38. New Books

I thought I’d take a brief respite from working on my next opus to suggest a few new Revolution-related books for your consideration. These are based on my own reading, listening to author talks, or in one case an author interview.

In no particular order  .  .  .

Surviving the Winters: Housing Washington’s Army during the American Revolution, Steven Elliott (University of Oklahoma Press, 2021) — The author has crafted a detailed narrative and penetrating analysis of how the Continental Army housed its units and camp followers, which explains how the construction and operation of these camps was important to the success of the Patriot cause. When you consider that the army spent a great deal more time in these settings than it did on the battlefield, this is a significant contribution to the literature of the Revolution.

Liberty Is Sweet: The Hidden History of the American Revolution, Woody Holton (Simon & Schuster, 2021) — The author offers a new and refreshing look at our struggle for independence that incorporates the story of marginalized  Americans—black people, women, Indians, and religious dissenters—into the mainstream of Revolution-related historiography in a way that general histories of the period have not done until now, while considering other overlooked aspects of the war that factored into its outcome.

The Revolutionary World of a Free Black Man: Jacob Francis, 1754-1836, William L. “Larry” Kidder (S.P., 2021) — This story of a free black man’s struggles with the systemic racism that accompanied enslavement in early America chronicles his youth as an indentured servant, his service in the Continental Army and Hunterdon County militia, and his post-war life as a husband, father, and farmer, as well as his youngest son’s efforts in the abolitionist cause. (BTW see my blog post no. 27, “Jacob’s Ladder,” to read the author’s comments about his work.)

These Distinguished Corps: British Grenadier and Light Infantry Battalions in the American Revolution, Don Hagist (Helion & Company, 2021) — For the authentic military history buff, this should be a real treat to read, being the product of a noted authority on the eighteenth-century British army who is also managing editor of the Journal of the American Revolution. The reader is provided with a thorough and well-written analysis of the role played by British light infantry and grenadier battalions during the Revolutionary War that relies predominantly on a vast array of primary source material.

Happy Reading.

37. The Bayonet

As you may recall, I strongly hinted in a previous post that I would be writing about the use of bayonets in the Revolution. So let’s get right to the point (in a manner of speaking).

What Was It?

The socket bayonet was invented in the late seventeenth century by the noted French military engineer, Sébastien Le Prestre, Marquis de Vauban (1633-1707), who was engaged in the service of Louis XIV for more than fifty years and in the process revolutionized the art of siege warfare and defensive fortifications. Vauban’s pointed triangular blade came with a flat side facing the muzzle of a musket and two outer fluted sides that were about fifteen inches long. It attached to the muzzle by a collar that slipped around the barrel.

How Was It Used?

Notwithstanding its limited firing range, British troops relied on the same Brown Bess musket that was carried by American soldiers in units that were not rifle companies, because (unlike the long rifle) it facilitated the redcoats’ use of their favorite tactic—the bayonet charge. The sight of cold steel could have a fearsome effect on an enemy soldier, no matter how experienced he might be, and often struck terror in the hearts of inexperienced citizen-soldiers among the Continental Army’s rank-and-file. The latter were all-too aware of the lethal repercussions from a well-aimed bayonet thrust. With the full force of a lunging soldier’s body behind it, the blade could lacerate tissue, arteries, and bones in a most injurious and painful manner. The swiftness, energy, and furor of a redcoat bayonet assault was often enough by itself to unnerve all but the best American units. (The British military worked hard to educate its soldiery in the advantages of bayonet usage in order to overcome one’s natural reluctance to slay an opponent up-close rather than at a distance where killing is more impersonal.)

