October 11, 1776 Buying Time. The Battle of Valcour Island

It was a hastily built and in some cases incomplete fleet that slipped into the water in the summer and autumn of 1776. In just over two months, the American shipbuilding effort produced eight 54-foot Gondolas (gunboats), and four 72-foot′ Galleys. Upon completion, each hull was rowed to Fort Ticonderoga, there to be fitted with masts, rigging, guns, and supplies. By October 1776, the American fleet numbered 16 vessels, determined to stop the British fleet heading south.

In the early days of the American Revolution, the 2nd Continental Congress looked north, to the Province of Quebec. The region was lightly defended at the time.  Congress was alarmed at the potential of a British base from which to attack and divide the colonies.

The Continental army’s expedition to Quebec ended in disaster on December 31, as General Benedict Arnold was severely injured with a bullet wound to his left leg. Major General Richard Montgomery was killed and Colonel Daniel Morgan captured, along with some 400 fellow Patriots.

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The nightmare took on a life of its own in the String of 1776, with the massive reinforcement of Quebec.   10,000 British and Hessian soldiers. By June, the remnants of the Continental army were driven south to Fort Ticonderoga and Fort Crown Point.

The continental Congress was correct about the British intention of splitting the colonies. General Sir Guy Carleton, provincial Governor of Quebec, set about doing so, almost immediately.

Retreating colonials took with them or destroyed nearly every boat along the way, capturing and arming four vessels in 1775: the Liberty, Enterprise, Royal Savage, and Revenge. Determined to take back the crucial waterway, the British set about disassembling warships along the St. Lawrence and moving them overland to Fort Saint-Jean on the uppermost navigable waters leading to Lake Champlain, the 125-mile long lake dividing upstate New York from Vermont.

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There they spent the summer and early fall of 1776, literally building a fleet of warships along the upper reaches of the lake. 120 miles to the south, colonials were doing the same.

The Americans possessed a small fleet of shallow draft bateaux used for lake transport, but needed something larger and heavier to sustain naval combat.

In 1759, British Army Captain Philip Skene founded a settlement on the New York side of Lake Champlain, built around saw mills, grist mills, and an iron foundry.  Today, the former village of Skenesborough is known as “Whitehall”, considered by many to be the birthplace of the United States Navy.  In 1776, Major General Horatio Gates put the American ship building operation into motion on the banks of Skenesborough Harbor.

Skenesborough Sawmill.jpgHermanus Schuyler oversaw the effort, while military engineer Jeduthan Baldwin was in charge of outfitting. Gates asked General Benedict Arnold, an experienced ship’s captain, to spearhead the effort, explaining “I am intirely uninform’d as to Marine Affairs”.

200 carpenters and shipwrights were recruited to the wilderness of upstate New York. So inhospitable was this duty that workmen were paid more than anyone else in the Navy, with the sole exception of Commodore Esek Hopkins. Meanwhile, foraging parties scoured the countryside looking for guns.  There was going to be a fight on Lake Champlain.

It is not widely known, that the American Revolution was fought in the midst of a smallpox pandemic. General George Washington was an early proponent of vaccination, an untold benefit to the American war effort. Notwithstanding, a fever broke out among the shipbuilders of Skenesborough, which almost brought their work to a halt.

It was a hastily built and in some cases incomplete fleet that slipped into the water in the summer and autumn of 1776. In just over two months, the American shipbuilding effort produced eight 54-foot Gondolas (gunboats), and four 72-foot′ Galleys. Upon completion, each hull was rowed to Fort Ticonderoga, there to be fitted with masts, rigging, guns, and supplies. By October 1776, the American fleet numbered 16 vessels, determined to stop the British fleet heading south.

download - 2019-10-11T070000.649.jpgAs the two sides closed in the early days of October, General Arnold knew he was at a disadvantage. The element of surprise was going to be critical. Arnold chose a small strait to the west of Valcour Island, where he was hidden from the main part of the lake. There he drew his small fleet into a crescent formation, and waited.

Carleton’s fleet, commanded by Captain Thomas Pringle, entered the northern end of Lake Champlain on October 9.

Sailing south on the 11th under favorable winds, some of the British ships had already passed the American position behind Valcour island, before realizing they were there. Some of the British warships were able to turn and give battle, but the largest ones were unable to turn into the wind.

Fighting continued for several hours until dark.  Both sides did some damage. On the American side, Royal Savage ran aground and burned. The gondola Philadelphia was sunk. On the British side, one gunboat blew up. The two sides lost about 60 men, each. In the end, the larger ships and more experienced seamanship of the English, made it an uneven fight.

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Only a third of the British fleet was engaged that day, but the battle went badly for the Patriot side. That night, the battered remnants of the American fleet slipped through a gap in the lines, limping down the lake on muffled oars. British commanders were surprised to find them gone the next morning, and gave chase.

One vessel after another was overtaken and destroyed on the 12th, or else, too damaged to go on, abandoned. The cutter Lee was run aground by its crew, who then escaped through the woods. Four of sixteen American vessels escaped north to Ticonderoga, only to be captured or destroyed by British forces, the following year.

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On the third day, the last four gunboats and Benedict Arnold’s flagship Congress were run aground in Ferris Bay on the Vermont side, following a 2½-hour running gun battle. Today, the small harbor is called Arnold’s Bay.

