The Battle for New York: The City at the Heart of the American Revolution


On September 15, 1776, the British army under General William Howe invaded Manhattan Island, landing at an open field on the banks of the East River, roughly where the United Nations sits today. George Washington’s Continental Army, still in disarray after its miraculous escape following the disastrous Battle of Brooklyn some two weeks earlier, retreated north to Harlem Heights, leaving New York in British hands. Control of the city was Howe’s primary objective; located at the mouth of the strategically vital ...

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On September 15, 1776, the British army under General William Howe invaded Manhattan Island, landing at an open field on the banks of the East River, roughly where the United Nations sits today. George Washington’s Continental Army, still in disarray after its miraculous escape following the disastrous Battle of Brooklyn some two weeks earlier, retreated north to Harlem Heights, leaving New York in British hands. Control of the city was Howe’s primary objective; located at the mouth of the strategically vital Hudson River, it had become the centerpiece of England’s strategy for putting down the American rebellion. However, as Barnet Schecter reveals in his stirring narrative, far from furnishing a key to the colonies, New York proved to be the fatal albatross that strangled the British war effort.

The Battle for New York tells the story of how the city became the pivot on which the American Revolution turned—from the political and religious struggles of the 1760s and early 1770s that polarized its citizens and increasingly made New York a hotbed of radical thought and action; to the campaign of 1776, which turned today’s five boroughs and Westchester County into a series of battlefields; to the seven years of British occupation and martial law, during which time Washington and Congress were as focused on getting the city back as the British were on holding it. The extraordinary campaign in the fall of 1776, which forms the dramatic heart of Schecter’s chronicle, has been overshadowed by more famous engagements at Bunker Hill, Saratoga, and Yorktown, and by the winter at Valley Forge. Yet the contest for New York was by far the largest military venture of the Revolutionary War; it involved almost every significant participant in the war on both sides; and there can be little doubt that during this campaign, the fate of America hung in the balance on several occasions. Moreover, the outcome had a direct impact on the major turning points of the rest of the war.

