Crossing the Delaware

Author’s Note: This is part 4 in a series about the Regiment that manned the boats for Washington’s Delaware River crossing. They were called the Marblehead Regiment, named for the town on the Massachusetts seacoast from which they hailed. In the last half of 1776, this extraordinary group of soldiers saved the American Revolution at least 4 times. I am writing this series through the eyes of Captain William Blackler, who piloted Washington’s boat across the Delaware River on Christmas night, 1776. This year is the 240th anniversary of the Crossing of the Delaware.Soldiers marching to Mcconkey's Ferry

Around 4pm on Christmas Day, 1776, the muster was called on the West Bank of the Delaware River. The troops of Washington’s Continental Army assembled in formation. It was something they did each day. But today there was a different feeling in the air. The soldiers were told they were to march to a place called McConkey’s Ferry. But they weren’t told where they would be going from there. They were ordered to take 60 rounds of ammunition per man and to maintain a strict silence.

Officers were given a white piece of paper to be pinned to the backs of their hats. It was so their men could follow them, even in darkness. They were expected to lead from the front.

The weather hovered around freezing and there was a driving icy rain. It soaked already tattered uniforms. The men walked the few miles to McConkey’s Ferry in utter quiet, focused and serious. The cowards and shirkers and “sunshine patriots” had long ago abandoned the Cause. The snow on the path stained red from wounded feet releasing blood into ground through cracked and broken shoes. Still they continued to walk in silence.

As they reached McConkey’s Ferry, the rain began to freeze and turned to sleet and hail. Colonel John Glover’s Marblehead Regiment finished moving the last of the Durham Boats to the ferry. The boats had been hidden upriver under piles of brush to keep them from the British, and to make preparation McConkey's Ferryfor the endeavor they were about to undertake.

The Delaware River at the point of crossing was about 800 feet across. It was swollen from the rain that had fallen and was at flood stage. They were to cross at the narrowest point of the river. Yet the constricted channel meant that the current flowed even more swiftly.

The river has its origins in upstate New York, and there its waters had already begun to freeze. The ice had broken apart and traveled downriver in large ice floes that appeared smaller than they actually were.

At 5:30 pm the sun set. In the gathering dark, Washington’s troops assembled at Mc Conkey’s Ferry. There was nearly a full moon that night, but it was obscured completely by the storm. Blocked by clouds that expended their wrath upon the chilled soldiers standing by the river. But perhaps it was a mercy, albeit a harsh one, because the clouds would help shield the Continental soldiers from unfriendly eyes.

Captain William Blackler

The final fading embers of twilight were extinguished in the distance. I wiped the rain from my eyes. We pulled the first of the boats up to the dock. McConkey’s Ferry only had space to load 2 boats at a time. Washington wanted all the troops across by midnight. Colonel Glover had told his Excellency it was impossible, but his men would try to do the impossible.

I gathered my company by the dock. “We are crossing the Delaware to march on the village of Trenton. Our regiment is to man the boats during the crossing. Each boat will need 5 crew. An officer to command and to steer the craft, 2 men in the middle to row and 2 in the front with 18 foot poles to deal with the ice and keep us on course.”

There was an uneasy silence as my men grappled with the reality of the charge before us. “These conditions are as bad as any we have faced on the open ocean. Those that know the weather here believe this storm will only intensify.

“The Durham Boats are light and they are stable. But they are long and will be vulnerable to damage from the ice floes. There will be 30 to 40 men in each boatload. If a boat sinks out on the river every man aboard will die. Most cannot swim, but even among us who can, our gear, the coldness of the water, the ice floes, and the swiftness of the current will all conspire to drown us.” I paused. “We will not lose a single man out there. Not on my watch. Is that understood?”

The men nodded. They spoke as one. “Yes sir.”

I looked across the river. “This night’s labor will be exhausting. Even more so than the night of rowing back and forth from Long Island to Manhattan Island last summer to evacuate the army. But this night we are not on retreat. We go to attack an enemy that has put the Continental Army to flight time and again. An enemy that has shot surrendered soldiers in the head and stabbed them in the back with the bayonet. Tonight we are on the attack. Once all are across this river, we must be ready to march the 10 miles to Trenton to fight the Hessians. Our regiment is to lead the army into Trenton. We are being entrusted with the fate of the army and of the country this night. Gentlemen, I know we will not fail.”

To a man they looked me in the eye. They were ready.

Moments after I finished addressing my men, his Excellency General Washington rode onto the dock and dismounted. With him were Colonel Glover and Colonel Henry Knox. Together these 2 colonels were to command the crossing. Glover would oversee the loading of the men into the Durham Boats and Knox the loading of his artillery and horses onto wide flat ferry boats. All 18 cannon were to be brought with us this night.

The sleet and hail intensified and the howling of the wind increased. Sunlight faded completely and the moon was obscured. It was difficult to hear and almost impossible to see. Colonel Knox, a massive man, taller than Washington, and with “stentorian” lungs, was the only one who could be heard at any distance above the howling of the wind and the sharp clacking of the sleet as it fell.

A regiment from Maryland was loaded into the first 2 boats and they pushed off from the dock.

As 2 more boats were brought to McConkey’s Ferry, Colonel Glover approached me. “Captain Blackler,” he said in the hearing of my men. “General Washington wishes to cross now to lead the men by example, for many among them think this storm and the swollen river to be a bad omen. Many of his generals and staff will cross with him. You are to pilot his boat across the river. I do not have to tell you the seriousness of the charge you are being given.”

I could not help but smile. “Yes sir. I understand completely.”

He placed his hand on my shoulder. “I know you understand. This night we finally go on the attack. Get them there alive and whole Captain Blackler.”

“We will not lose a man, you have my word.”

Glover left and returned with his Excellency. I took General Washington’s hand and helped this tall, strong man onto the waiting Durham Boat. In turn I Painting of Washington's Crossingassisted General Nathaniel Greene and General John Sullivan, his 2 division commanders, onto the craft as well. Among the others I helped onboard was young Captain James Monroe.

Durham Boats look like giant canoes. They are about 40 to 60 feet long and 8 feet wide in the middle. They taper to a point at each end. They are made for hauling cargo down the Delaware River to Philadelphia and ports farther south. Cargo like coal, iron ore, pig iron, and whiskey. The sides are about 4 feet high. Since they are flat-bottomed, they have a shallow draft. Even when fully loaded with iron ore, they only sink 2 feet at most into the water. The cargo would be much lighter tonight. The boats would almost be able to reach the opposite shore before the men disembarked.

