1800's, 19th century, Early American History, Finger Lakes, FLX, History, NY, Upstate New York, Waterloo

Napoleon is not Dynamite in Waterloo


Martin Van Buren Old Kinderhook LOC

Martin Van Buren, “Old Kinderhook” Library of Congress.

My Hometown, Part I

As the story goes, Martin Van Buren was pretty pissed-off when they renamed my hometown “Waterloo.”

Since he was from the old days, and was a President, I should not be so vulgar, so let’s say he was “piqued”,  “exasperated,” or “apoplectic.”


Or perhaps we should say, verbolgen en kwaad, since he probably thought in Dutch, his first language.

He seems to have been a pretty happy guy, and, for a lifelong politician, a pretty decent one.  But when they created “Waterloo, New York,” he was irate.

I’ve always been puzzled about the re-branding of my town.


Who names their town after their enemy’s greatest victory?


V0024799 Astronomy: various apocalyptic scenes, including a grieving Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Astronomy: various apocalyptic scenes, including a grieving widow, war, and the Duke of Wellington rejecting Harriet Winter [?]. Coloured lithograph, n.d. [c.1839?]. Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Wellcome Library

I grew up in a small village in upstate New York, in the Finger Lakes region.

There was a Cayuga Indian village here, destroyed during the Revolution, called “Skoi-Yase.”  When the whites moved in, they called their settlement  “Skoys,” “Scauyes,” “Scayau,” etc. and later, “New Hudson.”

At that time, this area was “The Military Tract” – over a million acres sold by, or taken from, the Cayuga Nation, one of the Iroquois tribes that fought on the losing side during the Revolution.  The tract was parceled out as compensation to war veterans who’d fought on the winning side.

So there was a concentration of people in this area, who’d fought against the British Army.


Continental dollar

“Not worth a Continental” was an old American expression.

The Continental Congress, short of cash, and not much trusted (some things never change) had promised to reward its soldiers with land.  A private got 100 acres, a lieutenant got 200, a colonel 500, etc.

New York, which was also short of cash, sweetened the pot, and gave each private an additional 500 acres, and so on, up to a major general, who got over eight square miles.  This is during a time when 100 acres amounted to a good-sized farm.

Some of the veterans chose to sell their “bounty” land.  So just after the War of 1812, Elisha Williams bought a square mile of this Military Tract.  He was a Yankee lawyer who moved to Hudson, NY, and became a land speculator… and a political enemy of Martin Van Buren, who lived in the same town.  Williams sold off building lots for a new village, at first called “New Hudson.”



Dutch dragoon. NY Public Library.

In 1816, the residents, apparently prompted by Williams, voted to rename the village “Waterloo.”

So in a place specifically set aside for veterans who’d fought the British, and just after fighting the British again in the War of 1812, the village was renamed “Waterloo,”  after the British triumph.

Doesn’t that strike you as just a bit weird?


V0048407 Arthur Wellesley, first Duke of Wellington. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Arthur Wellesley, first Duke of Wellington. He rose to prominence in the Napoleonic Wars, eventually reaching the rank of field marshal. 1814 By: Thomas Phillipsafter: William SayPublished: Nov. 8 1814. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

The Duke of Wellington. Little known fact: all the evergreens in Britain were used up by 1814, used to construct warships during the Napoleonic wars, so England had a chronic shortage of Christmas trees — they were forced to decorate public figures instead.   Wellcome Library


New York saw a lot of bloodshed during the Revolution.  This is where George Washington got kicked off Long Island and lost New York City.   An entire British army marched into NY’s North Country, met their Waterloo at Saratoga and marched out again as prisoners.  Mad Anthony Wayne shot and captured hundreds of British soldiers at Stony Point, New York settlers suffered the Cherry Valley Massacre and countless other frontier fights with the Iroquois and their British and Tory allies.  Neighbor fought neighbor and Iroquois fought Iroquois at Oriskany.  Benedict Arnold slapped together some gunboats and delayed an invasion fleet at Valcour Island, and later, having turned traitor and trying to hand over West Point, his handler, Major Andre, was hanged at Tappan.



Benedict Arnold. Like Elisha Williams, a Connecticut Yankee, not a New Yorker


More Americans died of starvation and disease in the British prison ships in New  York Harbor, than in all the battles of the war.

As a little reminder of British consideration for American prisoners, their bones washed up on the shores of Brooklyn for decades.

And during the War of 1812, New Yorkers fought the British again, all along the Canadian frontier, and in Ontario and Quebec. Villages on both sides of the Niagara frontier and the Great Lakes were raided and burned, and ships were captured and sunk in naval battles.  The Americans crossed from Buffalo to capture Fort Erie and Fort George, and the British crossed over to storm Fort Niagara.


Plattsburg LOC

The War of 1812. The last British invasion of the northern U.S. – the Battle of Plattsburgh, NY aka Battle of Lake Champlain. Library of Congress. (sea of green and lots of smoke, hmmm.)