Schecter delights in linking eighteenth-century events with the city’s modern landscape, illuminating the forgotten battlefield that remains in our midst. He skillfully weaves into his narrative the memorable and passionate voices of those who were there—American private Joseph Martin, British second-in-command Henry Clinton, patriot-turned-Tory William Smith, minister Ewald Shewkirk, Nathan Hale, Benedict Arnold, and many others—thereby tracing the impact and meaning of the revolution in personal terms and giving his story a powerful human dimension. A profound and memorable saga in its own right, The Battle for New York offers valuable new insight into the American Revolution.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Schecter here presents in sometimes overwhelming detail the story of New York from the beginning of the American Revolution in the spring of 1775 to the city's evacuation by the British late in 1783. The military operations of 1776 are the central focus, as the British occupied the city in order to advance up the Hudson River and unite with another force coming down from Canada. British Gen. William Howe landed troops on Long Island and routed the colonial army on August 27. In despair but persevering, Gen. George Washington listened to subordinates and managed to evacuate his troops from Long Island that night, even as the British navy awaited nearby. And Washington kept running, evacuating New York City in mid-September (with some minor fighting at Harlem Heights, Throg's Neck and White Plains) and withdrawing into New Jersey after losing more than 2,600 captured at Fort Washington. The British navy held New York City under martial law for the rest of the war, forced to maintain its presence there after the army moved to the South. Schecter details the lives of area loyalists, more than 29,000 of whom went to Canada after the war. Although many readers will find some of the abundant operational material hard going, Schecter's research is impeccable, and his battlefield tour of today's New York brings immediacy to the story. 8 maps and 65 illus. not seen by PW. (Oct.)
Library Journal
When we think of America and the Civil War, we usually think of the blue and the gray. But as historian Ketchum (The Winter Soldiers) points out in his newest book, America's first Civil War occurred nearly a century earlier. Ketchum uses New York City as the backdrop to describe the events that ultimately led to war, beginning with British Prime Minister Walpole's policy of "salutary neglect" (i.e., the Colonies were best served by avoiding war, encouraging trade, and keeping taxes low) to George III's efforts to tax the Colonies to pay war debts and his rejection of a final peace proposal in 1775. Ketchum uses two prominent New York families, the DeLanceys and the Livingstons, one with loyalist tendencies and the other patriotic, to illustrate the complex issues that not only divided the country but split families and set neighbor against neighbor. Ketchum's narrative style and frequent use of firsthand accounts makes for easy reading and brings the participants to life. What results is a good companion to Schecter's The Battle for New York, since Schecter essentially picks up where Ketchum leaves off, on the eve of war, and describes the struggles of the British to hold on to New York City. Ketchum's book also includes an appendix of the principal characters. Recommended for medium to large public libraries. (Index not seen.) Schecter, a professional writer and historian, makes the case for New York City's being the strategic axis around which the Revolutionary War revolved. Schecter shows again and again how Great Britain's desire to hold New York City cost it the war effort, beginning with Gen. William Howe's slow invasion, in which he missed several opportunities to trap Washington in favor of securing the city, and ending with Gen. Henry Clinton's failure to reinforce Cornwallis because of his apprehensions about a possible attack on the city. The easy narrative style is enhanced by numerous quotes, allowing the actual players to tell their part of the story. This book is of special interest to those who live in and around New York, as it includes details about the fortifications of the two armies complete with references to current locations in the city and a walking tour. Well researched and written, this book is recommended for libraries in the New York area and those with comprehensive American Revolution collections.-Robert K. Flatley, Frostburg State Univ. Libs., MD Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Independent historian Schecter’s debut describes New York’s crucial role in the Revolutionary War. The Founding Fathers agreed that New York was the pivot on which the Revolution turned. They were therefore disheartened when General William Howe routed George Washington’s forces on Long Island, landed his army on Manhattan (where the United Nations now stands), and occupied the city in a matter of days. Schecter's straightforward military history isn’t exactly a page-turner, but it makes an important addition to bookshelves filled with treatises on Lexington and Concord, Jefferson and Franklin, and other more famous battles and personalities of the war. Perhaps most enlightening is his depiction of how New York’s geography posed problems for both its defenders and attackers. The city’s harbor was ideal for trade but terrible from a strategic perspective. The many overlooks and coves provided staging areas from which cannons might bombard enemy ships, but the sheer size of the coastline to be defended presented problems for all but the most well-provisioned armies. At the outset of the Revolutionary War, the colonists did not possess such an army. The British did, and they held the city from the moment they landed until two years after Yorktown. Schecter retells with panache such well-known incidents from New York’s revolutionary war as the execution of Nathan Hale and the first combat use of a submarine (a tiny vessel nicknamed "the Turtle"). He also gives deserved attention to obscure figures like Charles Lee, a former British officer always accompanied by a train of dogs who fought for the American cause until he was captured, whereupon he offered suggestions on how the redcoats mightdefeat Washington in a manner of months. An excellent summary of New York’s role in the inception of the US: Boston and Philadelphia, eat your hearts out.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802713742
  • Publisher: Walker & Company
  • Publication date: 9/1/2002
  • Pages: 448
  • Product dimensions: 6.42 (w) x 9.52 (h) x 1.53 (d)

Meet the Author

Barnet Schecter is a Manhattan-based writer. His interest in architecture, urban planning and in New York City evolved from his first career, as a sculptor. He holds a B.A. in History, magna cum laude, from Yale University, where he also took courses in the art school. He then moved to New York City to study sculpture full-time at the NY Studio School in Greenwich Village. He holds an M.F.A. in Sculpture from Queens College, CUNY and his work, including large outdoor commissions in bronze and concrete, is represented in numerous private collections in the United States, and has been exhibited in galleries and other venues in New York City.

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Read an Excerpt

The City at the Heart of the American Revolution

By Barnet Schecter

Walker & Company

Copyright © 2002 Barnet Schecter.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0802713742

Chapter One


The night of Friday November 1, 1765 was moonless and still. At the southern tip of Manhattan, two restless mobs surged through the dark streets of New York, lighting their way with lanterns, torches and the glow of five hundred candles. During the day the hated Stamp Act had taken effect, and New York City shut down. Residents deserted the streets and closed up their shops, while in the tense quiet the equally detested Lieutenant Governor Cadwallader Colden prepared for the outbreak of violence that promised to accompany his enforcement of the new tax.

