Friday, April 8, 2011

Isaac Franks

In the late June of 1776, frightened residents of New York City—then just the lower tip of Manhattan—watched a flotilla of British ships cross the horizon and glide towards New York Harbor.  By then a least half the city’s population had fled to their “country estates” in what is now midtown Manhattan, or to Philadelphia, Long Island, Connecticut.

Nearly all of the invading ships of the Royal Navy headed toward Staten Island, then a hilly area populated by Loyalists, all too happy to assist their "rescuers." That island was a perfect headquarters for British troops, equidistant to New York and Brooklyn. 

Rebels had already fortified in both locations, but they were so outnumbered that even George Washington urged they flee. But Congress, ever foolish, insisted that New York be defended. Its waterways, the Hudson (then the “North”) River led all the way to Canada and, even then, New York was a vibrant port.

And thus began the colonies' ignoble  defeat: The Battle of Long Island, also known as the Battle of Brooklyn.

Isaac Franks was 17 when he enlisted in Colonel Lasher’s Volunteers of New York. He was wounded at the Battle of Long Island, and, like many rebels in that battle, was captured  by the British. Somehow managing to escape, Isaacs immediately re-joined Washington’s army—for most of the long haul!—and was eventually promoted to the rank of colonel. At some point he became a “forage manager”—someone who hunts down food and provisions—and in 1781 was commissioned to the Seventh Massachusetts Regiment in West Point. (A year earlier the site of Benedict Arnold’s infamous defection!)

Like his distant relation, David Salisbury Franks, Isaac, born in 1759,  hailed from the huge Franks family, wealthy Jews predominant in Philadelphia, but with a presence in New York as well. 

Discharged from the army for health reasons in 1782, Isaac Franks settled in Philadelphia, where, for a time he engaged in land speculation, acquiring a huge home in nearby Germantown (the site of an earlier, disastrous battle) which he eventually loaned to George Washington himself.  Over time, Franks’ prosperity declined and he was forced to declare himself “indigent” and live off a meager veteran’s pension. No longer a practicing Jew, he died in 1822.

Coincidentally, Isaac’s sister Rachael married one of the greatest Jewish Patriots of all, Haym Saloman!

Primary Source: Samuel Rezneck, “Unrecognized Patriots: The Jews in the American Revolution (Greenwood Press 1975)

Monday, April 4, 2011

Benedict Arnold's Jewish Aide-De-Camp, David Salisbury Franks--Was he, too, guilty?

Among the most fascinating and mysterious characters in the American Revolution is David Salisbury Franks, a rebel and military hero who was Benedict Arnold's aide-de-camp at the time of the infamous treason. Arnold escaped to England, leaving behind his men. Was Franks also guilty of treason?  Many thought so at the time.

David Salisbury Franks was born in 1743 into a wealthy clan of Jews of Spanish descent. (The family's  original name was "Franco."). Among his relatives was the fascinating Becky Franks, a brilliant young woman, known to distinguished male admirers, including British invaders. as  “the beautiful Jewess of Philadelphia.” (She is a character in my book.)  David Franks' immediate family eventually settled in Quebec. After the British seized Canada from France, David and his father Abraham  re-located to  Montreal to set up a family business trading furs. David Franks must have been well regarded Montreal's Jewish community. He soon became the head--parnas--of that city's only synagogue, Congregation Shearith Israel, also the name of New York City’s congregation.

Initially, many Canadians, like the colonies to their south, mounted their own rebellion against Britain.
In 1775, rebels in Montreal wrote beneath a statue of King George III a deragotry inscription: “This is the pope of the war and the fool of England.” Initially charged with the treasonous act, David Franks was arrested and detained for a week. Though released, he nonetheless gained a reputation as a rebel. Governor Guy Carleton included him in his list of “the principal leaders of sedition.”  David not only broke with the British that year, but also with his Loyalist father.

 Though the colonies had not yet officially declared war against the British, 1775 was a watershed year.  Rebels in Boston fought back the British at Lexington and Concord in April.In late December, hoping to force Canada to become the fourteen colony, rebels assaulted both Montreal and Quebec. Rebel troops remained behind, but Canada itself decided not to side with the "rabble," remaining loyal to the Brits instead. he assault on Quebec, bravely orchestrated by Benedict Arnold, ended in brutal defeat. Montreal, originally under the command of Richard Montgomery.

 During that seminal year,  David Franks immediately joined the rebels. “My good offices and purses” are open to you," he told them, advancing more than $3000 for the cause. When the American army retreated from Canada, David Franks joined them, attaching himself to the then-great Benedict Arnold. Sources are unclear, but it is generally believed that Franks was with Arnold at the victorious Battle of Saratoga. Not only a military success, that battle elevated the colonies in the eyes of the French King Louis XIV. After the success of that battle, France was only too happy to come to our financial aid and soon declared war on its mortal foe.

  Though many of his activities throughout the rebellion remain mysterious, David Franks, fluent in French, served as a liason to Count D’Estaing, commander of French forces in the colonies. In 1778, Franks, promoted to “major”, was  assigned to General Benedict Arnold. When the British evacuated Philadelphia in the summer of 1778, Arnold took over and Franks returned to his home town.

  Still following Arnold—then already engaged in secret talks with the British-- Franks was dispatched to West Point. Little did he know that the British had instructed Arnold to get a posting there! In  1780, after eighteen months of negotiations, Arnold crossed over to the enemy camp.

        David Franks was initially deemed guilty by association. Was it anti-semiticism? Some Jewish historians believe that to have been  the case. But Arnold’s other aide, Colonel Richard Varick, not a Jew, was similarly accused.

        General Washington soon received a letter. It was from none other than the traitor himself, now safely ensconced on a British ship aptly named "the Vulture."  Having betrayed his own country, Arnold remained fiercely loyal to his aids. Both men, he wrote, were “totally ignorant” of the traitorous affair. After public hearings, they were fully vindicated.

      The court singled out the Jewish hero:  “Every part of Major D.S. Franks’ conduct…. reflects the highest honor on him as an officer….and justly entitles him the attention and confidence of his countrymen.”
      Source: Samuel Rezneck, “Unrecognized Patriots: The Jews in the American Revolution (Greenwood Press 1975)