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.

19. Ben There, Done That

April 17 marks the 231st anniversary of Benjamin Franklin’s passing; and, well, there isn’t much he didn’t do during his eighty-four years. The man who demonstrated that lighting is electricity by flying a kite—one of the most significant (ahem) current events of his time—and invented a rod to control its force was himself an extraordinary force in the social, economic, and political life of eighteenth-century America. He became, according to Walter Isaacson (in Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, Simon & Schuster, 2003), “America’s best scientist, inventor, diplomat, writer, and business strategist, and . . . also one of its most practical, though not most profound, political thinkers.” But I want to focus here on his role in helping win American independence from Great Britain, the mother country he so admired until its colonial policies alienated Franklin and finally drove him to support a permanent separation from the British Empire.

The Aging Revolutionist

The oldest of our Founding Fathers—he was seventy when the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Continental Congress in which he served—was also the most approachable, more man than myth in contrast to the likes of George Washington and other framers. If indeed Franklin “winks at us” in Isaacson’s imaginative turn of phrase, this suggests a charm and congeniality that would lend itself to an easy familiarity with posterity. Yet most people today have little if any understanding of how vital a part Franklin played in America’s struggle for the right to rule itself. He deserves a greater appreciation in our collective historical consciousness for his efforts on behalf of America’s Revolutionary enterprise.

America’s Representative to the World

The world’s most famous American arrived in France in late 1776, having been chosen by a congressional committee, with his objective being to beguile the court of King Louis XVI into proffering the assistance and alliance that young America desperately needed to fend off France’s archenemy, England, Although he was joined by two other congressionally selected commissioners, Silas Deane of Connecticut and Arthur Lee of Virginia, Franklin enjoyed a singular status among the Parisians, who esteemed him above all other Americans. For more than eight years, the celebrated philosopher-statesman, who symbolized to his many Old World admirers both a righteous frontier freedom and an Enlightenment intellect, carried out his mission with aplomb. Isaacson writes that Franklin employed “a clever and deliberate manner, leavened by the wit and joie de vivre the French so adored, [to] cast the American cause, through his own personification of it, as that of the natural state fighting the corrupted one, the enlightened state fighting the irrational old order.”

Franklin held in his ambassadorial hands, as much as did Washington or any other advocate of American independence, the fate of his country’s contest with Britain. For without French aid, recognition, and naval support, America’s chances of success were marginal. Isaacson asserts that Franklin—already the greatest America scientist and writer of his time—displayed “a dexterity that would make him the greatest American diplomat of all times. He played to the romance as well as the reason that entranced France’s philosophes, to the fascination with America’s freedom that captivated its public, and to the cold calculation of national interest that moved its ministers.”

In February 1778, encouraged by the decisive Patriot victory over General Burgoyne’s army at Saratoga the previous October, France entered into a formal alliance with the United States. A global conflict ensued in which France, Spain, and the Netherlands opposed Britain and thereby drained resources from the latter’s campaign to subdue the American rebellion. French troops, naval prowess, and tactical expertise were absolutely indispensable to ensuring the climactic defeat of Lord Cornwallis’s besieged force at Yorktown, Virginia, in October 1781.

Summing Up

Franklin’s contribution to the cause of American independence, while largely underrated in the public’s imagination, was monumental. His deft diplomacy proved instrumental in securing an alliance with a powerful ally without whose assistance our rebellion would likely have foundered.

This New World original represented a formidable asset to the Revolutionary endeavor, whether it was helping to craft the Declaration of Independence, skillfully advocating for a new nation’s interests as its leading statesman in Paris, or playing a key role in negotiating the treaty by which Britain officially acknowledged the new American nation in 1783. As his friend and Louis XVI’s finance minister, Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, famously wrote of this most enterprising Patriot, “He snatched lightning from the sky and the scepter from tyrants.”

Perhaps Franklin’s triumph as a diplomat should have been no surprise given how successful he was in so many other pursuits throughout a long and accomplished life. The man’s extraordinary range of interests and talents translated intro a remarkable record of achievement in business, science, civic affairs, authorship, and statecraft.

And not to be disparaging, but anyone who says otherwise can (you knew this was coming) go fly a kite.

18. Coming Home

Meet Tom Maddock

You can’t go home again, at least according to the title of Thomas Wolfe’s literary classic. Maybe not, but then the acclaimed novelist never met Thomas Maddock II, who has come about as close to doing that as you possibly can.