The bayonet’s salient role in British infantry tactics—having primacy over firepower—was predicated on the belief that well-disciplined soldiers could outrun the range of a musket during the time required for their adversary to reload. British musket fire on Revolutionary War battlefields most commonly took the form of general volleys followed immediately by a bayonet charge. His Majesty’s troops typically sought to close with the Americans as rapidly as possible, absorbing casualties until they could launch their dreaded charge. Bayonets probably accounted for most of the combat deaths among Patriot soldiers during the conflict. Because musket fire was largely inaccurate and inflicted relatively few casualties, even when used against dense formations of troops advancing at a deliberate pace, the bayonet charge made good tactical sense in open-field combat against an opponent who was not well-entrenched. Typically the British advance over an open field would accelerate from a trot or jog into a run, and the onrushing redcoats would cheer repeatedly and menacingly to intimidate a wavering enemy. For most of the war, they made their attacks in this manner.

Night attacks were particularly well-suited to the use of bayonets, as they entailed stealthy maneuvers designed to maintain silence and the element of surprise—difficult to do if one were relying on the use of firearms. In addition, deploying bayonets rather than shooting at the enemy reduced the risk of so-called friendly fire where one encountered poor visibility or lacked situational awareness on the battlefield. (I’m still not sure what’s friendly about “friendly fire” – would prefer the term “misdirected fire.”)

Over time, the Continental Army became more proficient in the use of bayonets and better equipped so that enough of its soldiers had them to be a factor in combat. However, I think it’s fair to say that the story of this weapon in the war for independence was written largely by the British infantryman. (It was, you might say, thrust into prominence by the latter.)


36. Commemorating the Battle of Princeton

Attention all Rev War buffs and history enthusiasts!

Check out this link to the Princeton Battlefield Society’s website, where you’ll find information about an exciting event on January 2, 2022 that will celebrate the 245th anniversary of the third and final engagement fought during the Revolution’s “Ten Crucial Days.”

All the best!


P.S. The image above depicts General Washington leading the climactic charge at Princeton on January 3, 1777.

35. Who said What about the “Ten Crucial Days”

Rev War buffs are about to commemorate the 245th anniversary of the “Ten Crucial Days” campaign—from December 25, 1776 through January 3, 1777, perhaps the ten most remarkable days in American history—that reversed the momentum of the war for independence just when the Revolutionary enterprise seemed on the verge of final defeat, The battles at Trenton and Princeton—the first significant victories for Washington’s army—altered not only the course of the conflict but the public image of the Continental Army’s commander-in-chief as well.

In this season of remembrance, I thought it timely to recall some observations about these events here:

SIR GEORGE OTTO TREVELYAN, British Historian—It may be doubted whether so small a number of men ever employed so short a space of time with greater and more lasting effects upon the history of the world. (Source: The American Revolution in six volumes, Sir George Otto Trevelyan, 1899-1907)

FREDERICK II, King of Prussia, 1740-1786 (Frederick the Great)—The achievements of Washington and his little band of compatriots between the 25th of December and the 4th of January, a space of ten days, were the most brilliant of any recorded in the annals of military achievements. (Source: The Battles of Trenton and Princeton, William S. Stryker, 1898)

THOMAS PAINE, Author and pamphleteer—The conquest of the Hessians at Trenton by the remains of a retreating army…is an instance of heroic perseverance very seldom to be met with. And the victory over the British troops at Princeton, by a harrassed and wearied party, who had been engaged the day before and marched all night without refreshment, is attended with such a scene of circumstances and superiority of Generalship, as will ever give it a place on the first line in the history of great actions. (Source: The American Crisis, Number V, Thomas Paine, March 21, 1778, in Thomas Paine, Collected Writings, 1955)

JAMES WILKINSON, Major, Continental Army—The joy diffused throughout the union by the successful attack against Trenton, reanimated the timid friends of the revolution, and invigorated the confidence of the resolute. Perils and sufferings still in prospect, were considered the price of independence, and every faithful citizen was willing to make the sacrifice. Success had triumphed over despondency, and the heedless, headlong enthusiasm, which led the colonists to arms, had settled down into a sober sense of their condition, and a deliberate resolution to maintain the contest at every hazard, and under every privation. (Source: Memoirs of My Own Times, James Wilkinson, 1816)

