29. The Largest Battle of the Revolution

August 27 marks the 245th anniversary of the Battle of Long Island, also known as the Battle of Brooklyn. This was the first major battlefield contest of the Revolutionary War and by some accounts the largest during the entire conflict—with some forty thousand troops involved if one includes naval personnel—as well as one of the worst defeats suffered by the Continental army.

Almost Up the Creek

The image above is from a print based on the 1858 painting by Alonzo Chappell entitled The Battle of Long Island (NYPL Digital Collection). It depicts the heroic stand by Lord Stirling’s brigade along the Gowanus Road during this engagement. The Maryland and Delaware regiments, with their backs to the Gowanus Creek, held off a much larger enemy force long enough to save the Continental Army from a catastrophic fate. According to some accounts, their holding action prompted General Washington to laud them as his “brave fellows.” And those Maryland and Delaware soldiers who eluded the enemy were forced to take the one barely possible escape route available in their desperate situation—swimming across the widest portion of the Gowanus Creek, with the tide flowing in. They were only able to do so because some 400 Marylanders under Lord Stirling—General William Alexander—who were heavy outnumbered and surrounded by the enemy, launched a heroic attack that bought time for the rest of the brigade to make it across the creek.

The Outcome

The determined resistance by Stirling’s brigade was a significant factor in allowing about half the American troops engaged in the battle to reach the safety of their fortifications on Brooklyn Heights rather than being entrapped by the overnight enemy flanking maneuver through the largely unguarded Jamaica Pass that dictated the outcome of this contest. As a result, the plan of attack adopted by General William Howe, the British army’s commander (and devised by his subordinate, General Henry Clinton) yielded a brilliant tactical success but failed in its strategic objective of destroying the rebel force.

The Continental army counted the losses from its defeat at about 300 killed and 1,100 captured but had no reliable estimates of the number wounded. British figures in regard to their casualty count have been regarded as fairly precise, with General Howe reporting just under 400 casualties.

In his first major battlefield engagement as a commanding general, Washington blundered dreadfully. He left roughly half his force on Manhattan Island, which meant he was opposing a superior foe with only about half his strength. After General Nathanael Greene took ill, Washington changed commanders on Long Island twice in one week just before the battle. He failed to ensure his generals were familiar with the terrain they were defending. And early on, he dismissed a large component of his cavalry (the volunteer Connecticut Light Horse, not wanting to pay for the upkeep of their mounts and insisting they serve as infantry) who could have provided him with the scouts he needed to surveil redcoat maneuvers, especially that overnight march through the Jamaica Pass. Leaving such a critical route largely unguarded was probably the worst of Washington’s errors, as it exposed the army’s left to a flanking move that would have had catastrophic repercussions but for the heroics of Stirling’s men.

Washington arguably atoned for his inept performance two days later. On the night of August 29-30, some 9,500 American soldiers, their horses, and most of their equipment evacuated across the East River from Brooklyn to Manhattan. A mere three stragglers, who could not resist the temptation to loot, were captured on Brooklyn Heights. Washington, who rescued all but five of his cannons, left with the last of the troops. He had lost Long Island but saved his army in one of the most skillful evacuations in military history, conducted at night in small craft on difficult water and undetected by a numerically larger enemy and its imposing fleet. Of course, this maneuver was mightily assisted by the elements: high winds that precluded the British fleet from moving up the Hudson River just prior to and during the August 27 battle; then a storm that engulfed Manhattan and Brooklyn for two days and further stymied the Royal Navy; and finally a thick fog at dawn on August 30 that provided a protective cloak for Washington’s withdrawal across the river.

Some Observations

Delaware Lieutenant Enoch Anderson may have spoken for many a Continental soldier after the Long Island debacle: “A hard day this, for us poor Yankees! Superior discipline and numbers had overcome us. A gloomy time it was, but we solaced ourselves that at another time we should do better.”

From her home in Braintree, Massachusetts. Abigail Adams informed her husband John, serving with the Congress in Philadelphia, of what news had reached the home front: “We Have had many stories concerning engagements upon Long Island this week, of our Lines being forced and of our Troops retreating to New York. Perticuliars we have not yet obtaind. All we can learn is that we have been unsuccessfull there . . . . But if we should be defeated I think we shall not be conquered. A people fired like the Romans with Love of their Country and of Liberty a zeal for the publick Good, and a Noble Emulation of Glory, will not be disheartned or dispirited by a succession of unfortunate Events. But like them may we learn by Defeat the power of becoming invincible.”