200 escaped to shore, the last of whom was Benedict Arnold himself, personally torching his own flagship before leaving her for the last time, flag still flying.

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British forces would retain control of Lake Champlain, through the end of the war.
The American fleet never had a chance and everyone knew it. Yet it had been able to inflict enough damage at a point late enough in the year, that Carlton’s fleet was left with no choice but to return north for the winter.

One day, Benedict Arnold would enter history as turncoat.  A traitor to his country.  For now, the General had bought his infant nation, another year in which to fight.

 

Afterward

221 years later, maritime surveyors from the Survey Team of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum located the last vessel left unaccounted for, from the October 11, 1776 Battle of Valcour Island.  With mast yet standing and her bow gun at the ready, the wreck lies upright at a depth inaccessible to recreational divers, protected and preserved by the cold, dark, fresh waters of Lake Champlain.

Over the next two years, careful examination of source documents eliminated one patriot gunboat after another from consideration as the identity of the “missing gunboat”. In the end, the Pristine wreck was identified as the Spitfire, sister ship to Benedict Arnold’s seven other 54-foot gunboats constructed over the Summer of 1776, in the wilderness of Skenesborough.

Today, the Spitfire site is protected by the Sunken Military Craft Act, providing that “No person may possess, disturb, remove, or injure” any part of this precious underwater shrine, to our shared American history.

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Painting of the Spitfire by Ernie Haas.  Hat tip https://www.lcmm.org/explore/shipwrecks/revolutionary-war-gunboat-spitfire/

 

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April 28, 1752 John Stark, American Cincinnatus

Of all the General officers who fought for American Independence, there is but one true Cincinnatus. A man who risked his life in the cause of Liberty, and truly retired from public life.

The Roman Republic of antiquity operated on the basis of separation of powers with checks and balances, and a strong aversion to the concentration of authority. Except in times of national emergency, no single individual was allowed to wield absolute power over his fellow citizens.

The retired patrician and military leader Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus was called from his farm in 458BC to assume the mantle of Dictator and, despite his old age, again, twenty years later. With the crisis averted, Cincinnatus relinquished all power and the perks which came with it, and returned to his plow.

The man’s name remains symbolic, from that day to this. A synonym for outstanding leadership, selfless service and civic virtue.

Of all the General officers who fought for American Independence, there is but one true Cincinnatus. A man who risked his life in the cause of Liberty, and truly retired from public life.

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Outside of his native New Hampshire, few remember the name of John Stark.  Born August 28, 1728 in Londonderry (modern day Derry), the family moved up the road when the boy was eight, to Derryfield. Today we know it as Manchester.

On April 28, 1752, 23-year-old John Stark was out trapping and fishing with his brother William, and a couple of buddies. The small group was set upon by a much larger party of Abenaki warriors. David Stinson was killed in the struggle, as John was able to warn his brother away. William escaped, in a canoe.

John was captured along with Amos Eastman.  267 years ago today, the hostages were heading north, all the way to Quebec, where the pair were subjected to a ritual torture known as “running the gauntlet”.

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Frontiersman Simon Kenton, running the gauntlet

In the eastern woodlands of the United States and southern Quebec and Ontario, captives in the colonial and pre-European era often faced death by ritual torture at the hands of indigenous peoples, a process which could last, for days.  In running the gauntlet, the condemned is forced between two opposing rows, where warriors strike out with clubs, whips and bladed weapons.

Eastman barely got out alive, but Stark wasn’t playing by the same rules.  He hit the first man at a dead run, wrenching the man’s club from his grasp and striking out, at both lines.  The scene was pandemonium, as the tormented captive gave as good as he got. To the chief of the Abenaki, it may have been the funniest thing, ever. He was so amused, he adopted the pair into the tribe.  Eastman and Stark lived as tribal members for the rest of that year and into the following Spring, when a Massachusetts Bay agent bought their freedom. Sixty Spanish dollars for Amos and $103, for John Stark.

3590100173_0a6114e466_bSeven years later during the French & Indian War, Rogers’ Rangers were ordered to  attack the Abenaki village with John Stark, second in command.  Stark refused to accompany the attacking force out of respect for his Indian foster family, returning instead to Derryfield and his wife Molly, whom he had married the year before.

John Stark returned to military service in 1775 following the Battles of Lexington and Concord, accepting a Colonelcy with the 1st Regiment of the New Hampshire militia.

During the early phase of the Battle of Bunker Hill, American Colonel William Prescott knew he was outgunned and outnumbered, and sent out a desperate call for reinforcements. The British warship HMS Lively was raining accurate fire down on Charlestown Neck, the narrow causeway linking the city with the rebel positions. Several companies were milling about just out of range, when Stark ordered them to step aside. Colonel Stark and his New Hampshire men then calmly marched to Prescott’s position on Breed’s Hill, without a single casualty.

Stark and his men formed the left flank of the rebel position, leading down to the beach at Mystic River.  The Battle of Bunker Hill was a British victory, in that they held the ground, when it was over. It was a costly win which could scarcely be repeated. At the place in the line held by John Stark’s New Hampshire men, British dead were piled up like cord wood.

