52. The Enduring Durhams

The image above is that of a replica Durham boat housed in the boat barn at Washington Crossing Historic Park (WCHP) along the Pennsylvania banks of the Delaware River. None of the Durhams that plied the Delaware and Lehigh rivers in the eighteenth century—some fifteen to twenty of which were used to transport George Washington’s infantry across the Delaware on Christmas night 1776—exist today, at least not on dry land. However, the four seaworthy (or river-worthy, to be precise) replica craft at WCHP are used in the re-enactment of that nautical enterprise undertaken twice each December, once on the second Sunday of the month (December 11 this year) and the other on Christmas afternoon. This ritual became routinized in 1953 and has been ongoing ever since.

The Boats

At Washington’s command, the Durham boats that were to be used in the crossing on the night of December 25-26, 1776 were collected from the upper Delaware and Lehigh rivers. Daniel Bray, Jacob Gearhart, and Thomas Jones, all captains in the Hunterdon County militia, engineered this effort and reportedly concealed the boats behind Malta Island below Coryell’s Ferry (today New Hope) on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware, several miles above the site at McConkey’s Ferry where the main Continental force would cross. (Malta Island cannot be discerned today because of topographical changes to the area.) In addition to the Durhams, the militia gathered other boats over a forty-mile stretch of the Delaware and moored them in various creeks and behind wooded islands along the river’s west bank, intending to deprive the enemy of these craft while keeping them ready for the Americans’ use.

The Durham boats, which were constructed at the Durham Ironworks or Durham Furnace near Easton, Pennsylvania, typically ranged from thirty to sixty feet in length and were about eight feet wide in the beam. It is estimated that each of these boats carried between thirty and forty soldiers, in addition to a crew of several rowers and a captain. The latter functioned as a pilot by steering the boat with a “sweep” oar, about twenty-five feet long and weighing some ninety pounds, which protruded from the stern (rear). The crew used oars that were about eighteen feet long and weighed some thirty-five pounds; two men were required to operate each oar, and there were two to four oars on each side depending on the length of the boat. The soldiers would have been required to stand on the Durhams, as these vessels had no seats since they were not built to hold passengers but rather to transport heavy cargo such as iron ore, pig iron, produce, and timber downriver to Philadelphia.

The River

The float ice on the Delaware that night—and there were copious amounts of it—posed a particular impediment to the Durhams. The swift current combined with the ice, bitterly cold winds, freezing precipitation, and swollen river to make the army’s endeavor especially challenging. Moreover, the full-blown northeaster that descended on the area by 11 p.m. compounded the difficulty of carrying out Washington’s battle plan. As a result, it took between nine and ten hours for the entire 2,400-man force to make its way to the New Jersey side. By the time those troops did so, it was 3:00 a.m., and it would be another hour before their march to Trenton commenced.

The Result

With the aid of the Durhams and the sailor-soldiers of the 14th Massachusetts Continental Regiment known as the Marblehead Regiment, who with other units rowed the Durhams (accompanied by ferry boats that conveyed the army’s horses, artillery, and wagons), Washington’s troops succeeded in traversing the ice-laden river. Remarkably, they did so without losing a single soldier, cannon, horse, wagon, or boat and later that morning defeated the brigade of German soldiers, known to us as “Hessians,” occupying the town of Trenton. The victorious rebel troops made further use of the Durhams on the night of December 26-27, when they returned to Pennsylvania with some nine hundred prisoners, and again between the 29th and New Year’s Eve as they crossed the river once more—the fourth time that month—back to New Jersey. From there, the Patriot forces went on to win two more battles, at Trenton on January 2 and Princeton the next day, to complete their remarkable “Ten Crucial Days” campaign and reverse the momentum of the war.

The sturdy Durhams accomplished what Washington envisioned when he ordered that they be rounded up for the army’s use. In fact, you might say those boats kept the Revolution afloat (in a manner of speaking).


Season’s Greetings! 

I’ll be taking a break from blogging until 2023. In the meantime, my best wishes to all for a joyful holiday season and a healthy and happy new year.

51. To SAR with Love

It would obviously be gratifying to learn that my literary and educational activity relating to the “Ten Crucial Days” of the Revolution is viewed favorably in any quarter but especially so when the judgment is rendered by a group whose members are passionately committed to preserving the legacy of that pivotal moment in American history and those who made it possible.

