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

Two words: Joseph Trumbull.

Who Was He?

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

What Did He Do?

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

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

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

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

Summing Up

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


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

47. The British Soldier in North America

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

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

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

46. Rodney’s Ride

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

Pages 44-45 —

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

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

Page 69 —

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

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


For anyone who might be interested:

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

45. Burgoyne’s Folly

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

Background

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

The Pitfalls

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

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

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

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

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

 

43. The U.S. Army’s First Victory

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

What Happened?

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

What Dd It Mean?

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

What’s Up?

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

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

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

42. Native Narrative II

As you may recall, the last post focused on how the interrelationships among Indian Nations, Great Britain, and North American colonists played a significant role in precipitating the War of Independence. As noted therein, many among the Native Nations perceived a threat to their way of life from colonial settlers moving into their lands, notwithstanding the Proclamation Line of 1763 that was established by Parliament to restrict that movement, and this influenced their decision as to which side to support when war erupted. In general, they backed the British, who represented the indigenous peoples’ best hope for restraining the incursion into their lands by white homesteaders.

A Cruel Conflict

The long and violent history between colonists and Indians made it unlikely that the “Glorious Cause ” (Washington’s term for the struggle for American independence) would win widespread support among Native Americans. The best the Revolutionary enterprise could hope for in that regard was a neutral stance among the Indian Nations, but continued encroachment on their lands undermined that possibility and incentivized most tribes to side with the Crown. Ironically enough, the Patriot forces utilized Indian tactics—which the colonists had adopted over generations of conflict with hostile tribes—when fighting against the latter during the War of Independence. These included the hallmarks of what we would call “guerrilla warfare” today: ambushes, hit-and-run assaults, the use of snipers, shooting from behind protective cover, maneuverability, and terror-inducing means of gaining a psychological edge over their opponent—burning Indian villages and destroying their crops, for example. And, yes, scalping the dead—for this Indian custom had long since become common among colonists, motivated by a well-established practice of paying bounties for Natives’ scalps (a hair-raising experience, to be sure). Loyalist Peter Oliver wrote in 1778: “This Scalping Business hath been encouraged, in the Colonies, for more than a Century past. Premiums have been given, frequently, by the Massachusetts Assemblies, for the Scalps of Indians, even when they boasted loudest of their Sanctity; & I have seen a Vessell enter the Harbor of Boston, with a long String of hairy Indian Scalps strung to the rigging, & waving in the wind.”

According to Michael Stephenson (in Patriot Battles: How the War of Independence was Fought, Harper Perennial, 2007), “Native Americans, contrary to the woolly-minded notion that they were simply put-upon protohippies, fought for their land ferociously. Women and children were killed as often as they were taken into captivity and adopted.” In 1779, Washington launched a large-scale expedition under General John Sullivan against the Iroquois of the Six Nations in response to a series of Loyalist-Indian attacks on the northern and western frontiers, and Sullivan’s force (which included a party of Oneida who had taken up arms against the Iroquois) resorted to scorched-earth warfare. They destroyed a wide swath of villages and crops and inflicted heavy casualties, but their success was limited in strategic terms because large numbers of Iroquois warriors simply melded into the wilderness, only to fight another day.

A Cruel Peace (for some)

The Treaty of Paris that ended the war in 1783 left the Native Nations who had supported Great Britain virtually abandoned by their ally when the Crown yielded the lands extending westward to the Mississippi to the United States. Michael Stephenson observes that, in one of the great ironies of the quest for independence, the rebels’ struggle to free themselves from the British empire was accompanied by their own effort at empire-building, one in which they were “bloodily engaged…at the expense of native Americans.” He quotes Jefferson on the subject of American territorial ambition and the tribal populations standing in the way thereof: “Nothing will reduce these wretches so soon as pushing the war into the heart of their country. I would never cease pursuing them while one of them remained on this side of the Mississippi.” Clearly the author of the Declaration of Independence had a decidedly restrictive view of the Indians’ entitlement” to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness,” those “unalienable Rights” that he articulated in his memorable expression of America’s founding ideals.