John Stark’s service record reads like a timeline of the American Revolution. The doomed invasion of Canada in the Spring of 1776. The famous crossing of the Delaware and the victorious battles at Trenton, and Princeton New Jersey. Lieutenant Colonel Friedrich Baum and his Brunswick mercenaries ran into a buzz saw in Bennington Vermont, in the form of Seth Warner’s Green Mountain Boys and John Stark, rallying his New Hampshire militia with the cry, “There are your enemies, the Red Coats and the Tories. They are ours, or this night Molly Stark sleeps a widow!”  When it was over, Stark reported 14 dead and 42 wounded. Of Lt. Col. Baum’s 374 professional soldiers, only nine walked away.

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Battle of Bennington

The loss of his German ally led in no small part to “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne’s defeat, at Saratoga.  Stark served with distinction for the remainder of the war and, like Cincinnatus before him, returned home to his farm.

In 1809, a group of Bennington veterans gathered for a reunion. Stark was 81 at this time and not well enough to travel. Instead, he wrote his comrades a letter, closing with these words:

“Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils.”

The name of the American Cincinnatus is all but forgotten today but his words live on, imprinted on every license plate, in New Hampshire.  “Live Free or Die”.

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A Trivial Matter
Neither George Washington nor Samuel Adams liked political parties, believing that such “factions” would splinter the Congress and divide the nation.

April 19, 1775 Lexington and Concord

The conflict that afternoon at the Old North Bridge in Concord was the first instance of the American Revolution, when colonists fired to deadly effect on British regulars.

The column of British soldiers moved out from Boston in the late night hours of April 18, with the mission of confiscating the American arsenal at Concord and  capturing the Patriot leaders Sam Adams and John Hancock, known to be hiding in Lexington.

Patriots had been preparing for such an event.  Sexton Robert John Newman and Captain John Pulling carried two lanterns to the steeple of the Old North church, signaling the Regulars were crossing the Charles River to Cambridge.

Dr. Joseph Warren ordered Paul Revere and Samuel Dawes to ride out and warn surrounding villages and towns, the two soon joined by a third rider, Samuel Prescott. Prescott alone would make it as far as Concord, though hundreds of riders would fan out across the countryside before the night was through.

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The column arrived in Lexington with the first moments of sunrise on April 19, bayonets gleaming in the early morning light.  Armed with a sorry assortment of weapons, colonial militia poured out of Buckman Tavern and fanned out across the town square.   Some weapons were hand made by village gunsmiths and blacksmiths, some decades old, but all were in good working order.   Taking positions across the village green to block the soldiers’ line of march, eighty “minutemen” turned and faced seven hundred of the most powerful military, on the planet.

Words were exchanged and no one knows who fired the first shot.  When it was over, eight Lexington men lay dead or dying, another ten wounded. One British soldier was wounded.

If you’ve never see the dawn reenactment of the Battle of Lexington, I highly recommend it.  It’s a regular feature of the Patriot’s Day festivities around the city of Boston, and well worth getting up early.  Hat tip Gethin Coolbaugh for this film of the 2018 event

Vastly outnumbered, the militia soon gave way as word spread and militia gathered from Concord to Cambridge.   The King’s Regulars never did find the weapons for which they had come, nor did they find Adams or Hancock.  There had been too much warning for that.

Regulars clashed with colonial subjects two more times that day, first at Concord Bridge and then in a running fight at a point in the road called “The Bloody Angle”.  Finally, hearing that militia was coming from as far away as Worcester, the column turned to the east and began their return march to Boston.

Hat tip DiscerningHistory.com, for this brief video on the Battle of Concord Bridge.

Some British soldiers marched 35 miles over those two days, their final retreat coming under increasing attack from militia members firing from behind stone walls, buildings and trees.

One taking up such a firing position was Samuel Whittemore of Menotomy Village, now Arlington Massachusetts. At eighty years old, he was the oldest known combatant of the Revolution.

Whittemore took his position by the road armed with his ancient musket, two dueling pistols and the old cutlass captured years earlier from a French officer whom he had once explained had “died suddenly”.

Waiting until the last possible moment, Whittemore rose and fired his musket at the oncoming Redcoats.  One shot, one kill. Several charged him from only feet away as he drew his pistols.  Two more shots, one dead and one mortally wounded. He had barely drawn his sword when they were on him, a .69 caliber ball fired almost point blank tearing part of his face off, as the butt of a rifle smashed down on his head. Whittemore tried to fend off the bayonet strokes with his sword but he didn’t have a chance.  He was run through thirteen times before he lay still.  One for each American colony.

Hat tip, The History Guy, for this presentation on Sam Whittemore. The ages given vary slightly from that engraved on his memorial but, age 78 or 80 at the time of this story, it seems a small matter.

The people who came out of their homes to clean up the mess afterward found Whittemore, up on one knee and trying to reload his old musket.

Doctor Nathaniel Tufts treated the old man’s wounds as best he could, but felt there was nothing anyone could do. Sam Whittemore was taken home to die in the company of his loved ones, and that’s what he did.  Eighteen years later, at the age of ninety-eight.

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A Trivial Matter
Just after midnight, April 19, 1775 , William Dawes, Dr. Samuel Prescott and Paul Revere were intercepted by a British patrol, just outside of Lexington. Prescott and Dawes bolted but Revere was captured, held through the small hours and interrogated. Revere was finally released, without his horse. The “Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” made famous by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, humiliatingly ended on foot.  Revere arrived in Lexington just in time to witness the last moments on Lexington Green.  The conflict that afternoon at the Old North Bridge in Concord was the first instance of the American Revolution, when colonists fired to deadly effect on British regulars. In the 1837 classic “Concord Hymn”, American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson called it the “shot heard round the world”.

