July 3, 1775, Washington’s Sword

General Washington rode out in front of the troops gathered at Cambridge Common on July 3, 1775.  Washington drew his sword under the branches of an ancient elm, by that act formally taking command of the Continental Army.

The American Revolution began with the battles of Lexington and Concord on the 19th of April, 1775. Thousands of armed colonial militia followed the British columns as they withdrew, and there they remained, hemming the British occupiers up in the city of Boston.

Within days, more than 20,000 armed men from all over New England had gathered from Cambridge to Roxbury. Tories’ vacant homes, empty Churches, even the brick buildings of Harvard College served as barracks, officers’ quarters, and hospitals. Soldiers camped in tents and other makeshift shelters, while Harvard canceled classes on May 1. Classes would not resume at the Cambridge campus until June of the following year.

The Continental Congress created the Army on June 14, 1775, appointing George Washington to lead it. General Washington rode out in front of the troops gathered at Cambridge Common on July 3, 1775.  Washington drew his sword under the branches of an ancient elm, by that act formally taking command of the Continental Army.

Washington Elm marker

Interestingly, 150 years of de facto independence from Great Britain seems to have suited the American colonist.  If inheritance records are any indication, the average American enjoyed a better standard of living, than the average Brit.  Average heights of the time bear that out.

The average American colonist had a full three inches on his British counterpart. At a time when the average male stood 5’8′, Washington towered over the crowd at 6’2″.   George Washington was a hard man to miss.

For Washington to draw his sword against King George III, was itself an act of magnificent courage.  According to British law of the time, one of four definitions of High Treason was “If a man do levy war against our lord the King in his realm”.  By drawing that sword against the crown, Washington was clearly committing High Treason.  He surely understood that such a prominent person as himself would be dealt with harshly, if caught.

At that time, the centuries-old penalty for High Treason was as savage as it was gruesome. Even now the language of the death sentence is difficult to read.  You may consider that to be my warning if you don’t care to read what follows.

The full sentence as read to the condemned was: “That you be drawn on a hurdle (a sledge) to the place of execution where you shall be hanged by the neck and being alive cut down, your privy members shall be cut off and your bowels taken out and burned before you, your head severed from your body and your body divided into four quarters to be disposed of at the King’s pleasure”.

These were the terms of employment under which George Washington accepted his assignment.  He even declined to accept payment, beyond reimbursement for his personal expenses.

The 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence would show the same brand of courage, by signing that document a year later. It must have been a supreme in-your-face moment when John Hancock put his pen to that parchment, which ended: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm Reliance on the Protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor”.

Signers

At the signing, Ben Franklin famously said “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately”.  This was no empty philosophical statement they were signing.  Should circumstances turn against them, the founding fathers well understood. Each was signing his death warrant.

July 2, 1776 Founding Document

Resolved, that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.

Richard Henry Lee’s resolution was taken almost verbatim from instructions from the Virginia Convention and its President, Edmund Pendleton.  As presented to the second Continental Congress on June 7, 1776, Lee’s resolution read:

“Resolved, that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved. That it is expedient forthwith to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign Alliances. That a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective Colonies for their consideration and approbation”.

Several colonies were not yet ready to declare independence at that time.

Committeof 5Representatives agreed to delay the vote until July 1, appointing a “Committee of Five” to draft a declaration of independence from Great Britain. Members of the committee included John Adams of Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Robert Livingston of New York and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia. The committee selected Jefferson to write the document, the draft presented to Congress for review on June 28.

Debate resumed on July 1, 1776, with most of the delegates favoring Lee’s resolution.Declaration of Independence

The final vote was taken on July 2, when delegates from 12 of the 13 colonies voted in favor. Delegates from New York abstained, having had no clear instructions from their constituents.

The Pennsylvania Evening Post reported on July 2nd that “This day the Continental Congress declared the United Colonies Free and Independent States”.

The Pennsylvania Gazette followed suit on the third with “Yesterday, the CONTINENTAL CONGRESS declared the UNITED COLONIES FREE and INDEPENDENT STATES”.