Everyone remembers the Battle of Baltimore, because of the bombardment of Fort McHenry, the “rockets’ red glare, “Star-spangled Banner, etc.  The day before, though, a bloodier battle was fought on the border between New York and Quebec. Veterans of Wellington’s battles in Spain participated in the last British invasion of the northern U.S. — which was defeated at Plattsburgh, NY, and on Lake Champlain.

Wellington’s army included the King’s German Legion, drawn mostly from Hanover and Brunswick, sources of many of the much-hated “Hessians” during the Revolution.  Other regiments of Redcoats and Highlanders fighting at Waterloo, had fought in New York during the Revolution, in the battles for Long Island, Brooklyn, and Manhattan.  British units which helped defeat Napoleon, had also participated in the Battle of New Orleans (where Wellington’s brother-in-law was killed), attacks in Maryland, and in the burning of Washington, D.C.

From my kitchen window, I can see the old “Elisha Williams” cemetery, where little flags are always flying on the graves of veterans of all this fighting.   General Maltby, the American commander at Boston during the War of 1812, is buried there, as is a Revolutionary War vet who’d survived the infamous British prison hulks.


Waterloo battlefield 1890 LOC

Waterloo battlefield, circa 1890. Library of Congress

None of these people could have felt very friendly to the Union Jack – – so how did they accept having their village renamed in honor of a British victory?  Wouldn’t you give Wellington the boot?


Elisha Williams was a Yankee and a Federalist – – and both groups bitterly opposed the War of 1812.  He may well have suggested “Waterloo” as a thumb-in-the-eye to the Democratic-Republicans, like his bitter opponent, Martin Van Buren.

Napoleon House of Representatives LOC

Napoleon. U.S. House of Representatives. Library of Congress

When Van Buren heard of the new “Waterloo” in his state, he immediately insisted on renaming another village “Austerlitz”, in honor of Napoleon’s biggest victory.



photo credit: Sarah Teel. Thanks, sis.

“In historical events, great men –so called– are but the labels that serve to give a name to an event, and like labels, they have the last possible connection with the event itself.”  Tolstoy


Maybe part of the answer, then and now, is that “New Yorkers” by definition, care more about the present day, than about history or the past.

So the mystery of why my town is called Waterloo is put to rest.

The answer is, that it just doesn’t matter.

Then or now, most New Yorkers don’t care if their town is called Waterloo, Austerlitz, or Calcutta — we have them all.  

We have a hamlet called Marengo — one of Napoleon’s early victories, and a delicious chicken recipe.  And if any of you actually waded through Tolstoy’s War and Peace, we have a Borodino, too, a Napoleonic bloodbath on the way to Moscow.

NY is famous for classical references (Syracuse, Utica, Greece).  My county has little cowpie hamlets grandly named Ovid, Romulus, Junius, and Tyre, complete with a crumbling Roman-style courthouse and decaying “Greek Revival” farmhouses.

This state also has Cadiz, Copenhagen, Dresden, Medina, Stockholm, Zurich, Berlin, New Berlin, Poland, Cuba, Salamanca, and a Stone Arabia (no idea on that last one).  And just a few miles down the road from me is Montezuma.

And today, I unconditionally guarantee, my fellow villagers do not know, or care, about ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, the Aztec Empire, or who fought at Waterloo, or which side won.

If you explained Napoleon’s final defeat to them, they would probably just express relief at not having to learn French in school.

OK, end of rant.  Our state motto is “Excelsior“, so onward and upward, moving on, ditching history as we go.

But I still think, before you graduate from school in a town called Waterloo, they should at least make it mandatory to know a bit about Wellington’s Victory.  Maybe just watch the 1970 movie, with Rod Steiger as Napoleon, and Christopher Plummer as Wellington.  And Orson Welles, too, I don’t remember in what role, perhaps as the Chateau d’Hougoumont?


In Part II, I searched newspapers across the country, to see how all the Waterloo’s around the USA (a clear majority of states have one) commemorated the 200th anniversary of the battle.  (Here’s a spoiler — it’s a pretty short list!)

Maybe it was just “Battle Anniversary Overload”?  Here’s a few more for 2015, and the movies to watch if you don’t want to read a history book:

600th anniversary of Agincourt – I think they’re supposed to be working on a movie right now.  But in the meantime, look up on YouTube, Kenneth Branagh doing the pre-battle speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V.  Seriously, if you don’t feel moved, go to the hospital, have them check you for a pulse.

100th anniversary of Gallipoli – the only time I’ve liked Mel Gibson, in a Peter Weir movie of the same name.   And Russell Crowe in The Water Diviner

75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain – the movie version is almost fifty years old, but lots of real airplanes, not computer simulations, with Michael Caine, Laurence Olivier, Christopher Plummer, again, and pretty much every other British actor alive in 1969



Chestertown History, Civil War, History, Journalism, politics

President Garfield in Chestertown. The Great Copperhead Riot of 1863.


When I went to college in Chestertown, Maryland, it was a pretty sleepy little place on the Eastern Shore. But it turned out to be rich in history, so I read whatever I could find about its past. This story I ran across reading some old-time newspapers.