MERCY OTIS WARREN, American poet, dramatist, and historian—Perhaps there are no people on earth, in whom a spirit of enthusiastic zeal is so readily enkindled, and burns so remarkably conspicuous, as among the Americans….The energetic operation of this sanguine temper, was never more remarkably exhibited, than in the change instantaneously wrought in the minds of men, by the capture of Trenton at so unexpected a moment. (Source: History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution, Mercy Otis Warren, 1805)

ALEXANDER HAMILTON, Captain, Continental Army—After escaping the grasp of a disciplined and victorious enemy, this little band of patriots were seen skillfully avoiding an engagement until they could contend with advantage and then by the masterly enterprises of Trenton and Princeton, cutting them up in detachments, rallying the scattered energies of the country, infusing terror into the breasts of their invaders and changing the whole tide and fortunes of the war. (Source: The Battles of Trenton and Princeton, William S. Stryker, 1898)

LORD GEORGE GERMAIN, British Secretary of State for North America—All our hopes were blasted by that unhappy affair at Trenton. (Source: Remarks by George Germain, May 3, 1779, in The Parliamentary Register: Or History of the Proceedings and Debates of the House of Commons during the Fifth Session of the Fourteenth Parliament of Great Britain, Volume XI, John Stockdale, 1802)

HENRY KNOX, Brigadier General, Continental Army—I look up to heaven and most devoutly thank the great Governor of the Universe for producing this turn in our affairs. (Source: Letter to Lucy Flucker Knox, January 7, 1777, in The Battles of Trenton and Princeton, William S. Stryker, 1898)

SAMUEL DeFOREST, Connecticut militiaman—The events of two weeks appears to have rolled on a pivot which has sealed and gave a stamp to the destiny of America. (Source: Samuel DeForest, Military Pension Application Narrative, in The Revolution Remembered: Eyewitness Accounts of the War for Independence, John C. Dann, ed., 1980)

NICHOLAS CRESSWELL, English diarist who travelled throughout the American colonies from 1774 to 1777—The minds of the people are much altered. A few days ago they had given up the cause for lost. Their late successes have turned the scale and now they are all liberty mad again. (Source: Nicholas Cresswell: Journal, January 5-17, 1777, in The American Revolution: Writings from the War of Independence, 1775-1783, John Rhodehamel, ed., 2001)

WILLIAM HARCOURT, Colonel, British Army—Though it was once the fashion of this army to treat [the American soldiers] in the most contemptible light, they are now become a formidable enemy. (Source: Letter to his father, Earl Harcourt, March 17, 1777, in The Spirit of ‘Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants, Henry Steele Commager and Richard B. Morris, eds., 1967)

CHARLES EARL CORNWALLIS, Lieutenant General, British Army (reportedly responding to a toast at a dinner for British, French, and American officers hosted by George Washington after Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown, Virginia, in October 1781)—And when the illustrious part that your excellency has borne in this long and arduous contest becomes a matter of history, fame will gather your brightest laurels from the banks of the Delaware than from those of the Chesapeake. (Source: The Battles of Trenton and Princeton, William S. Stryker, 1898)

The final quote below is not generally cited in this context but is far better known than the others and VERY MUCH on point.

LAWRENCE PETER “YOGI” BERRA, Professional baseball player, coach, manager, and philosopher—It ain’t over till it’s over. (Source: Attributed to Berra as manager of the New York Mets during the 1973 season and quoted in The Yogi Book: I Really Didn’t Say Everything I Said, Yogi Berra, 1998)

There, now I’ve covered all the bases (so to speak).

Dear Reader:

Please be advised that I anticipate diminished blog production for a period of time (a slowdown, not a complete stop), owing to my immersion in another literary project—a book about the Battle of Harlem Heights in 1776 as part of Westholme Publishing’s Small Battles series.

I hope to return to a more regular blogging schedule in the not-too-distant future and extend my sincere thanks to those who have subscribed. To other readers, I hope you’ll consider signing up – it’s free and easy to do in the footer on any page.

Thank you for your indulgence.

Don’t go away. I’ll be back.