41. Native Narrative I

The role of the American Indian nations in our war for independence—largely neglected by historians for so long—has gained more historiographic attention over time, and deservedly so as it had important implications for the Revolutionary contest. What is commonly unappreciated among the general public is the extent to which the interrelationships among the native nations (Cherokee, Delaware, Iroquois, Mingo, Ottawa, Shawnee, and Wyandot ), Great Britain, and the North American colonists played a significant role in precipitating the War of Independence.

What Really Happened

The British ministry resolved in 1762 to maintain a force of ten thousand troops in North America even after the then-ongoing but nearly concluded French and Indian War (known as the “Seven Years’ War” in Europe) ended, in order to protect the colonies from the Indians and vice versa—as well as to guard against possible designs by the Spanish who occupied the provinces of East and West Florida. Britain’s national debt had doubled during the war, and the King’s ministers refrained from imposing the cost of supporting this troop presence in America on their already overburdened constituents, then among the most heavily taxed in Europe. This policy decision, along with Parliament’s effort to crack down on rampant smuggling among colonial merchants that deprived Britain of significant revenue from items imported into the colonies, had significant repercussions for Anglo-American relations as they deteriorated in the mid-to-late 1760’s and the early 1770’s. The majority in Parliament thought it eminently reasonable to tax Americans in order to pay for the presence of British soldiers whose ostensible purpose was to protect the colonists. However, the latter regarded these soldiers as an unwanted force who embodied a policy of restricting the colonists’ access to western land occupied by the native nations and whose deployment was to be paid for by taxes imposed by a legislative body in which Americans were not represented.

Parliament’s Proclamation of 1763 that prohibited colonists from moving westward into land populated by Native American tribes was impracticable because there were simply not enough British soldiers on the continent to enforce this edict; and by 1774, some fifty thousand settlers resided beyond the proclamation line. Notwithstanding that reality, this policy represented a sharp departure from Britain’s previously understated approach to colonial oversight and and was widely perceived among Americans as an overbearing intrusion into their sovereignty.

In his new and highly recommended book, Liberty is Sweet: The Hidden History of the American Revolution (Simon & Schuster, 2021), Woody Holton cites an observation by an anonymous newspaper writer that “not even a second Chinese Wall, unless guarded by a million of soldiers,” could prevent settlers from moving into the lands from which they were officially excluded by the Proclamation Line of 1763. Moreover, as he points out, the colonists facilitated even further encroachment beyond that line by refusing to pay for British troops stationed on their frontier. Once Parliament repealed the Stamp Act of 1765 in response to widespread American opposition to its tax on legal documents, newspapers, licenses, pamphlets, and bills of lading, and to the concerns of British merchants over how the colonists’ willingness to boycott British goods in response would impact Anglo-American trade, the Crown’s ministers decided to reduce British expenses in the New World by abandoning all but the most vital western forts that their soldiers had been garrisoning. As Holton puts it, “Now it was simpler than ever to glide across the home government’s imaginary boundary.”

What Does All This Mean?

Parliament’s effort to restrict the colonists’ movement into Native American lands was firmly opposed by prospective settlers who wanted to start a new life on the frontier and by speculators who dreamed of making significant profits from land holdings beyond the proclamation line—among the latter, for example, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. This obviously contributed to the ill will that came to dominate Anglo-American relations and propelled the opposing sides toward an armed confrontation. At the same time, many among the native nations clearly perceived a threat to their way of life from the specter of colonial intruders, and this would influence their decision as to which side they should back when war erupted—more often than not, the British, as they represented the indigenous people’s best hope of restraining the invasion of their lands by white homesteaders.

More about this in the next post.

 

40. Why Britain Lost

The above image from the painting Surrender of Lord Cornwallis by John Trumbull, on display in the US Capitol Rotunda, depicts the capitulation of the British army at Yorktown, Virginia, in October 1781. This engagement ended the last major campaign of the Revolutionary War.