All the men stood in the boat. To sit down would have meant soaking one’s posterior in the 2 inches or so of rain and slush that had already accumulated at the bottom of the boat. My men and I took up our positions and we pushed off the dock at McConkey’s Ferry.

We had only to journey 800 feet, but what an 800 feet it would be. It might be the most treacherous stretch of water we had ever traversed. I could not see 5 feet in front of me much less as far as the opposite shore. It also meant any Hessian or British scouts would have difficulty seeing us. Ice floes had gathered near the West Bank and my men at the front of the boat had to push them out of the way with the poles. It was slow work and it was several minutes before we even reached open water. The men in front walked on raised platforms that left them standing less than 2 feet below the rim of the boat. They were in constant danger from falling into the river from the sleet slick wooden ledges, but there was no way we could cross otherwise.

Once we were free of the initial ice jam, the men in the middle began to row. But even with their synchronized strong swift strokes, the violent current almost immediately began to pull us down river. Steering in the back of the boat was almost useless in these conditions. I grabbed a pole and jammed it into the river bottom to push us back upstream and to keep us on course. My men in front did the same. About every third stroke, the rower on the left side of the boat hit his oar against an ice floe. There was a sickening crack as a particularly large chuck of ice crashed against the side of the boat. I fully expected the craft to spring a leak.

Officers with swords literally leapt to the left side of the craft. They unsheathed their swords and thrust them into the water as if to slay the approaching ice floes. They were able to hold many of the floes at bay until the boat had moved past them. General Washington was the most active among them. As we neared the middle of the river, I saw him stab again at another approaching chunk of ice. His saber disappeared from him as if it was ripped from his hand. The tip had broken off in the ice and his sword was claimed by the river.

The storm grew into a full nor’easter and the wind approached hurricane strength. It blew the sleet and hail almost horizontally into our faces. We were moving against the wind. I still could not see the light at Johnson’s Ferry on the East Bank of the Delaware.

The men kept their silence. Everyone was focused and sober. The rowers continued their strong pull strokes. The oars were slowly being coated in a layer of ice. Water was freezing to the poles as well. I kept jamming the pole into the river and pushing to keep us on course. The men in front struggled to keep their balance as they did the same. Officers kept stabbing at the ice floes they could see. Other chunks of ice kept slamming into the side of the boat from the north.

At length I saw a faint light to the east. It grew stronger as we approached the shore. The private soldiers in front each raised an arm for the rowers to halt their pull strokes. They jammed their poles into the river bottom and brought us to a halt. We had reached the ice pack on the East Bank of the Delaware. Slowly, methodically, they pulled the floes out of the way, one at a time.

We came within a dozen feet of the river’s edge before having to stop. If we went any further we were in danger of running the craft aground. One by one the men clambered onto the ledges in front. I and my men helped his excellency and his officers and staff out of the boat. They were still up to their knees in the icy Delaware River when they first stepped out of the boat. But it was far better than being up to one’s waist.

After the last man disembarked, the polers pushed off. The ice floes they had pushed out of the way had already been replaced by new ones. They had to spend several minutes clearing a path back to the main river channel.

I was relieved. We had ferried his Excellency and his commanding generals across. Though Washington has lost his saber, we had not lost a single man.

The crossing back to McConkey’s Ferry was easier without the weight of passengers. We were getting into a rhythm for the night. I said a silent prayer of thanks for the divine protection of Providence. I knew I would never forget ferrying Washington across the Delaware on Christmas.

Our next boatload was a regiment from Connecticut. The officers again rose to the occasion to fight off the ice floes. I was encouraged to see the fight. Men no longer waiting to be attacked, but attacking. It boded well for the battle to come against the Hessians in Trenton.

By around 1 in the morning we had everyone across. All the Durham Boats were pulled up on shore. We wanted to make sure they did not get pulled down the river with the current.

It was the time to bring the artillery across. Our entire regiment crossed back over on the wide flat ferry boats that plied the river. They had been designed to transport a coach and four across the Delaware. They were about 12 feet wide and around 45 feet long. They were very difficult to get through the ice because they were so wide. They were surrounded by a low wooden wall. At either end, the wall was hinged at the bottom. It could be swung down and used as a ramp.

The horses could be ridden right onto the ferry boats. The cannon still had to be carried a short distance. Even with a half dozen or more men on each cannon, it was arduous work. Ice had formed on the cannon and they were difficult to grasp.

It took another 2 hours to get all the cannon and horses across the East Bank of the Delaware.

By 4 in the morning, the ranks were formed up and ready to March. We took the lead in General Sullivan’s column. It had started to snow.

My next blog post will be about the night march to Trenton and the battle that followed.

If you want to read more about the history of religious freedom, check out my historical novel Taking the Cross. It is about the beginnings of religious freedom movements.

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Outnumbered Six to One by the British: The Marblehead Regiment and The Battle of Pell’s Point

Author’s Note: This is part 3 in a series about the Regiment that manned the boats for Washington’s Delaware River crossing. They were called the Marblehead Regiment, named for the town on the Massachusetts seacoast from which they hailed. In the last half of 1776, this extraordinary group of soldiers saved the American Revolution at least 4 times. I am writing this series through the eyes of Captain William Blackler, who piloted Washington’s boat across the Delaware River on Christmas night, 1776.

After taking New York City, the British moved to trap the American army on Manhattan Island. In 1776, the only bridge from Manhattan Island to the Ships at Spithead 1797. Sceptre. King George, Hudson's BayCompany. Rodney, East Indiaman. Ganges. Perseverence. General Goddard, East Indiaman'. watercolour by Nicholas.mainland was at the far northern end of the island at a place called Kingsbridge. In an attempt to reach Kingsbridge before Washington and his army, the British landed nearly 4000 troops at a place called Pell’s Point. It is now part of the Bronx.

Colonel John Glover and his brigade, which included the Marblehead Regiment, had been placed by Washington at Pell’s Point. On the morning of October 18th, looking through his spyglass, Glover watched the British land about a mile from where he was stationed.