Best regards,



34. An Obscure Event

For anyone who’s interested, I wanted to pass along a link to a recent article of mine in the Journal of the American Revolution, which is essentially an adaptation of a chapter in my last book, John Haslet’s World, about one of the least-known military engagements of the War of Independence. The Battle of Mamaroneck on October 22, 1776—or the “Skirmish of Heathcote Hill” as termed by some of the few who know of it—was a rare and, to be sure, very limited victory for the Patriot cause during what was otherwise a dismal New York campaign waged by the Continental Army that fall.

This encounter occurred at night, and one of the men who was there—Dr. James Tilton, the surgeon with the Delaware Continental Regiment that was led by Colonel Haslet and known as the “Delaware Blues” from the color of their uniforms—wrote: “I must confess this the most terrible instance of War I have seen; so much is the horror of this terrible business increased by darkness.” Perhaps it’s fitting that the battle or skirmish occurred at night as so many are, well, in the dark about it.

BTW the image above is from a watercolor by Charles M. Lefferts from c.1910—in the collection of the New York Historical Society (NYHS)—entitled Private, Haslet’s Delaware Regiment, 1776. It was originally created for the artist’s study of uniforms in the Revolution and published by NYHS in 1926. According to traditional accounts, the Delaware soldiers wore mitred caps as seen here in 1776, although military historians differ on this. If the Blues did wear such head gear, perhaps they should have carried writing instruments instead of bayonets because, after all, the pen is mitre than the sword (eeesh). In that case, the regiment would have switched to black cocked hats before the end of the year as its soldiers wore those for the remainder of the war.

33. The Long Rifle

This is a follow-up to blog post no. 31 that discussed the Brown Bess musket, wherein I suggested the need for a post focusing on its counterpart, the long rifle used by rifle units in the Continental Army, and the advantages and disadvantages of that weapon relative to muskets. So I’m taking this opportunity to do that, lest anyone (ahem) be up in arms if I did not.

What Was It?

The deadly rifle used by units such as the 1st Pennsylvania Rifle Regiment became a source of terror to the British and Hessians early in the Revolutionary War. These backcountry soldiers were noteworthy for their utility, as they could operate effectively in a variety of tactical circumstances—as snipers, on scouting patrols, in joint operations with regular troops, and in the same manner as light infantry in European armies.

The singular nature of this instrument was recognized by the Continental Congress when it established the Continental Army in June 1775 in support of New England’s uprising against the British troops in Boston. Rifles were in scant supply in the colonies, popular in the more rural areas but largely unknown around Boston. John Adams was clearly enthused about them, informing his wife Abigail that his fellow congressmen were “really in earnest in defending the Country. They have voted ten companies of Rifle Men to be sent from Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia, to join the Army before Boston. These are an excellent Species of Light Infantry.” He explained that they “use a peculiar kind of Musket call’d a Rifle” that “carries a Ball, with great Exactness to great Distances,” and hailed these sharpshooters as “the most accurate Marksmen in the World.”

The 1st Pennsylvania sharpshooters initially demonstrated during the 1776 New York campaign what their long rifles could do in the face of a much larger enemy force. On October 12, General Howe landed four thousand troops at Throg’s Neck above Manhattan in an effort to trap Washington’s army on the New York island by cutting off the main route to the mainland. A small detachment of the Pennsylvanians held off the British while another 1,500 American infantry hurried to their support, Historian Christopher Ward described how the riflemen tore up the planking of the bridge connecting Throg’s Neck to the mainland and hid behind a long pile of cord wood near its western end, then turned back the enemy advance with “a sudden, well-aimed fire blazed in their faces.” As he put it, some twenty-five “American riflemen behind a wood-pile had stopped the British army.” Their resistance forced the redcoats to look for a better place to land, which they did at Pell’s Point a few days later but too late to prevent Washington’s escape from Manhattan.