Tom was born in Trenton, NJ, in 1936 and spent the next fifteen years living in what is commonly referred to as the McConkey’s Ferry section of Washington Crossing Historic Park (WCHP)—the site of the Continental army’s legendary 1776 Christmas night crossing—before his family moved to Ewing Township in 1951. A Ewing High graduate, Tom earned a B.A. in history from Haverford College in 1958 and spent six months on active duty in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve. He then entered into the fine paper business and over time was employed in sales, marketing, business development, recruitment, and management. Tom’s career took him to North Jersey where he raised a family, but in 2002 he returned to Bucks County, married his second wife Bunkie—now a fellow interpreter at WCHP—and would subsequently begin giving guided tours on the grounds of his boyhood home.

When the Friends of Washington Crossing Park (FWCP) organized in 2010, Tom became a FWCP historical interpreter, and he has been devoting himself to that endeavor ever since. As he puts it, “I have been able to complete the circle.” Tom’s many contributions to the FWCP and WCHP have included, but are not limited to: giving tours at the park’s different sites, reading the Declaration of Independence at public gatherings on July 4, giving talks about Washington’s military leadership to various groups, providing media commentary for the annual re-enactment of the 1776 Christmas night crossing, leading youthful visitors in musket and cannon drills, serving customers in the visitor center’s gift shop, and soliciting sponsor ads for the park’s annual program booklet. Along the way, he has mentored a slew of other historical interpreters at the park (yours truly among them).

Q and A

Tom has agreed to share some thoughts on his experience and issues relating to the work of the Friends organization and the historical-education programming at the park:

What was it like living in WCHP as a boy? What is most memorable about that experience? What did this site look like? Did you appreciate its historical significance back then?

The park in which I grew up was very different than today. There was no visitor center, and no other public buildings or walking trails. Life was very simple in those days. My siblings and I had to create our own games and entertainment. We played “Cowboys and Indians,” rode our bikes, and frolicked in the backyard until it was time to come inside, where we would listen to the radio before dinner. We had no TV. Bedtime was at 7:30 every night.

Family outings were few and far between. Each Sunday after church, we would take a family walk, which turned out to be wonderful. It was something to look forward to every week. We did not do much with sports because there were so few kids. I never played a team sport until I was a high school sophomore. Our early schooling was in a two-room, eight-grade schoolhouse with just two teachers. I spent my sixth and seventh-grade school years in a one-room schoolhouse with one teacher and outdoor toilets. Given this background, my parents were very proud that four of us graduated from college.

As an adult, visiting the park has always brought back very special memories. We grew up knowing about the history of the Crossing, but our parents did not spend any time discussing its historical significance with us. My memories of growing up here are very positive. Given the circumstances, I had a very happy childhood and developed a special bond with my siblings, which I treasure to this day.

How did you get involved with the Friends of Washington Crossing Park? What was it that led you to return to your roots, so to speak?

Around 2008, the State of Pennsylvania basically shut down the park because of a funding crunch, and the annual re-enactment of the Crossing was in jeopardy for the following year. The Friends group sent out a call for volunteers to help save the Crossing. My wife Bunkie and I were part of the crew that worked to make it happen; and, based on that success, the Friends decided to organize a group to keep the park open. After seeing a blurb in the newspaper, Bunkie and I attended a meeting and signed up to be tour guides at WCHP. After a year, we were hired as part of the FWCP staff and have been there ever since. As a history major who worked in sales in the corporate world, becoming a tour guide was an easy transition for me to make. I can think of nothing I would rather be doing than giving tours at the park.

I know you’re very interested in the concept of leadership and have given talks on Washington’s leadership style and particularly his decision-making in the context of the “Ten Crucial Days” campaign of 1776-1777? To what extent does your interest in this stem from your military and/or business experience and how so? Do you think Washington’s leadership offers us any lessons for today?

From my time in the military and my earliest days in the corporate world, I’ve been fascinated by the concept of leadership and curious about what it takes to be a successful leader. I wanted very much to be a platoon leader while in the Marines and was pleased to achieve that honor. Since then, I’ve been interested in learning how others became great leaders, and this led me to focus on George Washington.

Considering where GW came from and how he ended up, his is a truly remarkable story. That he and the ragtag group of citizen-soldiers he inherited hung together, grew by experience, and developed into an effective fighting force is nothing short of miraculous. What the hard corps of Washington’s men endured during their years of struggle is in large measure a tribute to the faith they placed in their leader. These soldiers were ill-clad, ill-fed, racked by disease, often unpaid, and faced with some of the most horrendous weather conditions imaginable.

I have come to admire Washington’s courage, commitment, and perseverance. Plus he was the ultimate team player; his collaborative style of decision-making allowed him to get a variety of input, which led to better decisions. I think his troops realized Washington would never give up. He believed deeply in the cause and simply refused to quit, no matter how difficult the circumstances his army faced. That passion trickled down to his men, and they believed in him.