In writing to Congressional president John Hancock on September 8, the Continentals’ commander-in-chief anticipated General Howe’s next move: “It is now extremely obvious from all Intelligence—from their movements, & every other circumstance that having landed their whole Army on Long Island (except about 4,000 on Staten Island) they mean to inclose us on the island of New York.” The impulse to avoid this predicament would force the rebels to abandon Manhattan, albeit not for several weeks, and engage the enemy further north in Westchester County, in the next phase of the New York campaign. Washington would be extremely fortunate during this period in at least one respect: the British commanding general was even slower to take action than he. And Howe!

28. Dueling

An Officer and a Gentleman

The practice of dueling among Continental Army officers must be viewed in relation to the sensibilities that American society in the eighteenth century expected them to exhibit as military gentlemen. The feelings that were encompassed in the prevailing, even obsessive, concern among this social stratum for maintaining one’s self-respect and avoiding disgrace ran the gamut from honor to shame and were inextricably tied to an officer’s need for public recognition of his accomplishments and public vindication if he was openly criticized by any of his peers. In the social environment of this period, issues concerning whether someone was perceived as engaging in honorable conduct or not were immensely important to the persons involved, in some cases even to the point of life or death.

In his study of the Continental Army, Charles Royster observes that the relationships officers developed among each other probably helped insulate them from the critical perspectives of both enlisted soldiers and the civilian population (Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army and American Character, 1775-1783, The University of North Carolina Press, 1979). “Officers could judge each other’s character,” he writes, “by the criteria that only they understood.”

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Caroline Cox tells us that officers’ sensitivity to issues such as rank and honor occasionally gave rise to disputes among each other over “perceived slights” the led to charges resulting in a court of inquiry or a court-martial (A Proper Sense of Honor: Service and Sacrifice in George Washington’s Army, The University of North Carolina Press, 2004). Some incidents involved the conduct of young officers that was deemed by senior officers to fall short of appropriate standards of gentlemanly conduct. In other cases, however, squabbles erupted between senior officers over a perceived insult leveled by one against the other or against a third officer—and sometimes these precipitated a resolution by less orderly or formal means than a judicial proceeding.

During the army’s Valley Forge encampment in the winter of 1777-1778, the practice of dueling between Continental officers “in defense of honor” became more common, according to Royster. Perhaps the best-known of these incidents occurred when Pennsylvania militia general John Cadwalader confronted General Thomas Conway, who had allegedly instigated the so-called “Conway Cabal” to remove General Washington from command and resigned his commission as major general in April 1778 after his supposed intrigue was exposed. Cadwalader—who admired Washington and detested Conway—accused the latter of cowardice, and Conway challenged him to a duel. In the ensuing affair on July 4, 1778, Cadwalader wounded Conway in the mouth, but the latter survived. Such encounters between officers were typically over real or imagined insults.

Although dueling was officially prohibited in the Continental Army, the practice was rarely discouraged or punished, according to Royster. In fact, it conformed to the etiquette of officers in European armies and the time-honored code of gentlemanly conduct, although such incidents were rare at the beginning of the war when, as Royster puts it, “American officers were first striving to become military gentlemen.” It wasn’t until after the Valley Forge winter that dueling occurred more frequently, to the point that it became “so much in vogue among the Gentlemen of our Army” according to a New Jersey Gazette article of March 17, 1779. Indeed, France’s minister to the United States Gerard de Rayneval wrote home on January 17, 1779 that “[the] rage for duelling here has reached an incredible and scandalous point” and was viewed “as the appanage of liberty.”

So What was the (ahem) Upshot of All This?

Royster believes that the incidence of these affairs increased because they “settled questions of honor in a distinctive, gallant way for men newly self-conscious about their uniqueness and their proper public inviolability” and so demonstrated to everyone, including themselves, that these proud and sentimental officers comprised “a separate order of men.” The other side of this coin is that they developed close friendships with each other in the conviction that “the intimacy in their life of keener patriotism, risk, and pride prepared them to understand each other’s experiences and opinions better than anyone else could.” So this self-conscious ethos among Continental officers (uh oh) triggered an intensity of feeling that encompassed strong sentiments, both of friendship and honor. If the latter was challenged, the dark side of this fraternity could rear its ugly head in a deadly or disabling exchange of fire.