Advantages and Disadvantages

Anecdotal information about the rifle’s accuracy spread widely throughout the colonies before and in the very early stages of the war. American riflemen loved to give demonstrations, in which they took aim at a small mark the size of a man’s eye or the tip of his nose, and hit it repeatedly from 250 yards away. A British spy with the Continental Army outside Boston in the summer of 1775 reported to General William Howe, the British Army’s commander, on the threat posed by rifle companies from Pennsylvania and Virginia, advising that there was “scarcely a regiment in Camp but can produce men that can best them at shooting.” These formidable weapons were made mostly in Pennsylvania and used there and in the Chesapeake colonies by men who hunted for much of their fresh meat. Their distinctive long barrel was etched or “rifled” with seven or eight internal grooves, unlike the smooth-bore muskets, and the effect was to make it accurate at a range of about two hundred and perhaps even three hundred yards, i.e., several times that of a musket.

Despite the rifle’s far greater range over the musket, there were certain disadvantages to its use. It took longer to reload than the latter because the shot had to be forcefully rammed into the barrel for a snug fit. Furthermore, the rifle was designed for hunting rather than fighting and as such had no bayonet mount, which rendered a rifleman defenseless in close-quarter combat. Hence riflemen had to be escorted by soldiers with muskets; and, notwithstanding the increased role played by the rifle throughout the war, the musket remained the small-arms workhorse of the American soldier.

The Other Side

His Majesty’s army never adapted to the use of rifles in the war for independence. To the British command, the amount of time needed to load and fire a rifle and its failure to accommodate a bayonet were critical shortcomings. Reflecting the methods of warfare utilized by most European armies in the eighteenth century, in which regiments fired in blocks rather than aiming individually, many officers regarded rifles as an unnecessary and wasteful expense. Instead, the British relied on the same Brown Bess musket carried by American soldiers in units other than rifle companies.

Although the British eschewed the use of rifles, some among the German troops fighting with them did not; however, their firearm differed from the one used by American riflemen. The jägers were a numerically small but elite element among the Crown’s forces, perhaps about six hundred in total, who functioned in a manner similar to the British light infantry and were equipped with short, heavy, large-bore rifles that carried no bayonets. The jägers were recruited from hunters, gamekeepers, and other marksmen in their homeland and known for their skills as riflemen and skirmishers, as well as for discipline and bravery under difficult combat conditions.

What’s Next

Perhaps a post on bayonets? I’ll probably take a stab at it.

32. Britain’s Road to War

In his masterful study of British colonial policy during the period from 1772 to 1775, An Empire on the Edge: How Britain Came to Fight America (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014), English author Nick Bunker subjects the actions of Parliament and the Crown to a withering critique that illuminates how the Anglo-American conflict became inevitable.

Britain Meant Business

By the 1770s, according to Bunker, Great Britain had come to view itself as an essentially commercial nation, so that even people whose social or economic status was based on owning land agreed that commerce was its lifeblood. Or to paraphrase Calvin Coolidge’s observation about America in the 1920’s, they believed the business of Britain was business. In line with this mindset, Britons generally regarded the American colonies as having only one purpose and that was economic. As Bunker memorably puts it, “the British scarcely saw the colonists at all as anything more than a bundle of economic resources or a destination for convicts. Often the American people themselves remained almost invisible, mere accessories dotted about in a landscape where, in British eyes, the objects in the foreground were fields of tobacco, sacks of rice, and barrels of molasses.”

The author notes that to Lord North (prime minister from 1770 until near the end of our war for independence) and his colleagues, the colonists’ demands for liberty rang hollow. They appeared as merely a sham protest designed to obscure the Americans’ obsession with evading taxes levied by Parliament. The upshot of all this was that the United Kingdom’s devotion to trade often reflected a narrow materialism that limited the vision of policymakers in London, so that they came to view their overseas empire—in North America, the West Indies, and India—as nothing more than a vehicle for enhancing Britain’s wealth. These possessions were simply too valuable to surrender, as they constituted a profitable system of global trade.


