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Ted Kennedy and family photographed in 2004. Photo by: Courtesy of Independence National History Park

Ted Kennedy, Irish-American History Buff

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Ted Kennedy and family photographed in 2004. Photo by: Courtesy of Independence National History Park

I discussed at length one of my favorite characters, Charles Thomson, the secretary of the Continental Congress and close friend of Ben Franklin. Born in County Derry, Thomson was known as “the Sam Adams of Philadelphia.”

When Parliament passed its first attempt to tax the Americans, the Stamp Act of 1765, a discouraged Franklin wrote Thomson from London that “the sun of liberty is set, and Americans must light the lamps of industry and economy.”

 Thomson replied: “Be assured that we shall light torches of a very different sort.”  

I added stories about the Irish at Bunker Hill, focusing on Colonel John Stark and his New Hampshire regiment, which had Irish names by the dozen on their muster list. Stark changed the course of American history by foreseeing the British plan — to attack along the Mystic River beach and assault the Bunker Hill fort from the rear. If they had succeeded, the Revolution would have collapsed.     
Stark put two hundred of his best sharpshooters behind an improvised stone wall on the beach and cut this “flying column” to pieces. The dismayed British were forced to resort to a costly frontal assault on the fort and the men behind a rail fence at its base.

After lunch we boarded our bus for a visit to Valley Forge. On the way, I talked about the importance of George Washington and his regular army. They were the soldiers who had won the war. When the struggle began, Congress thought they could rely on militia — amateur soldiers called from their homes for a few months’ service.  But they were often intimidated by Britain’s professional soldiers,  backed by cannon and cavalry. Soon the militia grew reluctant to serve.

I told how the New Jersey militia had been called out in 1776 when Washington and his soldiers were retreating after their defeats in and around New York City. Only one thousand out of 17 thousand men on the state’s muster rolls had responded. The reason, Washington saw, was “the want of a regular army to look the enemy in the face.”  Keeping   regular American army in the war became the centerpiece of his strategy.

At Valley Forge, I had arranged for the younger Kennedys to be allowed to pick up and examine muskets and other artifacts at the Visitors Center.  The boys had a marvelous time imagining themselves sniping at redcoats. I told how grim life had been at Valley Forge in 1778 — food had run short, uniforms and shoes had deteriorated. Over 300 officers had resigned and 2,000 men deserted to the British army, which was living in relative comfort in nearby Philadelphia.

But the ordeal had a marvelously happy ending — the arrival of  the news that Ben Franklin had signed a treaty of alliance with France, making the most powerful nation in Europe our ally.  I told how an ecstatic Marquis de Lafayette had rushed to Washington’s headquarters when he heard the news and kissed the startled commander in chief on both cheeks.

On the bus back to Philadelphia, Senator Kennedy was in a jovial mood. He told me how much they all had enjoyed the day. Then, with a twinkle in his eyes, he asked: “Tom, I have a question about those sixteen thousand militia guys in New Jersey who didn’t turn out in 1776 — they were all Republicans, right?”

That was an easy question for an historian who had grown up with a father and grandfather who never voted anything but the straight Democratic ticket. “Senator,” I said. “I didn’t realize you’d been doing such deep research. Of course they were!” It was the perfect Irish-American ending to a day I would never forget.

I sat down at my computer and
e-mailed the dedication of Now We Are Enemies to American History Press: “In memory of Senator Edward Kennedy, my favorite Bostonian and a fellow admirer of America’s Revolutionary
heritage.”

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