As you can tell, I’m a huge GW fan. He was dedicated to doing what was best for the national interest, both in war and peace—something I don’t always see in our leadership today.

Other than a return to some semblance of normality in our current circumstances, is there anything in particular that you would like to see happen at WCHP as we go forward, either generally or specifically in connection with the upcoming observance of the 250th anniversary of American independence?

I feel strongly about using all of 2026 to focus on the 250th anniversary. Each month, WCHP should host a special event, like movies, speeches, book signings, and band concerts, among others, utilizing the auditorium in the visitor center. I would also like to see us make our July 4 celebration especially noteworthy that year—perhaps renting out the War Memorial Building in Trenton for a very special event that would include speeches by prominent guests. Let’s invite the President and the governors of New Jersey and Pennsylvania! I would love to see us plan this or another event jointly with the Old Barracks Museum and the Princeton Battlefield Society. We should prepare special children’s activities in observance of the 4th to go along with our usual park events, and finally I would suggest we update and expand our usual Crossing ceremony that December.

What has been your most memorable experience at WCHP?

During the Crossing ceremonies in 2010, I was given the FWCP Volunteer of the Year Award, which came as a complete surprise to me. Needless to say, I was very touched and most appreciative. What made it extra special was the fact that we were standing very close to the spot where I had lived for my first fifteen years. Truly a very memorable moment!

What gives you the most satisfaction of all the activities in which you’ve been involved at WCHP and why?

What I enjoy most is interacting with interested people who come to the park to learn more about the “Ten Crucial Days” of the Revolution. Many of our visitors do not have a good understanding of our early history, and I enjoy helping them learn more about this momentous period.

Thank you, Tom.

Final Thought

Although he turns 85 years young this year, Tom hasn’t gotten the memo about slowing down. During what has been an unsettling period for us all, it’s comforting to savor the timeless quality of certain things that so richly deserve our recognition and esteem. Washington Crossing Historic Park is one of those. Tom Maddock’s connection to it is another.

17. Forward March

Semiquincentennial + 1

Today marks the 251st anniversary of the so-called “Boston Massacre.” (Actually, to a diehard New York Yankees fan, this was the first Boston Massacre and is not to be confused with the second such event that occurred at the hands of the Boston Red Sox during games four through seven of the 2004 American League Championship Series—but I digress.)

“Massacre” is the label that was applied by Patriot propagandists to the action committed by occupying British soldiers when they fired on an unruly crowd of about two hundred demonstrators on the night of March 5, 1770, killing five civilians and wounding six others—and that label obviously stuck. The youngest to die was a seventeen-year-old apprentice to a joiner, Samuel Maverick, and the oldest a forty-seven-year-old sailor, Crispus Attucks, who was part Indian and part African American.

The mob that gathered in a snow-filled King Street before the Boston Customs House verbally abused a detachment of nine redcoats, including one officer, and some tossed snowballs and pieces of ice at the Crown’s men. The latter were part of a garrison that had been deployed to Boston in the fall of 1768 with the intent of discouraging popular opposition to British colonial policy in what London authorities deemed to be the epicenter of American unrest. Whether the initial shots that night were fired deliberately or by accident is still unknown, but this proved to be a milestone event on the road to war. The imperial troops were withdrawn from the city but would return four years later. Meanwhile, the colonists’ version of the tragedy was disseminated throughout the colonies and published in Britain.

Also on this Date

March 5, 1770 was also the day on which Frederick, Lord North, delivered his first speech in Britain’s Parliament as prime minister. Ironically enough, it was notable for requesting that the House of Commons repeal all duties imposed on its American subjects under the Revenue Act of 1767 except that on tea. Despite this initial conciliatory approach to the colonies, His Lordship—who had previously endorsed Parliament’s right to tax America—bore ultimate responsibility for the policies that precipitated the American insurrection, in particular the East India Tea Act of 1773, That is, according to Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy in The Men Who Lost America, his noteworthy study of British civil and military leadership during the Revolution (Yale University Press, 2013, p. 51).

North’s advocacy of a tea tax on the colonies to support Britain’s East India Company led to the Boston Tea Party of December 1773 in protest—featuring the colonists’ unceremonious dumping of company tea into the town’s harbor—and Parliament’s retaliatory Coercive Acts in 1774. Known as the Intolerable Acts on this side of the Atlantic, those decrees abrogated self-government in Massachusetts, fined the colony, closed Boston Harbor until restitution was made for the lost tea, and required colonists to house the King’s soldiers on demand and even in their private residences. Furthermore, British troops reoccupied the city.