April 5, 1761 Sybil’s Ride

Sybil Ludington received the thanks of family and friends and even that of George Washington.  She then stepped off the pages of history.

“Listen my children and you shall hear,
Of the midnight ride of”…Sybil Ludington.

Wait…What?

Paul Revere’s famous “midnight ride” began on the night of April 18, 1775.  Revere was one of two riders, soon joined by a third, fanning out from Boston to warn of an oncoming column of “regulars”, come to destroy the stockpile of gunpowder, ammunition, and cannon in Concord.

paul-revereRevere himself covered barely 12 miles before being captured, his horse confiscated to replace the tired mount of a British sergeant.  Revere would finish his “ride” on foot, arriving at sunrise on the 19th to witness the last moments of the battle on Lexington Green.

Two years later, Patriot forces maintained a similar supply depot, in the southwest Connecticut town of Danbury.

William Tryon was the Royal Governor of New York, and long-standing advocate for attacks on civilian targets.  In 1777, Tryon was major-general of the provincial army.  On April 25th, the General set sail for the Connecticut coast of Long Island Sound with a force of 1,800, intending to destroy Danbury.

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Patriot Colonel Joseph Cooke’s small Danbury garrison was caught and quickly overpowered on the 26th, trying to remove food supplies, uniforms, and equipment.  Facing little if any opposition, Tryon’s forces went on a bender, burning homes, farms and storehouses.  Thousands of barrels of pork, beef, and flour were destroyed, along with 5,000 pairs of shoes, 2,000 bushels of grain, and 1,600 tents.

Colonel Henry Ludington was a farmer and father of 12, with a long military career.  A long-standing and loyal subject of the British crown, Ludington switched sides in 1773, joining the rebel cause and rising to command the 7th Regiment of the Dutchess County Militia, in New York’s Hudson Valley.

908d9d26ffc8bb0c9e8a59b25da92429--american-revolutionary-war-paul-revereIn April 1777, Ludington’s militia was disbanded for planting season, and spread across the countryside.  An exhausted rider arrived at the Ludington farm on a blown horse, on the evening of the 26th, asking for help.  15 miles away, British regulars and a force of loyalists were burning Danbury to the ground.

The Dutchess County Militia had to be called up.  The Colonel had one night to prepare for battle, and this rider was done.  The job would have to go to Colonel Ludington’s first-born, his daughter, Sybil.

Born April 5, 1761, Sybil Ludington was barely sixteen at the time of her ride.  From Poughkeepsie to what is now Putnam County and back, the “Female Paul Revere” rode across the lower Hudson River Valley, covering 40 miles in the pitch dark of night, alerting her father’s militia to the danger and urging them to come out and fight.  She’d use a stick to knock on doors, even using it once, to fight off a highway bandit.

By the time Sybil returned the next morning, cold, rain-soaked, and exhausted, most of 400 militia were ready to march.

Arnold’s forces arrived too late to save Danbury, but inflicted a nasty surprise on the British rearguard as the column approached nearby Ridgefield.  Never outnumbered by less than three-to-one, Connecticut militia was able to slow the British advance until Ludington’s New York Militia arrived on the following day.  The last phase of the action saw the same type of swarming harassment, as seen on the British retreat from Concord to Boston, early in the war.35 miles to the east of Danbury, General Benedict Arnold was gathering a force of 500 regular and irregular Connecticut militia, with Generals David Wooster and Gold Selleck Silliman.

Though the British operation was a tactical success, the mauling inflicted by these colonials ensured that this was the last hostile British landing on the Connecticut coast.

The British raid on Danbury destroyed at least 19 houses and 22 stores and barns.  Town officials submitted £16,000 in claims to Congress, for which town selectmen received £500 reimbursement.  Further claims were made to the General Assembly of Connecticut in 1787, for which Danbury was awarded land.  In Ohio.

Keeler_tavern_ridgefield_cannonball_2006At the time, Benedict Arnold planned to travel to Philadelphia, to protest the promotion of officers junior to himself, to Major General.  Arnold, who’d had two horses shot out from under him at Ridgefield, was promoted to Major General in recognition for his role in the battle.  Along with that promotion came a horse, “properly caparisoned as a token of … approbation of his gallant conduct … in the late enterprize to Danbury.”  For now, the pride which would one day be his undoing, was assuaged.The Keeler Tavern in Ridgefield is now a museum.  The British cannonball fired into the side of the building, remains there to this day.

Henry Ludington would become Aide-de-Camp to General George Washington, and grandfather to Harrison Ludington, mayor of Milwaukee and 12th Governor of Wisconsin.

Gold Silliman was kidnapped with his son by a first marriage by Tory neighbors, and held for Nearly seven months at a New York farmhouse.  Having no hostage of equal rank with whom to exchange for the General, Patriot forces went out and kidnapped one of their own, in the person of Chief Justice Judge Thomas Jones, of Long Island.

Mary Silliman was left to run the farm, including caring for her own midwife, who was brutally raped by English forces for denying them the use of her home.  The 1993 made-for-TV movie “Mary Silliman’s War” tells the story of non-combatants, pregnant mothers and farm wives during the Revolution, as well as Mary’s own negotiations for her husband’s release from his Loyalist captors.