Captain William Blackler

The mass of ship’s masts appeared on the surface of Pelham Bay at first light. It was as if a forest of tall straight trees had grown out of the murky depths overnight. From those ships bristling with cannon, a multitude of smaller boats were launched in quick succession, loaded with armed redcoats. It appeared the entire British army was concentrating for an attack upon Pell’s Point.

They were at most 1 mile from our position.

Colonel Glover handed me his spyglass. “Will, what is your estimate of their numbers?”

I did a quick count of the number of ships and the number of landing craft. “Sir, there are thousands of British and Hessians troops rowing across the bay. I estimate their strength to be between 4000 and 5000. That is only from the ships we can see. What if more arrive?”

I turned around to look at our own troops stationed along the main road that ran the length of Pell’s Point. “Our own numbers are not more than 800, sir.”

Glover shook his head. “750. We are not even 800. Your count of the enemy’s strength matches my own. We could be outnumbered more than 6 to 1.” He exhaled and gazed off into the distance. “Our own General Lee is at least 3 miles away. Those accursed lobsterbacks will be upon us before Lee can send reinforcements to our aid. What I would not give for his expertise right now.”

“Sir, with all deference, I believe Lee would tell you to retreat, to run for the hills as it were.” I cleared my throat, thinking I had exceeded my bounds. “What will you do sir?”

He rose to his feet. “I cannot let them pass. They are but a few miles march from Kingsbridge. If they reach Kingsbridge today they will halt the retreat of our own Continental Army from Manhattan.” He raised his arms toward the heavens as he stretched. “No sir, we must hold them here. They will be coming down a narrow road lined with stone walls. We use the walls to our advantage. We must hold at least long enough for Washington to get the troops off Manhattan Island.” He turned and started walking briskly back down the hill.

I ran to catch up. “What are your orders?”

Glover increased his pace, his look determined and focused. “They will send an advance guard up the road. We must meet it and force them to deploy all their troops here.”

“Very well sir. Where do you want me and my men?”

Glover told me I was to meet their advance guard with my company and another company from Colonel Loammi Baldwin’s regiment. I would command both companies. The road that runs the length of Pell’s Point ascends a hill from Pelham Bay to a ridgeline and then descends into a small valley dotted with farms. We would hold the British in that valley. The properties were separated by stone walls that varied between 3 and 4 feet in height. We were to meet the advance guard of redcoats just as they reached the crest of the hill at the ridgeline.

I gathered my men and told them of the honor we had been accorded. They were enthusiastic and itching for a fight. We formed up and began marching up the hill toward the ridgeline. A scout atop the hill motioned that the British were close and there were a large number of Hessians with them. Their advance guard was perhaps 100 men. I had at most 40 under my command.

Battle of Pell's Point Bird's Eye View CroppedWe saw the hats of the Grenadiers first. Grenadiers were the elite of the British army. To a man they were required to be over six feet tall and were extraordinarily strong. They were often sent in first to intimidate the enemy.

But a musket can kill a seven foot man as easily as a five foot one.

I stretched my force across the road from stone wall to stone wall, twenty men abreast and staggered two deep. We could see the faces of the grenadiers now. I raised my right arm. “Front line aim!”  The grenadiers were now exposed from the waist up. They could see us now and neither halted their march nor raised their muskets to fire, as if in their presumed superiority they could just walk right over us. “Fire!”

Twenty muskets balls were let loose by the explosion of gunpowder in the barrels. Hot lead tore into British flesh and the first row of Grenadiers crumpled to earth.

The ones behind stepped over the fallen and kept walking. Their discipline was amazing. They would not form up until all the advance guard had crested the hill.

The first row of my boys kneeled as they reloaded and the second row raised their muskets into position. “Aim!” I drew in as large a breath as I could manage. I released the word with all the force within me. “Fire!”

The second row of grenadiers flinched but did not turn aside. As many in their ranks fell to ground, the entire British advance guard crested the hill and formed up along the ridgeline. Yet because the stone walls constricted the road, their formation was no more than twenty abreast like ours. They let loose their first volley. Either their position atop the hill threw off their aim or they were rattled, because most of their lead shot passed over our heads. Two of our men were grazed by musket balls in the shoulder, the rest were untouched.

We continued exchanging volleys and they continued to absorb more casualties than us. After we had loaded and fired maybe eight times, the scout signaled that the rest of the lobsterbacks had nearly reached the crest of the hill.

That was our signal to fall back. By my count, we had suffered 1 dead and 3 injured. They had suffered many more.

The road was lined on either side by stone walls, but walls of field stone also ran perpendicular to the narrow road as they formed the boundary lines between these small New York farms. My troops that had met the British advance guard were the only ones among our entire Brigade that were visible to the British. Hundreds of Redcoats crested the hill and quickened their march as they entered the valley. It would have appeared to them that my force of 40 men was the only opposition they would face this morn. I marched my men double quick to the far end of the little valley behind a massive boulder that photo of Glover's rockflanked the road.

The British and Hessians pursued, their faces eager for the kill. When they came within perhaps 20 yards of one of the perpendicular stone walls, Colonel Loammi Baldwin’s regiment rose up from hiding behind the wall. They fired without even waiting for an officer to give the order. I had known what was coming but I was still shocked by the speed of it all.

The British absorbed the withering volley. If they continued to march forward, this was going to be like Bunker Hill for them all over again.

A second wave rose up from behind the same wall and fired again. The surprise was complete. My pulse quickened with excitement. This was the closest I had even seen redcoats come to losing their formation entirely. They regrouped, formed up and returned fire.

But Colonel Baldwin’s men, with their muskets resting upon the wall, had only part of their heads exposed and nothing more. They kept reloading and firing. More British and Hessian casualties fell to earth and clogged the road. There were perhaps 2000 troops under British command in the valley now with more cresting the ridgeline each moment. The British fixed bayonets and charged the stone wall with a great hue and cry.

stone wall at Pell's PointColonel Baldwin’s men fell back as planned and took refuge behind another wall some yards distant. The British pursued as if they had yet again won the day. When the redcoats came within 15 yards of the next stone wall, Colonel Read’s men rose and fired almost point blank into the charging lobsterbacks. The British formation completely came apart as the men behind tripped over the ones who had fallen in the front. A second wave of Colonel Read’s men rose and fired into the confused mass of British and Hessian soldiers. It was evident the enemy clearly had no sense of how many of us there were.

On Colonel Glover’s signal, I moved my men quickly from behind the boulder to the next wall where we lay in wait with Colonel Shepherd’s men.

