? Can or should the states resist Daniel Aaron About the Author Daniel Aaron, academic coordinator of this Course by Newspaper, was a member of the original planning group for the American Issues Forum. He is currently Victor Thomas Professor in the Department of English and American Language and Literature of Harvard University. A frequent lecturer abroad. Professor Aaron taught for more than 30 years at Smith College, where he was director of American Studies. From 1971-1973 he served as President of the American Studies Association. Among his many books are "Men of Good Hope," "Writers on the Left," and "The Unwritten War: American Writers and the Civil War." thority? Will the convulsions resulting from thickening urban populations and bankruptcy of cities compel a hearing for radical social solutions? "Truly." said a famous English visitor in 1876, "America has^a great future before her; great in toil, in care, and in responsibility; great in true glory if she be guided in wisdom and righteousness; great in shame if she fail." These and other themes will pervade this third series of Courses by Newspaper -- The American Issues Forum I -- on the making of American society. The 18 "lectures" or articles comprising the course have been synchronized with the first four topics of the Calendar of the American Issues Forum, a national program for the Bicentennial molding of American values, beginning in January). These articles are intended to provoke as many questions as possible even if few are fully answered. W h a t does it mean to be an American? Why did the acute American novelist. Henry James, say that being an American was a "complex fate"? Why is the American system of government still referred to as an "experiment"? And more to the point, why at a time of recession at home and misery, nun-. ger. and war abroad should we celebrate the Bicentennial at all? Are the American people really interested in conducting a national dialogue about their history,'their social institutions, their values? Is the Bicentennial merely to be a mindless whitewash -- an effort to convince the unconvinced that all is right with the Republic? It's not hard to understand, for example, why some black Americans (as one black journalist put it) aren't "going around saying, 'wow, great, we were slaves in 1776.'" National holidays don't make second-class citizens, white or nonwhite, women or men, feel less second-class. History offers small consolation for the insulted and the injured. Vet- historical excavation can often put the troubled present into clearer perspective. : As we ponder the meaning of the Bicentennial, do we,not unthinkingly take for granted an important fact: that American society-though it limps and coughs and is speckled with warts--stillfuric- tions reasonably well compared with most other societies and at a time when the majority of the world population is living under authoritarian rule? If Americans are less enlightened, fairminded, unselfish, and efficient than their flatterers have claimed, are they any worse than the rest of what Mark Twain called "the damned human race?" We are the beneficiaries and victims of a past we did not create. We can't claim credit for the enormous natural resources that made our country rich and powerful; or for Old World institutions that changed and developed in a New World setting; or for the honorable achievements of our remote and recent forebears. Neither should we be held responsible for the folly, ignorance, shortsightedness, or cruelty of dead Americans. The four sets of articles to follow during the next four months will discuss some of the nation's successes and failures, not in dry textbook fashion but as living history. The authors look back to the earliest days of the Republic--and forward into the present and future, singling out events from the past to year. (A sequel course, American ahe pull of^.eontrolled.federaLau-.i.-issues Forum II.. will discuss .the .... ^illuminatelAmerjcalodayvTheyex-

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