IMG_6632General David Wooster was mortally wounded at the Battle of Ridgefield, moments after shouting “Come on my boys! Never mind such random shots!”  Today, an archway marks the entrance to Wooster Square, in the East Rock Neighborhood of New Haven.  Sybil_Ludington_stamp

Sybil Ludington received the thanks of family and friends and even that of George Washington.  She then stepped off the pages of history.

Paul Revere’s famous ride would have likewise faded into obscurity, but for the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  Eighty-six years, later.

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“Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.
He said to his friend, “If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch
Of the North Church tower as a signal light,–
One if by land, and two if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country folk to be up and to arm.”
Then he said “Good-night!” and with muffled oar
Silently rowed to the Charlestown shore,
Just as the moon rose over the bay,
Where swinging wide at her moorings lay
The Somerset, British man-of-war;
A phantom ship, with each mast and spar
Across the moon like a prison bar,
And a huge black hulk, that was magnified
By its own reflection in the tide.
Meanwhile, his friend through alley and street
Wanders and watches, with eager ears,
Till in the silence around him he hears
The muster of men at the barrack door,
The sound of arms, and the tramp of feet,
And the measured tread of the grenadiers,
Marching down to their boats on the shore.
Then he climbed the tower of the Old North Church,
By the wooden stairs, with stealthy tread,
To the belfry chamber overhead,
And startled the pigeons from their perch
On the sombre rafters, that round him made
Masses and moving shapes of shade,–
By the trembling ladder, steep and tall,
To the highest window in the wall,
Where he paused to listen and look down
A moment on the roofs of the town
And the moonlight flowing over all.
Beneath, in the churchyard, lay the dead,
In their night encampment on the hill,
Wrapped in silence so deep and still
That he could hear, like a sentinel’s tread,
The watchful night-wind, as it went
Creeping along from tent to tent,
And seeming to whisper, “All is well!”
A moment only he feels the spell
Of the place and the hour, and the secret dread
Of the lonely belfry and the dead;
For suddenly all his thoughts are bent
On a shadowy something far away,
Where the river widens to meet the bay,–
A line of black that bends and floats
On the rising tide like a bridge of boats.
Meanwhile, impatient to mount and ride,
Booted and spurred, with a heavy stride
On the opposite shore walked Paul Revere.
Now he patted his horse’s side,
Now he gazed at the landscape far and near,
Then, impetuous, stamped the earth,
And turned and tightened his saddle girth;
But mostly he watched with eager search
The belfry tower of the Old North Church,
As it rose above the graves on the hill,
Lonely and spectral and sombre and still.
And lo! as he looks, on the belfry’s height
A glimmer, and then a gleam of light!
He springs to the saddle, the bridle he turns,
But lingers and gazes, till full on his sight
A second lamp in the belfry burns.
A hurry of hoofs in a village street,
A shape in the moonlight, a bulk in the dark,
And beneath, from the pebbles, in passing, a spark
Struck out by a steed flying fearless and fleet;
That was all! And yet, through the gloom and the light,
The fate of a nation was riding that night;
And the spark struck out by that steed, in his flight,
Kindled the land into flame with its heat.
He has left the village and mounted the steep,
And beneath him, tranquil and broad and deep,
Is the Mystic, meeting the ocean tides;
And under the alders that skirt its edge,
Now soft on the sand, now loud on the ledge,
Is heard the tramp of his steed as he rides.
It was twelve by the village clock
When he crossed the bridge into Medford town.
He heard the crowing of the cock,
And the barking of the farmer’s dog,
And felt the damp of the river fog,
That rises after the sun goes down.
It was one by the village clock,
When he galloped into Lexington.
He saw the gilded weathercock
Swim in the moonlight as he passed,
And the meeting-house windows, black and bare,
Gaze at him with a spectral glare,
As if they already stood aghast
At the bloody work they would look upon.
It was two by the village clock,
When he came to the bridge in Concord town.
He heard the bleating of the flock,
And the twitter of birds among the trees,
And felt the breath of the morning breeze
Blowing over the meadow brown.
And one was safe and asleep in his bed
Who at the bridge would be first to fall,
Who that day would be lying dead,
Pierced by a British musket ball.
You know the rest. In the books you have read
How the British Regulars fired and fled,—
How the farmers gave them ball for ball,
From behind each fence and farmyard wall,
Chasing the redcoats down the lane,
Then crossing the fields to emerge again
Under the trees at the turn of the road,
And only pausing to fire and load.
So through the night rode Paul Revere;
And so through the night went his cry of alarm
To every Middlesex village and farm,—
A cry of defiance, and not of fear,
A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,
And a word that shall echo for evermore!
For, borne on the night-wind of the Past,
Through all our history, to the last,
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere”.
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Founding Mother
Fatherless at age three and orphaned at twelve, Mary Ball learned a sense of independence, at an early age. Mary was wed at age 22 in a “semi-arranged” marriage by her guardian, George Eskridge. Mary’s first and only husband was Augustine “Gus” Washington, father of six borne of the union. Gus died when the eldest was only eleven and Mary thirty-five, leaving Mary to raise Eskridge’s namesake and four surviving siblings, alone. Today, little is written about Martha Ball Washington, a woman whose personal strength of character, taught her son to lead by example. Though himself childless, eleven-year-old George would grow to become a General in the cause of Liberty, first President of the United States and “Father of his Country’.

