Monday, December 26, 2011

A Conversation with General George Washington

I first met General George Washington (a.k.a. Carl Closs, "Living Biographer") while visiting Valley Forge in 1998, the General standing in full uniform with a heavy, dark blue wool officer's coat keeping him warm as he greeted guests at the Park. With his cockaded three-cormered hat and 18th century sword, he is an impressive figure, his 6 foot 2 1/2 inch frame towering above the women and children coming to meet him. It was almost ten years later that we'd talk at length about our country, the Revolution and what America meant to him during an event at the historic Hale-Byrnes House near Newark, Delaware. This was the start of a great and very interesting friendship.

Carl explained to me, as we sat at a picnic table at the Hale-Byrnes House (where Washington, Lafayette and his other top Generals planned the looming Battle of the Brandywine in September 1777), that our country was not planned as a democracy- but as a republic. Since the times of the ancient Greeks, republics represented systems whereby citizens could voice their opinions and participate in decisions which would guide their own future. Our country was founded on these same principles and Closs (dressed superbly as General Washington)  explained to me the sacred values which were the foundation of this republic that he and his rag-tag Army fought for 235 years ago.

In the last year I've become good friends with this man, who despite his nearly 70 years of age shows the vitality of a 50-year old. I've talked with him about his thoughts on Washington, our system of government and what our country has become since the struggle began back in 1776. His depth of knowledge regarding the people and events which generated our system of government is truly inspiring.

Carl feels that Washington was- by far- our greatest President, not only because he agreed to lead our fragile democracy during its time of dire need and uncertainty, but because he engendered the virtues which we don't often see in today's politicians: honesty, humility, integrity, strong dedication to principle and devotion to a cause which they are willing to die for. Washington believed deeply in Divine Providence- that God guided him and the other Founding Fathers to pursue a sacred cause: liberty. Washington's fervent support for "The Cause" (he rarely used the word "revolution" or "war") was in large part the reason why we succeeded not only against the British, but also in the early desperate years as a fledgling republic. You can feel this devotion as he speaks; as you view his towering frame and graying ponytail, you sense the presence of his hero, our greatest President, George Washington.

Thank you, Carl... and deepest thanks to the General, without whom we wouldn't be having this discussion. God bless you, General Washington... your devotion lives on today in this man... and in the hearts and minds of millions of patriots who now have the ability to call themselves free Americans. To learn more about Carl Closs, go to his website at

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Night at Historic Fort Mifflin in Philadelphia- Our "Sleep With the Ghosts" Adventure

On Saturday October 15th, 2011 my wife and I along with two others drove out to Old Fort Mifflin, one of the few remaining, fully intact Colonial-era forts from the Revolutionary War in the mid-Atlantic region. The Fort is located just South of Philadelphia along the Delaware River and under the flight path of planes approaching Philadelphia International Airport, a noisy reminder of the dramatic changes in technology we've seen in the 235 years since our struggle for independence began. The Fort had advertized a "Sleep With the Ghosts" night, which apparently has attracted dozens of both professional ghost hunters and thrill seekers over the past few years. As someone with a scientific education and working background, I was initially hesitant when my wife Phyllis asked if I was interested in the event. Yet I quickly jumped onto the opportunity, having her book it as I shared my analytic curiosity in potentially experiencing something quite fascinating or at the least, entertaining. We told two family members that we'd bought them tickets and were all excited as the day neared.

As we drove up to the location, the bleak landscape with tawny-grey wild grasses and muddy, pebble-strewn paths reminded us that the Fort was originally named Mud Island, Colonial planners constructing an earthen fortification in hopes of guarding this marshy portion of the approach to the port and capitol Philadelphia, protecting against possible attacks from the British Navy. Leaving the parking area, part of our group went to the main facility outside the Fort walls to register, while I walked slowly around the antiquated moat which rims the structure. I quickly noticed a man riding a large tractor/mower cruising toward me. As he stopped, we started to chat about the event planned for that evening.

"I heard a while back, a groundskeeper here stumbled into a ditch, which was discovered to be the now-famous Casement #11- the one that's supposed to be haunted by some Civil War soldier who died here."

"That would be me. I'm the groundskeeper. Name's Floyd and I was the one who tripped and almost fell into the Casement."

