Monday, January 4, 2010

‘An everyday hero from long ago’

Before getting too far into 2010, The Magpie Mason aims to report on several recent events from last year, playing catch up by bringing you “The Best of the Rest.”

Freemasonry in the United States often draws upon our country’s Colonial and Revolutionary histories for inspiration, especially here in the Northeast. We’re criticized for it, and maybe justly too, because the love of history does trump the need for esoterica when it’s time to do the work of Masonry. But the reality is, our landscape is abundant with sites associated with America’s Founding, and this matters to many of us. We live here. At the Valley of Northern New Jersey, we find ourselves geographically almost exactly between West Point and Trenton, and somewhat equidistant from Newark in the east, and Morristown to the west. Very fertile ground for history buffs, a fact that does not escape Freemasons here.

(This was on full display on October 31, when New Jersey Consistory conferred the 20°, titled “Master ad Vitam.” This degree, set inside a Masonic lodge in 1780, dramatizes Brother Washington’s investigation into Bro. Benedict Arnold’s treason at West Point. You know the historical Arnold story well. The degree was worked at the appropriately named Loyalty Lodge No. 33, which previously had been Washington Lodge No. 33, located in the Township of Union. Its surrounding neighborhood consists of streets named for practically every famous patriot hero of the American Revolution, and in fact the area had been involved in the Battle of Springfield, which was waged only about two weeks before Arnold’s treason. Loyalty Lodge was not chosen to be the location of the degree for these reasons. It just worked out that way.)

The December 1 meeting of Northern New Jersey Lodge of Perfection featured the visit of a historical figure who is both common soldier and somewhat of an immortal hero. Joseph Plumb Martin fought in the Revolution from its earliest days through the final battle in 1783. Not a general, but an enlisted man and later a sergeant in the Continental Army who was eyewitness to history, Martin traveled for many years after the war, giving lectures to citizens eager to hear “what it was really like” from one who knows firsthand. He participated in the battles of Brooklyn, White Plains, and Monmouth, among others. He was at Valley Forge, which he was quick to point out was not nearly as grueling as the winter of 1779-80 that he spent encamped at Morristown, where the snow reached eye level, and food was rarely provided. He also was at Tappan to see Major John André escorted to his execution for his role in the Arnold affair. Even this event has its Masonic connection, as Magpie readers know.

Martin’s wartime diary has been in print for generations, sometimes under the title “Yankee Doodle Boy,” and relates his first-hand accounts of a soldier’s life. He died in 1850, at age 89.

Well, let me begin at the beginning. Of course there is no necromancy in Freemasonry. Our guest lecturer was Mr. Eric Olsen, Park Ranger and historian at Jockey Hollow National Park in Morristown, who brought Martin to us for the evening. Speaking in detail about life in an army that suffered deprivation, desertion, and desperation, Martin told a lengthy story of both harrowing experiences and stretches of tedium, but also related a number of anecdotes revealing the lighter side of a soldier’s life during the Revolution. On the frightening side was the Battle of Mud Island. Located in the Delaware River between Pennsylvania and New Jersey, Mud Island’s Fort Mifflin and New Jersey’s Fort Mercer were crucial strategic points for cutting off the British who occupied Philadelphia. In October of 1777, British and Hessian forces that outnumbered the Colonial troops by 3:1 attacked. They lost. Where the Americans suffered 37 killed or wounded, the British-Hessian forces lost nearly nine times that, plus an additional 60 captured, and their commanding general died of his wounds. So soon after the loss of Philadelphia, this victory was a great boost to the Continental Army’s morale.

It has been all but forgotten by history, a development Martin attributes to the absence of any famous generals.

Attired in period garb, Martin explained the manufacture of his clothing and the purpose of his equipment, going as far as demonstrating the superiority of the bayonet over a sword in close combat... against the wife of one of our Past Masters. He explained how a soldier evaded punishment for playing cards by explaining to his superior officer that a deck of cards can be read symbolically as a prayer book or other aid for spiritual observance.
The ace represents the One True God. The deuce recalls the division of the Bible into two parts: Old and New Testaments. The three denotes the Holy Trinity. Four? The four evangelists of the Gospels, &c., &c.

The Magpie Mason, always looking for a Masonic angle to historical matters and knowing how American-Union Lodge was active at Morristown and elsewhere in Martin’s travels, asked Sgt. Martin if he had the chance to join a lodge.

“Oh, no. I know nothing of your arts and mysteries,” he replied, illustrating with his hands what he thought a grip might look like. In his experience, only the officers were initiated into the fraternity, he explained, adding that he was aware of the celebration on December 27, 1779 of the Feast of St. John the Evangelist at Morristown with General Washington in attendance. Martin surprised me with his knowledge of the affair, saying that he had learned that the traveling military lodge had sent to a lodge in Newark for the necessary Masonic paraphernalia for the lodge meeting. And in fact, in the annals of New Jersey Masonic history it is recorded that St. John’s Lodge No. 1, Ancient York Masons, in Newark had sent officers regalia and other lodge items to the encampment at Morristown for the occasion.

There is a lot more “Best of the Rest” of 2009, including the rededication of the Daniel D. Tompkins gravesite in New York City, and Fairless Hills Lodge’s banquet in Pennsylvania, both from November; and other memorable events, like the famous 1760 EA Degree from way back in September! I’ll try to get to them soon.

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