This week, I had the pleasure of speaking to the Washington Crossing Chapter of the Pennsylvania Society Sons of the American Revolution (SAR) during their dinner meeting at the Continental Tavern in Yardley, PA. The subject was John Haslet’s World, the third volume in this scribbler’s trilogy about the “Ten Crucial Days,” and I left with a full stomach (if you’re in the area, try the salmon – it’s really good) and the SAR Bronze Good Citizenship Medal.

The accompanying citation was presented by chapter president William B. Hampton and reads as follows (cue the gauche display of immodesty):

The Washington Crossing Chapter of the Pennsylvania Society of Sons of the American
Revolution is honored to present the SAR Bronze Good Citizenship Medal and certificate to
David Price for his work promoting the historical and accurate story of the Crossing and the
succeeding 10 days of the American Revolution. Without this Crossing, the American
Revolution may well have failed. This Crossing of the Delaware River on Christmas Night
of 1776, envisioned and led by General George Washington, successfully initiated the “Ten
Crucial Days” of the American Revolution. David has authored 3 books with inspiring
stories about the events during this period. His historical research has illuminated the stories
of this pivotal time. Through his authorship, affiliations with local and national
organizations relating to the Revolutionary War, and his work as an historical interpreter
and outreach educator for 8 years for the Friends of Washington Crossing Park and 4 years
at Princeton Battlefield, David has been instrumental in furthering our SAR Chapter’s
primary goal: that of the careful perpetuation and accurate teaching of Washington’s
Crossing. In addition, he has been a featured speaker for our chapter twice and for other
SAR chapters. We are grateful for his service to perpetuate the memory of Revolutionary
War Patriots through his historical research, and education, 2 purposes of the SAR.

To be honest, I’ve had it up to here with such comments (let the record reflect that I’m pointing to my ankle). That said, if this exercise in whistle tooting offends anyone’s reverence for humility, I apologize. (Actually, humility is what slaps you in the face when you’re speaking to an audience of eleven people in an auditorium that seats about 250 and one of them starts snoring during your talk, to which I can attest.) Apparently seven years of literary exertion with little to show for it in the way of tangible recognition on the order of the referenced encomium—and who’s to say that isn’t for good reason—has reduced me to this shameless state. Hence I stand guilty of exploiting this one post to revel in a few kind words from fellow history geeks. Begging your indulgence, I promise to provide something more illuminating next time.

50. John Cadwalader

The above image of John Cadwalader and his wife Anne and eldest daughter Elizabeth was painted in 1772 by one of the most noteworthy artists of that era, Charles Willson Peale. According to one writer, Cadwalader was “respected as a man of energy, of strong convictions, and of the highest integrity.” (Nicholas B. Wainwright, Colonial Grandeur in Philadelphia: The House and Furniture of General John Cadwalader, The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1964) Washington described him as “a military genius, of a decisive and independent spirit, properly impressed with the necessity of order and discipline and of sufficient vigor to enforce it.” (John C. Fitzpatrick, The Writings of George Washington, 1932, Vol. 37, 548)

A Privileged Revolutionary

In 1776, Cadwalader was a thirty-four-year-old merchant and prominent member of the Philadelphia gentry who had served on the city’s Committee of Safety and risen to command the volunteer militia known as the Philadelphia Associators, first organized in 1747 by Benjamin Franklin and then mustered anew in 1776. The Associators represented a cross-section of the population in Philadelphia—then the largest city in America with some forty thousand inhabitants—as well as volunteers from rural Pennsylvania counties, and among their officers was the artist Peale.

Cadwalader was taken prisoner when Fort Washington fell to General William Howe’s British and Hessian army on November 16, 1776 but was immediately released in consideration of favorable treatment received by a British prisoner at the hands of the colonel’s father in Philadelphia. He led over a thousand men of the Philadelphia Associators when they joined up with the Continental Army in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, in December 1776, although these troops brought no actual combat experience with them. They were supposed to cross the Delaware River from Bristol on Christmas night to support Washington’s attack against the Hessian brigade in Trenton, but were stymied in their efforts to do so by the buildup of ice on the river that was more severe in the area below where the main rebel force crossed. However, Cadwalader’s men urged him to undertake an unplanned crossing on December 27 and thereby created the catalyst for a critical sequence of events, without which Cadwalader inferred that the raid on the Hessians at Trenton would have limited significance.