Parliament’s punitive measures ultimately precipitated an armed rebellion, and Britain responded by embarking on an extended military misadventure that would severely deplete its blood and treasure. The eight-year-long effort to quell the insurgency cost the mother country some forty thousand casualties and over fifty million pounds. In the process, the prime minister was subjected to a blistering litany of abuse by the British press as he became the scapegoat for the Crown’s military failures. In short, things went south for North.

16. GW Birthday Thoughts

Monday is George Washington’s 289th birthday. That is, according to the Gregorian calendar adopted in Great Britain and its colonies in the mid-eighteenth century, which delayed his original birthdate by eleven days from the Julian, or Old Style, calendar. In any case, more than two centuries have passed since the squire of Mount Vernon left the scene—and yet it’s probably fair to say that he is, to this day, more myth than man in the historical consciousness of most Americans. Why is that?

A Bundle of Contradictions

I think part of the problem stems from his public persona, as Washington deliberately sought to maintain a degree of reserve around others that made him unapproachable to many of his peers and even more so to succeeding generations. In addition, the complexity of the man raises questions about just who he really was. Notwithstanding the lengthy exploration of this subject by far more authoritative voices, I took a stab at explaining just how enigmatic GW was—albeit in a very cursory manner—in The Road to Assunpink Creek.

Here’s the pertinent excerpt (p. 181):

The paradoxical qualities to be found in the father of our country are many and varied. The Washington who in his formative years was a self-interested, sometimes brash youth and a provincial Virginian became in his wartime role a selfless leader who exhibited prudent judgment and a steady hand in the cause of his country’s independence while adopting the perspective of an ardent nationalist.

In terms of his character, Washington might be described as an individual of driving ambition but modest public persona and as someone who experienced powerful emotions but publicly maintained an aloof and dignified demeanor. As a planter, he proved to be a shrewd businessman but struggled in his quest for financial security. A demanding slaveholder, he nevertheless became the only “founding father” to free those he held in servitude. And while generally demonstrating sound judgment, he needed ample time to make decisions.

As a public figure, Washington exhibited keen political skills but is not generally regarded as an accomplished politician. Although not an intellectual, he committed himself wholeheartedly to the pursuit of certain ideas. He was a warrior who resolutely adhered to the principal of civilian control over the military, a general who lost more battles than he won but ultimately emerged victorious in America’s fight for independence, and an army commander who refused to accept a salary for his services yet kept a meticulous record of his expenses—for which he expected to be, and was, reimbursed by the Continental Congress at the end of the war. Finally, this was a leader who was used to exercising enormous power but appears to have eagerly relinquished it and in doing so demonstrated the full measure of his greatness, both when he resigned his commission as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army in 1783 and when he left office after serving two terms as the first president of the United States in 1797.

An Imperfect Icon

Flawed GW was—as someone who bore his share of human frailties and as a member of a generation whose notions of freedom and equality were sadly deficient by today’s standards—but no one risked more in the quest to secure America’s right to rule itself than the Continental army’s commander-in-chief. His life, property, and reputation all hung in the balance.

At a very personal level, the Revolutionary struggle was an existential one for our foremost Founding Father, for failure would have meant certain death—either on the battlefield or at the end of a British rope. Of course, one could argue that other leading Patriot advocates like John Hancock or John Adams would have faced similarly dire consequences if the war had ended badly, but perhaps they would have had a better chance to elude capture, at least in theory, and thereby escape the wrath of a vengeful Crown than would a general on the frontlines.

Historians will differ on whether or not Washington was indispensable to the success of what he termed the “Glorious Cause,” the pursuit of American independence. Still, one thing seems abundantly clear. If he was not, nobody was.

15. Keeping History Alive in Challenging Times

Our current health-related circumstances have obviously impacted the mission of historic sites such as Washington Crossing Historic Park (WCHP) in Pennsylvania, one of the most revered venues in North America. I am grateful to Jennifer Martin, Executive Director of The Friends of Washington Crossing Park (FWCP), for her willingness to explore the subject in this blog post.

In conjunction with its board of trustees, Jennifer oversees the efforts of FWCP to educate the public about the significance of WCHP—the site of George Washington’s fabled 1776 Christmas night crossing of the Delaware River—and to preserve its legacy for future generations. Since 2010, the Friends have worked in collaboration with the State of Pennsylvania to share the inspiring story of that extraordinary event—and since 2015 with the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources as their partner in this endeavor.

Here are Jennifer’s thoughts on a variety of issues relating to the work of the Friends organization and the historical-education programming at the park:

What has been your biggest challenge in managing FWCP operations during this unsettling time?