    In his forty-four years as a royal official in New York, Colden had antagonized the colonists at almost every turn while failing to win more than tepid approval from his superiors in London. For the previous two years, residents had anxiously awaited a successor to the last royal governor, Robert Monckton, while Colden filled the vacancy. In this latest crisis, the stubborn 77 year-old lieutenant governor asked that marines from the British war ships in the harbor take up positions inside Fort George at the foot of Broadway.

    Instead of cannon balls, the fort's guns were loaded with canvas sacks of small lead and iron balls called grapeshot—far deadlier against a crowd at close range. Two guns were wheeled up against the inside of the fort's wooden gates in case demonstrators broke through, while others were aimed up Broadway. Colden in turn was warned that if the soldiers opened fire, he would pay with his life: The death threat, posted in the Merchants' Coffee House during the day, was delivered to the gates of the fort at dusk.

    Inside the fort, a ton and a half of specially marked paper, parchment and vellum awaited distribution to City Hall, the courts, lawyers' offices, printing houses and retail stores, among other enterprises that required paper to conduct business. The embossed square stamp on every sheet constituted a tax that would be added to the price Americans paid when they bought a newspaper or almanac, for example, or when they needed a legal document, such as a marriage or liquor license. For the first time, the Crown attempted to reach beyond tariffs for regulating trade within the empire and imposed a tax that invaded the daily life of every American.

    Adding to the burden, the Currency Act of the previous year had abolished colonial paper money as legal tender, even though it was badly needed as a medium of exchange. Despite the shortage of hard currency, the new law required that the stamp tax be paid in silver. Prime Minister George Grenville's new program for taxing the colonies was ostensibly for their own protection: Britain, heavily in debt from the Seven Years' War that had ended in 1763, needed the colonists to defray the cost of defending vast territories on their own frontiers that had been won in the struggle against France. New York's economy, meanwhile, was in the depths of a post-war depression: When the military contracts and British soldiers disappeared, the boom years of the 1750's came to an end.

    When the stamped paper first arrived towards the end of October, an angry mob of two thousand people had stood on the wharf to prevent the ship Edward from unloading its cargo. However, Colden had tricked them by sneaking the stamps into the fort at night. On Thursday, October 31, more than two hundred New York merchants struck back with the first act of open rebellion in the American colonies: They gathered at George Burns' City Arms Tavern, five doors up from the fort on the west side of Broadway, and signed an agreement to boycott British goods until Parliament repealed the Stamp Act. Merchants in other colonies soon committed themselves to similar non-importation pacts.

    As night fell on November 1, a huge crowd formed, this time on the Common. The demonstrators included day laborers, shopkeepers, tavern-owners, blacksmiths, carpenters and seamen as well as wealthy merchants. They placed a paper effigy of Colden in a chair and one of the seamen carried it on his head. Cheering loudly at each corner, the mob set off down Queen Street. When they reached the house of James McEvers at Wall Street they gave him three cheers for giving up his post as stamp distributor for New York. Then they proceeded to the fort, broke into the coach house and stole Colden's carriage. With the effigy of the lieutenant governor seated inside, and one man with a whip acting as the driver, the crowd pulled the coach around the city. At the corner of Water and Wall Streets, they were cheered by patrons of the Merchants' Coffee House. As more people joined the parade, it turned up Broadway and headed back to the Common. By this time the second crowd was coming down Broadway carrying a movable gallows from which they hung another effigy of Colden. The dummy held paper in its hands, representing the stamp tax, while the devil, hanging next to him, instructed his disciple.

    The combined mobs—with 2,000 marchers, the coach and gallows—became a grand procession that returned to the fort, where they threw bricks and stones over the walls, pounded on the gates with clubs and taunted the troops to fire. When it seemed that the marchers were about to crash through the gates and storm the fort, their leaders intervened and restrained them. As Colden and his entourage watched from the ramparts, the mob regrouped at Bowling Green across the street. Right under the muzzles of the fort's guns the unruly crowd tore down the wooden fence around the lawn and used it to make a bonfire of the effigies, the gallows and the costly carriage.