27. Jacob’s Ladder

Well, arguably that’s what this is about, a story of progress and ascension. Historian and author William L. (Larry) Kidder (seen above) has immersed himself in just such a tale over the last several months while working on his latest literary project. This will be Larry’s fifth book relating to the War of Independence. His other works include: Revolutionary Princeton 1774-1783: The Biography of an American Town in the Heart of a Civil War; Ten Crucial Days: Washington’s Vision for Victory Unfolds; Crossroads of the Revolution: Trenton, 1774-1783; and A People Harassed and Exhausted: The Story of a New Jersey Militia Regiment in the American Revolution.

Meet Larry Kidder

Born in California, Larry was raised there and in Indiana, New York, and New Jersey. He holds degrees in history from Allegheny College and is a US Navy veteran who served in Vietnam. Larry taught for forty years in public and private schools and for thirty years has been a volunteer historian, interpreter, and draft-horse teamster for Howell Living History Farm in Hopewell Township, NJ. His many pursuits as a public historian include his involvement with central New Jersey historical societies and active membership in: the Association for Living History, Farm, and Agricultural Museums; the Washington Crossing American Revolution Round Table; the New Jersey Living History Advisory Council; and the Advisory Council for Crossroads of the American Revolution.

Meet Jacob Francis

Larry’s upcoming book chronicles the complex and multifaceted story of the life of Jacob Francis, a free Black man, as he struggled with the systemic racism that accompanied enslavement during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It begins with his birth in 1754 to a free Black woman in Amwell Township, NJ, and takes him through his youth as an indentured servant, service in the Continental Army in 1775-1776, settling back in Amwell in 1777 and serving in the Hunterdon County militia, marrying and freeing an enslaved woman named Mary, establishing a farm, and raising a family in the area of Flemington, NJ. His youngest son carried on the fight for freedom in which Jacob engaged and became an abolitionist seeking not just the freedom of enslaved Black people but also their equal rights as citizens.

Q and A

Larry has been kind enough to share the following comments about his newest work. I am grateful to him for taking time from his congested schedule to delve into these matters here.

What motivated you to write at length about Jacob Francis?

When I first encountered Jacob’s story in his lengthy 1832 statement that listed his qualifications for a federal pension as a Revolutionary War veteran, he stood out as a man with exceptional skills and strength in surviving Continental Army service during the siege of Boston, the New York campaign, and finally the Battle of Trenton. He followed his fourteen-month Continental service in a Massachusetts regiment with extensive service in the New Jersey militia for the remainder of the war. I wanted to find out more about his life and to what degree he was able to avoid the all-too-common, white-racist expectation that he would achieve nothing better than a life as a poor laborer. Jacob obviously was concerned about equal rights for Black people in America as well as independence from Great Britain. He and his wife conveyed the importance of that struggle to their children.

I also wanted to investigate the story of a free Black man during the time of slavery since so much focus has rightfully been put on slavery. While an inhumane way of life for Blacks in America, enslavement was not the only means by which whites created systems to restrict Black lives, as the dehumanizing racist justifications for enslavement spilled over to foster a racist mindset throughout society against free Black people.

What about this story especially appealed to you, and how does it reflect the broader picture of life in late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century America?

While much has been written about Black enslavement, investigating Jacob Francis offered the opportunity to look at the world inhabited by free Black people who were neither enslaved nor white yet were subject to obstacles deliberately put in place by whites to restrict their rights and opportunities for success in life. An examination of Jacob’s revolutionary world provided an opportunity to see further complexities in the culture of late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century New Jersey and to some degree other areas of the thirteen colonies that became states. He experienced at least two revolutions. What we normally think of as the American Revolution, which involved gaining independence from England and establishing a free government, was just one revolution. Jacob and his family also lived at a time when attitudes toward enslavement were changing and that was just part of an ongoing revolution involving the perception of Black people by white people. Since that revolution continues to this day, I wanted to see how today compares with Jacob’s time.

Part of your focus is on the abolition movement of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century and how it connected with Jacob’s life story. What did you learn about the movement that you might not have known before?

I already knew that during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there was an inconsistent and evolving abolition movement and also a colonization movement aimed at returning freed Black people to Africa. What I came to realize more fully is that these movements were virtually one and the same in the beginning. Abolitionists were not fighting to free enslaved people so they could live among white people with equal rights. Rather, they were fighting to free enslaved people and then send them to Africa because they believed Black people would never be equal with whites in the United States and did not have the capacity to achieve equality. To change abolition into a civil rights movement, it took Black people like Jacob and Mary’s son, Abner, who worked to convince abolitionists to give up colonization and switch to helping Black people achieve equal rights.