Staring at him as he spoke, I noticed he kept his head tilted, with one eye slightly lower than the other, giving him an eerie look. "I'm Gene. Good to meet you, Floyd. Very interesting. Do you get much time to check out the Casement and other parts of the Fort? It's supposed to be haunted. I think there's been several ghost-hunting crews here that even got them on film."

"Yeah, I've seen them. I live here."

The last three words sent a shiver up my back, but I turned as I heard the group approaching. "Well, good to talk with you, Floyd. Our group is here." He drove off, his head still slightly cocked as he stared at me.

"That's the guy!! He was the groundskeeper who discovered Casement #11."

"Really? That's interesting. We can go inside now, we're all registered." Phyllis put the receipt in her purse as I pulled the suitcase on its wheels toward the entrance gate. After we got situated in our rooms, we ate hoagies on the earthen bank of the Fort as the sunset bathed the area in a golden shimmer, the last rays enveloping us as we walked back to our room. With darkness surrounding our group of 15, we were led to a small room near the Officer's Barracks where a Paranormal Group led by a 35-ish woman with a bright red ponytail shared their experiences at Fort Mifflin.

"I've been here many times over the last few years and I've gotten some wild stuff on these recordings. I want you all to hear just a few..." As she pressed the "PLAY" button, the computer screen showed the noise levels with rising and falling columns denoting sound intensity. The first recording, with its apparent "ghost" voice, was nothing more than a muffled indecipherable noise, but the next two were captivating, many people in our group leaning closer as she replayed each "event". Armed with the knowledge that these professional techno- ghosthunters were firm in their conviction that we were surrounded by spirits, we all walked with flashlights out ino the starry night.

"Let's not go to Casement #11 right now. It'll be too crowded. We can check out the other sites along the edges."

Going into the Blacksmith's shop, the Officer's Quarters and several other building from the 1820- 1865 period, we saw and heard... nothing... but when we finally got to Casement #11, where William Hauk was kept and later tried as a prisoner of war for having killed a Union officer, things changed. Hauk had been hanged right there at the Fort and died there. Two people in our group said they were certain they heard a woman screaming in the distance- and Phyllis' sister Sue saw a rock thrown at her feet- when there was no one else nearby. I stayed most of the time outside the Casement, keeping my flashlight ready, growing sleepy sitting on the cold, damp wall. We all went to bed, with me thinking that I hadn't seen any evidence whatsoever of other-worldly creatures.

I awoke about 5:30 a.m. and walked down to the far end of the barracks in a bitingly cold breeze to use the restroom. When I came out, I turned off my flashlight as the night gave way to the twilight of the dawn. As I stood looking at a large grey-white patch of cement on the side of a building in the center of the complex, I noticed two figures approaching in the dim, charcoal-grey morning. One was much taller, I assumed to be a man, alongside perhaps his wife, coming toward me to use the facilities. As they passed in front of the white patch of wall, I clearly saw their silhouettes despite the limited visibility. Then I watched them come closer and their shadows... disappeared. I looked again and noticed there was no one there- no people approaching me... and I walked back to join the group warming themselves in front of the fireplace in the building nearby.

"Well- I don't believe in ghosts, but I just saw something I can't explain. I noticed two people walking toward me as I stood out in front of the restroom just now... and they just... vanished..." After discussing it for several minutes with the ghosthunters, I tried to analyze what I'd seen. I could only arrive at one conclusion- it was unexplainable.

We packed up the car and departed for our home in Kennett Square- and I replayed the image over and over again in my mind. "I do believe that our energy never ends- never dies. In that sense, perhaps there is a force, a presence of those who've gone before us- some people call them ghosts- and what I saw was a manifestation of that."

"So- you're a believer now?" Phyllis asked as we got onto I-95 heading South.

"I think... I am..." I said as I watched a United Airlines 747 roar above Old Fort Mifflin.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Raising the 15-Star Flag at Fort McHenry

The Fourth of July Holiday to many brings thoughts of barbecues, sunshine at the beach and family gatherings. This past Fourth of July was a very special one for me, as I had the opportunity to do something few people ever do. On a five-day vacation in the Baltimore/Annapolis area, I planned to see some of the historic sites I'd not experienced before. On Thursday June 30th, 2011 my wife and I visited the Maryland Historical Society's (MHS) headquarters in downtown Baltimore. That night was a unique occasion-- as they were unveiling the original document- the Star Spangled Banner poem written by Francis Scott Key as he witnessed "the bombs bursting in air..." over Fort McHenry during its bombardment by the British on September 13th and 14th, 1814. The MHS was "bringing it back home" after its recent stay at the Fort. The Star-Spangled Banner will now reside permanently in the Society's collection, a gem amongst hundreds of other notable artifacts in their archives.

