Howard Mansfield

The ghosts of forgotten battles

King Philip’s War and other little-known conflicts offer us an important lesson

The Wampanoag sachem, Metacom, or King Philip, led an uprising against the English colonies. The Wampanoag sachem, Metacom, or King Philip, led an uprising against the English colonies.
By Howard Mansfield
May 31, 2010

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TURNERS FALLS comes at you with an eerie familiarity, an American place deja vu. When you cross the narrow bridge over the Connecticut River, the town is laid out with the promise of a prosperous small republic. There’s the wide main street, a skyline of church spires and a rising green hill with a row of commanding Victorian houses. Below, off to the left, is a park along the river, a generous green space. The river is wide here, more like a harbor, glinting with reflected sunlight. To the right, below the dam is an old red-brick mill.

I have come to this Massachusetts mill town without expectation, without knowing anything about it. I am on my way home, taking a detour to find a used bookstore. The town stops my journey, detours my detour. It feels like something terrible has happened here. I sense so many notes of anguish.

The town spooks me. I have no idea why. I wait at a traffic light with only two flashy motorcycles beside me. The street is empty. The light seems to be red forever. I have to leave. I can’t stand to be in Turners Falls any longer.

Turners Falls has an important lesson to teach us on Memorial Day. If we heed it, we will transform and renew the holiday.

Many years after my visit, I learned that 400 people were murdered here.

On May 19, 1676, hundreds of Indians were gathered at the falls to fish for the salmon heading up river. It was an ancient meeting: the Indians and the salmon had been coming for thousands of years.

On that morning Captain William Turner and 150 men surprised the Indians asleep. They fired into wigwams, and chased fleeing old men, women, and children into the river and the falls, where they drowned or were shot to death. Turner and his men burned the camp, destroyed stored food, two small forges for repairing guns, and lead to make shot. They took no prisoners.

On their retreat, Turner and 38 of his men were killed. He was an outcast who had been denied a commission at first. He had been jailed twice for his Baptist beliefs. One day’s bloody work is his contribution to history. The English colonists celebrated the slaughter as a great victory in King Philip’s War. This is our hidden history.

For years I have been traveling through the landscape of war, unawares. Applying the words “King Philip’s War’’ to a map of New England is like the childhood game of writing with magic ink to reveal a secret message. Words that we associate with distant wars appear in the ordinary places we live or visit: attack, murder, massacre.

King Philip’s War was a short, ferocious war. The Wampanoag sachem, Metacom, or King Philip, led an uprising against the rapidly expanding English colonies in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and parts of Connecticut and Maine.

The war laid waste to New England. The Indians who had allied against the English suffered the worst casualties — losing the greatest proportion of their population — of any war fought on American territory. Nearly 70 percent of the Wampanoag, Nipmuc, and Narragansett in Southeastern New England were killed or fled as refugees. Native prisoners of war were forced into servitude in English households or were sold into slavery in the Caribbean. King Philip’s 9-year-old son was sold as a slave. At the war’s end there were public executions of Indians in Boston. But the Indians who had helped the English were punished, too: they lost land and liberty. About 400 “praying Indians,’’ most of whom had remained neutral, were rounded up during the war, and imprisoned on barren Deer Island in Boston Harbor in winter. Hundreds starved or died of exposure. After the war, some were also sold as slaves. The Puritans said they couldn’t tell heathen Indians from Christian Indians.

The colonists suffered for a century: one in 16 men of military age was killed, half the towns were ruined, and the economy was hobbled for 100 years.

After the war, English and Irish churches sent ships with relief aid.

This brief outline cannot convey the pain inflicted by this complex war any more than a road map is the land. The effects of this war last to this day. Barbara Tuchman calls World War I “a path burnt across history.’’ The same phrase could serve for King Philip’s War.

Remembering this hidden history on Memorial Day will reinvigorate the holiday. Established in 1868 to reunite a divided country, Memorial Day has lost its meaning because it succeeded. It was a day dedicated to “the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.’’ Decoration Day, as it was once known, has been reduced to the opening bell of summer, its meaning lost in the three-day weekend.

A vague sense that we should remember something about past wars hovers over Memorial Day. We string together a few stone-cold words like “sacrifice’’ and “freedom’’ and “let us honor/let us never forget.’’ That’s not enough. Memorial Day should be reimagined. Let’s make it specific. Let’s name what we’re remembering and create a national discussion. Each year let us remember a specific war. Following up on the Bicentennial Minutes of long ago, let’s have memorial tweets; let’s use GPS systems to follow the course of a war, adding a layer of history to our maps and apps. A war that many Americans don’t even know was fought — King Philip’s War — is the place to begin.

This Memorial Day let us decorate with flowers the graves of those whose history we have denied.

Howard Mansfield is author of “Turn & Jump: How Time & Place Fell Apart,’’ to be published in September.

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