What would you especially like readers to know about the institution of slavery as it impacted Jacob and the people in his life?

In many ways, Abner felt he was carrying on the fight for liberty that his father had waged in the Revolutionary War. Even though Jacob and his family, after he freed Mary, were already free, they still knew many enslaved people, and their “free” lives were directly affected by the racist laws and attitudes that supported slavery. While we still need to know more about the institution of slavery, how it operated, and how it affected peoples’ lives, we also need to know more about the lives of free Black people in the past to truly understand the systemic racism that lingers in a number of respects today. Just as current white-racist beliefs seek to distort human qualities in minorities even when they fly in the face of contrary evidence, so during Jacob’s time people like him daily demonstrated the falsity of such beliefs.

Do you think slavery affected the evolving policies of the Founders during the Revolutionary era?

In many ways, the Founders vehemently spoke about protecting their freedoms while ignoring that they were being hypocritical by enslaving people themselves. Some individuals did note this hypocrisy, and some Black men like Jacob who joined the Continental Army must have been fully aware of it.

What do people need to know about the role Blacks played in the Revolution?

It is important to know that Black men served with distinction in the military in a variety of ways throughout the war, even at times when high-ranking people like Washington wanted to exclude them. For example, Jacob enlisted practically on the same date that Washington ordered his officers not to enlist any Black men. In New England, Black men had served in military units for many years and were part of the armed force around Boston very early in the war. New Englanders were more likely than people in other areas to see the equal value in Black recruits with white ones. I think it is also interesting that even the leaders opposed to employing Black men in the army did permit it, especially when they could not find enough white men who were willing to join to fill the regiments. At least some Black recruits enlisted with the hope that their service would help dispel the stereotypical white-racist view of Black men as incompetent, immoral losers. Of course, some enslaved men found ways to join the army in the expectation that it would earn them freedom. 

Is there anything else readers should bear in mind when they think about the realities of life for African Americans both before and after the Revolution? 

It is very important to understand that the conditions of life in the thirteen colonies, and then states, for Black people were constrained, although in different ways, for those who were free as well as those enslaved. I also think it important to understand that similar constraints continue to exist today when laws are enacted that I believe make it difficult for minorities to engage in a full life equal with everyone else. And like today when there are many white people who actively support the idea of true equality for all, at the time of the Revolution and early Republic there were white people who sought to support minorities. Understanding the world of Jacob Francis can help us understand that our world today still features many similar problems. Although we no longer have slavery, the problems of minority citizens today have their roots in the conditions encountered by Jacob Francis and his family. 

If Jacob had been a white man who left so little personal writing about his life and a historian undertook a biography that would place him in the context of time and place, there would have been some difficulties in fine- tuning his exact experiences. Because Jacob was Black, those difficulties are far greater due to the variables in how white people must have interacted with him and how rules and social customs would have applied to him. Those difficulties in researching and writing about him reinforce the importance of understanding the complexities he faced in life and that people in minority communities still face every day.

Thank you, Larry.

Final Thoughts

The story of Jacob Francis reflects the hardships and challenges faced by common people in early America, especially those with which Black people were forced to struggle in their efforts to secure freedom and elevate their condition. It is also a story of hope and inspiration that speaks to the aspirational character of American democracy in its ongoing effort to establish a more perfect Union, however gradual and often painful that endeavor has been. Larry Kidder’s latest literary effort will undoubtedly shed new light on this aspect of our national saga and the journey embedded within it that seeks to track the arc of the moral universe. As Dr. King reminded us, that curve is long but it bends toward justice.

26. Talking about the Revolution & Stuff

For today’s post, I wanted to share with you—through the link at the bottom—my recent appearance on “Back Story with Joan Goldstein” on Princeton Community Television, hosted and produced by Joan Goldstein, Ph.D., a sociologist and retired college professor.

The program, which runs about 28 minutes and was first aired on June 9, focuses on the meaning of the Revolution and how it relates to current circumstances. And any fans of the most famous and least accurate depiction of Washington crossing the Delaware—see above—will get loyts of Lotsa, I mean lots of Leutze. Best of all, there’s no commercial interruption. (For example, you won’t hear me say, “I’m not a historian but I play one on TV.”)