A Key Role in the “Ten Crucial Days” Campaign

Washington’s troops had returned to Pennsylvania after their raid on Trenton, but the deliberations of the commander-in-chief and his generals at their December 27 council of war were informed by the knowledge that Cadwalader’s 1,500 men—comprising about 1,100 Philadelphia Associators and a brigade of about 350 New England Continentals under Colonel Daniel Hitchcock of Rhode Island—had crossed the river to New Jersey that morning in its second attempt to do so. The colonel reported this unexpected development in a dispatch that arrived at army headquarters just before the council of war convened, in which he advised that the enemy was fleeing in panic and that the way was open to drive them from the western half of New Jersey. With Cadwalader’s dispatch in hand, Washington realized he had a golden opportunity to follow-up the attack on December 26 with a broader offensive that could change the whole dynamic of the contest. Orders were issued for the army to cross the river back to New Jersey, which it did over the next three days.

Once Washington returned to Trenton, he received intelligence from Cadwalader about the disposition of British troops in Princeton. The latter had met with a “very intelligent young gentleman” who was detained overnight by the redcoats but released on the morning of December 30. This youthful Patriot, whose identity is unknown, informed Cadwalader of the buildup of enemy troops and described in great detail how they were positioned. Based on this report, Cadwalader drew a crude map of the town indicating the strengths and weaknesses of the British alignment. From this sketch, Washington discerned an opportunity to make a successful move against his adversary. The British in Princeton were establishing strong defenses that included artillery and breastworks to guard against a possible American incursion from the north, west, or south. But they had neglected to fortify the eastern side of the town, which lay open to attack. Cadwalader’s map included a route from Trenton by which Washington’s army could approach Princeton from the east, where the enemy was most vulnerable.

Armed with this information, Washington held another council of war on the evening of January 1. He and his officers needed to consider how to respond to the large enemy force gathering in Princeton. It was decided to bring Cadwalader’s contingent from its encampment at Crosswicks to Trenton in order to strengthen the army’s position in the coming battle. Cadwalader’s militia reinforced the Continental regulars when the British attacked at the Second Battle of Trenton (or the Battle of Assunpink Creek) on January 2, 1777. The Americans held off the enemy and that night marched to Princeton under the cover of darkness, where they won the capstone victory of their pivotal “Ten Crucial Days” campaign the next day. Cadwalader’s brigade assisted in the final attack that drove the heavily outnumbered British from the field.

Afterwards

The colonel of the Philadelphia Associators was appointed brigadier general of the Pennsylvania militia in 1777 but declined Continental Army appointments to brigadier general and to brigadier and commander of the cavalry. In 1778, he left military service and returned to his family’s estate in Shrewsbury, Maryland. That year, he fought a duel with Washington’s nemesis, Thomas Conway, over the latter’s alleged “cabal” among certain army officers against Washington’s leadership, inflicting a nonfatal wound on Conway. After the war, Cadwalader moved from Pennsylvania to Maryland and served in its House of Delegates. He died in Shrewsbury at age forty-four in 1786.

Want More?

If you’re interested, you can dig deeper into Cadwalader by way of two recent articles in the Journal of the American Revolution:

John Cadwalader, Twice Refuses to be a General, September 13, 2022, by Jeff Dacus

The Significance of John Cadwalader, September 22, 2022, by yours truly


Dear Subscriber:

You’ve just read post number 50 in the Speaking of Which blog that was launched in August 2020, and I hope you’ve enjoyed  them. If so, perhaps you’d consider sharing your thoughts about this series for others to consider by emailing a sentence or two to yours truly at dpauthor64@gmail.com. I’m grateful to those of you who’ve already done so—and if you’re uncertain whether you fall into that category or wish to know what others have said, you can check under Comments on David’s Blog on the Contact page of this website. (You’ll notice these are written in the third person.)

Many thanks for reading!!

Best regards,

dp

49. Major Andrew Leitch

As we approach the 246th anniversary of the Battle of Harlem Heights (depicted above in a nineteenth-century print by James Charles Armytage), a few words are in order about an unsung hero who made the ultimate sacrifice in the cause of American independence that day. (This post is adapted from The Battle of Harlem Heights, 1776, soon to be released by Westholme Publishing.)

Who Was He?

