My name is Kerry. This will seem an odd letter to you, since I am writing across the years from 2014. I’m writing about the song you wrote, as you watched your husband, Sandy, fight in the War of 1812.
It’s nearly 200 years since you wrote your song, “The Banks of Champlain,” to express your feelings about the Battle of Plattsburgh. You may be surprised that I know your song but, in fact, it moved many people and your words live on.
It was published in a book in 1842 and people sang it and passed it on by word of mouth—it was that memorable. Then, in the mid-1900s, more than 100 years after your death, a famous man recorded it.
What does that mean, “recorded it”? Well, it’s complicated; let’s just say this man, Pete Seeger, sang your song in a way that meant people could listen to it any time and anywhere they wished.
I like the song so much, I spent several weeks embroidering the words on a quilt that I am making to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Plattsburgh. In a way, I felt I got to know you very well during the time I spent stitching. I thought about some of the ways our lives are similar, and ways they’re very different.
I have so many questions I’d like to ask! Were you really in Plattsburgh, watching, as the battle was waged? How frightening that must’ve been. Where were your children? I know that you had twelve little ones, including an infant born just a couple of months before the battle. Were they with you? Where did you live? How did you manage?
As I sewed by the fire, I imagined you sewing by the fire. What did you turn your hands and thoughts to, while your husband and Thomas MacDonough made their plans? Did you make a small quilt that Sandy could carry with him, as he fought? Did you have a little cat who played in your lap and wanted to bat your thread? I did.
You wouldn’t recognize Plattsburgh now, although some of the houses would look familiar. There are streets and buildings with the names Macomb and MacDonough on them! Both men are considered heroes here.
Some things, though, haven’t changed at all. The lake and the mountains are still beautiful. Autumn is still glorious. The War of 1812 brought, eventually, a lasting friendship with the peoples of England and Canada.
Sadly, another thing that hasn’t changed is that we still go to war—men and even women, now. We haven’t fought on American soil since a civil war in the 1860s. I won’t tell you about that—it would break your heart.
No, now we seem to fight wars in far-off places. My husband fought in a place in Southeast Asia that you may never have heard of. Right now, even as I write this, Americans are fighting in wars.
We don’t stand and watch our loved ones fight now, as you did, but that doesn’t stop the worry and fear. And the death.
In fact, the same famous man who taught me your song wrote another song about war. In that song, he asked, “when will we ever learn?”
It’s a good question, isn’t it?
March 3, 2014
Plattsburgh, New York
Notes on the embroidery
As mentioned in a previous post, I transferred the words of the song, in the font I chose, using the freezer paper method. I made the printing color quite faint and the embroidery stitches cover the printed words nicely.
I started the embroidery of the song on January 23, 2014, and experimented with different color threads and different stitches for a couple days. When I made the decisions about what I wanted to do, I set myself a stint of doing at least one of the 24 lines each day. I finished on February 25.