    However, the climax of the night's violence was yet to come. As the mob stoked the funeral pyre, some of the protesters slipped away to Major Thomas James's mansion. James was the artillery officer in charge of the fort who had promised publicly to cram the stamps down New Yorkers' throats with the end of his sword. In response a rumor circulated that he was to be buried alive. James had leased Vauxhall, an elegant estate overlooking the Hudson River between Chambers and Warren Streets at the northern edge of the city. The detachment of rioters chased off the fifteen soldiers standing guard, and ransacked the house. Mahogany tables, silk curtains, feather beds, mirrors and china were all heaped on a bonfire while the mob raided the wine cellar and drank or destroyed more than nine casks of liquor. They kept going until four in the morning, destroying the valuable library and every other room in the house, as well as the gardens and summerhouses outside. Carpenters with crowbars and hammers smashed the windows and doors including their frames, leaving only the mansion's shell intact. Having trampled the wealth and ostentation of Vauxhall, the rioters moved on to attack what they deemed to be nests of sin and corruption: several brothels that catered to British soldiers.

    With daylight came the pealing of all the city's bells, as the rioters exulted and ended their rampage with a final flourish. In a city less than a square mile in area, with twenty-two churches and a skyline dominated by steeples, the din was inescapable. Captain John Montresor, the chief engineer who had prepared the fort to maximize the raking fire of its guns, wrote disgustedly in his journal: "The mob got the permission to toll the Bells of the several Churches, meetings and other houses of worship except the Churches of England, which they broke into and tolled the bells at half after nine."

    Like Montresor, the city's wealthy merchants, including those who participated in what began as a non-violent protest, were appalled by the sacking of Major James's mansion. New York's commercial aristocracy feared that its own property would be next.

    While these patricians resented British attempts to tax them without their consent and thereby curb the power of the provincial legislature, through which they exerted their influence, they also feared mob rule and the leaders they saw as demagogues inciting a social revolution within the province. Similar riots had broken out in other American cities earlier that year, and some members of New York's elite believed that a civil war across the entire continent was not far off. Ultimately the wealthiest merchants' interests lay with Britain's commercial empire and most of' them would become loyalists when events forced them to choose.

The Churches of England that the rioters broke into, like Fort George, were bastions of royal power in New York City. The 175-foot steeple of Trinity Episcopal Church at Broadway and Wall Street towered above the rest of the skyline. The lavishly decorated interior and the expensive carriages lined up waiting for their owners on Sundays, also proclaimed the wealth and influence of Trinity's Anglican congregation. Anglicanism was the official, established religion in England and while its members in New York made up only ten percent of the population, they included the governor, the lieutenant governor, most of the Royal Council and many members of the Assembly, as well as numerous wealthy merchants and landowners from old established families. Anglicans of modest means attended one of two other churches in less desirable locations: St. George's Chapel, near the stench of a tannery, or St. Paul's Chapel, six blocks north of Trinity, on the edge of a slum that housed the city's sex industry.

    By the 1760s, New York had already acquired its modern reputation as a cosmopolitan center catering to every human desire—from the spiritual to the carnal. It had the most religious diversity of any city in America and also the most brothels. New Yorkers even had a sardonic nickname for the neighborhood where the sacred and profane overlapped. Because the Anglican Church owned most of the land north of St. Paul's Chapel and west of Broadway, the district—with its hundreds of prostitutes—was slyly dubbed the "Holy Ground." The concentration of brothels near the church was also convenient both to nearby King's College and to the barracks of the British soldiers across Broadway on Chambers Street. Prostitution rose sharply in New York at the end of the 1760's and in the early 1770's as a decade of economic hard times took an especially high toll on single women who had no other means of support.

    The sources of the city's ethnic and religious heterogeneity were much older. New York inherited the richness of its urban culture from 17th century Amsterdam, which was one of Europe's most vibrant and cosmopolitan cities because it sheltered a wide array of religious dissidents fleeing Spanish oppression in the southern provinces of the Netherlands. When the Dutch West India Company founded a trading post on Manhattan in 1624, it was called New Amsterdam, and its laws guaranteed freedom of worship to anyone who wished to live there and help the company make a profit in the fur trade. The city's success rested on these two mutually reinforcing pillars: unfettered commerce and freedom of conscience. However, this ideal of tolerance did not extend to the Native Americans just outside the city, many of whom were butchered in clashes with Dutch soldiers.