The Boston Tea Party in December 1773—that is, the dumping of the East India Company’s tea into Boston Harbor, which proved a seminal event on the road to war—was a reaction to British efforts to thwart the epidemic of colonial smuggling by allowing the company to sell tea at prices that undercut smugglers while propping up the struggling company and reasserting Britain’s right to impose taxes in America, in this case on tea. What the Crown’s ministers failed to grasp, Bunker argues, is that “the prevalence of smuggling was simply another side effect of a speculative empire, and of a fiscal system that relied too heavily on the taxation of commodities that lent themselves to illegal traffic.”

Over time, the New World customers and clients that were the bedrock of an empire based on maritime trade developed their own ambitions and reinterpreted political principles and ideas they had acquired from the mother country to suit their own circumstances. The inevitable clash that emerges from Bunker’s masterful analysis derived from the failure of British statesmen to accept that the economic and political aspirations of the American colonists were valid. By the 1770s, the political culture that extended from Charleston to Boston was radically different from Great Britain’s, and that divergence could not be reconciled. Parliament’s legislative reaction to the destruction of tea by Bostonians—known as the Coercive Acts in London and the Intolerable Acts here—was intended to punish, in the view of those lawmakers, sinful and disorderly mob rule while upholding British sovereignty and Parliament’s will on this side of the Atlantic. They had yet to realize neither could be enforced without war—and not even then. You might say their hopes of doing so were emptea (ouch).

P.S. For anyone who’s interested, my recent interview with Dispatches: The Podcast of the Journal of the American Revolution is available through one of the links posted here. In addition, a new article of mine is awaiting publication in the JAR, and I will pass along a link when it appears.

31. The Brown Bess

You might say this firearm was the workhorse weapon for both sides in the War for Independence. In thinking about how to frame this discussion, I thought my best shot (forget I said that) would be to rely on the following excerpts from my last book, John Haslet’s World.

Flintlock muskets and pistols were used globally during the Revolutionary War era, and the Brown Bess, which dated from the beginning of the eighteenth century, provided the template for most other flintlock muskets then in use. It was the best-known of these weapons—a smooth-bore, muzzle-loading gun that discharged a lead ball along an uncertain path. This firearm had an unwieldy length of almost five feet and weighed about eleven pounds if equipped with a bayonet. At a time when the average soldier’s height was five-and-a-half-feet, handling the Brown Bess represented a physical challenge to many.

Getting off a single shot involved a hurried series of actions under intense battlefield conditions: first pulling a paper cartridge from a black leather cartridge box, then biting open the end, dribbling some powder grains into the musket’s flash pan, and pouring the remaining amount—nearly half an ounce—down the muzzle, followed by the musket ball and cartridge wadding, which were forced down the barrel by use of a steel ramrod….Pulling the trigger caused flint in the falling hammer to strike a glancing blow against the steel frizzen—an L-shaped piece of steel hinged at the front and held in one of two positions, opened or closed, by a leaf spring. This in turn created a sprinkle of sparks to ignite powder in the flash pan, setting off the main charge through a touchhole in the side of the breech or back part of the musket. Then a yellow flame sprang from the muzzle, accompanied by a bang and belching smoke, and a heavy lead slug was unleashed at the speed of a thousand feet per second. Ideally, that projectile would head in the general direction of the enemy.

The Crown’s men relied on the same Brown Bess musket that was carried by many American soldiers in units other than rifle companies. Although it was highly unreliable because of its limited range, deployment of this weapon facilitated the use of the bayonet charge, the redcoats’ favorite tactic, which was certain to have a fearsome effect on their foe, however experienced they might be. Indeed, their generals fully appreciated the extent to which an assault with these blades induced terror in the rebel soldiers, especially the militia, and were convinced they would flee at the sight of glinting steel. 