Andrew Leitch was a twenty-eight-year-old Scottish-born merchant and resident of Dumfries, Virginia, who had moved from Maryland in 1774. He hosted George Washington at his home in March 1775 while serving as a member of the Prince William County committee of correspondence and visited Mount Vernon a month later. Leitch left his wife and children to join the Continental Army, was commissioned as a captain in the 3rd Virginia Regiment in February 1776 and then as a major in the 1st Virginia. He marched to New York with the 3rd Virginia, as they were a few weeks ahead of the 1st Virginia, but did not join up with Washington’s army until early September. The 3rd Virginia was a favorite of Washington’s, as he was familiar with many of its officers from the Fredericksburg area.

What Did He Do?

On September 16, 1776, Leitch was assigned to a party of about 230 men commanded by Colonel Thomas Knowlton of Connecticut, which comprised Knowlton’s Rangers (the army’s first intelligence and reconnaissance unit) and three companies of riflemen from the 3rd Virginia. They were ordered by Washington to execute a flanking maneuver against the 2nd and 3rd Battalions of General Alexander Leslie’s light infantry and the 42nd (Royal Highland) Regiment of Foot, known as “The Black Watch.” Leitch led the Virginia contingent that accompanied the Rangers in this effort.

At about eleven a.m., Knowlton’s force set out from Point of Rocks (at today’s 127th Street and Nicholas Avenue in upper Manhattan), far east of the fighting between the American front lines and Leslie’s units, to begin its encircling maneuver. Proceeding as unobtrusively as possible, the Rangers and Virginians crossed the Hollow Way, a valley that separated the opposing forces, and headed for a rocky rise in an area now encompassed by 123rd and 124th Streets, Broadway, and Amsterdam Avenue, from where they intended to advance south and west to move into position behind the light infantry and seal the trap shut.

Meanwhile, the American troops in front of Leslie’s light infantry enjoyed an advantage in firepower that forced the outnumbered redcoats to pull back after standing their ground for nearly an hour, and the British retreat may have occurred before the flanking movement could get in their rear. Traditional accounts suggest that an errant order to fire foiled the American attempt to envelop the light infantry, according to which the culprit was an unidentified officer in the 3rd Virginia who inexplicably gave the command before the flankers could get behind the enemy—whereupon Knowlton’s force began shooting and the British reciprocated. In any case, the planned assault on the British rear was now directed at the right side of their formation instead, as the chance to surround them evaporated.

The exchange of fire between Leslie’s men and the flankers began just as Leitch, positioned at the front of the rebel contingent, reached the top of a ledge on the rocky rise from which they intended to swing southwest behind the enemy. He was struck three times in short order and carried to the rear. “He conducted himself on this occasion in a manner that does him the greatest Honor and so did all his Party,” wrote Colonel David Griffiths of Maryland, “till he received two balls in his belly and one in his hip.” Mounting the same ledge where Leitch had fallen, Knowlton turned to urge his men to follow him and almost immediately was hit from behind by a British musket ball, sustaining a mortal wound. Both officers fell while exhorting their troops to stand up to the world’s finest infantry, and those men continued to trade fire with the light infantry. This was quite possibly the pivotal moment in the battle, when the fall of Leitch and Knowlton might have so dispirited their men as to enfeeble their attack. That they stood their ground is a tribute to the resolve and competence of the officers and men in the detachment. Perhaps they fought all the harder to avenge the loss of their commanding officers, and their stubborn resistance contributed to the army’s first battlefield success.

In his congratulatory order to the army the next day, Washington wrote: “The General most heartily thanks the Troops commanded yesterday by Major Leitch, who first advanced on the Enemy and the others who so resolutely supported them.” Leitch was removed to the Blue Bell Tavern and clung to life there for another two weeks, breathing his last on October 1 or 2.

Afterwards

Fourteen years later, Leitch’s daughter Sarah wrote to President Washington, noting that her father “actuated by Zeal in the cause of this Country entered into the Army of these States, and in the year 1776 Sacrificed his Life in executing the orders of his General.” On behalf of herself and her brother James, who had lost their mother shortly after Andrew’s death, Sarah did “humbly intreat therefore that the half pay of the Commission possessed by their said Father, may be extended to your Petitioners commencing from the date of his Death, or for such other provision as you may think most proper.” Her petition was laid before Congress on January 25, 1791 and referred to Secretary of War Henry Knox, who reported on February 15, 1791 in favor of granting the request. The House of Representatives resolved to grant the petition on February 26, but it is unclear whether the resolution was acted upon. On June 30, 1834, Congress resolved to pay “to the legal representatives of the late Margaret Leitch, widow of the late Major Andrew Leitch, a major in the army of the revolution…the seven years’ half pay” to which “widows and children were entitled by the resolution of Congress of the twenty-fourth of August seventeen hundred and eighty.”

