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History As A Cure

July 2024
3min read

Not long ago two teen-age boys in New York City got into trouble with the law. The police laid hands on them as juvenile delinquents, and in due course the boys appeared in court. Judge J. Randall Creel, of Magistrates’ Court, faced the tough problem that confronts jurists in such cases: should he send the boys off to jail forthwith, or should he see whether they might not be able to straighten themselves out? He decided on the latter course, and in looking for a means of rehabilitation he selected an unusual instrument: American history.

He gave these high school youngsters a historical research job to do.

They should forthwith (he told them) make a study of the Battle of Long Island—an important struggle in the Revolutionary War, in which General Washington’s army narrowly escaped destruction when the British commander, General Howe, landed an overpowering force on Long Island late in August of 1776. They would find, he suggested, that utter disaster for the American cause was averted because of a valiant rear-guard action fought by a regiment of the Maryland line. Let them, therefore, go to the sources and find out all they could about this action; having done this, each boy must submit a paper, describing what had happened, citing his sources, and bringing out what the gallant stand of the embattled Marylanders meant to future generations of Americans. By the jobs they did he would determine whether or not they had reinstated themselves as reliable junior members of their community.

The boys went to work, and eventually they presented their papers. They had done a good deal of hard work. They had traced the movements of the different troops engaged. They had run down the historic markers which (largely ignored by present-day citizens) show where the actions took place. They had found out all they could about the gallant old Maryland battalion, and they had gone to the trouble of listing the names and ranks of all the Marylanders who were killed or captured in the fight. And it seems that this excursion into American history had been a powerful medicine for good. These boys learned something—about their own home city (for they live in Brooklyn, and the battle they investigated had been fought along what are now the familiar streets and squares and parks of their own neighborhood), about the price a former generation had to pay for American freedom and happiness, and about the way in which boys of their own age, long ago, met a profound challenge.

Specifically: in their research into the history of the Battle of Long Island, these boys learned that a spirited rear-guard action by a regiment of Maryland soldiers—the 5th Maryland Infantry, under Colonel William Smallwood—had kept the American defeat from becoming a complete, irremediable disaster. The Marylanders fought a delaying action which enabled the bulk of Washington’s army to get away. Four or five hundred of them charged a British strong point, losing more than half of their numbers and going down at last to bloody defeat, but gaining the important fragments of time that enabled the beaten Continental army to get away clean and live to fight another day.

They found out that the Maryland soldiers who saved the day were simply boys like themselves. They dug out the old muster rolls, which gave each man’s name and age. Down the long columns, in faded archaic script, were the scanty records of boys who dared everything and gave everything more than a century and a half ago—and most of them turned out to be lads of eighteen or nineteen. This probably meant that they were even younger than that; boys usually add a year or two to their ages when they enlist in wartime. The Marylanders, in other words, were early teen-agers, who faced up to something big before they had got out of adolescence simply because youth wants nothing in all the world so much as the chance to respond to a real challenge. Life was good to them; it gave them the challenge, they met it—and today, as a direct result, we have an American nation.

One of the two boys, writing about the battle, expressed himself like this:

“If the youth of today is not conscious of the historical background of Long Island, the battle I will now unfold will make him so. I will, therefore, endeavor to show you what today’s youth could and should be capable of as compared to those who fought to preserve their rights as individuals. … It was merely lads of seventeen and eighteen who fought and died making this supreme sacrifice in defense of the preservation of the American Army and their fight for independence.”

The other boy, carried away by the story of the fight, found himself writing in the best vein of the military historian:

”…Thrice again these brave young Marylanders charged upon the house, once driving the gunners from their pieces within its shadow; but numbers overwhelmed them, and for twenty minutes the fight was terrible. Washington, Putnam and other General Officers who witnessed it … saw the overwhelming force with which their brave compatriots were contending, and held their breath in suspense and fear.… Washington wrung his hands, in the intensity of his emotion, and exclaimed: ‘Good God, what brave fellows I must this day lose!’”

History—need it be repeated?—is not just a recital of dry-as-dust events out of the musty past. It is the story of human beings, eternally meeting a challenge, eternally proving that the stuff of common humanity is capable of meeting all the hard chances of fate, always proving that when we find out what people were able to do in times of trial, years ago, we end by finding out what we ourselves can do when trouble comes along, as it always does.

Thanks to an intelligent jurist, two problem boys ended up with an understanding of these simple truths. They found they had not merely been prowling about in the musty outskirts of long-dead history—they had been looking into youth itself, and human life, and the values that are inseparable from these. They found, in short, themselves; which is to say that they found an ideal to live up to, which is about as much as any man can hope to find.

—Bruce Catton

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