The lead ball discharged by a Brown Bess—about three-quarters of an inch in diameter and weighing just over an ounce—was able to smash and penetrate human bones, organs, and tissue. This firearm could kill or injure at distances of up to three hundred yards; however, because of inherent inaccuracy and unreliable loading, its effective range was limited to between fifty and eighty yards, and shooting at anything more than a hundred yards away was a waste of ammunition. Given the limitations on its useful distance, a soldier who was wounded by a musket at a range significantly beyond a hundred yards was considered to be most unfortunate. In addition, the guns failed to fire in rain or damp conditions. Ultimately, only five percent of all musket balls fired at another soldier hit their mark. But those that did could bring down a charging bull. In contrast with the smaller rifle bullet that tended to pass through its target, a musket ball generally remained inside the body—enveloped by the torn flesh or organs that halted its momentum.

The smooth-bore musket had certain advantages and disadvantages relative to its small-arms counterpart that featured a rifled barrel (one with spiral grooves) and which was known as, well, a rifle. But that’s for another blog post, and hopefully this one will (here it comes) trigger your interest in that. That’s my aim, anyway.

30. Know Knowlton?

The story of Thomas Knowlton in the Revolution is a brief but inspirational one. This ardent Patriot was only thirty-five years of age when he fell in battle, a legitimate hero in the quest for American independence albeit one who remains largely obscure in our collective historical consciousness. He is, however, recognized by Rev War buffs for the role he played in the early stages of the Revolutionary enterprise.

Leading from the Front

Knowlton was born in Massachusetts in November 1740 but grew up in Ashford, Connecticut, taking up arms as a strapping, fifteen-year-old in the French and Indian War. He married at age eighteen, had nine children who lived to adulthood, made his living as a prosperous farmer, and was chosen a selectman—what we call a local council member today—in his hometown. At six feet tall and with a bright mind, he cut an impressive figure and exuded charisma.

Active in his community and the Ashford militia company, Knowlton became engaged in the rebellion against Britain early on. He played a notable leadership role at the Battle of Bunker Hill (really Breed’s Hill) on the Charlestown peninsula outside Boston in 1775 as a captain in Israel Putnam’s Connecticut Regiment, and his figure makes a prominent appearance in John Trumbull’s renowned painting, The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, June 17, 1775. The daring Knowlton subsequently led a successful raid against the British in Charlestown in January 1776, and was promoted to major for his exploits at the Bunker Hill engagement and then to lieutenant colonel in August 1776. He formed “Knowlton’s Rangers” as the first intelligence and reconnaissance unit in Washington’s army and created a hero of legendary proportions by selecting young Captain Nathan Hale, one of his officers, to conduct a spy mission in British-occupied New York in accordance with Washington’s orders. (Hale was the only one among the Rangers to volunteer for that assignment but unfortunately was ill-equipped for such a task and paid for that deficiency with his life.)

On September 16, 1776, Knowlton suffered a fatal wound while leading his men at the Battle of Harlem Heights on upper Manhattan Island during what proved to be a rare triumph in an otherwise dismal New York campaign for the American side. In the throes of death’s agony, the stricken officer is reported to have told his eldest son, who was serving under his command, “I am mortally wounded; you can do me no good; go fight for your country.” The fallen colonel was lauded by the army’s adjutant general, Col. Joseph Reed, who in reporting on the engagement to his wife observed that “our greatest loss is poor Knowlton, whose name and spirit ought to be immortal.”

An Intelligent Remembrance

In 1995, the U.S. Military Intelligence Corps Association created the “Knowlton Award” in the colonel’s honor to provide a form of tangible recognition for those determined to have made significant contributions to the Military Intelligence Corps (the Army’s intelligence branch). To qualify, an individual must demonstrate the highest standards of integrity and moral character, and display outstanding professional competence as well.

No greater praise of this unsung Revolutionary stalwart has been adduced than that of his commander-in-chief, who referred to him in death as “the gallant and brave Colonel Knowlton who would have been an honor to any Country.” And we all know Washington never told a lie.

Want More?

If you’d like to dig a little deeper into Knowlton’s story, see my recent Journal of the American Revolution article here.

29. The Largest Battle of the Revolution

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

Almost Up the Creek

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

The Outcome

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

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

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

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

Some Observations

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

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

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