The biggest challenge has been finding ways to reach and engage our visitors safely during a time when in-person programming is not possible and funding is limited. The park has always been a community center and an important destination for students looking to learn more about the Revolution and the role that the Christmas night crossing played in the quest for America’s independence.

This year, our staff was challenged by the need to alter programming, and I was very impressed with the innovations that we accomplished. Our monthly book club and lecture series became virtual, and audience attendance grew by five-hundred percent. Our “Colonial Days” field trips and summer camp became virtual, and that allowed us to develop programs for students all over the country that will carry on even after current restrictions are lifted. Our video presentation of the 2020 crossing reenactment has been viewed over twenty-three-thousand times on the park’s Facebook page and YouTube channel, as compared with the six thousand visitors that we typically get for the event—so the virtual crossing has allowed us to share this experience with a much larger audience.

Fundraising was a challenge with the cancellation of such activities as our Spring and Fall Brewfest events and the Summer Winefest. However, our staff had time to investigate and apply for new grants and develop a successful annual giving campaign, which has created new funding sources to help us build capacity as we approach the 250th anniversary of the legendary crossing in 2026.

What are you hoping – and do you think is realistic – for FWCP to accomplish in this new year?

Though virtual programming, I hope we are able to provide resources to all the schools that typically visit the park. I am also hoping that during this time, we are able to reach new audiences throughout the country by providing educational content that will encourage future site visitation and public engagement with the park.

What do you think is most important for the public to know about FWCP and how it is responding to current circumstances?

Our goal has always been to safely provide high-quality programming for the community we serve. We are practicing all safety measures recommended by the Pennsylvania Department of Health and will only resume public programs when it is safe to do so. Until then, we will continue to provide educational opportunities and resources for both the general public and the teachers who depend on the educational value that the park offers.

Can you discuss any plans that the organization has in terms of preparing for the 250th anniversary of the Crossing in 2026?

FWCP is working closely with the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to fundraise and execute the implementation of a visitor-experience plan that will prepare the park for 2026. This plan includes new features on our site such as an interactive exhibit, interpretive signage, and tour enhancements. Our hope is that the semiquincentennial will encourage more site visitation and that visitors will enjoy new and enhanced educational opportunities to learn about how Washington’s army made its daring crossing of the Delaware River on December 25-26, 1776.

Are there ways that the related historic sites in this area can collaborate to help convey the story behind the “Ten Crucial Days” specifically or the legacy of the Revolution more generally and has there been any discussion of that among the staff or board at WCHP and with people from the other sites?

WCHP leads a group called the Ten Crucial Days Round Table that consists of WCHP staff and representatives from Washington Crossing State Park in New Jersey, the Old Barracks Museum, and Princeton Battlefield State Park. We discuss program opportunities and collaboration among the various organizations. Last year, we created a rack card to encourage tourism at partner sites, and in December 2019 we hosted a Ten Crucial Days bus tour that stopped at three of the four sites. In 2021, if circumstances permit, all four sites will be included in the tour. Our goal is to promote the Ten Crucial Days historic area in such a way as to offer visitors a more comprehensive understanding of the 1776 Christmas night crossing and the remarkable ten-day military campaign that followed it.

What is most satisfying to you about doing this job?

I remember my first trip to the Howell Living History Farm when I was eight years old. Prior to that, I never really cared about history, but there was something different about dressing up in period clothes, playing eighteenth-century games, and touring the grounds. I learned that history can be fun and exciting. I like finding creative ways to make history fun for visitors of all ages so that people can connect with and understand the importance of preserving places like Washington Crossing Historic Park and sharing the important history that took place here.

Thank you, Jennifer, for sharing your perspective—and for your leadership.


Home Improvement

Great news! The State of Pennsylvania has committed $8.7 million to a significant restoration project at WCHP that will rehabilitate eleven historic homes and other structures throughout the park, and groundbreaking is to occur this month. The long-overdue effort augurs well for a celebration of America’s approaching 250th birthday at this venerable locale that will be worthy of the occasion.

Let’s face it. If you’re a history buff, the news of this upgrade to Washington’s storied crossing site has to (ahem) float your boat—oar else.

14. Black History Month

Its Significance

February is almost here and brings with it the widely observed annual celebration of the achievements of African Americans. Black History Month (also known as African American History Month) reminds us of the significant and often-overlooked role blacks have played in our national saga. Since 1976, every U.S. president has officially designated this month accordingly. In addition to receiving official recognition from governments in the United States and Canada, it has more recently been observed in Ireland, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.