By now over 4000 British and Hessian troops were in the valley and they were being held at a complete standstill by Colonel Read’s 200 private soldiers and skeleton crew of officers. They just kept reloading and firing. Lead balls and gunpowder rammed down barrels, steel sparking against flint. The British were pushed back. At length they reformed and charged straight into another volley as more redcoats fell and caused one another to tumble to ground.

Colonel Read’s men fell back behind another wall and the British charged down the road again. When they were within about 20 yards of another wall near the far end of the valley, we rose up with Colonel Sheperd’s men from behind the wall and let loose many pounds of hot lead. Colonel Baldwin’s men rose up from behind another wall and flanked the British. They were pouring musket balls into the side of a Hessian formation and were nearly behind the enemy.

The British pulled back and retreated up the road toward the middle of the valley. Colonel Glover was beside me firing his brace of silver pistols. I could hear his voice over the din of battle. “If we only possessed even half their number we could totally annihilate them here!”

The British reformed and charged again but our men held their ground. We had killed hundreds of redcoats this day and hundreds more lay wounded.

We did not have even half their numbers. Even with all their casualties, they still outnumbered us at least 5 to 1. Colonel Glover led us in a fighting, tactical retreat as we slowly withdrew from the back end of the valley. If we remained, we were in danger of running out of ammunition. We had to get resupplied. They continued to charge and we continued to inflict casualties. I think they could not believe we refused to run away.

In our slow withdrawal, we left behind a rear guard of snipers to harass them,  and they did not pursue us. They remained in the valley and did not advance.

We moved north toward White Plains and word reached us that the retreat of all American troops from Manhattan Island was now complete. Someday the entire Continental Army would turn and fight an offensive battle against the British and their Hessian mercenaries.

I hoped that day was soon.


The next blog post through the eyes of Captain William Blackler is coming on Christmas. It will be about the crossing of the Delaware itself. December 25, 2016, is the 240th anniverary of Washington crossing the Delaware.

If you want to read more about the history of religious freedom, check out my historical novel Taking the Cross. It is about the beginnings of religious freedom movements.

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“Stand and Fight or I’ll Shoot you Myself!” The Redcoats Invade New York City 1776

Author’s Note: This is part 2 in a series about the Regiment that manned the boats for Washington’s Delaware River crossing. They were called the Marblehead Regiment, named for the town on the Massachusetts seacoast from which they hailed. In the last half of 1776, this extraordinary group of soldiers saved the American Revolution at least 4 times. I am writing this series through the eyes of William Blackler, who piloted Washington’s boat across the Delaware River on Christmas night, 1776.

Marblehead Regiment ReenactmentThe reason I am writing this series now, 240 years after we declared independence, is that the Marblehead Regiment is a promise of what our country is meant to become. These were men that stood their ground and fought bravely when others ran away. They inspired others to stand and fight. They were a racially integrated unit at a time when slavery was still prevalent. Free blacks lived alongside whites in Marblehead, attended the same churches, worked on the same fishing vessels, and fought together in the same companies. They truly gave their lives, their treasure, and their sacred honor. In the turbulent days we live in now, I think we need a reminder of what our ideals are as a nation.

After being overrun by the British at the Battle of Brooklyn, the Continental Army had managed a night retreat from Long Island back to Manhattan Island. The Marblehead Regiment executed the crossing at the behest of George Washington.

The Americans had a temporary reprieve, but where would the British strike next? Now that Brooklyn Heights had fallen, British guns were pointed down toward New York City. Many of Washington’s generals thought holding the city was untenable.

In 1776, New York City was an urban area of about 20,000 people that occupied only about a square mile at the southern tip of Manhattan Island. It was the 2nd largest city in America at the time, after Philadelphia. It was the key to the British military strategy against the upstart rebels they sought to conquer. If the Redcoats could take New York and then the Hudson River, they could cut off New England from the Southern states.

Washington, with orders from the Continental Congress, was determined to hold the city. Some of his generals thought the city should not only be abandoned, but also burned to the ground in order to deny the British such a comfortable base of operations.

On September 13, 1776, as the British sailed around Manhattan in preparation for invasion, Washington’s generals prevailed upon him to quit the city. He relented and a hasty evacuation of New York City was begun.

William Blackler

Our first assignment during the retreat from New York City was to evacuate all those too sick or too wounded to fight. We rowed them across to the Jersey shore.  Like the retreat from Brooklyn, this consumed an entire night, the night of 13 September. Our skill with boats was now well known and we were dubbed the “Marine Regiment”.

On 14 September, as we prepared our baggage and provisions to be loaded onto boats and sent up the river, there was no small commotion as the order came to evacuate with all haste. British ships were circling the island. The entire Continental Army was in danger of being trapped. Most of our supplies were abandoned in the city. We formed up and marched to Harlem Heights, in the North of Manhattan Island. From there we were ordered to march to Kingsbridge at the extreme Northern tip of the island. We were to guard the only bridge from Manhattan to the mainland. It was thought the British might invade there to cut off the only escape route by land.

On the morning of 15 September, word reached us that the British had dropped anchor in the East River, near Kips Bay, just north of New York City. We shouldered our muskets and started a forced march back down the length of this very long island. The British Cannon barrage began before we reached Kips Bay. We did the double-quick and reached Kips Bay as the British landing craft were being rowed across the East River.

Four British ships were anchored offshore. They were turned sideways and lined up bow to stern so that over one-hundred guns were pointed at Kips British Ships at Kip's BayBay. Fire and smoke issued forth, as if belched from the very pit of hell. The earth was torn up around us, chunks of dirt and stone dislodged by iron. But the fire of cannon balls and grapeshot did not only drive the ground from its place. Entire regiments began to break and run as the first of the British flotilla reached the Manhattan shore. They were scampering off without so much as firing even a single shot!

We marched through the fog of cannon fire and lined up behind them. One Conecticut militiaman turned around in his blind retreat to find the barrel of my musket in his face.

“Out of my way or we’re all going to get shot!” He was flailing his arms like an idiot.

My face felt hot with anger. “Stand and fight or I’ll shoot you myself!”

The face of the fool went white. He slowly turned to face his true enemy.

