Bunker Hill

The Battle of Bunker Hill, where the Americans first faced the Redcoats, was the colonists’ initial triumph in the Revolutionary War.

Not only did the British wallop the Americans in the encounter, the whole thing wasn’t even fought on Bunker Hill.  The American troops had actually been ordered to defend Bunker Hill, but there was an enormous foul-up and somehow they wound up trying to protect nearby Breed’s Hill, which was more vulnerable to attack.  They paid for it – when the fighting was over, the Americans had been chased away by the British troops.  Casualties were heavy for both sides:  about 450 Americans were killed, and a staggering 1,000 (out of 2,100) Redcoats bit the dust.

The Pilgrims

The Pilgrims were headed for Massachusetts.

They were headed for “Hudson’s River.”  Because of poor navigation and unexpected winds, the first land they sighted was Cape Cod.  They tried to sail south, but “dangerous shoals and roaring breakers” prevented it.  So they reluctantly turned back.  By this time, the crew of the Mayflower was sick of them and hustled them off the boat as fast as they could.

The Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.

This tale originated in 1741, more than 100 years after the Pilgrims arrived.  It had been attributed to a then-95-ear old man named Thomas Fraunce, who claimed his father had told him the story when he was a boy.  However, his father didn’t land with the Pilgrims – he reached America three years after them.

The Pilgrims first landed in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

Independence Day

American Independence was declared on July 4th.

Because the Declaration of Independence is dated July 4, people associate that date with American independence.  In fact, independence was declared first. . .and it was confirmed with the document a few days later.

The Continental Congress declared independence on July 2nd.  One of the Founding Fathers, John Adams, is quoted as having written his wife on July 3rd:  “The 2nd day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable. . .in the history of America.  I am apt to believe it will be celebrated by succeeding generations, as the great anniversary Festival.”

Actually, the first Independence Day celebration, by the Continental Congress, was July 8, 1776.

Declaration of Independence

In a hushed hall in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776, each signer of the Declaration of Independence proudly and publicly took his turn affixing his signature to the document.

The tale was apparently concocted by Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, who wrote about it in letters after the event.

Only two people, John Hancock and Charles Thomson, signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4.  It wasn’t until about a month later, on August 2nd, that the majority of the delegates signed it.  And it wasn’t until five years later, in 1781, that the last signature was finally added.

How public was the signing?  The Continental Congress would only admit that Hancock’s and Thomson’s names were on the document.  Everyone else signed in secrecy.  It wasn’t until the following January that the signers’ names were made public.

Yankee Doodle

“Yankee Doodle” was originally a patriotic song.

It was composed in England as an anti-American tune.  The phrase “stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni” referred to a foppish English group called the Macaroni Club, whose members were ludicrous “continental” fashions they mistakenly believed to be elegant.  The British laughed at “Yankee Doodle dandies,” bumpkins who didn’t know how silly they really were.

Savages

Scalping was a brutal tactic invented by the Indians to terrorize the settlers.

Scalping was actually an old European tradition dating back hundreds of years.  Dutch and English colonists were paid a “scalp bounty” by their leaders as a means of keeping the Indians scared and out of the way.  Finally the Indians caught on and adopted the practice themselves.  The settlers apparently forgot its origins and another falsehood about Indian cruelty was born.

Mother of the Flag

Betsy Ross, a Philadelphia seamstress, designed and sewed the first American flag at the behest of the Founding Fathers.

The story first surfaced in 1870 when Betsy Ross’s grandson told a meeting of the Pennsylvania Historical Society that his grandmother had been asked to make a flag for the new nation.  The tale must have touched a nerve, because it quickly spread and soon was regarded as truth.

While Betsy Ross did in fact sew flags for the Pennsylvania Navy, there is no proof to back up her grandson’s tale.  Ironically, no one is sure who designed the flag.  The best guess is that the flag’s design is derived from a military banner carried during the American Revolution.

Midnight Rambler

Paul Revere made a solitary, dramatic midnight ride to warn patriots in Lexington and Concord that the British were coming.

Revere’s effort was first glorified in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.”  Longfellow may have written the ode out of guilt; his grandfather tried to court-martial Revere during the Revolutionary War.  The charge:  “Unsoldierly behavior tending toward cowardice.”  Revere was not convicted.

Paul revere was actually one of two men who attempted the famous ride. . .and it was the other one, William Dawes, who made it to Concord.  Revere didn’t make it, he was stopped by British troops.  As for Revere’s patriotic motives, according to Patricia Lee Holt, in George Washington Had No Middle Name, “Paul Revere billed the Massachusetts State House 10 pounds 4 shillings to cover his expenses for his ride.”

Americus the Beautiful

Amerigo Vespucci, a Florentine navigator, made four trips to the New World from 1497 to 1502.  The newly discovered land was named in his honor.

Vespucci wrote an account of his four voyages.  An Italian mapmaker was so impressed by it that he put “Americus’s” name on the first known map of the New World.

America is named after a probable fraud.  Scholars doubt Vespucci made those trips at all.

Thanksgiving

The Pilgrims ate a Thanksgiving feast of turkey and pumpkin pie after their first year in the New World, and we’ve been doing it ever since.

Thanksgiving didn’t become a national holiday until Abraham Lincoln declared it in 1863, and the Pilgrims ate neither the bird we call turkey, nor pumpkin pie.

Taking a Stand

General George Armstrong Custer’s “Last Stand” at the Little Bighorn was a heroic effort by a great soldier.

It wasn’t heroism, it was stupidity.  Custer had unwarranted contempt for the American Indians’ fighting ability.  His division was supposed to be a small part of a major attack, led by General Alfred Terry; who was planning to meet Custer in two days with his troops.  Custer was instructed to wait for Terry.  Instead, he led his 266 men into battle.  They were all slaughtered.

Nathan Hale

Nathan Hale, an American soldier during the Revolutionary War, was captured by the British and sentenced to hang.  When the Redcoats asked if he had any last words, he replied defiantly:  “I regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”

He never said that, or anything close to it.  According to the diary of a British soldier who was there, Captain Frederick MacKenzie, Hale’s last words were brave, but not very inspiring.  They were:  “It is the duty of every good officer to obey the orders given him by his commander-in-chief.”

Gettysburg Address

Abraham Lincoln hurriedly composed his most famous speech, the Gettysburg Address, on the back of an envelope while riding on a train from Washington, D.C., to the site of the speech in Gettysburg.

The story apparently originated with Lincoln’s son, Robert, who first created it in a letter he wrote after his father was assassinated.

Lincoln actually started writing the speech two weeks before the event, and wrote at least five drafts before even leaving Washington or Gettysburg.  He wasn’t particularly keen on speaking spontaneously; in fact, he refused to say anything to the crowd that met him at the Gettysburg train station because he was afraid of saying something foolish.

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