On Friday, July 1st we went over early to Fort McHenry and I was honored in being allowed to raise the 15-Star Flag up the flagpole into the bright sunshine of a glorious day. I was thrilled in being given this opportunity, as I'd assumed only National Park Service personnel would be allowed that duty. Seeing the flag waving in the light breeze, I could hear the bombs bursting overhead and imagined myself on the ship out in the harbor, standing with Francis Scott Key, peering into the early morning light... to see that... our flag was still there.

If you plan to visit Fort McHenry, you'll find their new Visitor Center quite impressive, with a 20-minute film on the War of 1812, the history of the Fort and the heroes who fought there. For a chance to raise the flag, be sure to get there before 9:30 a.m. and ask one of the rangers if you can assist them. Whether it be the Fourth of July or any other day during the year, you'll feel as I did... the honor and the gratitude for the efforts of all the brave men and women who've kept this country safe... "O'er the land of the free... and the home...of the brave..."

Saturday, May 14, 2011

A Trip to Spackman's Farm- and back to the Battle of the Brandywine...

On Saturday, April 30th 2011 I visited Tom Spackman who owns the Thornbury Farm just off of Birmingham Road, north of scenic Chadds Ford, Pa. Tom had attended my lecture on the Marquis de Lafayette at the West Chester Country Club given for the Rotary Club of West Chester and enjoyed it so much, he invited me and the entire audience to visit him on his estate. It lies along the battlefield where George Washington's troops- including the young Marquis de Lafayette- fought the British on September 11, 1777 in the Battle of the Brandywine.

Tom was a very gracious host, taking us for a walk through his 250-year old red barn where some very friendly cats begged to be petted. He showed us the edge of the valley where the British under General Howe pursued Generals Sullivan, Stephen and Stirling, culminating in the bloody engagement in and around the nearby Birmingham Meeting House. The largest land battle in North America up until the Civil War raged late in the day as the Colonials were overwhelmed in intense fighting around the hillsides. Lafayette was wounded in the left leg nearby at Sandy Hollow and taken off the field. Casimir Pulaski gave support with his forces on horseback, becoming the Father of the U.S. Cavalry in this battle. By early evening on September 11th, Washington realized he'd been flanked and retreated to Chester, Pa. His quick and orderly retreat, saving his army from a potentially disastrous ending became his hallmark- a general who knew "when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em", surviving to fight another day.

We walked up the ridge which stands about 200 yards from stately serpentine stone houses that were there at the time of the battle, along a small ravine where a creek runs down toward the valley floor. The Colonials followed the creek up a steep slope where the surrounding rock walls rose over twelve feet above them as they tried to avoid fire from Howe's troops nearby. At the crest of the hill you can see the grassy field and Sandy Hollow, now filled with wildflowers where blood once flowed from patriots trying to thwart the British attack. Today a blacktop walking path winds along the edge of the field, leading up to a house whose yard holds a monument to Lafayette erected by local school children to honor his bravery. The cream colored, weathered column is fringed with a black, wrought iron gate and inscribed with a description of Lafayette's triumphant return visit to West Chster in 1825 to re-live that valiant scene from 234 years ago. Lafayette would go on to participate in six other battles, including the dramatic victory over Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown on October 19th, 1781, ending the American Revolutionary War.

With few supplies and a Continental Congress which was tardy at best in making appropriations, Lafayette came at the right time. As we hiked up the shady, tree-covered hill where he and the troops dodged musket balls and walked out into the bright sunlight, I could feel his presence... standing there late in the day, encouraging the troops to resist the attack as the battlefield changed hands five times. No marker stands where he was wounded- but as a light breeze blew the wildflowers in their early Spring repose, I heard his voice... and could sense his spirit... His heroism and monetary support- along with his undying loyalty to General George Washington- helped secure our independence, earning him the title "Founding Son" of the American Revolution.