On either side of our ranks men ran as if the very hounds of hell pursued them. Out of the fog, his Excellency General Washington emerged, his saber in hand. He was red-faced, whacking private soldiers and officers alike with the flat of his blade. “Do I truly have such soldiers as these!” To a man, they ignored him and ran into each other during their furious retreat. He remained in the fray, within range of British muskets, until other officers essentially dragged him from the field.

The army was becoming far too skilled at withdrawing in the face of the enemy.

We held our ground, made formation, and opened fire on the British as they marched ashore. We forced them to take formation and slowed their advance. More and more embarked ashore from their flat-bottom landing craft. They were becoming far too skilled in amphibious assault. Soon their numbers were too great and we began a slow, measured retreat inland, with the hope of holding them off until the whole of the army had left New York City. Our charge was to keep them at bay until the whole of the army was north of our position.

We slowed their advance to the point that all the Continental Army was able to reach Harlem Heights.

Once again the Cause was preserved and we would fight another day.


I will be writing more blog posts through the eyes of William Blackler every few weeks until the end of the year.

If you want to read more about the history of religious freedom, check out my historical novel Taking the Cross. It is about the beginnings of religious freedom movements.

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The Regiment that Saved the Revolution

The last half of 1776 was a dark time for the American Revolution. During those “times that try the soul”, one regiment rescued the American cause at least 4 times.

The last of those times was the crossing of the Delaware.

Never heard of this heroic group of soldiers? You are not alone.

They were called the Marine Regiment. They were so named because they were all deep sea fishermen. They were also known as the Marblehead Regiment because they hailedBrooklyn evacuation glover-2 from the village of the same name on the Massachusetts shoreline. They knew how to handle any kind of boat with expertise unmatched. They could also fight like no other regiment. Time and again they held their ground against British redcoats while others ran away or deserted.

One member of this regiment was Captain William Blackler. It was Blackler that piloted Washington’s boat across the Delaware on Christmas night 1776. It is through the eyes of Captain Blacker I want to tell you the story of those days in 1776. Days when so many despaired of the American cause. A time when the American army almost disintegrated. Desperate hours when the British were often only yards away from victory. A triumph denied them many times due to the efforts of the Marblehead Regiment.

In the present time, when so much is dark in our nation, stories like this help us remember why we exist as a country. May we never forget our heritage.

Over the next three months, I will be writing of those events in 1776 as if Captain Blackler himself was telling the story.

The first of those times was the night of August 29, 1776. General George Washington directed the Marblehead Regiment to execute a daring retreat across the East River from Long Island back to Manhattan Island. Daring because they had to abandon their defenses in order to retreat. They made the crossing at roughly the same place the Brooklyn Bridge stands today.

Captain William Blackler

Why had Washington not commanded us to come with all speed to Brooklyn Heights? We were stationed on Manhattan Island when the Battle of Brooklyn began. I was disheartened at not being able to join the fight. All of us Marbleheaders were. His Excellency General Washington did not know where the British would attack in New York so he had scattered his troops between Long Island, Manhattan Island and New Jersey.

We arrived on Long Island only in time to witness the American lines break and run, outflanked by the British. The entire Continental army was like a retreating wave, pulling back to Fort Stirling in a single rolling movement.

“Stand and fight!” I yelled. Many of the troops captured by the British were given no quarter. They were shot or run through by the bayonet.

the-battle-of-brooklyn-mark-maritatoIt was not Bunker Hill. Defending New York City was not going to be like driving the British from Boston. In Boston, we had the British bottled up in the city, trapped on a peninsula. Their mighty navy did not avail them. Around New York City, an island city, they sail the waters with impunity. If the British take Brooklyn Heights, they will be able to fire their cannon at will down into New York City.

On July 9 we had stood beneath the Liberty Pole in New York City while the Declaration of Independence was read to us. Now that precious independence, not two months old, was already imperiled. If the British take New York, they will split the country in two. New England will be cut off from the Southern states. The loyalists are strongest in New York City and in the Southern states. Our Cause will be weakened.

That night the British began to lay siege to Fort Stirling. It was only a matter of time before the Redcoats advanced close enough to storm the fort.

On the evening of 29 August, my commanding officer, Colonel John Glover, gathered all the officers in his regiment together. He informed us that Washington wanted to retreat back to Manhattan. He said what I already knew, that if we remained another night, the British would overwhelm us by morning. We could hear their shovels and pick axes clinking in the rocky ground as he spoke. They were digging new trenches again.

“The East River is one mile across. We must get all the men across this night, before daybreak.” Glover paused for a moment, looked each of us in the eye. “His Excellency bids us to execute the crossing. He said he places the fate of the country in our hands. We have the boats to sail across, but there is no wind, we will have to row across on skiffs.”

“The crossing must be absolutely silent. No talking, no coughing, no belching. Cover the oars with cloth. It will weigh them down but it will deaden any sound.” He paused. “This task has fallen to us, gentlemen. If we do not succeed our Cause will be finished by morning. Godspeed and strong arms.”

The retreat began at nightfall. We used any boat available to us. The men took turns rowing so we always had fresh arms. We filled the boats as full as we could without swamping them. The tops of the boats were often only inches above the waterline. Load after load we rowed across that wide expanse of a river.

Everyone was silent. All grasped the gravity of the hour. We had but one night to move 9000 soldiers, dozens of cannon, and countless horses back to New York City, all without making a sound.

It was perfectly executed.

Though many had begged him to go over on the first crossing, his Excellency tarried on the Long Island dock, directing the crossing, making sure everyone would get across.stampbattleofbrooklyn

Dawn approached. The first streaks of light appeared in the East. We would never get everyone across by daylight. But the air seemed to thicken before us and a blessed fog rolled in. It was pure joy. I had never been so glad to see such thick fog in my life. It was a veil, effective as any rampart. Then the wind picked up. We were able to use the sailboats. The pace of the crossing increased. The last two times I returned to the Long Island shore, I could hear the British. They had moved so close to Fort Stirling that I could hear them talking.

Yet the fog shrouded us from their view as if it were the breath of God Himself.

Still his Excellency remained on Long Island even after first light. Silently I and others entreated him to enter our boats, but he refused. He remained until all others had boarded watercraft. At last he stepped off the landing into a skiff. As we rowed out of firing range of the British, the sun broke through the veil, the fog lifted. I saw the first British soldiers reach the dock. They squinted their eyes and shook their heads.

We would fight again another day.



I will be writing more blog posts through the eyes of William Blackler approximately every 2 weeks until the end of the year.