48. How did Washington Feed the Army in its Darkest Hour?

Two words: Joseph Trumbull.

Who Was He?

The Trumbull family from Connecticut played an important role during the Revolution as befitted its status in the Nutmeg State at the time, led by Jonathan, the father who served as Governor from 1776 to 1784 and was an ardent supporter of the rebel cause. His youngest and most famous son, the artist John, served under Washington and earned renown through his paintbrush. Another son, Jonathan Jr., ably performed the duties of paymaster for Washington’s army. It was, however, the oldest son who arguably performed the greatest service to the young nation, particularly when the cause of American independence teetered on the edge of total failure in late 1776. That was Joseph, who served as the first commissary general of the Continental Army, with the rank and pay of colonel, from July 19, 1775 to August 2, 1777. He secured that congressional appointment through Washington’s influence after coming to the latter’s attention as commissary general for Connecticut’s military forces in early 1775. Born in Lebanon, Connecticut, Trumbull was a Harvard graduate and successful merchant like his father before him, had served in the Connecticut General Assembly, and been elected to the First Continental Congress in 1774 as an alternate delegate. Perhaps most importantly, his reputation was that of an honest man.

What Did He Do?

Trumbull was thirty-eight years old when appointed Commissary General of Stores and Provisions and by all accounts served admirably in that position. He was remarkably successful at creating a system by which the states supplied the army and was highly regarded by his military peers. His commander-in-chief observed: “Few armies if any have been better and more plentifully supplied than the troops under Mr. Trumbull’s care.”

Trumbull’s effort to feed Washington’s troops in late 1776 encountered significant challenges. The army was unable to obtain supplies from New Jersey after retreating across the Delaware River in early December, and it could not forage in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where it had settled. The army’s commissary officers reported that local farmers would not sell nor millers grind if they were to be paid in Continental dollars. The staples of the soldier’s diet at this point were largely hard bread or biscuit and heavily salted meat, and with the means of supplying these so limited in the middle states, Trumbull was forced to bring them in from a considerable distance: flour from Virginia grain plantations and salt meat from New England. He even moved to New England in the fall of 1776, over Washington’s objections, as that region remained the best source of supply for provisions, clothing, and money.

Historian Richard Ketchum writes of Trumbull’s efforts at this time that “the indefatigable commissary general…was making some progress by darting here and there, gathering up whatever he could lay hands upon, but…was continually hampered by a shortage of funds for these purposes.” According to one scholar, Trumbull “performed as well as circumstances permitted,” and those circumstances included “a group of deputy commissioners discontented almost from the beginning of their service at Congress’ refusal to allow them compensation on the basis of their purchases.” Unfortunately, Trumbull’s successors would be less successful in their efforts than he was. Venality reared its ugly head as the army’s supply system became tainted with corruption and profiteering.  As the conflict progressed, the difficulties encountered in keeping the troops adequately supplied became a greater impediment to their ability to prosecute the war.

Trumbull resigned as commissary general when Congress reorganized that office into two branches, one for purchases and the other for issues, but he served as commissioner of the congressionally created Board of War until his resignation in April 1778 due to ill health. He returned to Lebanon, Connecticut, where he died three months later at age forty-one.

Summing Up

The importance of the efforts made by the army’s first commissary general to feed American soldiers and his proficiency in performing that task were such that Trumbull arguably kept the army in being. The Continentals were desperately short of various supplies by the time they crossed the Delaware River on Christmas night 1776 to attack the Hessian brigade occupying Trenton, but food was not one of those missing items. At this pivotal moment, Joseph Trumbull quite literally sustained these troops—and perhaps the Patriot enterprise—for each soldier who traversed the ice-laden waterway was provided with a three-day supply of rations before embarking on perhaps the most important offensive Washington’s army ever undertook.