    When the British seized New Amsterdam in 1664—and renamed it New York in honor of its new ruler, James Stuart, the Duke of York—they granted religious freedom to the Dutch inhabitants. A little more than a century later, waves of immigration had brought more nationalities and religions to New York than to any other American city. Besides the English and Dutch, there were French, German, Scottish, Irish, Swedish and Portuguese residents as well as African slaves. Most ethnic groups introduced their own religious denomination into the city's mix of Anglicans, Quakers, Presbyterians, Dutch Reformed, Methodists, Moravians, Lutherans, Baptists, German Calvinists, Anabaptists, Huguenots, Sephardic Jews and Catholics. Hence the twenty-two houses of worship, half of which were either built or renovated during an upsurge of religious fervor in the quarter century leading up to the Revolution.

    British toleration of diversity did not mean equality, however. As the Anglican Church guarded and expanded its own power, it sought to curb the growth of the dissenting churches. Nonetheless, Presbyterianism grew rapidly in the 1740s by absorbing various ethnic and religious groups, many of which fervently opposed the English and Anglicanism, among them Scottish and Scotch-Irish immigrants, New England and Long Island Puritans, Dutch Reformed converts and the offspring of marriages between Dutch and Scottish families.

The Presbyterian-Anglican rivalry was inextricably enmeshed with the Byzantine world of New York politics, which mirrored the fragmentation and complexity of the city's religious life. The dominant pattern in this mosaic of intermarriage and political alliances between New York's patrician families was the contest between the Livingstons and the De Lanceys.

    James De Lancey, who dominated city and provincial politics as acting governor for most of the 1750s, led a coalition of the city's wealthy Anglican merchants that included such prominent families as the De Peysters, Stuyvesants, Waltons and Bayards. (De Lancey's father, a French Huguenot, had converted to Anghcanism to solidify his social position in New York).

    An alliance of interest groups gathered around the Livingston family—headed by [NAME] Livingston—and competed fiercely against the De Lanceyites for votes and influence. Presbyterians for the most part, the Livingstonites were vocal opponents of the Anglican Church and hoped to threaten its supremacy by gathering all of New York's dissenting churches under their banner. The two factions also disagreed on issues like taxation, since the De Lanceyites' fortunes stemmed from trade, while the Livingstons and their allies were primarily landowners and lawyers. These distinctions were not absolute, however: The leading merchants also invested in land, while the landed families could not sustain their opulent lifestyles solely by leasing farms on their vast estates and had to involve themselves in commerce to some extent.

    In this oligarchic society, the great families exerted their political influence through a system of voice vote elections, which denied voters the protection of a secret ballot. The tenant farmers on the manors along the Hudson and the middle-class artisans who made up the bulk of voters in New York City were equally susceptible to intimidation, because their loyalty could be monitored by the powerful landlords and merchants who controlled their livelihoods.

    In the 1760's, however, a significant increase in political activity among artisans and other manual workers (called mechanics), started to transform this feudalistic, deferential relationship. In October 1765 during the Stamp Act crisis, New Yorkers became freemen in unprecedented numbers in order to obtain the vote. In the years leading to the Revolution, freemanship allowed all classes of citizens to participate in elections, and almost all white males gained the vote. Gradually, elected officials became more accountable to a broader constituency.

    The voters of New York City and county sent four representatives to the provincial Assembly, a legislature consisting of twenty-seven members from the colony's various counties, towns and manors. The Assembly met in the city, where its power was checked by the governor's Council: twelve royal appointees chosen by London to advise the governor on policy and pass on legislation sent up by the Assembly. The decisions of the governor and his Council in turn were subject to approval or veto by Britain's Board of Trade. In bestowing the prestigious Council seats, along with enormous land grants, the British government expected to secure the allegiance of key figures from New York's elite and consolidate royal power in New York.