March 22, 1790 Jefferson

“Ladies and gentlemen, I want to tell you how welcome you are to the White House. I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone”. President John F Kennedy, addressing a White House Dinner honoring Nobel Prize recipients, 1962.

In April 1962, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy addressed a White House Dinner, to a group of Nobel prize winners.  Some of the greatest intellects of the era were assembled in that room.  The President began:

Ladies and gentlemen“, he said, “I want to tell you how welcome you are to the White House. I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone“.

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Jefferson himself knew how he wished to be remembered.  He left specific instructions.  Three accomplishments the founding father himself saw as his own legacy, inscribed on the stone which marks his grave:

Here was buried
Thomas Jefferson
Author of the Declaration of American Independence
of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom
& Father of the University of Virginia

Thomas Jefferson served two terms as President of the United States, but didn’t put it among his top three accomplishments.  That’s how much he couldn’t stand politics.

The public life of Thomas Jefferson reads like a timeline for the founding of this nation.

220px-Official_Presidential_portrait_of_Thomas_Jefferson_(by_Rembrandt_Peale,_1800)(cropped)In a time when colonists considered themselves to be Englishmen, Jefferson sought to disestablish the Anglican communion of the Church of England, seeking from the earliest days of his public career to establish a freedom from state-sponsored religion.

The preamble to the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom written in the man’s own hand, states “that our civil rights have no dependance on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry“.

Jefferson expanded on the principle decades later, in a letter to the Baptist church of Danbury, Connecticut.  Referring to the United States Constitution, Jefferson writes:

I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State“.

Jefferson drafted no fewer than 126 bills in three years as Virginia state legislator and later governor, introducing measures for public education and religious freedom. Alarmed at the growing power of the landed aristocracy, Jefferson took aim at laws of entail and primogeniture, that permanent, hereditary and near-feudal system of increasingly large plantations worked by white tenant farmers and African slaves.

Assigned to a committee of five to write the Declaration of Independence, it is Jefferson’s hand we see on our national birth certificate.

Jefferson fled when the Patriot turned traitor Benedict Arnold burned the city of Richmond at the head of a British Army, and narrowly escaped a cavalry force under “Bloody Banastre Tarleton”, sent for his capture.

Martha Jefferson
A 1965 oil portrait of Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson by artist George Geygan, based on contemporary descriptions of her physical attributes and executed 183 years after her death. H/T Firstladies.org

Martha Skelton, née Wayles, became Mrs. Jefferson in 1772, following the death of her first husband.   The marriage lasted ten years until her death in 1782 and produced six children, two of whom lived, to adulthood.

Jefferson was inconsolable on the death of his wife and withdrew for weeks, from the public eye.  He later burned their correspondence, leading some commentators to describe the relationship as “enigmatic’.

I don’t think so.  On his death some forty years later, Thomas Jefferson still wore a locket about his neck, containing a lock of Martha’s brown hair.

Jefferson was minister to France in the early days of the French Revolution, and witnessed the storming of the Bastille.  He was a regular companion of the Marquis de Lafayette and contributor to Lafayette’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.  It’s here in 1787, that Jefferson is believed to have begun a sexual relationship with one of his slaves, sixteen-year-old Sally Hemings.  Modern DNA analysis has demonstrated a connection along the male Jefferson line, with at least one of Hemings’ children.

Thomas Jefferson became the nation’s 1st Secretary of State on this day in 1790, serving the first administration of  President George Washington.

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Thomas Jefferson at 78

As President of the United States, Jefferson personally tutored Corps of Discovery Meriweather Lewis of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, in the sciences of mapping, botany, natural history, mineralogy, and astronomy and navigation, and gave the man unlimited access to his library at Monticello, at that time the largest collection of geography and natural history books in the world.

In 1819, the 76-year-old Jefferson founded the University of Virginia, personally organizing its state charter and planning for the course curriculum, while designing the architecture for ten Roman and Greek pavilions forming a quadrangle connected by colonnades and surrounded by serpentine walls.

As if that wasn’t enough, the man cut 791 verses from the King James bible with a razor, and rearranged them into the 46-page volume The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, commonly known as the Jefferson Bible.  He then translated the thing into French, Greek, Latin and back to English.  It interested him to do so.

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The University of Virginia, Jefferson’s “Academical Village” H/T Wikipedia

On the subject of slavery, the man remains an enigma.  Jefferson referred to the “execrable commerce …this assemblage of horrors” while he himself owned slaves.  As many as 600, over the course of his life.

In an ending no fiction writer would dare to contemplate, Jefferson and fellow founder John Adams died on July 4, 1826, fifty years to the day from the birth of the Republic they had helped create.

It is fashionable today, to judge the past by the standards of our day.  As if the present were somehow exempt from the just scorn of future generations.

The founder’s ideal of freedom Of religion has somehow morphed into an imagined freedom From religion.  Candidates argue for abolishing the Electoral College, transforming this self-governing Republic to a Democracy.  Somehow the image of five wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch, comes to mind.

A week ago, a member of the United States House of Representatives criticized the third President, for believing African slaves to be 3/5ths of a person.