Leutze and Liberty

Aficionados of Washington’s legendary Delaware River crossing know the essential role played by Colonel John Glover’s Marblehead Regiment from Massachusetts, whose seafaring men included black soldiers recruited from among Glover’s neighbors. Indeed, Emanuel Leutze’s iconic 1851 painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware (shown above)—while notoriously inaccurate in many respects—is absolutely correct from a metaphorical standpoint in placing a dark-skinned Marbleheader in the same boat as Washington—and next to him, no less. The symbolism inherent in this gesture emphatically conveyed the artist’s belief that the American Revolution represented a harbinger of liberty for ALL people.

They Were There

In her recent work, Standing in Their Own Light: African American Patriots in the American Revolution (University of Oklahoma Press, 2017), historian Judith Van Buskirk has made an important contribution to the Revolutionary War literature with her revealing account of the effort made by African American soldiers in our struggle for independence. Although this story has been chronicled in earlier works, the service and sacrifice of these soldiers is still largely unrecognized among the general public. The exploits of these men are a memorable testament to their bravery and zeal for freedom that sharply contrasts with the founders’ failure to extend their crusade for liberty to the slaves who existed in every North American colony in the 1770s.

African American soldiers could be found in the Continental army throughout the war. In his journal entry of September 2, 1776, Ambrose Serle, secretary to Britain’s Admiral Richard Lord Howe, observed that the rebel combatants facing the Crown’s forces in New York included “Old men of 60, Boys of 14, and Blacks of all ages.” Flash forward  to the climactic siege of Lord Charles Cornwallis’s army at Yorktown, Virginia, on October 14, 1781, and among the Continental soldiers storming the British-held Redoubt 10 were the black soldiers of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment.

Bottom Line

African Americans fought on both sides, but they accounted for about five percent of those serving in the Continental ranks throughout the war and a larger percentage than that among Northern units. Some of them were free men and some sought to escape our most infamous institution by substituting for a slave master who promised to free them in exchange for their military service—a promise not always honored. Indeed, the Continental army should be celebrated as the first integrated national institution in the United States, as much as for any other reason.

Perhaps Henry Wiencek provides the most succinct and cogent explanation for the role played by these soldiers. In his notable work, An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), he observes that the commander-in-chief needed them for one very simple but compelling reason: white enlistment was precarious (p. 215).

It is at least arguable that the contribution of African Americans to what Washington termed the “Glorious Cause” of American independence impacted his thinking about slavery in the years following the Revolution such that he ultimately determined to free his slaves (the only slaveholder among the founding fathers to do so)—albeit by a provision in his will to take effect upon his wife Martha’s death. In other words, the man who can lay greatest claim to being indispensable in the struggle for young America’s right to rule itself understood at some level the extent to which black soldiers mattered in that enterprise.

13. A Relief Pitcher?

Was there really a Molly Pitcher? Well, yes, but only in a manner of speaking.

Legend

She exists in historical memory as a legendary Patriot stalwart who allegedly carried water to the thirsty rebel soldiers manning artillery at the Battle of Monmouth on June 28, 1778. This was the longest one-day engagement of the war and involved the largest exchange of cannon fire on any Revolutionary battlefield.

Various accounts have even attached a name to the mythical heroine. John Ferling, in Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence (Oxford University Press, 2007), references the fable in which Molly Pitcher—who was perhaps Mary Ludwig Hays of Carlisle, Pennsylvania—supposedly “took up a rammer and helped fire the field gun previously operated by her mortally wounded husband, if the doubtful story is true.”

Carol Berkin, in Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence (Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), seeks to put this bit of folklore to rest once and for all. “Molly Pitcher simply did not exist,” she asserts, except as the functional equivalent of Rosie the Riveter during World War II. Rather, this mythical moniker was “given to the many women who carried water to cool down the cannons so that soldiers could reload and fire them again.” (Professor Berkin’s work is listed among the one-hundred best American Revolution books of all time by the Journal of the American Revolution and deservedly so. It is simply masterful.)

Fact

But all is not lost. Those disabused of the Molly Pitcher legend can find solace—and inspiration as well—in the story of Margaret Cochran Corbin. She wore men’s clothing while standing by her husband John during the British-Hessian attack on Fort Washington high above the Hudson River on November 16, 1776, took his place in the midst of battle, was seriously wounded, taken captive, and returned home with a permanent combat disability.

As the enemy assault on Fort Washington began, assistant gunner John Cochran assumed his position with the artillery, but he was soon forced to operate the cannon when the gunner was killed. Margaret, then twenty-five years old, came to her husband’s aid, helping him load the big gun until he too was slain. She then loaded and fired the field piece herself but was struck by grapeshot—a type of exploding shell that featured a canvas bag wrapped around objects such as iron balls, nails, stones, or pieces of chain. Margaret sustained wounds to her left shoulder, chest, and jaw. The soldiers who saw her fall bore her away from the battle line and put her under the care of other camp followers who were caring for the wounded.