    With the De Lanceys and their allies occupying many of these influential positions, the question of whether Anglicanism should become the established religion in America as well as England became embroiled in New York politics. In the struggle for control over King's College in the 1750s the Anglicans succeeded in extending their control over the school's leadership and religious services while the Presbyterian Livingstonites tried to ensure that it was denied public funding. The Anglicans retaliated by opposing a charter of incorporation for the city's Presbyterian Church. The Anglican campaign to have a bishop appointed for the colonies accordingly drew fire from the Presbyterian faction.


Excerpted from THE BATTLE FOR NEW YORK by Barnet Schecter. Copyright © 2002 by Barnet Schecter. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Interviews & Essays

Barnet Schecter on the Revolutionary War

If high school students today are shockingly ill-informed about American history and geography, when it comes to New York City's central role in the Revolution, it is hardly the teachers or their pupils who are to blame. While George Washington and his British adversaries in America's war for independence considered the city at the mouth of the Hudson River the single most important strategic location on the continent, the epic contest for New York during the military campaign of 1776 -- and for the rest of the eight-year war -- has all but vanished from our textbooks.

One of the persistent misconceptions that contributes to our collective amnesia about this crucial aspect of our history is the assumption that the street grid, the brownstones, and the skyscrapers of the vertical city have paved over every trace of the 18th-century battlefields. As a result, few remember that in the city that never sleeps, Washington did far more than repose. In reality, the battlefields are literally everywhere: It is far easier to find Revolutionary history in the streets, parks, and rivers of New York than in the minds and hearts of its people.

In August 1775, reeling from the slaughter of British troops at Bunker Hill and bottled up in Boston by the Americans' newly formed Continental Army, the British high command outlined a grand strategy that would shift the war to New York City. They targeted both ends of the Hudson at once: A second army was to descend from Canada and meet the first at Albany, halfway between Fort Ticonderoga and New York City. British control of the Hudson, both sides assumed, would divide the Eastern Seaboard in half and deal a deathblow to the American rebellion. In the summer of 1776, when the British sent what was then the largest expeditionary force in their history to capture New York, today's five boroughs and Westchester County became fiercely contested battlefields. A powerful fleet of British warships prowled the waters of the archipelago, bombarding its shores, while landing craft disgorged regiments of Hessians and redcoats for the invasion.

On August 27th, tens of thousands of troops clashed and cannons roared on the hills of today's Prospect Park, Green-Wood Cemetery, and Evergreen Cemetery in Brooklyn. One can visit the bronze plaques and stand on this hallowed ground, but America's first battle as an independent nation and the largest engagement of the Revolution -- the Battle of Brooklyn -- has never become a staple of sixth-grade social studies. However, while the campaign in New York was a series of American retreats, it is still worth remembering: The British capture of the city failed to crush the Continental Army, and occupied New York eventually became the key to Britain's defeat instead of a "key to the continent." Washington's miraculous retreat across the East River after the battle, the British landing on Manhattan Island at Kips Bay (now the East 30s), the Battle of Harlem Heights on what became the Columbia and Barnard campuses, and the American fortifications in northern Manhattan (above West 147th Street) are also marked by commemorative tablets. The city and Westchester County also have a wealth of historic houses and churches from this period.

This rich collection of Revolutionary relics and reminders is just the beginning. When Americans learn the story of the battle for New York, these artifacts will become points of reference that help us envision the entire 18th-century landscape and the battlefields that are everywhere in our midst.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 7, 2003

    A great read.

    I couldn't have been more pleased with this book. It covered all that I'd hoped, and didn't drift to subject matter that made it tedious to read. One of my favorite things about the book was the detail of NY's modern landscape and where events that occured during the war, are located today. I can't wait for my next trip to NYC so I can visit many of the sites listed (of personal interest is the Kip's Bay area, as I descend from the Kip family that the area is named after). This book should be required reading for folks living in NYC...especially those studying the American Revolution in school. Imagine the field trips... Sections in the book that were somewhat humorous (the American's refusal to deliver British messages to Washington unless they were addressed in a manner that acknowledged his position, etc.) had me laughing out loud, while other sections (Knowlton and Hale's stories, etc.) stirred emotion. As a history buff, this is one of the best books I've read. Two thumbs up for Mr. Schecter.

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