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History with Phil: The Great Chain hoax

History with Phil: The Great Chain hoax

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The Great Chain Hoax

During the American Revolutionary War, both the British and American military leaders knew that the Hudson River was the key to winning the war. If the British were able to seize control, the colonies in the northeast would be cut off from the rest of the colonies. Consequently, several methods had been suggested to prevent this from happening including positioning of American boats and guns pointed at the river. Other suggestions included scuttling old ships to block the opening to the Hudson, or to embed sharpened logs in the river as a barrier. General Washington believed none of these ideas would do the job. What Washington needed was a much better idea. Fortunately, an English-born patriot — Thomas Machin — had one. Manchin was an expert in rivers and canals. He suggested a huge chain that would stretch across the narrow opening of the Hudson, thereby blocking British ships.

General Washington liked that idea and gave the order to have the massive chain built. Since each link was hand-forged, they varied in length from approximately a foot and a half up to nearly three feet long. When assembled, the 1500-foot chain along with accompanying attachments and anchors weighed around 75 tons.

The chain worked! The British regarded foiling the Great Chain as so critical to victory that they bribed Benedict Arnold to deliver the plans of the fortifications at West Point. Luckily, the scheme was discovered in time and West Point and the Great Chain remained in American hands.

After the War, the chain was left on the riverbanks, just in case the country ended up in another war with Britain. But when the War of 1812 broke out, the chain was not redeployed. Seventeen years later, it was melted down — or so people thought.

In 1889, Charles Gunther began displaying 18 links of the “original” West Point Chain in his curiosity museum. He said he had bought them from a dealer in New York City. This dealer went by quite an unusual moniker — Westminster Abbey. Abbey claimed he had obtained the links from an auction held at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Abbey eventually sold his remaining links to Francis Bannerman VI. According to Bannerman, a large section of the Great Chain had survived the furnace and had been brought to be displayed at the 1864 Metropolitan Sanitary Fair. Rather than having to haul the chain back to West Point, it was dumped at the Brooklyn Naval Yard.

Abbey’s links were almost double the size and weight of the real links. But, of course, virtually no one was aware of these facts.

Over the next several decades, Bannerman made a small fortune selling his “links” to private collectors and museums all over the country, including the Smithsonian.

There was just one problem with Bannerman’s links — they were all fakes. They were actually British mooring links, made of smooth rolled iron (unlike the rough, hand-hammered metal of the authentic chain)

The fraud wasn’t uncovered until 1990 when Hudson River historian Lincoln Diamant investigated all of the known links for his book Chaining the Hudson: The Fight for the River in the American Revolution.

A few of the authentic links still survive,13 of which can be seen on Trophy Point at West Point. This monument honors those who created the Great Link which helped America win its war of independence.

 

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