Monday, August 13, 2012

Featured Manuscript: Stirke Diary (Entry 2)

Connecting History Series (Entry 2)

Volunteer researcher, Cynthia N., heads off this series by examining the diary of Lt. Henry Stirke and his connection to several fascinating historical events.

Ivory portrait of Lt. Stirke


The Rare Books Collection of Morristown National Historical Park has in its collection a diary
written by British Lieutenant Henry Stirke during his assignment with the 10th Regiment of Foot, during the Revolutionary War. It covers the period from 1776-1778, during which period Lt. Stirke was fighting on the British side. In his diary he chronicles the activities of his regiment, associated regiments, and Hessian forces.

Most of the entries are quite short, in which he objectively records the events of the day. However, throughout his diary, he makes careful note of the injuries and deaths that occur in his own regiment and those with which he travelled. He expresses regret for the death or injury of anyone in the British regiments.

An entry for June 20, 1776 reads:
“A very melancholy accident happen’d; a Portuguese Sailor belonging to the Nautilus Merchantman, slip’d between our Transport and their boat, and was drownded.”

It might be thought that toward the end of Lt. Stirke’s assignment in the War with America, he might have become inured to the injuries and deaths of his compatriots. However, in his later entries he continues to note the individual deaths and injuries of his comrades.

During this same time period, his diary shows an unempathetic view of losses sustained by the enemy Rebel troops during the whole conflict.  He exhibits a pronounced emotional detachment in his description of a very bloody massacre of Rebel troops at Paoli, PA.

On September 21, 1777, he writes:
“About 12 O’Clock last night, Genl: Grey with ye: 2d: Battalion of Light Infantry, 42d: & 44th: Regts:, with some Light Dragoons Surpris’d Genl: Waines brigade in their Camp, (which lay in our Rear, in order to insult us on our march) and without firing a Shot, put about 300 of the Rebels to Death with ye: Bayonet, and took 200 prisoners with all their baggage ~ Our loss was 1 Captn: [Captn: Wolfe] kill’d, with a Sergt:, and private; and 1 Lt: Wounded”.

He was very careful to note those wounded and killed on the British side, but expressed no empathy for the 300 Rebels who were bayonetted to death. Perhaps the psychological mechanism of the dehumanization of the enemy was his emotional defense against the horrors of war.

Lt. Stirke’s diary provides a contemporary, British-biased view of many of the events of the war. He was present in New York when a fire destroyed a large portion of Manhattan. General Washington’s troops were forced to flee, and the British troops occupied the city.

Lt. Stirke writes, on September 22nd, 1776:
“About 1 O’Clock in the morning a fire broke out in New York, which consum’d about a fourth part of the City – It was set fire to in different places, by some of they Rebels that Conceal’d themselves in the Town – several were caught in the very Fact, and immediately put to death; and others have been taken up on suspicion – Two very handsome Churches Genl: Robinsons House, and Valuable furniture, with many other fine Houses were reduc’d to Ashes – “

September 22 entry- side one
Sept 22 entry- side two

Throughout most of his diary, Lt. Stirke makes entries on a regular basis, noting the movements and activities of his regiment and associated regiments. He and his regiment followed General George Washington across the state of New Jersey. He writes that they “arriv’d at Prince Town; appointed for their Winter Quarters” on December 15, 1776.” 

He is thunderously silent about the events that occurred in late December 1776 and the beginning of January, 1777, when the colonists achieved major victories at the battles of Trenton and Princeton.

A few months later, sometime after February 1, 1777, he refers to the defeat of the Hessian troops in Trenton by General Washington’s army:

“That unlucky affair of Colonel Ralls’s [the Hessian Colonel] at Trent Town, happening soon after; [after his December 15, 1776 entry] caus’d a Genl: change of Quarters in the Jerseys, to the Whole Army. The Light Infantry took post at the Bridge of Brunswick, about a mile above the Town; where we spent a Very Disagreeable Winter, continually harress’d in Observing the motions of the Enemy…”

Lt. Stirke’s diary illustrates very clearly that the same events can often be interpreted in different ways, intellectually and emotionally, depending upon the filter through which they are viewed by the various participants. A different history can, and usually is, written by both sides.

Please click here to read more about Henry Stirke's Diary [Entry 1] 

Blog entry by volunteer researcher, Cynthia N.
Photos by volunteer Steve Newfield.

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