If you want to read more about the history of religious freedom, check out my historical novel Taking the Cross. It is about the beginnings of religious freedom movements.

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Jihad and the Legacy of St. Patrick

Did you know that the work of St. Patrick in Ireland may have led to stopping the first Islamic invasion of Europe?

When most people think about St. Patrick, what comes to mind is shamrocks, the wearin’ of the green, and driving the snakes from Ireland.

The historical St. Patrick was much more than that. Born in Britain to a wealthy family in the waning days of the Roman Empire, Patrick was captured at age 16 during a pirateGod's Way St. Patrick raid. He was torn from his family and taken in chains to Ireland. There he was sold as a slave.

For six years, he herded sheep and began to seek after God. His faith grew as he sought solace from the oppression of slavery. One night he heard a voice in a dream telling him to escape to the coast. He followed this counsel and was able to find passage on a ship. After a roundabout journey, he was able to return to England and his family.

One night he had another dream. As he slept, a man named Victorius appeared to him and handed him a letter called “The Voice of the Irish”. As Patrick read the letter, it seemed as if he was hearing the voices of the Irish people saying “we beg of you holy youth to return and walk among us again.”

As a result of the dream, Patrick felt a calling to reach the people of Ireland with the Gospel. He studied for the priesthood and eventually became a bishop.

In 433, Patrick returned to Ireland. He began to preach the Gospel to the Irish people, and whole kingdoms in Ireland began to turn to Christ. Thousands accepted Christ as result of his ministry. Many monasteries were also formed in Ireland.

Around the time that St. Patrick died, in 461, so did the Roman Empire. Europe was overrun by barbarian tribes with no regard for Christianity or the written word. Ireland alone in Europe was unaffected by the collapse of Roman power. It had never been part of the Roman Empire, and was not invaded by the hordes that ran roughshod over the continent.

In the century after St. Patrick died, Irish monks, led by a man named Columbanus, began to go to the continent as missionaries. They formed monasteries throughout mainland Europe. They led the people to Christ. They preserved the writings of Christianity as well as other historical books. Thomas Cahill, in his excellent book How the Irish Saved Civilization, wrote that without the work of Irish monks in Europe, Western Civilization may have been completely lost. It was those monks from Ireland that preserved faith and literacy in the post-Roman world. They led the way in forging a common identity for Europe, a Christian identity. For many centuries afterward, continuing through the Middle Ages, Europe was commonly referred to as Christendom.

In the early 700s, Muslim armies from North Africa invaded Spain and pushed northward into France. Starting in Syria in 632, and waging war across North Africa, the followers of Muhummad had been conquering Christian lands for a century. They made it as far north as the city of Tours, 100 miles from Paris, before running into an army led by Charles the Hammer, the grandfather of Charlemagne. Charles and his army did what no other force had been able to do for 100 years; halt the continued Islamic conquests.

The Battle of Tours in 732 is one of the most important in history. Outnumbered over 2 to 1 by some estimates, the army of Charles the Hammer held their ground and routed their enemies. It marked the end of Islamic expansion in Europe. What made this possible? Why did they succeed where others had failed? Unlike in other regions where Muslim armies had prevailed, in Europe they faced a people united against them. A people who saw the threat of Islamic invasion for what it was. A people that were concerned about their faith and knew that at best Christians in Muslim dominated lands were treated as dhimmi, second class citizens that paid a religious tax.

From that point on, Muslim forces were only in retreat in Europe for the next 7 centuries.

Today the continent once known as Christendom has lost its Christian identity and is once again vulnerable to Islamist invasion.

As Europe faces a renewed threat of jihad today, there is much to be learned from the example of St. Patrick.


If you want to read more about the history of religious freedom, check out my historical novel Taking the Cross. It is about the beginnings of religious freedom movements.

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Threats to Religious Freedom in America and the Statue of Liberty

Last summer my family and I went on vacation to New York City. One of the things we wanted to see in New York was the Statue of Liberty. We love to go to places that symbolize freedom. Our passion is to see people live in freedom.

It is no secret that there is a concerted attempt to marginalize and destroy religious freedom in America. In the next months and years we are going to find out the true strength of religious freedom in the US. Do we want to know the answer?

I took this picture from the Staten Island Ferry. Sometimes you hear so much about a place, that you think you know it already. The Statue of Liberty is such a common symbol, we don’t often think about its meaning. Many people see Lady Liberty from the ferry but don’t visit her up close. But last year I learned something about her that relates to religious freedom in America. I believe it’s a truth we desperately need to realize.

The Statue of Liberty is one of the greatest symbols of freedom in the world. During the height of immigration to the US, during the early 20th century, over 1 million people a year passed by the Statue of Liberty on their way to Ellis Island, seeking freedom from oppression in other nations.

When we visited the Statue of Liberty, we went through the museum that is in the massive pedestal that supports the statue itself. Many of the exhibits talk about the strength of the statue and the foundation on which it is built. You can see that in the picture above. The Statue of Liberty is built to withstand even the fiercest storms. One of the exhibits said that the statue is so strong, and it is anchored so deeply in the bedrock of Liberty Island, that you would have to overturn the entire island to take down the statue. In other words, to destroy Lady Liberty, you would have to destroy her foundation.

400 years ago, people started coming to America seeking religious freedom. They have been coming ever since for that same reason. People come to America for freedom.

Without religious freedom all other freedoms are diminished. Without religious freedom, there will eventually be no freedom in America. Those who view religious freedom as a threat to their own freedoms are incredibly shortsighted. They are entirely ignorant of why we have freedom in America in the first place. In other places in the world that are oppressive, religious freedom is typically public enemy number one.

It has been breathtaking to hear so many in this country openly talk about squelching not only freedom of religion, but freedom of speech. We hear this on college campuses and increasingly throughout the media and from places like the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which has stated in effect that religious freedom is less than the “rights” of men to use women’s restrooms and gay couples to force a Christian baker to help them celebrate their union. In this light, religious freedom is seen not as freedom at all, but merely a cover for oppression and discrimination. So-called “rights” that have been invented in our generation are now seen as taking precedence over beliefs that have been deeply held not for centuries, but for millenia.

It is not a stretch to say that America is built upon the foundation of religious freedom. The battle cry during the Revolutionary War, when faced with an oppressive King of England, was “no king but King Jesus”.