What Factors Contributed to Great Britain’s Failure to Subdue the American Rebellion?

— His Majesty’s forces lacked the military capacity to conquer and control the vast geographic expanse encompassed by Britain’s North American colonies without receiving more support from the Loyalist population (commonly referred to as “Tories” by those opposing them) than the latter were able or willing to provide.

— The rebels did not necessarily have to win battles in order to succeed, but only needed to persevere until the British Parliament exhausted its willingness to expend the mother country’s blood and treasure in this cause, as it did in the wake of the Yorktown disaster.

— Foreign assistance, especially from France but also Spain and the Netherlands—ranging from covert aid in the beginning of the conflict to more conspicuous intervention later on—sustained the American war effort and eventually drew Britain into a global struggle that diverted military and naval resources from its efforts to suppress America’s bid for independence..

Geography as Destiny

I want to amplify the geographic constraints that militated against the possibility of British success. The Crown’s forces never demonstrated an ability to seize and dominate the immensity and wilderness of the territory that comprised the thirteen provinces along the Atlantic coast. Their base was always the Atlantic Ocean and the navigable rivers stretching upcountry from it. British naval assets were essentially useless in the American interior where the crown’s military ambitions were thwarted by rebel opposition and the difficult terrain and hardships of moving an army about, which the letters of General William Howe (commander of the British army in America from 1775 to 1778) to Lord George Germain (Britain’s principal war strategist) and others in London often cited. Moreover, the nature of that terrain was especially problematic for the Crown’s military designs as its predominantly hilly and forested expanse was very different from the Low Countries where most British officers had their formative military experience and was naturally advantageous to those fighting a defensive action, who were usually rebel soldiers.

Finally, Britain’s effort to defeat the colonial insurrection faced the very formidable challenge of an enormous ocean. Each item utilized by the British expeditionary force had to travel three thousand miles across the Atlantic in sluggish transports. And the distances involved were problematic from the standpoint of communications. Even a swift vessel carrying urgent messages rarely made the voyage from England in much less than two months, while some dispatches took anywhere from three to seven months to reach their intended recipient.

Bottom Line

Ultimately, Great Britain’s failure to subdue the American rebellion may well have been the worst calamity ever suffered by its empire, a defeat that at the time constituted a stunning and humiliating setback for the eighteenth century’s most vaunted global power. But history offers numerous examples of a militarily superior force being frustrated by the stubborn reality of geographic expanse and an uninviting terrain. So Napoleon and Hitler learned when they assailed Russia, as did America in Vietnam—and the forces of “Mad Vlad” are, as we speak (or type), contending with in their barbarous enterprise against a free people.

хай живе україна!

39. The Most Unappreciated Event of the Revolution

Please Note: The images of a brutish and needless conflict instigated without provocation and orchestrated by a murderous and delusional bully, which have splashed across our screens the last few days, made me somewhat hesitant to publish a blog post about any type of military engagement at this point, even though I realize one has nothing to do with the other—except perhaps to remind us yet again that, as General William T. Sherman once observed, “War is cruelty and you cannot refine it.” And more so today than ever before.

But notwithstanding all that, here goes . . .


The Battle of Assunpink Creek, also known as the Second Battle of Trenton, on January 2, 1777 (imaginatively depicted in the nineteenth-century print above) was the second of three military engagements during the Continental Army’s triumphant winter campaign from December 25, 1776 through January 3, 1777—what historians commonly refer to as the “Ten Crucial Days.” (For the Patriot cause, these might also be termed the “Tense Crucial Days.”) The desire to correct its neglect in our collective historical memory was the genesis of my second book, The Road to Assunpink Creek: Liberty’s Desperate Hour and the Ten Crucial Days of the American Revolution. I contended there and have since that this affair—largely ignored by historians until David Hackett Fischer’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning Washington’s Crossing (Oxford, 2004)—was arguably the most pivotal military engagement of the war for independence.

Why Did it Matter?

