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Dean Minnich: History always written by the winners

I used to pride myself on having a working knowledge of American history, but as I was told in a corporate leadership workshop years ago, everything you think you know is probably wrong.

By now, we've all heard the saying that history is written by those who won the wars. Or the cultural struggles. Or had the most money.

During a trip to Vermont earlier in the month, a tour guide with a refreshing insouciance regarding conventional wisdom pointed out that the hero of the Battle of Bennington and the raid on Ft. Ticonderoga was not Ethan Allen. It was Benedict Arnold.

That's right - the same Benedict Arnold who committed treason and narrowly escaped the noose for trying to turn over Gen. Washington to British captors.

Which is why we were taught in school that Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys were the ones who saved the day at Bennington, and ripped Ft. Ticonderoga out of the hands of the British, obtaining the artillery that was later used to drive the Redcoats out of Boston and open the sea lanes so we could trade with France, and so on.

Arnold was probably the best military mind in General Washington's Continental Army, but because of protocol and politics, had to answer to Gen. Horatio Gates, and bow to the wishes of the upstarts in Boston, who did not want to hand over credit for military triumphs to someone who was born in Connecticut, not Massachusetts. Ethan Allen was not from Massachusetts, either, but New Hampshire, before it was Vermont, was closer. And he was popular.

So they sent Arnold to do the work, under Gates, but also sent word to Allen to move on Ticonderoga and save the glory for Boston's patriots. Allen was a drunk and a braggart, but his men loved him; until he got many of them drowned with a botched plan.

Locals knew who deserved the recognition for the eventual victory at Bennington, and erected a statue of Arnold. But Arnold ran afoul of the politicians and other generals by speaking up in favor of a negotiated settlement to end the war and grant the new colonies virtually all that they wanted in terms of self-government. He plotted to turn Washington over to the Brits as a prisoner of war, and the deal was that the war would end, Washington would be released and America would become a self-governing member of the British Commonwealth (just as Canada has become).

His Tory leanings were not without support. Only about 15 percent of the population wanted independence from England, another 15 percent wanted to remain British, and the other 70 percent had no clue either way.

Arnold escaped and eventually made his way to England to live the rest of his life. Ethan Allen, exposed as a fraud and no longer a leader of the Green Mountain Boys, was resurrected from obscurity for public relations purposes. They tore down the statue of Arnold and erected one of Ethan Allen, and revised their story and stuck to it. Such is history.

Which brings me to the Buffalo Soldiers. I grew up having no knowledge of them, never knew the role they played in the settling of the American West, or the number who became cowboys or lifetime soldiers. I have since learned more about them, but education is an ongoing thing.

So it was with interest that I listened to the words of Trooper William Decatur, Machine Gun Troop F, 10th Cavalry, Fort Myer, Va., who was honored last week by the Carroll County Branch 7014 of the NAACP, at their 10th annual Freedom Fund banquet. African Americans made up the 9th and 10th cavalries during and following the Civil War.

When Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders charged up San Juan Hill during the Spanish American War, they were not alone. Teddy acknowledged as much, and said at the time that the "negro troopers" made victory possible.

Later, to ensure the Southern vote in a presidential election, the Hero of San Juan Hill gave all the credit to the Rough Riders.

"No mention was made of the 9th Cavalry, but we were there," said Trooper Decatur in a quiet and dignified voice during a filmed interview.

History may be written by winners, but sometimes it can be updated by those who value truth.

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