Back in 2008, an Iraqi journalist threw his shoes at George Bush during a press conference.  I had to give the President points for coming back with a joke, “All I can report is, it is a size 10.”  OK it’s not that funny, but he seemed to handle himself pretty well at that moment.  He went on to say something about living in a free society — while Iraqi security guards kicked the crap out of the journalist.

A few years later, somebody in Philly threw a book at Obama, but apparently he was just a desperate author following a suggestion from a blog called “Low Cost PR You Can Do Yourself.”

Going farther back, when Richard Nixon was Eisenhower’s VP, he was hit by a rock, while trying to talk to a crowd of college students in Lima, Peru.  Nixon also wins some points, for standing his ground and yelling “What’s the matter?  Are you afraid to talk to me?”  His car was also egged, during a South American goodwill tour that didn’t go so well.  Nixon would have also have rocks and tomatoes thrown at his car during his inauguration.

And going even farther back…we arrive in Chestertown, Maryland, with another egging and a future President.

General Garfiled LOC

General Garfield Library of Congress

In 1863, James Garfield was Chief-of-Staff for the Army of the Cumberland, fighting in Tennessee.  Despite the army’s bloody defeat at Chickamauga, he actually enhanced his military reputation by helping to stabilize the Union rear guard, after the general in command had decided the battle was lost, and suddenly remembered he had a dentist’s appointment in Chattanooga.  By the end of that horrific day, the larger Confederate army had actually suffered greater casualties than the retreating Yankees.

That fall, Garfield was promoted to major general, but resigned his commission, as he’d been elected to Congress as a “Radical” Republican.  (In those days, “Radical” meant he was anti-slavery.)   Another Ohio politician-soldier, General Schenck, who had been assigned to keeping Maryland’s secessionists under control, was also elected to Congress.

Garfield and Schenck traveled through Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, speaking at Republican rallies.  On October 28, 1863, along with Salmon Chase, Garfield attended a mass pro-Union meeting and procession in Baltimore, promoting emancipation in a city where a mob had attacked Union troops on their way to Washington, only two years before.

But on 11/6/63, the Pittsburgh Daily Commercial printed this one-sentence news item:

“On Saturday night General Garfield was mobbed by a gang of Copperheads at Chestertown, Md.”

A few days later, another Pennsylvania paper reported

“Gen. Garfield, while speaking for the Union, in a strong slave-holding locality, in Maryland, was mobbed by a crowd of copperheads”.

This sounded exciting – – a pro-slavery mob in Chestertown, attacking a future President!

The only problem – – it just wasn’t true.

A few days later, a Cleveland paper printed a retraction:

Your correspondent telegraphed you…that General Garfield was mobbed…by a few Copperheads and slaveholding ruffians…it appears…that [this] was incorrect…”


The mob attack had been somewhat scaled back.

To one guy.

And a single egg.

So, mostly, a “cautionary tale” as they used to say.  The incident reveals a bit about taking news reports (then and now, in the Age of The Internet) with a grain of salt.  And a bit about Chestertown, and about Garfield — when he handled it with aplomb.  The reporter could not remember Garfield’s exact language, but reported the gist of it:


One scoundrel threw a bad egg at the General, whereupon…he coolly remarked that a few weeks since he was face to face with the companions of the miscreant on the field of battle.  “They carried more dangerous weapons,” said the General, “and as I did not run there, it is not probable that I shall run now;  and as I fought then, if necessary, I shall fight now!” 


The Cleveland Daily Leader reported it this way:

When somebody aimed a missile at General Garfield, during his speech in a pro-slavery Maryland neighborhood, the General quietly remarked that not long ago he had been meeting men on ‘Chickamauga creek, who defended the same cause with more dangerous weapons, and if it became his duty, he supposed he might renew the fight.’ 

They cheered the soldier politician to the echo, flogging some fellow soundly on suspicion,  though he earnestly protested that he didn’t throw the egg, and wound up by going off into a regular emancipation jubilee.  Residents, understanding the temper of the crowd, declared the rotten egg had made them dozens of votes in the immediate vicinity.

 Apparently, the crowd blamed the wrong person for the egg-throwing, but the beating he got from the Unionists “had an excellent moral effect upon the Copperheads present.”

egg beater 1885 patent

U.S. Patent Office

I believe attacks on politicians should be limited to debate, and maybe sarcasm, or even mockery — but not eggs, not spit, not rocks, not violence.

Garfield and daughter LOC

President Garfield with one of his children

Garfield deserved better.  He was smart, honest, and progressive.  He grew up poor, and worked his way through college, where he rose from janitor to president in just a few years (no wonder Horatio Alger wrote his campaign biography!) and also became both a minister and attorney.  As a volunteer soldier, who quickly became a respected general, he survived Shiloh and Chickamauga, and then campaigned for the civil rights of African-Americans.  He took office as President on his birthday, started reforms immediately…and 120 days later was shot in the back.

An insane person was able to walk into a store, buy a $10 handgun, and shoot President Garfield.  It took him another 80 days to die.

It’s too bad that people in our country don’t stick with words, and honest, courteous debate, face-to-face.  And if that’s just too old-fashioned, at least, stick to eggs.