This post is adapted from chapter 3 of my first book, Rescuing the Revolution: Unsung Patriot Heroes and the Ten Crucial Days of America’s War for Independence (Knox Press, 2016).

47. The British Soldier in North America

In general, British regulars fought well throughout their struggle against the American rebellion, as attested to by the fact that they won most of the battles in which they were engaged. This is as one would have expected given the proud and long-standing tradition of service exemplified by many of His Majesty’s regiments. They had crossed a wide and tempestuous ocean to fight a war that many historians believe they could not win, or at least could not after the failure of General William Howe, commanding the King’s army in North America, to destroy the Continental Army in 1776 (and even more so after France entered into an alliance with young America in 1778). For notwithstanding Britain’s vaunted naval superiority and her army’s advantages over the rebels in equipment, training, experience, and discipline, the challenges of conquering and holding the vast area encompassed by her thirteen rebellious provinces, and doing so at the end of a three-thousand-mile-long supply line, were arguably insurmountable. In addition, the nature of that domain was particularly problematic for the Crown’s military designs as the predominantly hilly and forested terrain of the New World was very different from the Low Countries of Europe, where most British officers had their formative military experience, and was naturally advantageous to any defending force—which in most cases constituted rebel soldiers.

Most British infantry came from such humble backgrounds as farmers, laborers, and tradesmen, and a small number were convicts who opted for military service over incarceration when given the chance to do so. They had volunteered for the army and many made it a career so as to reap the benefits of steady employment and pay. Notwithstanding its inherent dangers, a soldier’s life represented an appealing alternative to working-class youth in the British Isles who otherwise faced the prospect of long hours of exhausting and sometimes hazardous manual labor or an apprenticeship under exploitative conditions in which they could be overworked or beaten without recourse. Many of His Majesty’s troops believed their unit was the best in the army and were encouraged in their conviction. They were also intensely loyal to the monarchy and in that regard stood in firm opposition to those supporting the American rebellion. The British soldier was motivated by certain ideals that were as important to him as the cause of liberty was to his American counterpart, for to His Majesty’s troops this conflict was not primarily about power or interest but rather a set of values to which they were deeply committed and that generally informed their conduct—discipline, duty, fidelity, honor, loyalty, and service.

For the most comprehensive and contemporary study of British soldiers serving during the Revolutionary War, see Don N. Hagist’s Noble Volunteers: The British Soldiers Who Fought the American Revolution (Westholme, 2020). Don, who is managing editor of the Journal of the American Revolution, has even more recently completed These Distinguished Corps: British Grenadier and Light Infantry Battalions in the American Revolution (Helion & Company, 2021).

46. Rodney’s Ride

With Independence Day approaching , I thought it timely to post the following excerpts from John Haslet’s World in regard to Caesar Rodney’s overnight ride to Philadelphia to vote for American independence at the momentous session of the Continental Congress on July 2, 1776. It was less famous than Paul Revere’s ride, to be sure, but arguably more important to the cause of American independence.

Pages 44-45 —

No Delawarean played a more influential part in the American Revolution than Caesar Rodney, who is probably best known for the stirring, eighty-mile overnight ride that he made from his home in Dover to Philadelphia during a violent storm. He left at midnight on July 1, 1776 and reached the Pennsylvania State House on July 2, when his vote broke the tie among Delaware’s delegates to the Continental Congress and enabled the delegation to join with the other colonies in exercising a united choice for independence. Rodney’s absence from Congress at the time resulted not from any act of self-indulgence but the heavy load of public responsibilities that befell him as Assembly speaker and a militia general.

According to popular imagination, and the statue in Wilmington’s Rodney Square that was designed by James Kelly and dedicated on July 4, 1923, Rodney made the journey on horseback; however, it is more likely that as an eighteenth-century gentleman, especially one in chronically frail health, he would have traveled by carriage. The weary rider appeared in Philadelphia wearing his boots and spurs, in the recounting of fellow Delaware delegate Thomas McKean, but whether he came by horseback or carriage, or both, Caesar reported to his younger brother Thomas, “I arrived in Congress (tho detained by Thunder and Rain) time Enough to give my Voice in the matter of Independence.”