Apologies are due in advance for at least one verbal gaffe—inexplicably substituting “decades” for “centuries” at one point when it’s obvious I meant the latter (no, really)—and excessive use of the convenient but less-than-silver-tongued expression, “um.” My only other regret was not managing to squeeze into our exchange the gustatory aphorism about how democracy resembles pizza. (When it’s good it’s very, very good and when it’s bad it’s still pretty good.)

Hope you enjoy the show.

25. A Fourth To Be Reckoned With

John Adams and his fellow delegates to the Continental Congress voted for independence from Great Britain on July 2, 1776. Two days later, they adopted the precise language setting forth their assertion of national sovereignty by approving the Declaration of Independence.

Up and Adams

Perhaps no one has conveyed the drama and passion of America’s birth more eloquently than Adams did when writing to his wife Abigail from Philadelphia between the congressional actions of July 2 and 4.

The following are selected excerpts from that letter:

Yesterday the greatest Question was decided, which ever was debated in America, and a greater perhaps, never was or will be decided among Men. A resolution was passed without one dissenting Colony “that these united Colonies, are, and of right ought to be free and independent States, and as such, they have, and of Right ought to have full Power to make War, conclude Peace, establish Commerce, and to do all the other Acts and Things, which other States may rightfully do.” You will see in a few days a Declaration setting forth the Causes, which have impell’d Us to this mighty Revolution, and the Reasons which will justify it. in the sight of God and Man. . . .

Time has been given for the whole People, maturely to consider the great Question of Independence and to ripen their Judgments, dissipate their Fears, and allure their Hopes, by discussing it in News Papers and Pamphlets, by debating it, in Assemblies, Conventions, Committees of Safety and Inspection, in Town and County Meetings, as well as in private Conversations, so that the whole People in every Colony of the 13, have now adopted it, as their own Act. . . .

The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the history of America.—I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.    

A voice of less renown but no less conviction, that of Colonel John Haslet of the Delaware Continental Regiment, weighed in on the significance of the delegates’ action in Philadelphia in a letter to his friend and Adams’s fellow congressman, Caesar Rodney, on July 6. Haslet, a former Presbyterian minister who had served in Delaware’s colonial assembly prior to donning a uniform and would become a martyr to the cause of independence just six months later, penned the following: “I congratulate you, Sir, on the Important Day, which restores to Every American his Birthright—a day which Every Freeman will record with Gratitude, & the millions of Posterity read with Rapture.”

And Now?

The Founding Fathers—particularly the slave owners who constituted at least a third of those signing the Declaration of Independence—launched a struggle to achieve liberty and independence for some but not all their fellow Americans. Most of these Patriots beheld a vision of freedom and equality that did not extend to those in bondage and was severely restricted for women, Indians, and men without property.

Since then, our vision of American democracy has expanded to become a decidedly more inclusive one, its application being gradual and sometimes painful in a process marked by both ballots and bullets. We’ve seen the Nation’s governance evolve into what our sixteenth president, on a long-ago Independence Day, termed “that form, and substance of government, whose leading object is, to elevate the condition of men—to lift artificial wights from all shoulders—to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all—to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life” (Abraham Lincoln, Message to Congress in Special Session, July 4, 1861). It is the framework—with all its flaws and limitations—of which a British prime minister once spoke in addressing the House of Commons: “Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time” (Winston Churchill, November 11, 1947).

Ultimately, of course, our governance is rooted in how we perceive ourselves. An observation that lays claim to earnest contemplation, from political philosopher Steven B. Smith, speaks to what is unique about American patriotism: “It is not based on European beliefs about ‘blood and soil,’ or biblical beliefs about attachment to the land, but from the beginning has contained a deliberative and self-questioning character. American patriotism is not only a statement of who we are, but also an aspiration to what we might become. To be an American is to be continually engaged in asking what it means to be an American” (Reclaiming Patriotism in an Age of Extremes, Yale University Press, 2021).

Ready. Aim. Aspire.

And may the Fourth be with you.

24. A JAR Blog Post

Today’s post comes to you courtesy of the Journal of the American Revolution (JAR).

I’m incorporating by reference here an article of mine that just appeared in the JAR (hope the lid is on tight) entitled “When War Came to the Thompson-Neely Farmstead.” It’s about the Continental army’s encampment on the grounds of the Thompson-Neely house (TN), which is the historical focal point of the upper park section at Washington Crossing Historic Park.

