Remembrance of wars past, and a message from my ancestor

The Brits in America: A Veterans’ Day thought

4 minute read
Ten thousand British soldiers never saw their homeland again.
Ten thousand British soldiers never saw their homeland again.
Following World War I, Congress proclaimed November 11, 1919 as Armistice Day (later renamed Veterans Day) to mark the end of what was then considered "most horrible war in U.S. history." Not everyone supported that horrible war. Recall that Robert La Follette, Jeanette Rankin and close to 50 other members of Congress opposed it. The Socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs also opposed it and urged resistance to the military draft, which got him a ten-year prison sentence.

Many Americans would argue that the Civil War was our bloodiest and most horrible, with hundreds of thousands of young men marching, year after year, into gunfire. Was saving the Union— saving any union— worth 600,000 young lives? Was war necessary to do away with slavery? After all, during the 19th Century slavery was abolished sequentially throughout the Americas without violence— everywhere but in Haiti and the United States.

But the saddest wars of all, I would argue, are the wars of empire, when soldiers are sent abroad like Roman legions to protect the "strategic interests" of this or that nation, if not an empire.

Which brings me to the Brits in America and an ancestor of mine.

Whose revolution?

An estimated 10,000 British troops were killed in America while defending the British Empire— shot through the head, if not the lungs and throat. My three-times great-grandfather, Captain Bezaleel Bristol, while serving in the Connecticut Militia, shot quite a few— more than he cared to talk about. Lacking air transport to lift them back to the white cliffs of Dover, the Brits were buried in a foreign land, scattered here and there in the most remote graves, often without a marker.

By 1781, after six years of fighting, America's War for Independence was drawing to an end. The Boston newspapers began running dispatches about the "American Revolution," a term that Captain Bristol took issue with. Just whom, or what, he asked, was to be overthrown?

Breakfast with Washington

Captain Bristol drafted a letter to his commander in chief, General Washington, and then set off for Cogswell Tavern, where Washington stayed overnight in late May 1781. Over breakfast on May 25, Bristol made the case that his and other regiments had no intention of storming London and overthrowing King George III. His men just wanted the Brits out of here, and they wanted their sovereign state of Connecticut out of the British Empire.

This was not so much a "revolution," Bristol argued, but an armed struggle to withdraw from an oppressive empire.

That said, Captain Bristol complimented Washington on his interest in the Swiss system of defense, which called for a gun in every home and a regiment in each canton. He urged Washington to pursue this strategy more forcefully, lest our proud state militias one day be taken too far afield— as they would be indeed, a few decades later.

Invading Canada and Mexico

During the War of 1812, several regiments from the Ohio and New York militias refused to cross into Canada, claiming that their purpose under the Constitution was to repel an invasion at home, not to invade enemy territory in another country. Again in 1846, during the war with Mexico, several governors refused to allow their state militias to cross the Mexican border.

On November 12 this year, President Obama will once again address American veterans. But will he address the larger picture? Will he credit the hard-wrought lessons from our ancestors?

I have written to Obama in the past about empire. My letter was written in the spirit of Prince Peter Kropotkin, whose letters to Lenin went unanswered. Also in the spirit of Ho Chi Minh, whose cables to Woodrow Wilson went unanswered. And in the spirit of Hussein Onyango Obama, our president's Kenyan grandfather, who was imprisoned for two years by the British and who may have written— again without answer— to the prime minister then in charge: Winston Churchill.

An obscure cemetery

So let me take this occasion, as a veteran, to extend a modest invitation to my commander in chief:

Should you visit Philadelphia in the future, perhaps next Memorial Day, I would be honored if you would join me and other veterans for a visit to an obscure British cemetery in North Philadelphia (on Green Lane off North Broad Street), a quiet plot of land where some 30 British soldiers lie buried. If they could sit up in their red uniforms once more, just briefly, they'd welcome you to their final resting place. Then they'd urge you to speak of them, once soldiers of empire— and to speak of how so many soldiers, serving so many empires, come and go.

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