I would not condone the odious practice of one human being “owning” another, any more than I’d endorse those places where the practice continues, to this day.  I don’t know anyone who does.  It’s worth mentioning though, Spanish and Portuguese settlers brought the first African slaves to the new world, 275 years before the “Shot Heard ’round the World“.   Every New World economy from Canada to Argentina was engaged in slavery.  The first English colony to legally adopt the practice was Massachusetts, with the ironically named “Massachusetts Body of Liberties,” of 1641.

The 3/5ths compromise of the United States Constitution was a political concession.  The young nation was broke in the wake of the late Revolution, in need of new forms of taxation.  Southern states argued that slaves should be counted as persons for purposes of apportionment.  More seats meant more votes in Congress, more electors in the Electoral College.

6-three-fifthsThe more industrialized states to the north saw such a measure as placing a disproportionate burden of taxation, on themselves.  The 3/5ths compromise kicked the can down the road, passing the Gordian knot to be settled by another generation, in rivers of blood.

The connection between Jefferson and the 3/5ths compromise stems from the election of 1800.  Jefferson defeated Aaron Burr through disproportionate electoral support from the southern states, though it took 36 ballots, to do so.  The Congressman’s claim seems a bit of a stretch:  the third President was away in France while the Constitution was being written.

In a perfect world, our self-appointed ruling class would have cracked a book.  Candidates for political office would better understand our shared history.   The real thing is so much more interesting than the pop culture and political varieties.

 

A Trivial Matter
While a brilliant writer, Thomas Jefferson received no such gift when it came to public speaking. It’s not that his speeches were’t well written and meaningful, he was just a lousy speaker. His voice was halting and often inaudible, barely better than a mumble. John Adams once said, “During the whole time I sat with him in Congress, I never heard him utter three sentences together.” Unlike his predecessor, President Jefferson delivered the State-of-the-Union address in writing, beginning a practice which would continue until Woodrow Wilson’s first term, in 1913.

March 5, 1776 Head Fake

It’s doubtful whether Washington possessed either powder or shot for a sustained campaign, but British forces occupying Boston didn’t know that.

Over the night and the following day of April 18-19, 1775, individual British soldiers marched 36 miles or more, on the round-trip expedition from Boston.  Following the early morning battles at Lexington and Concord, armed colonial militia from as far away as Worcester swarmed over the column, forcing the regulars into a fighting retreat.

In those days, Boston was a virtual island, connected to the mainland by a narrow “neck” of land.  More than 20,000 armed men converged from all over New England in the weeks that followed, gathering in buildings and encampments from Cambridge to Roxbury.

siege-of-boston-1775-1776-grangerA man who should have gone into history among the top tier of American Founding Fathers, the future turncoat Benedict Arnold, arrived with Connecticut militia to support the siege.  Arnold informed the Massachusetts Committee of Safety that Fort Ticonderoga, located along the southern end of Lake Champlain in northern New York, was bristling with cannon and other military stores.  Furthermore, the place was lightly defended.

The committee commissioned Arnold a colonel on May 3, authorizing him to raise troops and lead a mission to capture the fort.  Seven days later, Colonel Arnold and militia forces from Connecticut and western Massachusetts in conjunction with Ethan Allen and his “Green Mountain Boys” captured the fort, and all its armaments.

The Continental Congress created the Army that June, appointing General George Washington to lead it.  When General Washington took command of that army in July, it was a force with an average of nine rounds-worth of shot and powder, per man.  British forces occupying Boston, were effectively penned up by forces too weak to do anything about it.

The stalemate dragged on for months, when a 25-year-old bookseller came to General Washington with a plan. His name was Henry Knox. His plan was a 300-mile, round trip slog into a New England winter, to retrieve the guns of Ticonderoga:  brass and iron cannon, howitzers, and mortars.  59 pieces in all.  Washington’s advisors derided the idea as hopeless, but the General approved.

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Knox set out with a column of men in late November, 1775.  For nearly two months, he and his team wrestled 60 tons of cannons and other armaments by boat, animal & man-hauled sledges along roads little better than foot trails.  Across two barely frozen rivers, and through the forests and swamps of the Berkshires to Cambridge, historian Victor Brooks called it “one of the most stupendous feats of logistics” of the Revolution.  It must have been a sight on January 24, 1776, when Knox returned at the head of that “Noble Train of Artillery”.

For British military leadership in Boston, headed by General William Howe, the only option for resupply was by water, via Boston Harbor.  Both sides of the siege understood the strategic importance of the twin prominences overlooking the harbor, the hills of Charlestown to the north, and Dorchester heights to the south.  It’s why British forces had nearly spent themselves on Farmer Breed’s hillside that June, an engagement that went into history as the Battle of Bunker Hill.

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With Howe’s forces in possession of the Charlestown peninsula, Washington had long considered occupying Dorchester Heights, but considered his forces too weak.  That changed with the guns of Ticonderoga.

In the first days of March, Washington placed several heavy cannon at Lechmere’s Point and Cobble Hill in Cambridge, and on Lamb’s Dam in Roxbury.  The batteries opened fire on the night of March 2, and again on the following night and the night after that.  With British attention thus diverted, American General John Thomas and a force of some 2,000 made plans to take the heights.

As the ground was frozen and digging impossible, fortifications and cannon placements were fashioned from heavy 10′ timbers.  With the path to the top lined with hay bales to muffle their sounds, these fortifications were manhandled to the top of Dorchester heights over the night of March 4-5, along with the bulk of Knox’ cannons.