Hopefully this article will enhance the salience of the park and other sites relating to the 1776-1777 “Ten Crucial Days” winter campaign among the Rev War aficionados who subscribe to JAR. TN deserves that recognition—which I suppose you might call an article of faith.

23. The Other Side

“Rule, Britannia”

The patriotic British song of that name, written in 1740, originated from the poem ‘Rule, Britannia’ by James Thomson and was set to music by Thomas Arne. One might be tempted to cue its lyrics when contemplating the experience of the British army during the period leading up to the American Revolution, described  by one historian as a record of “victory without equal in the world.”

When the American Revolution began, Britain’s senior military officers and sergeants were seasoned veterans of a momentous global conflict—known as the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) in Europe and the French and Indian War in the American colonies—in which they had triumphed over France and Spain. During the titanic struggle, the redcoats defeated every opposing power they encountered on five continents. An impressive legacy of that remarkable record lay in the various regimental honors that spoke to Albion’s global record of military success during this period—in Europe, at Minden and Emsdorf; in India, at Plassey and Pondicherry; in North America, at Louisbourg and Quebec; in the West Indies, at Guadeloupe and Martinique); in Cuba, at Moro and Havana; in the Mediterranean, at Minorca; in the Philippines, at Manila; and on the African continent, in Senegal.

Arguably as impressive as this pre-Revolution string of victories by his Majesty’s army is the tactical skill it displayed in its effort to suppress the American rebellion during the period from 1775 to 1783. Its prowess in battle may be judged by the fact that during the eight-year-long struggle, British regulars—separate and apart from the German regiments hired by the Crown and American Loyalist units fighting on the side of the redcoats—lost only a handful of battles to rebel troops. And while that aspect of the world war fought by Great Britain against France, Spain, the Netherlands, and the American colonies ended badly for the mother country, the King’s forces succeeded in repelling the American invasion of Canada and achieved an impressive string of victories across the other theaters of combat—the West Indies, Gibraltar, India, and the Atlantic’s high seas,

Who were we fighting?

Most private soldiers in the eighteenth-century British army were of humble origins—farmers, laborers, and tradesmen—while a few were convicts who chose military service over incarceration when given the choice. They had volunteered for the army and many made it their career, as they valued the steady job and pay. However dangerous a soldier’s life might be, it represented an attractive alternative to working-class youth who otherwise faced the prospect of being employed in wearisome and sometimes hazardous manual labor or suffering through a lengthy and harsh apprenticeship.

Patrick O’Donnell observes that many of His Majesty’s soldiers “thought, and were encouraged to believe, that their unit was the best in the army” and harbored “a deep loyalty to their king that set them in firm opposition to the Americans they were battling.” (Washington’s Immortals, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2016, p. 42) These soldiers were driven by “ideals of loyalty, fidelity, honor, duty, discipline, and service that were as sacred to British Regulars as the cause of liberty was to the American rebels,” according to David Hackett Fischer, so that to them the war was not primarily about power or interest but rather “a clash of principles in which they deeply believed.” (Washington’s Crossing, Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 50)

Suggested Reading

The following critically acclaimed works are worthy of consideration by the reader interested in learning more about such subjects as the colonial policies that precipitated Great Britain’s war with America, its rank-and-file soldiery during the Revolution, and British political and military leadership of the time:

An Empire on the Edge: How Britain Came to Fight America by Nick Bunker (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014)—a penetrating and superbly written analysis of the origins of the American Revolution from a British perspective that focuses on the last three years before conflict erupted.

Noble Volunteers: The British Soldiers Who Fought the American Revolution by Don N. Hagist (Westholme Publishing, LLC, 2020)—a study of Britain’s enlisted men of the 1770s by a noted American expert on the subject who is managing editor of the Journal of the American Revolution.

The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire by Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy (Yale University Press, 2013)—profiles of ten British political and military leaders that in the aggregate tell the story of America’s revolutionary conflict from the British point of view, although authored by an American.

With Zeal and With Bayonets Only: The British Army on Campaign in North America, 1775-1783 by Matthew H. Spring (University of Oklahoma Press, 2008)—an analysis by a British historian at both operational and tactical levels of how His Majesty’s army fought against the American rebellion.

22. Why Did They Serve?

Is there a better question for a Revolutionary War blog to ask when anticipating the annual observance of Memorial Day? Of course, it’s worth considering in relation to any conflict in our Nation’s past, and there may be a good deal of commonality among them in the answers to that question. But I want to focus here on what motivated those Americans who bore arms in a young nation’s struggle for the right to rule itself, and in particular the common soldier, meaning those below the rank of commissioned officer.