John Adams thought that July 2 would go down as the country’s Independence Day.

This day has been mostly forgotten in favor of July 4, when the final edits of Jefferson’s Declaration were adopted, the final document engrossed (handwritten onto parchment), and sent off to the printer.

The 56 signers were never together at the same time.  Many of the signatures we see on the Declaration of Independence, would not be affixed to the document until August 2, possibly even later.

Happy Independence Day.

declaration-of-independence

 

 

 

July 1, 1863 Gettysburg

One hundred and fifty-four years ago today, the Union and the Confederacy met in the south central Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg.  

After two years of civil war, Robert E. Lee wanted to take the war to his adversary. Lee intended to do enough damage to create overwhelming political pressure in the North, to end the war and let the South go its own way. Lee had his best cartographers draw up maps of the Pennsylvania countryside, all the way to Philadelphia.  And then he took his Army of Northern Virginia into Pennsylvania.

One hundred and fifty-four years ago today, the Union and the Confederacy met in the south central Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg.

Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker, to whom Lee contemptuously referred as “Mr. F.J. Hooker”, wanted to attack Richmond, but Lincoln ordered him to intercept Lee’s army to protect Washington DC.  Hooker was replaced on the 28th by Major General George Gordon Meade, “that damn old goggle eyed snapping turtle” to his men, in a move that so surprised him that he thought he was being arrested over army politics, when the messenger came into his tent.

The “North” came up from the south that day, the “South” came down from the north.  No one wanted the fight to be in Gettysburg, it was more like an accidental collision. What started out as a skirmish turned into a general engagement as fighting cascaded through the town. Confederate forces held the town at the end of the day, with the two armies’ taking parallel positions along a three-mile-long “fishhook” from Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill to the north, toward two prominences known as Big and Little Round Top to the south.

Fighting would continue and prove inconclusive at Culp’s Hill on day two, as the two armies stretched their position toward the Round Tops. Dan Sickles, the Tammany Hall politician best known for murdering the nephew of Francis Scott Key (he would be the first in American legal history to plead temporary insanity), had been ordered to move his corps into position on cemetery ridge, anchored at Little Round Top. Instead he took his corps a mile forward, into a Peach Orchard where they were torn apart in the Confederate assault. Some of the most savage fighting of the Civil War took place that day, at places like Devil’s Den, the Wheat Field, and bloody run. Sickles himself lost a leg to a cannonball. There was a foot race to the top of Little Round Top, leading to as many as 15 attacks and counterattacks for control of a small prominence at the Union’s extreme left. At the end of the day, the positions of the Armies had not changed.

Picketts Charge

On day 3, the last day, Lee came up the middle. 13,000 Confederate soldiers came across 1¼ miles of open field, to attack the Union Center at a position between a small copse of trees and a corner in stone fence called the angle. Cannon fire from their left, right and center tore them apart as they pressed on. A battered remnant actually penetrated Union lines: the “high water mark” of the Confederacy. It’s anyone’s guess what would have happened, had 4,000 Confederate cavalry smashed into the Union rear at that point, as Lee seems to have intended. But a 23-year-old general named George Armstrong Custer had waded into them with his 450 Union cavalry, routing the much larger force and very possibly changing history.

Lee withdrew in the rain of the 4th, ending the largest battle of the civil war. Lincoln was convinced that the time had come to destroy the Army of Northern Virginia, but Meade and his battered army did not follow. Lee and his army slipped back across the line and returned to Confederate territory. The most lethal war in American history would continue for two more years.

Years earlier, then-Secretary of War Jefferson Davis had brought some 75 camels into West Texas, to try them out as pack animals. Davis’ camel experiment had been a flop, but the King of Siam, (now Thailand), didn’t know that. Seeing the military advantage to the Confederacy, the King wrote to President Abraham Lincoln, proposing to send elephants to help the Union war effort. This “animal arms race” appears to have gotten no further than the King’s letter to Lincoln but, the imagination runs wild, at the idea of War Elephants, at Gettysburg.