General Howe was stunned on awakening, on the morning of March 5.  The British garrison in Boston and the fleet in harbor, were now under the muzzles of Patriot guns.  “The rebels have done more in one night”, he said, “than my whole army would have done in a month.”

Plans were laid for an immediate British assault on the hill, as reinforcements poured into the position.  By day’s end, Howe faced the prospect of another bunker Hill, this time against a force of 6,000 in possession of heavy artillery.

A heavy snowstorm descended late in the day, interrupting Howe’s plan for the assault.  A few days later, he had thought better of it.  A tacit cease-fire settled in over the next two weeks, with Washington’s side declining to open fire, and Howe’s side refraining from destroying the town, in the course of withdrawing from Boston.

British forces departed Boston by sea on March 17 with about 1,000 civilian loyalists, resulting in a peculiar Massachusetts institution which exists to this day. “Evacuation Day”:

evacuation-day
British evacuation of Boston. March 17, 1776

It’s doubtful whether Washington possessed either powder or shot for a sustained campaign, but British forces occupying Boston didn’t know that. The mere presence of those guns moved General Howe to weigh anchor and sail for Nova Scotia. The episode may be the greatest head fake, in military history.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

March 4, 1789  A Self Governing Republic

Even at the convention, many of the framers were concerned about the larger, more populous states governing at the expense of the smaller states. The proverbial five wolves and a lamb, voting on what’s for lunch. 

Early discussions concerning the American experiment in self-government began nearly twenty years before the Revolution, with the Albany Congress of 1754 and Benjamin Franklin’s proposed Albany Plan of Union. The 2nd Continental Congress appointed a drafting committee to write our first constitution in 1776, the work beginning on July 12. The finished document was sent to the states for ratification on November 15, the following year.

ArticlesOfConfederation (1)Twelve of the thirteen original states ratified these “Articles of Confederation” by February, 1779. Maryland would hold out for another two years, over land claims west of the Ohio River. In 1781, seven months before Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown, the 2nd Continental Congress formally ratified the Articles of Confederation. The young nation’s first governing document.

The Articles of Confederation provided for a loose alliance of sovereign states. At the center stood a congress, a unicameral legislature, and that’s about it. There was no Executive, there was no Judiciary.

In theory, Congress had the authority to govern foreign affairs, conduct war, and regulate currency. In practice, these powers were limited because Congress had no authority to enforce requests made on the states, either for money or for troops.

The Union would probably have broken up if the Articles of Confederation were not amended or replaced. Twelve delegates from five states met at Mann’s Tavern in Annapolis Maryland in September 1786, to discuss the issue. The decision of the Annapolis Convention was unanimous. Representatives from all the states were invited to send delegates to a new constitutional convention in Philadelphia, the following May.

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The United States had won its independence from England four years earlier, when 55 state delegates convened in Philadelphia to compose a new constitution.

Delegates from 12 of the 13 colonies met on May 25, 1787 at Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania State House, the birthplace of the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation.  Only Rhode Island abstained.  The building is now known as Independence Hall.

The assembly immediately discarded the idea of amending the Articles, instead crafting a brilliant Federal system of checks and balances over three months of debate. The Federal Republic crafted by the framers delegates specific, limited powers to the Federal Government, with authority outside those specified powers devolving to the states.

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Even at the convention, many of the framers were concerned about the larger, more populous states governing at the expense of the smaller states. The proverbial five wolves and a lamb, voting on what’s for lunch.  The “Connecticut Compromise” solved that problem, creating a bicameral legislature with proportional representation in the lower house (House of Representatives) and equal representation of the states in the upper house (Senate).

The Constitution was signed by 38 of the 41 delegates on September 17, 1787. As dictated by Article VII, the document would not become binding until ratified by nine of the 13 states.

Five states: Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, and Connecticut ratified the document in quick succession. Some states objected to the new constitution, particularly Massachusetts, which wanted more protection for basic political rights such as freedom of speech, religion, and of the press. They wanted it specified that powers undelegated to the Federal government, were reserved to the states. A compromise was reached in February, 1788 whereby Massachusetts and other states would ratify the document, with the assurance that such amendments would be immediately proposed.

The Constitution was ratified in Massachusetts by a two vote margin, followed by Maryland and South Carolina. New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify on June 21. The new Constitutional Government would take effect on March 4, 1789.

On September 25, the first Congress adopted 12 amendments, sending them to the states for ratification. The states got rid of the first two, and so the Congress’ original 3rd amendment became 1st, of what we now call the “Bill of Rights”. Today, the United States Constitution is the oldest written national constitution in operation in the world.

united-states-founding-documents-vintage-american-flag-declaration-independence-constitution-america-58534238It’s interesting to note the priorities of that first Congress, as expressed in their original 1st and 2nd amendments. The ones that were thrown out. The first had to do with proportional representation, and would have led us to a 6,000-member House of Representatives, instead of the 435 we currently have. The second most important thing in the world, judging by the priorities of that first Congress, was that any future Congress could not change their own salaries. Any such change could affect only future Congresses.

That original 2nd amendment, reading that “No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened”, took effect in 1992 as the 27th amendment, following a ratification period stretching out to 202 years, 7 months, and 12 days. We must not be too hasty about these things.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.