Those who attack and seek to marginalize religious freedom attack their own freedom. They often think they can do away with freedom of religion and other freedoms, like freedom of speech, as long as their own beliefs reign supreme. This is what is happening on many college campuses. The shortsightedness of such thinking is spectacular. They are like Samson in the Bible, who pushed down the columns in the Philistine temple to destroy his enemies. The only problem is that he was killed at the same time they were. Samson knew he would die along with his enemies, but those seeking to destroy religious freedom are completely ignorant of what they are doing.

Now is no time to panic or be afraid, but to stand firm in joy. To celebrate our freedom of religion and the many blessings we have in America. Celebrate them lest they wither away from disuse. Paul wrote in the Book of Ephesians to “put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.” We must stand firm.

It was Christians that were behind the abolition movement, it was Christians that were behind the civil rights movement. Today it is Christians that are driving the movement to end human trafficking.

American exceptionalism begins and ends with religious freedom. It is deeply anchored in the foundation of this country.

To seek to destroy religious freedom in America is to seek to completely overturn the country. If you want to destroy religious freedom, you will have to destroy America herself.

And then you will have no freedom.

But I believe that America will not be so easily overturned. Freedom of religion will not be so easily squelched.

But even if it is, there is a deeper foundation that will never be overturned. It is on that rock we need to stand and cry “no king but King Jesus!”


If you want to read more about the history of religious freedom, check out my historical novel Taking the Cross. It is about the beginnings of religious freedom movements.

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The Story Behind Valentine’s Day

If you thought Valentine’s Day was just a commercial holiday created by Hallmark in league with florists and jewelry stores, think again.

It may be largely celebrated that way now, but that’s not how it started.

Valentine was a priest who lived in Rome in the 3rd century. The Roman emperor at the time was the brutal Claudius II. Having a difficult time recruiting men to join the Roman legions, Claudius concluded that it was because the men were too devoted to their wives and children. The Emperor Claudius’s “solution” to this dilemma was to ban all marriages and engagements in Rome.

Great idea.

Knowing the decree was wrong and believing that he had to serve God rather than man, Valentine began marrying couples in secret. Though it is Valentin-Saintunknown how many couples he married, eventually he was found out and arrested. He was turned over to the Prefect of Rome where he was thrown in jail.

The emperor, who was also called Claudius the Cruel, demanded that Valentine be executed. The means of death, which certainly would qualify as cruel and unusual punishment today, at least in the United States and in modern Rome, was being beaten with clubs. After he died from all the blows, he was beheaded.

The date of his death was February 14, 278. Though there are disputes about the year, the actual calendar day seems to be largely agreed upon.

There is a legend that states that just before his execution, Valentine composed a note to the jailer’s daughter telling her goodbye. In it he wrote “From your Valentine.”

This story casts a much different light on love than we often see celebrated on Valentine’s Day. Where is cupid anyway? Instead of some little guy flying around in a diaper and shooting people with a bow and arrow, we have a servant of God who risked his life to join couples together in secret before God.

Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for another.

Valentine believed that marriage between a man and a woman, and the covenant with God it represents, was worth dying for. Do we believe the same today?


The idea of romance as we know it now, did not start until the Middle Ages and the troubadours in France. But that is for another blog post…

If you want to read more about the time of the troubadours, check out my historical novel Taking the Cross.

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Amazing Grace and the Slave Trade – The Story Behind the Song

Amazing Grace might be the most popular song ever written. But do you know the story behind it?

When the author wrote “Amazing Grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me” why did he call himself a wretch? Is it exaggeration amazing_graceor hyperbole as some have suggested? To Englishman John Newton, who wrote Amazing Grace, it was no exaggeration. Newton was the 18th century captain of a slave ship who transported upwards of 20,000 kidnapped Africans to slavery in the West Indies.

John Newton’s experience at sea began with his father, who was captain of a merchant ship. The younger Newton went on six voyages with his father. When he was 19, Newton was pressed into service aboard a British naval ship. It was a common practice in the 18th century that essentially involved kidnapping young men and forcing them to serve on a ship for at least 2 years. Newton found the conditions on ship so horrible that he deserted. He was recaptured, publicly flogged, and demoted.

He asked to serve on a slave ship instead. Newton ended up serving under a slaver that was horribly abusive. A man who not only beat the slaves he was transporting to the West Indies, but regularly abused Newton as well. A ship captain who was a friend of John’s own father rescued him from that experience.

John Newton eventually became captain of his own slave ship. After his harsh treatment at the hands of a slaver, it is a wonder he wanted to become one himself. Yet in the 18th century, the slave trade was a huge portion of the British economy. On one journey, when he was returning home after delivering a ship full of slaves to the West Indies, he became caught in a violent storm that threatened to sink the boat. In a moment of desperation, he cried out to God. Newton saw his subsequent survival as the first experience of grace in his life. He later referred to the event as his “great deliverance”.

After becoming a Christian, Newton’s first step as a slave ship captain was to treat the men and women he transported more humanely. But he soon realized that no matter how well he treated the Africans on his ship, they were still kidnapped people that he was transporting to a life of misery. He abandoned the slave trade altogether and sought to become a pastor. He also started writing hymns.

It took several years, but he eventually became pastor of his own church. His preaching was so popular that the church had to be remodeled to accommodate all those who wanted to hear him. In spite of this, he still continued to be haunted by what he called his “20,000 ghosts”, the men, women, and children he had brought to slavery in the West Indies. It was during this time, in the late 1770s, that he penned Amazing Grace. It was first released as part of a hymnal that was published in 1779.

One of the people in Newton’s church congregation was a boy named William Wilberforce. When Wilberforce became a member of Parliament in his 20s, Wilberforce went to Newton to seek his advice. Wilberforce had recently found a renewed faith in God and was considering leaving Parliament to become a pastor himself. Newton encouraged Wilberforce to stay in Parliament and seek the abolition of the slave trade.

Wilberforce, who had already considered taking on the fight against slavery, followed Newton’s advice, and eventually became the leader of the abolition movement in England. It took 25 years and multiple setbacks, but the British slave trade was finally abolished in February, 1807, only months before John Newton died. Newton himself, nearly blind and in failing health, was present when the vote was taken in Parliament that outlawed the slave trade that had once been his livelihood. Newton wrote extensively about the slave trade, and his writings are the major source of information we have today about the brutal practice of trafficking in human souls.

