50. John Cadwalader

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

A Privileged Revolutionary

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

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

A Key Role in the “Ten Crucial Days” Campaign

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

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

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

Afterwards

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

Want More?

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

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

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


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49. Major Andrew Leitch

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

Who Was He?

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

What Did He Do?

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

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

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

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

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

Afterwards

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

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

Two words: Joseph Trumbull.

Who Was He?

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

What Did He Do?

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

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

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

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

Summing Up

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


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