forks of the ohio


Ben Franklin the Military Commander

Statesman, diplomat, political theorist, inventor, musician, oceanologist, physicist, polyglot, economist, civic activist, philanthropist, physician, meteorologist, demographer, founding father, printer, writer, and womanizer, all terms accurately describe the many roles Benjamin Franklin played throughout his long life.  One of the least known roles of “The Great Sage” was of soldier and military commander, which he would undertake in the year 1756 during the French and Indian War. In the spring and summer of 1755 British General Edward Braddock was sent west with an army to capture Fort Duquesne, located on the forks of the Ohio River, what is now downtown Pittsburgh. Franklin had actually personally warned Braddock that his expedition was doomed to failure due to poor tactics, flawed military doctrine, and an underestimation of the enemy. Before reaching Fort Duquesne, the army was ambushed by the French and their Native American allies, and forced to retreat, Braddock himself was killed in the ensuing battle. After the defeat of the British Army under Braddock, French and Native American forces began to conduct raids into the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania, sometimes striking only 80 miles from Philadelphia. By New Years of 1756, around 400 settlers had been killed in the raids.  Pennsylvania did not have a colonial militia, most likely as a result of the colony’s pacifist Quaker past.  The Pennsylvania Assembly quickly passed a bill written by Franklin to raise, train, and equip a colonial militia. Franklin was commissioned a colonel in the militia and charged with ending the raids.

Franklin and his regiment set out for the Moravian settlement known as Gnadenhutten, now present day Weissport in Carbon County. He made his son, William, second in command.  Careful not to repeat the mistakes of Gen. Braddock, Franklin ordered light infantry and scouts to patrol ahead of the army in order to fend off any possible ambushes and surprise attacks.  After warding off several such attacks, the regiment reached Gnadenhutten safely, Franklin ordered the construction of a large fort with 18 foot high walls, swivel guns, and port holes from which riflemen and musketeers could fire from.  He then ordered two other forts constructed 15 miles to the east and west, as well as a number of other outposts and checkpoints surrounding the area.  Then, he organized a system of random patrols consisting of scouts and soldiers with dogs throughout the area to protect settlements, guard his supply lines, root out guerrillas, and make it difficult for the enemy to conduct any surprise attacks.  Furthermore, he created good relations with local settlers and loyal Native American tribes, essentially setting up an intelligence network that would further serve as the eyes and ears of his regiment.

Essentially, Franklin was practicing what military strategists would call counterinsurgency warfare, and Franklin’s tactics were little different from what is being done by NATO forces in Afghanistan today. After several skirmishes the raids began to decline in frequency. Within the year, the raids were reduced to a minimum.  Of all of Franklin’s roles throughout his life, it was one he seemed to relish the least.  He never wore a uniform, never accepted pay, never had a military portrait painted (a traditional practice among high ranking officers), and although he held the rank of colonel, preferred to be called “Mister Franklin” rather than Colonel Franklin.  When he returned to Philadelphia after relinquishing his command, he learned that the citizens of Philadelphia had prepared a victory parade for him as he entered the city.  Rather than making a spectacle of his return, he quickly snuck into the city in the middle of the night. Though he was an effective military commander, Franklin was a lover, not a fighter.

I put too much pepper in the stirfry so I fish
the broccoli out, run it under cold water,

make the meal plain. My grandmother died
last summer and she’s in the pot of oil-scrimmed water, my ghost

face in windows, and I know there are too many dead grandma
poems, not enough about the iPod Nation, but I called her

Nonna Erminia, she lived in Naples,
and some days I hardly remembered she existed—

I was busy and she was rich and racist, a Victorian
vase, the old-fashioned lace you forget in a box in the back of the closet

and to love the masses I had to hate her though I never
could so I mustered up indifference, a critical

distance, and sent her a card saying, I miss you—
and when I went to Italy for the funeral, the card

was propped on her nightstand, she loved me that much or
so few cards came or both, and what if I loved

an idea more than the body—
its charts and maps

and not the beloved beside me.
Perhaps the one good act in my one small life was to send a card

and what if one day I see the sky’s spires, its stones of blue light, and my eyes,
screen-tired, can’t see them

which is to say I see them but can’t feel
them because to see a simple sky with its simple stones,

to feel that church inside me,
takes practice,

which I never tell my students.
I want them to know poetry

is hard work, to fill the reader
with your uglies, your swans—

the forks and cul-de-sacs of an Ohio girlhood …
And I’ve never told the truth:

the work isn’t time—it’s the everyday

My dad once said, When my father died I was relieved,
and I didn’t say anything. I’ve tried

writing a dozen poems about that day, they all failed.
I couldn’t imagine his story—

hating or fearing or some-other-something feeling
a father so much that when he dies you don’t wake

in the night, your teeth in the pillow, glottals clogging and knotting
your throat. The day my dad passes, snows will shoot up,

the glass fall. I’ll be a small girl
in a small jar

and it will take all my work to shear a hole,
I won’t leave the way I came—

—  “Nonna Erminia,” Claudia Cortese, from Banango Street Issue 10