Page 69 —

Rodney, fresh from his overnight Dover-to-Philadelphia ride, voted on July 2 for Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee’s resolution for independence, siding with Thomas McKean against their fellow delegate from Delaware, George Read—then among the large number of Delawareans who had not abandoned hope of a reconciliation with Britain. Rodney’s absence during the debate over the resolution on July 1 had prevented the Delaware delegation, deadlocked between McKean and Read, from casting a vote in favor, but now his endorsement enabled Delaware to take its place with eleven other colonies (New York abstaining) in support of the resolution, while Pennsylvania and South Carolina—in opposition the day before—switched sides to make it unanimous. On July 4, after extended debate by the Congress meeting as a Committee of the Whole House, the same twelve colonies—now states—that had voted for Lee’s resolution adopted Thomas Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence.

Rodney’s presence in Philadelphia on July 2 and the vote he cast is rightly regarded as one of the most unsung efforts by one of America’s most underappreciated Founding Fathers. In other words, his support for the cause of independence was patently fourthcoming (so to speak).


For anyone who might be interested:

You can listen to a recording of an interview I had with historian Brady Crytzer, host of Dispatches—the podcast of the Journal of the American Revolution—about my recent JAR article, Edward Hand’s American Journey, on the Dispatches website (episode 167).

45. Burgoyne’s Folly

John Burgoyne (1722-1792) is portrayed above in the circa 1766 rendition by British artist Joshua Reynolds (oil on canvas, purchased by The Frick Collection in 1943). He is best known for his enormously consequential defeat in the Saratoga campaign of 1777. Burgoyne’s endeavor ended in failure after General William Howe decided to capture the American capital of Philadelphia instead of joining up with Burgoyne’s army in Albany, New York—a decision that spelled doom for Burgoyne’s offensive. The northern American Army under General Horatio Gates surrounded Burgoyne and his outnumbered troops and compelled their surrender at Saratoga on October 17, 1777. The rebel victory proved to be of monumental significance, propelling France into the war as America’s crucial ally and turning the conflict into a global struggle.

Background

A veteran of the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763, termed the French and Indian War in America), Burgoyne earned the nickname “Gentleman Johnny” for the manner in which he led his men. He distinguished himself as a cavalry officer in Portugal while fighting the Spanish in the 1760s. Although viewed by some as vain and boastful, Burgoyne demonstrated his courage in battle. He served in Parliament and overcame a reputation as a gambler and actor to become an exemplary politician as well as a playwright. In 1775, he was promoted to the rank of major general and shortly afterwards was sent to Boston with Generals William Howe and Henry Clinton to assist General Thomas Gage, commander of the British forces in North America and the military governor of Massachusetts, in responding to the American rebellion. Burgoyne witnessed the Battle of Bunker Hill before returning to England in November 1775, where he devised a plan for an invasion of New York from Canada that required Generals William Howe and Barry St. Leger to meet him in Albany. George III assisted in selecting Burgoyne to command the operation and in formulating his instructions.

The Pitfalls

In his recent and deservedly acclaimed book, Liberty is Sweet: The Hidden History of the American Revolution (Simon & Schuster, 2021), Woody Holton outlines the various flaws that attached to Burgoyne’s campaign:

— Burgoyne and Howe had instructions from London to cooperate with each other, but these were not orders. They were merely recommendations that reflected the British government’s desire to preserve the balance of authority between its civilian leadership and its generals overseas, allowing for the extended time lags involved with transatlantic communications, shielding the egos of its commanders in the field, and enabling the majority party in Parliament to maintain a safe distance from any military disaster. In any case, General Howe made his strategic priority clear: his objective of taking Philadelphia superseded the need for any action on his part to link up with Burgoyne’s force in Albany. That, and the failure of St. Leger’s expedition, left “Gentleman Johnny” to fend for himself.

— Burgoyne’s invasion plan had a significant tactical deficiency. Once his troops captured Fort Ticonderoga, near the southern end of Lake Champlain, in July 1777, they would have had to march about a hundred miles overland to Albany without the Royal Navy being able to transport or otherwise assist them. This left the Anglo-German army vulnerable to the rebel forces who would impede its advance through the heavily wooded terrain and inflict substantial casualties upon the invaders.

