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Picking apart history: Facts or legend?

July 24, 2009|By ALLAN POWELL

Many legendary accounts of past events that we inherit as historical facts retain the character of "facts" simply because they go unchallenged. These legends are interesting and, for whatever reason, there is little interest in verification or falsification. Two such stories come to mind and have a local setting to provide interest. One is almost certainly pure folklore and the other has a shaky foundation -- awaiting a future verdict as reliable history.

The first story involves a small brass plate on the face of a huge stone fireplace in Woodmont Lodge, a rural retreat for the rich and mighty in earlier times, just west of Hancock. The message on the plate declares that a stone, directly beneath the plate, was once a part of a fire pit used by Gen. Braddock when he passed through on his failed attempt to capture Fort Duquesne in 1755.

The likelihood that this claim is true is about zero. There are two very good reasons why this story will never rise above the level of a legend. First, officers were not reduced to cooking over fire pits: they carried small cast-iron stoves on which their food was prepared.

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Second, Braddock crossed the Potomac at Swearingen's Ferry at the site of the present Shepherdstown, W.Va. This is a considerable distance downstream from where Woodmont is situated. Therefore, the story is legend, not history.

The second story is much more complicated and the jury is still out as to whether it is fact or legend. After much study, it is not absolutely clear if there were Hessian prisoners at Fort Frederick during the Revolutionary War. There are several creditable historians who write with confidence that, after several military engagements (e.g. Saratoga and Yorktown), captured German mercenaries were incarcerated at Fort Frederick.

One feature notable about every one of those writers was the complete absence of footnotes to properly identify the source of their claim. This omission is serious. There are many well documented accounts of British soldiers restrained at Fort Frederick, but we are only concerned about those hired from six German principalities of which Hesse is most mentioned.

A visit to the archives at the Baltimore Historical Society, where the papers of Col. Moses Rawlings are kept, made no mention of German prisoners. Surely, the former commander of the Fort would have had some occasion to report about some aspects of their presence but we found nothing.

A reading of many diaries written by German prisoners was also of little help. Fort Frederick was mentioned only once. This lone reference did, however, provide a clue as to why there was a possibility that no Hessian soldier arrived at the Fort. This solitary diarist wrote that he was ordered to Fort Frederick and was presently at the barracks in Fredericktown, Md. His new orders provided that he would (along with all others in their group) move on to Lancaster, Pa.

In the Maryland Archives, I found letters from Thomas Jefferson and George Washington ordering hundreds of Hessians to Fort Frederick. However, it was not possible to find any proof that they actually arrived. They, too, might have had a change of orders and bypassed Fort Frederick.

At the end of the Revolutionary War, most of these German mercenaries returned to their homes in Europe. There are, nonetheless, reports of many that remained in America and married local women. There was a practice of leasing out prisoners to farmers adjacent to these prison camps. Romance was an expected consequence of such leasing.

I confess that after continued failure to settle this issue, I eventually moved on to other interests. This sorting out of legend, myth, and folklore from verifiable history is an important activity. The former serve an important function in maintaining the cultural heritage of a community but they should not carry the same weight as documented, artifact-based accounts that are crafted by objective reporters.

Allan Powell is professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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