Traditional accounts of this period in the Revolutionary War have treated the clash at Assunpink Creek as the “Rodney Dangerfield” of military encounters, emphasizing instead the first battle at Trenton on December 26, 1776, in which Washington’s army overcame the Hessian brigade occupying the town after the legendary Christmas night crossing of the Delaware River, and the battle at Princeton on January 3, 1777 that provided the Continentals with the capstone victory of their winter offensive (very offensive if you were British).

But consider this  .  .  .

— Had Washington been defeated at Assunpink Creek, his victory at Trenton on December 26 would have been a historical footnote that did nothing to alter the strategic dynamic of the contest and there would have been no victory at Princeton on January 3 because in all likelihood there would have been no American Army to march there.

— The second battle involved the largest number of soldiers of the three engagements fought during the 1776-1777 winter campaign, particularly if one includes both the fighting between the Anglo-German army as it approached Trenton and the skirmishers under Colonel Edward Hand resisting its advance and the follow-up confrontation when the Crown’s forces attempted to cross the Trenton bridge spanning the creek.

— If we compare the three battles, this was the only one in which the enemy had a numerical advantage. It was also the only one in which Washington’s army fought both British and Hessian troops, and in which the enemy forces were led by a British general (Charles Lord Cornwallis, probably the most competent and energetic field commander in the King’s army). Moreover, it was the only one in which the geographic position of the American troops was such that they were in danger of being trapped between two waterways—the creek in their front and the Delaware River at their back—with no means of escape if they were outflanked and pushed up against the river.

— This was the longest battle of the “Ten Crucial Days” if one counts as a single encounter the resistance offered by Colonel  Hand’s contingent during their fighting withdrawal from Maidenhead (Lawrence Township today) to Trenton and the clash at the creek immediately following the delaying action.

— January 2, 1777 was the first time the Continental Army repulsed an attack by British troops during a truly significant battle. Had the rebel army failed to stop their adversary’s advance at Assunpink Creek, the result would probably have been the destruction of that army and possibly the cause of American independence. And in that scenario, Washington would most likely have met his end on the battlefield or suspended from a British rope.

— The recollections of those present attest to the gravity of this moment: Major James Wilkinson—“If there ever was a crisis in the affairs of the Revolution, this was the moment”; Ensign Robert Beale of Virginia—“This was the most awful crisis”; Captain Stephen Olney of Rhode Island—“It appeared to me then that our army was in the most desperate situation I had ever known it”; and Private John Howland of Rhode Island—“Had the army of Cornwallis…crossed the bridge, or forded the creek, unless a miracle intervened, there would have been an end of the American army.”

— In Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution (Viking, 2016), Nathaniel Philbrick opines that if Cornwallis’s effort to cross the Trenton bridge and overrun the rebel army had succeeded, “the war was as good as finished” for the capital city of Philadelphia “would surely [have fallen] that winter, and the Continental Congress in Baltimore might very well [have decided] that a negotiated settlement was in the country’s best interests.” Washington’s decision to fight here, he writes, created “the make-or-break moment” of the Revolutionary struggle.

Bottom Line

I’ll rest my case with the following excerpt from The Road to Assunpink Creek (the author says it better than I can):

Historians of the Revolution never mention Assunpink Creek in the same breath as Saratoga or Yorktown—the most recognized and significant battles in that struggle, with the former in 1777 leading to France’s crucial intervention in the contest and the latter in 1781 breaking the back of England’s will to fight against the colonials—but those later engagements might very well have never occurred if January 2, 1777 had turned out differently for Washington’s army. The events of that day, including the delaying action by Colonel Hand’s men and the fighting at the creek, plausibly created a deciding moment of as great consequence for the cause of American independence as the far better-known confrontations that occurred later in the war. Perhaps no military action in our country’s history is more paradoxical than the one on the road to Assunpink Creek, and at the bridge that crossed it, in the sense that its obscurity in the public mind and neglect by many historians is so disproportionate to its impact on the course of a conflict with global implications.

In other words, if things had gone differently that day, the quest for American independence may very well have been (ahem) up the creek.