Fort Washington’s capitulation was one of the worst defeats of the war for the rebel cause—over 2,800 were taken prisoner with an equivalent number of muskets and forty-one field guns lost to the attackers. After the garrison surrendered, Margaret was among the wounded American soldiers whom the victorious British set free on parole. The released defenders were ferried across the Hudson River to Fort Washington’s sister citadel, Fort Lee, which would fall to the British several days later at the start of their invasion of New Jersey. But by then, Margaret had been removed by wagon en route to Pennsylvania.

A Melancholy Ending

The injuries to her chest and jaw healed over time, but Margaret Corbin was never again able to use her left arm. She did receive a veteran’s pension—”half the pay and allowances of a soldier in service”—in an unusual acknowledgment by Congress of her military contribution to the Patriot enterprise. But while she was able to live on that amount, Margaret did not find happiness in later life. Moving to Highland Falls, New York, she turned to drink and died in 1800, apparently disdained by the majority in her community who knew her as an acerbic alcoholic named “Dirty Kate.” Few of them were aware of her service in the Revolution.

 

12. Field of Heroes

Looking Back

January 3, 2021 will mark the 244th anniversary of the Battle of Princeton. In that 1777 engagement, George Washington’s army won its third and climactic victory of the fabled “Ten Crucial Days” campaign that profoundly altered the course of our war for independence. It was one of the very few encounters in which the Americans defeated British regulars in open-field combat, although Washington’s roughly four-to-one numerical advantage clearly facilitated that outcome.

Courage amidst the Carnage

Princeton’s frozen ground could not absorb the blood shed during a winter morning’s savage clash. Few Revolutionary War encounters were more ferocious, and brave men abounded on both sides. Here are a few of them:

Charles Mawhood: The lieutenant colonel was an eccentric but highly esteemed officer—routinely riding into battle accompanied by a pair of “springing spaniels”—who commanded the British 4th Brigade, which held Princeton when Washington’s army arrived on January 3. Mawhood led a spirited and skillful resistance by his small contingent that held off the much-larger rebel force long enough to enable most of the British supply wagons to escape from Princeton and so exhausted the attackers—already weary after a twelve-mile overnight march from Trenton—that they were unable to achieve Washington’s primary objective of assaulting the redcoats’ supply depot at Brunswick (New Brunswick today).

Hugh Mercer: The Scottish-born general led the advance guard of his small Continental brigade into battle against Mawhood’s elite 17th Regiment of Foot in the initial phase of the engagement. Mercer refused to surrender when he toppled from his wounded horse and was surrounded by the British. He was bayoneted seven times while attempting to fight off the enemy and died nine days later in the Thomas Clarke House adjacent to the battlefield. (Mercer County, NJ, was named after him when it was created in 1838.)

John Haslet: The Irish-born colonel of the Delaware Continental Regiment was killed by a musket ball to the head while attempting to rally Mercer’s men or come to the general’s aid after the latter had fallen from his horse. Following the battle, a search of his pockets found an order from Washington for Haslet to return to Delaware to recruit soldiers for his depleted regiment, which he had deferred acting upon until the army concluded its winter campaign. Legend has it that Washington wept over the colonel’s body.

Joseph Moulder: The 62-year-old captain of the 2nd Company of Artillery, Philadelphia Associators, orchestrated a cannonade from his two-gun battery that halted the British advance—after Mawhood had routed Mercer’s vanguard—long enough for the Americans to regroup and launch a countercharge that turned the tide of battle. Today a marker graces the spot where Moulder’s young gunners stood their ground at this most pivotal moment.

Thomas Rodney: The Delaware militia captain was among those holding off the British advance until the rebel army organized its counterattack. His account attests to the ferocity of the action: “the enemies fire was dreadful and three balls, for they were very thick, had grazed me; one passed within my elbow nicking my great coat and . . . another carried away the inside edge of one of my shoesoles, another had nicked my hat and indeed they seemed as thick as hail.”

George Washington: The battle featured one of the most remarkable moments of the war when the Continental army’s commander-in-chief personally rallied his regulars and militia as he rode to within thirty paces of the British line. Washington presented an easy and obvious target for an enemy musket yet escaped without a scratch, much to the amazement of some very fretful subordinates. He reportedly inspired his troops with these words: “Parade with us, my brave fellows! There is but a handful of the enemy, and we will have them directly.”

John Cadwalader: The colonel of the Philadelphia Associators made a valiant effort to rally his militia in the face of a fierce British bayonet charge across the frozen field after Mercer’s outnumbered vanguard had been forced to retreat. Cadwalader would lead his men forward as part of the counterattack that ensued from Washington’s effort to personally rally his troops.