— Moreover, a serious strategic defect underlay the premise of Burgoyne’s scheme. This was the idea that a successful invasion of the kind he contemplated could accomplish its objective of isolating New England, the cradle of the Revolution, from the rest of the United States. Burgoyne lacked the troops needed to establish and garrison a chain of forts along the Lake Champlain-Hudson River corridor; and even fully staffed forts would, in all probability, have been unable to interdict American soldiers and supplies transiting this corridor, given that it extended some 360 miles from the mouth of the Richelieu River down to New York City. As a case in point, Paul Revere’s co-conspirators were able to row him across the Charles River from Boston on the night of April 18-19, 1775, to begin his celebrated ride, without being detected by British warships that lay within a pistol shot of Revere’s tiny craft.

In short, as Holton contends, the entire enterprise seemed impossible. You might say Burgoyne and Britain went, well, seriously off track at Saratoga. (That’s the mane point, and you’ll just have to saddle for that.)

 

43. The U.S. Army’s First Victory

The image of the Battle of Harlem Heights above is from a nineteenth-century print engraved by James Charles Armytage based on the Battle of Harlem by Alonzo Chappel (1859). It depicts the 42nd (Royal Highland) Regiment of Foot—known as “The Black Watch”—retreating under American fire (NYPL, Emmet Collection).

What Happened?

The Battle of Harlem Heights is a largely unappreciated milestone in American military history. The engagement on upper Manhattan Island on September 16, 1776 marked the first combat success for George Washington’s troops in the quest for independence from Great Britain and presaged the gradual emergence of an effective fighting force among the citizen-soldiers who made up the Continental Army and bore the brunt of young America’s struggle against the mother country. The cooperative effort of regiments from New England (Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island), Maryland, and Virginia—whose men lacked any sense of national identity before the Revolution—indicated the potential for this fledgling army to cohere around a common national purpose and affiliation and become the primary instrument for securing America’s right to political and economic self-determination.

What Dd It Mean?

The clash at Harlem Heights had little, if any, short-term impact on the course of the war but contributed to the development of a fighting spirit and a greater sense of interregional cohesion among Washington’s soldiers. For the British and Hessians, it was easy to dismiss the significance of this event because at the end of the day, no ground changed hands. That said, the battle must have made an impression on at least some of the Crown’s soldiers since the resistance they encountered was very different from what they had met to that point, even from what had been demonstrated the day before when they chased the defenders up Manhattan Island with ease after landing at Kip’s Bay on the East River (the site of today’s Thirty-fourth Street). Although British General William Howe’s estimate of redcoat and Hessian casualties on the day after their landing was typically understated, those among his officers who knew the extent of their losses (perhaps three times that of the Americans) may have begun to sense a new and unsettling reality—that the task of suppressing this insurrection might be far more difficult than they had anticipated. Indeed, Lieutenant Lotus Cliffe of His Majesty’s 46th Regiment observed afterwards that if the affair at Harlem Heights  “was a scheme of Washington’s, it certainly was well-concerted.”

What’s Up?

“This will be a good one.” That’s how historian Mark Edward Lender (author of Cabal: The Plot Against General Washington) assesses the manuscript for the upcoming book, The Battle of Harlem Heights, 1776, which is under contract with Westholme Publishing as part of its Small Battles series. I have been working on this project since last summer and anticipate its release in late 2022 or early 2023. Westholme is collaborating with a pair of distinguished scholars—Lender and James Kirby Martin (author of Benedict Arnold, Revolutionary Hero: An American Warrior Reconsidered), series editors—to offer a new perspective on the story of America’s early military conflicts that focuses on these engagements at their most intimate and revealing level. More information about the series is available on the Westholme Recent News page if you scroll down to Announcing a New Series: Small Battles: Military History as Local History.

The new book will seek to convey an enhanced appreciation of the battle and to raise the historical profile of a key participant who is largely unknown except among Rev War aficionados—Colonel Thomas Knowlton of Connecticut, who led an elite contingent known as Knowlton’s Rangers, the U.S. Army’s first intelligence and reconnaissance unit. The colonel and his Rangers precipitated and were especially conspicuous in the battle, and the extensive focus on him and the men he led will make for a distinctive narrative. No other modern-day work includes this level of detail about Knowlton’s life, in particular his remarkable record in the early stages of our war for independence and his role as the father of American military intelligence, all of which ended with his ultimate sacrifice at Harlem Heights. He was lauded by Washington in his General Orders following the battle as “the gallant and brave Colonel Knowlton who would have been an honor to any Country.” (More about him here if you’re interested.)

P.S. Oh yeah, Happy Mom’s Day (for those of you who qualify)!