Some two hundred thousand Americans served in the Continental army or the militia out of a population of about three million. Those who voluntarily filled the Patriot ranks chose to do so for many different reasons. Some were committed to fight for liberty and independence. Others responded to the financial incentive offered in the form of a bounty—a cash payment received for enlisting—or from being hired as a substitute by someone with the means to do so, or were lured by the promise of Western land after the war. Some wanted to separate themselves from a parent or master, or wanted to indulge their desire for adventure or eagerness to serve with a friend or neighbor. Whatever the motivation, many of those under arms came to believe they were part of something larger than themselves by virtue of their shared experience of war, attended as it was by the sporadic excitement and terror of combat, the prolonged drudgery of camp life, the frequent lack of food and other supplies, the presence of debilitating disease, the misery imposed by sweltering summers and frigid winters, and the indifference of many civilians to the army’s needs. In the process, these men learned to be professional soldiers and, along with George Washington’s generals and junior officers, became more competent and assured as the conflict wore on.

The tribute I paid to the legendary Delaware Regiment of 1776-1783 in John Haslet’s World applies equally to the hard-core Continental soldiery generally, whatever their motivation to serve: “Their story is an enduring reminder that the willingness to engage in self-sacrifice in the national interest has been, and always will be, indispensable to the defense of a free society in war and the furtherance of its democratic tradition and values in peace.”


We can’t quantify how many Patriot combatants were consciously or explicitly motivated by the language of universal rights in the Declaration of Independence, and unfortunately that soaring rhetoric fell short when it came to the Founders’ willingness to accommodate the interests of black people, women, Indians, and men without property.

Still, the rationale for a new nation articulated in our first founding document laid the groundwork for a constitutional framework in the second that, according to political philosopher Steven B. Smith in Reclaiming Patriotism in an Age of Extremes (Yale University Press, 2021), gave rise to an American civil religion “based on the promise of equality, inclusivity, and tolerance.” He cites as a singular expression of this aspiration President Washington’s correspondence with the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, which conceives of American democracy in a way no one has ever improved upon, or so Smith claims.

In his letter of August 21, 1790, our foremost Founding Father wrote: “For happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.” He conveyed his hope that “the children of Abraham who dwell in this land [may] continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

If that’s not a way of life worth fighting for, what is?

21. Don’t Tread on Me

The Idea

It appears that Benjamin Franklin, as with so many other things, was behind this piece of eighteenth-century Americana. It stemmed from an anonymous article he wrote—identifying himself as “An American Guesser”—in the December 27, 1775 issue of the Pennsylvania Journal, entitled “The Rattle-Snake as a Symbol if America.” Dr. Franklin (so-called by virtue of his honorary doctoral degrees from Oxford University and the University of St Andrews in Scotland) observed the very original design adorning a drum that accompanied a Continental Marine unit being organized in Philadelphia for the purpose of seizing British arms shipments. The drummer had painted on his instrument a rattlesnake that appeared coiled and ready to strike along with a defiant rallying cry, “Don’t tread on me.”

Inspired by what he had seen, and no doubt seeking to (ahem) rattle those opposing the cause of American independence to which he had become passionately committed, Franklin recommended this image as a suitable emblem of the Patriot enterprise. With his customary flair for both humor and trenchant commentary, he noted several points in the reptile’s favor: First, it had no eyelids and therefore represented a worthy symbol of continuing vigilance. In addition, it never initiated an attack but would not surrender once the fight had begun and thus displayed “magnanimity and true courage.” And finally the thirteen rattles on the snake emblazoning the drum matched “exactly the number of the colonies united in America; and I recollected too that this was the only part of the sake which increased in number.”

The Flag

Christopher Gadsden (1724-1805)—a South Carolina merchant who led the Sons of Liberty in that colony starting in 1765 and became a member of the Continental Congress—took Franklin’s suggestion to heart. He designed a yellow flag bearing a rattlesnake and the “Don’t Tread on Me” slogan that would became a symbol of the Revolution. The flag was carried in 1776 by a young nation’s first Marine units and later by any number of militia regiments. Its designer became a colonel in the Continental army, and to this day his creation is known as the Gadsden flag.