Looking Forward

Today the 96-acre Princeton Battlefield is a New Jersey state park and a registered National Historic Landmark. Visitors can walk the grounds and, once public health restrictions are lifted, will be able to explore the 1772 Thomas Clarke House, the last surviving witness to the battle. In the meantime, the Princeton Battlefield Society (PBS)—celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2021—has been developing a new educational exhibit for the Clarke House Museum with the generous assistance of donors to its History & Heritage Fund. The exhibit’s opening is planned for early next year.

In recent years, PBS has been conducting tours from May through October in conjunction with the NJ Division of Parks and Forestry, and although the pandemic frustrated that effort in 2020, PBS looks forward to its resumption as soon as practicable. In addition, area Rev War buffs can anticipate (not this year but as soon as public health circumstances permit) a continuation of the annual PBS early-morning, premier educational event that celebrates the battle’s anniversary in late December or early January. For now, you can learn more about PBS and a variety of related informational resources on the PBS website while we await more opportune circumstances to celebrate and promote in person the legacy of a Revolutionary generation’s gift to posterity.

Best wishes for a healthy and safe holiday season!

11. Measuring Patriotic Sacrifice

The men in arms who embodied what George Washington termed the “Glorious Cause”—the struggle for young America’s right to rule itself—suffered deprivations that we can only imagine today. In the memoir of his service with the Connecticut militia and the Continental army during the Revolutionary War, Joseph Plumb Martin observes: “The period of the revolution has repeatedly been styled ‘the times that tried men’s souls.’ I often found that those times not only tried men’s souls, but their bodies too.”

Then

What kinds of personal sacrifice were entailed in our quest for independence?

To cite just one notable example, the Delaware Regiment—known as the Delaware Blues for the color of their uniforms—endured an array of hardships that I referenced in John Haslet’s World as follows:

From 1776 to 1783, the Blues would march in broken shoes or without shoes, on rutted roads and where there were no roads, in mud and sand, across marshes and streams, in sweltering heat and frigid cold, for thousands of miles. They slept—or attempted to—in tents in freezing weather, or absent any shelter whatsoever, missing blankets or any covering, on the bare ground in rain and snow, in need of clothing, food, and drink, and going without pay from one year to the next. 

One especially challenging period serves to graphically illustrate the challenges this regiment confronted: after encountering the ferocious winter weather and acute food shortages that plagued Washington’s army during its Morristown encampment of 1779-1780, the Delawares plunged into the Southern campaign of 1780 that brought with it searing heat and multiple illnesses arising from their natural surroundings. They survived for two weeks on a diet of a half-pound of flour a day for each man and spoiled beef supplemented by green apples and peaches from nearby orchards.The ordeal left them weak and sick.

In Washington’s general orders of April 19, 1783, which confirmed the termination of hostilities with Great Britain eight years to the day after the eruption of those hostilities at Lexington and Concord, the commander-in-chief paid tribute to “the honest exertions of a feeble people (determined to be free) against a [powerful] Nation (disposed to oppress them) and the Character of those who have persevered, through every extremity of hardship; suffering and danger being immortalized by the illustrious appellation of the patriot Army.”

These hardships were shared by those not in combat. Civilians suffered, and in some cases died, from diseases unintentionally spread by soldiers on both sides, naval attacks on coastal communities, Indian raids, the use of tactics that would be termed “guerrilla warfare” today, and siege operations. The violence perpetrated against civilians by soldiers on both sides included widespread loss of property as well as physical assault. And of course, women of modest means were forced to shoulder the burden of operating farms and shops left behind by their husbands who had gone off to war—in addition to caring for their families.

Now

Recalling how a young nation’s citizen-soldiers met the most formidable challenge of their time impels one to salute those who’ve exhibited the same spirit of determination and self-sacrifice that’s required to meet the most daunting challenge of ours. We’ve seen that resolve manifested in recent months by our unsung pandemic heroes—the health care professionals, first responders, and essential workers who set an example for us all. They’ve demonstrated what true patriotism is all about. Decency, common sense, and public spiritedness call upon the rest of us to support their efforts and take the necessary precautions that will protect each other from the latest foreign adversary to threaten our common welfare and security.

When it comes to making sacrifices, wearing a mask and observing appropriate distancing in social settings are hardly commensurate with the severity of hardships endured by our forebears, especially when there looms not so far ahead a vaccine-induced light at the end of what might otherwise seem an interminable tunnel. We can do this. We must do this.

A healthy and safe Thanksgiving to all!