The British Slave Trade was outlawed, and shortly afterward the slave trade was abolished in America and France as well. By about 1810, hauling people from Africa to the New World as slaves was truly brought to an end.

William Wilberforce continued to fight for the complete abolition of slavery itself throughout the British empire. It happened in 1833, only 3 days before Wilberforce died. When Abraham Lincoln chose to fight against slavery in the United States, his major inspiration was William Wilberforce.

Yet the trafficking in human souls endures. Slavery has gone underground, but it is more prevalent than ever. It is estimated that nearly 30 million people around the world are enslaved. Of those, nearly one-quarter are caught-up in sex trafficking, and the other three-quarters are enslaved for their labor.

Pray for those caught up in the modern slave trade. Pray that like John Newton over 2 centuries ago, the slavers of the 21st century may come under conviction for the evil and bondage they perpetrate. May the words of Amazing Grace be true of them as well:

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me….
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now, I see.

To learn more about William Wilberforce and the abolition of the slave trade, check out the movie Amazing Grace.

To be informed of my future blog posts and upcoming novel releases click here.

To know more about the history of the freedoms of speech and religion that enabled Newton and Wilberforce to seek the end of the slave trade, check out my historical novel Taking the Cross.




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Why Did George Washington Cross the Delaware?


On Dec. 26, 1776 — exactly 239 years ago today — George Washington made his famous crossing of the Delaware River. Why did he do it and what is the big deal anyway?

The short answer is that if Washington had not crossed the Delaware in the pre-dawn hours of Dec. 26, the United States probably would have lost the Revolutionary War. It is a great story of American resolve in the face of impending defeat.

To put things in context, most of 1776 was not a good year for the American cause. Since driving the British from Boston earlier in the year, the revolutionary army had suffered defeat after defeat. After the entire force was nearly destroyed by the British at Brooklyn Heights on Long Island, Washington and his troops had been on the run. Pushed back through New York City, and driven across New Jersey, they had crossed the Delaware River into Pennsylvania in retreat, broken and demoralized. But that crossing of the Delaware is not the one depicted in this famous painting by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze.

The Delaware River forms the boundary between New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The British planned to wait for the Delaware to freeze. They were going to walk across and finish off the Americans. Washington knew the morale of his troops was at rock bottom. He also knew the army was in no position to fight another defensive battle. They were dangerously low on ammunition, food, supplies, and hope.

Across the Delaware River in New Jersey, just north of Philadelphia, is the city of Trenton. In 1776 it was a small village. Stationed there were 1400 Hessian troops. The Hessians were German soldiers that were paid mercenaries of the British. They were professional, efficient, and ruthless. They had demonstrated their prowess and viciousness in the battle of Brooklyn Heights and a subsequent battle fought on Manhattan Island.

If Washington was able to move the entire army across the river unnoticed, they might be able to take the Hessians by surprise. In the waning hours of Christmas, 1776, the Delaware River had not yet frozen. But it was filled with chunks of ice and the crossing would be hazardous. The challenge was to row all 2400 troops across the river, and then march to Trenton and position the army before daybreak. The crossing took longer than expected. The current was swift and the ice floes threatened to clog the river. When Washington went across in the dead of night he knew the army would not make it to Trenton before dawn. Surprise was crucial for the attack to proceed.

Knowing he was risking it all, Washington decided to move forward. The army was divided in two and marched 19 miles in a snowstorm. They converged on Trenton from opposing directions. They encountered no resistance along the way. Washington and his troops did not reach Trenton until about 8am, well after daybreak. When they opened fire, the Hessians were taken completely by surprise. They were not even able to form a defensive position. Their commander, Colonel Rall, was mortally wounded and died shortly after the battle ended. They did not expect an attack so soon after Christmas.

The mighty Hessians suffered about 2 dozen dead, nearly 100 wounded, and over 900 captured. About 400 escaped over a bridge. The Americans suffered only 5 wounded and 2 dead. The 2 that died, froze to death on the march to Trenton, not during the battle.

The victory brought fresh arms, ammunition, and food. But more than that, it boosted the flagging spirits of the American army. For the first time in months, they began to believe they could win. On Jan. 3, 1777 the Americans defeated a British army in Princeton, about 12 miles from Trenton. During that fight, Washington rode his mount between the battle lines to rally his troops, until his frightened horse refused to go any further.

Why did George Washington cross the Delaware? He could have waited for the British to walk across the Delaware and taken his chances. He could have fled into the Pennsylvania wilderness. Both of those choices would almost certainly have led to the disintegration of the army, either through defeat or desertion. Or he could take the fight to the enemy. Washington decided the Americans had been pushed back far enough. He took a risk and prevailed.

The Battle of Trenton is a reminder to never give up hope and to never quit. Even when we are harried and driven back in our lives, we reach a point where it’s time to push back and not yield any more ground. Sometimes we have to take that risk.


To be notified of my future blog posts click here. I post about every other week. My passion is writing about stories of freedom woven through history. I also write about what’s going on today and put it in the perspective of history, since nothing is really new.

To read more about the history of the freedoms we enjoy, check out my novel Taking the Cross, about the Crusade in France that targeted freedom of religion and freedom of speech.



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Trash Talk or Talking Trash

The wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.

- Proverbs 27:6

In my Current Events class in high school, the teacher gave us an assignment to list 2 professions that were dishonorable. I remember that I listed “garbage collector” as one of the two. Looking back, I’m not sure where I came up with that idea. My thinking at the time was that trash stinks and is gross so that is a “dirty” profession. The teacher was not happy with me and he wrote back that I was wrong, that collecting garbage was an honorable profession. I think he wanted us to list something like “drug dealer” or “thief”.

I remember it stung to have my immature thinking challenged. I had never worked a regular job at the time, and I was woefully ignorant of the fact that civilized society cannot function without regular trash collection. It was definitely a wound to my ignorance and self-centered importance, and in hindsight I’m glad I received it. It was an experience that opened my eyes. In college, I worked on campus as a janitor. A big part of that job was collecting the trash. Another one of those “dirty” jobs that actually is honorable. When I was 15, I would have been embarrassed to have a job like that, but at 19 I saw it differently. I owe a big thank you to my Current Events teacher, Mr. Shobe, for challenging my thinking.

Like many Americans, I have been reading about what is happening on so many college campuses in this country. There are demands for “safe