It’s hard to imagine a flag design in Revolutionary America that would have reflected (this gets ugly) a more venomous opposition to Britain’s rule or better symbolized her snakebitten effort to suppress the colonial rebellion. (Cue the biting retort.)

20. The Minuteman Legend

The illusion that the subset of New England militia who called themselves “minutemen” were merely citizen soldiers with no military training is, well, just that. At least according to John R. Galvin in The Minute Men—The First Fight: Myths and Realities of the American Revolution (Potomac Books, Inc., 2006).

The Myth

The battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775—Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “shot heard round the world”—triggered eight years’ worth of carnage that included a civil war between rival factions and a world war between rival empires. (At the risk of belaboring the obvious, Emerson’s tag line is not to be confused with Bobby Thompson’s 1951 pennant-winning home run that propelled the NY Giants over the Brooklyn Dodgers—and which goes by the same moniker.) The public mindset is imbued with the notion that the storied salvo was the product of an impromptu uprising by a loosely connected network of farmers. And indeed that is what the British regulars probably expected to encounter when they sortied from Boston in search of rebel arms and ringleaders, specifically John Hancock and Samuel Adams, on that storied spring occasion.

General Thomas Gage, the Governor of Massachusetts and Commander of His Majesty’s Forces in North America, was unaware that the minutemen, and the militia of which they were a part, composed an army of nearly fifty regiments that was then nearing completion. This was no ragtag mob but rather a well-organized, well-armed, and relatively well-trained force of some 14,000 men.

The Reality

Galvin goes to great lengths to explain how the minutemen who opposed the British incursion actually relied on organizational concepts and a system of command and control that had emerged from a century and a half of constant warfare against the external threat posed by French, Canadian, and Indian intruders. He contends that these citizen-soldiers were not significantly disadvantaged in training or equipment relative to the British regulars invading their countryside and had more battle-tested small-unit leaders than the redcoats.

When it came to leadership, the militia included a considerable number of veterans from the French and Indian War whereas many of the King’s regiments, while boasting previous records of distinguished service, had not seen action for an extended period prior to 1775. In terms of training, the militia drilled and practiced their marksmanship on evenings and weekends throughout the winter of 1774-1775 while the British in Boston were heavily engaged in constructing housing and shops for their regiments and fortifying various locations. Perhaps most surprising, a substantial number of minutemen were equipped with bayonets.

Here is how these provincial warriors are portrayed in this chronicle; “The minute man was a member of a unit drawn from the regular militia and comprising a set percentage of that militia, specially trained, specially equipped, and required to assemble very rapidly and to be prepared at all times to march immediately into combat. A system of decentralized tactical control allowed officers at very low levels, usually company commanders, to exercise extraordinary authority, being permitted to assemble and march their men in time of danger without any orders from a higher command. The instant readiness of the units was supplemented by a wide net of inter-town alarm signals and messengers.”

Galvin argues that the story of the minutemen is inextricably intertwined with that of the militia. Some regiments included companies of both, and many were in a state of transition when the fighting erupted. In some cases, militia companies carried their minutemen on the same roll as the others in their ranks even though the minutemen were serving in a different unit, because this was regarded as only a temporary separation.

The Consequences

In this telling, the events of April 19 provided final confirmation of the efficacy of the provincial militia system in Massachusetts and represented the incipient step in the emergence of what became the Continental army. There were seventy-five companies of minutemen and militia based within a five-mile circle around the intruding British column, and almost every one assembled and set off to meet the threat that morning. “Not a soldier of Gage’s army understood how well these regiments were organized—not even Gage himself,” for the vast majority of regulars “simply refused to believe that an army had been created under their noses.”

The minutemen fought their way into the hearts of succeeding generations of Americans and became perhaps the definitive symbol of military preparedness for the country that emerged from the Revolutionary struggle. However, as Galvin reminds us, their combat-readiness entailed far more than merely keeping a firearm close by. It meant having a force with sufficient organization, equipment, and training to meet the perceived threat and being mentally prepared to take the field.

Those British soldiers who tangled with the colonials while retreating from Concord to Boston paid a heavy price to learn just how battle-ready the insurgents were. For General Gage, the expedition produced minimal results and yielded a grim body count: seventy-three regulars dead, 174 wounded, and twenty-six missing in action—a casualty rate of almost twenty percent among the 1,500 redcoats so engaged.

Indeed, from a British perspective, one might say the Massachusetts provincials were acting with (ahem) militias’ intent.