October 21, 1774 First Flag

“…Steadfast, in Freedom’s Cause, we’ll live and die,
Unawed by Statesmen; Foes to Tyranny,
But if oppression brings us to our Graves,
and marks us dead, she ne’er shall mark us Slaves”

The Mayflower set sail from England on September 6, 1620, and fetched up on the outer reaches of Cape Cod in mid-November, near the present-day site of Provincetown Harbor.

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Mayflower, historic reproduction

One was born over those 66 days at sea, another died.  They were 101 in all, including forty members of the English Separatist Church, a radical Puritan faction who felt the Church of England hadn’t gone far enough, in the Protestant Reformation.

There the group drew up the first written framework of government established in the United States, 41 of them signing the Mayflower Compact on board the ship on November 11, 1620.

With sandy soil and no place to shelter from North Atlantic storms, a month in that place was enough to convince them of its unsuitability. Search parties were sent out and, on December 21, the “Pilgrims“crossed Cape Cod Bay and arrived at what we now know, as Plymouth Harbor.

Fully half of them died that first winter but the rest hung on, with assistance from the Grand Sachem Massasoit (inter-tribal chief) of the Wampanoag confederacy, in the form of the emissaries, Samoset and Squanto. The Mayflower returned to England in April 1621, with half its original crew.

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British Red Ensign

Three more ships arrived in Plymouth over the next two years, including the Fortune (1621), the Anne and the Little James (1623). Those who arrived on these first four ships were known as the “Old Comers” of Plymouth colony, and were given special treatment in the affairs of “America’s Home Town”.

A short seventeen years later, members of the Plymouth Colony founded the town of Taunton twenty-four miles inland, and formally incorporated the place on September 3, 1639.

In 1656, the first successful iron works in Plymouth Colony and only the third in “New England” was established in Taunton, on the Two Mile River. The Taunton Iron Works operated for over 200 years, until 1876.

The town was once home to several silver smithing operations, including Reed & Barton, F.B. Rogers, and Poole Silver. To this day, Taunton is known as the “Silver City”.

Taunton also has the distinction of flying what may have been the first distinctly American flag, in history.

united_states_taunton_flag_liberty_and_union_1774_coffee_mug-rf4e479fc61a14108aaef1be92fcbb695_x7jgr_8byvr_512First raised above the town square on October 19, 1774, the flag’s canton featured the Union Jack, on the blood red field of the British Red Ensign. The Declaration of Independence lay two years in the future for these people.  They were, after all, still British subjects.

Between hoist and fly ends were written the words “Liberty and Union”, a solemn declaration that the colonies were going to stick together, and that their rights as British citizens, were not about to be violated.

Not so long as they had something to say about it.

On October 21, 1774, the Taunton Sons of Liberty raised the flag 112-feet high on a Liberty Pole, and tacked the following inscription on that pole:

“Be it known to the present,
And to all future generations,
That the Sons of Liberty in TAUNTON
Fired with Zeal for the Preservation of
Their Rights as Men, and as American Englishmen,
And prompted by a just Resentment of
The Wrongs and Injuries offered to the
English Colonies in general, and to
This Province in particular,
Through the unjust Claims of
A British Parliament, and the
Machiavellian Policy of their fixed Resolution
To preserve sacred and inviolate
Their Birth-Rights and Charter-Rights,
And to resist, even unto Blood,
All attempts for their Subversion or Abridgement.
Born to be free, we spurn the Knaves who dare
For us the Chains of Slavery to prepare.
Steadfast, in Freedom’s Cause, we’ll live and die,
Unawed by Statesmen; Foes to Tyranny,
But if oppression brings us to our Graves,
and marks us dead, she ne’er shall mark us Slaves”.

The Taunton flag is considered to be among the oldest distinctly American flags if not the oldest, in history. The city officially adopted it on October 19, 1974, the 200th anniversary of the day it was first raised above Taunton green. Stop and see it if you ever get by.   It’s there on the Liberty Pole, directly beneath the Stars and Stripes of the Star Spangled Banner.

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.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.
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September 29, 1780 André

In an age before radio or television, John André was a fun and interesting guy to be around. He was a gifted story teller with a great sense of humor. He could draw, paint and cut silhouettes. He was an excellent writer, he could sing, and he could write verse.

In an age before radio or television, John André was a fun and interesting guy to be around. A gifted story teller with a great sense of humor, Major André was a favorite of Colonial Loyalist society.  He could draw, paint and cut silhouettes. He was an excellent writer, he could sing, and he could write verse.

John André was a British Major at the time of the American Revolution, taking part in his army’s occupations of New York and Philadelphia.  He was also, a spy.

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Portrait drawn by Major John André, 1776

Peggy Shippen was the daughter of a prominent Philadelphia Tory and, for a time, enjoyed a dating relationship with Major André.  Following the French entry into the war on the American side, British General William Howe removed his command from Philadelphia, including Major André.

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Peggy Shippen

In 1778, Peggy Shippen met an important officer in the Patriot cause, a hero of Valcour Island, and the Battle of Saratoga.  On April 8, 1779, the couple was married in the Shippen townhouse on Fourth Street   The relationship provided the connection between the British spy and a man who could have gone into history among the top tier of American founding fathers, had he not switched sides.  Peggy Shippen’s new husband, was General Benedict Arnold.

Arnold was Commandant of West Point at the time, the future location of one of our great military academies. At the time, West Point was a strategic fortification on high ground overlooking the Hudson River. The British capture of West Point would have split the colonies in half.

John André struck a bargain with Benedict Arnold which would turn a Hero of the Revolution into a name synonymous with “Traitor”. Arnold would receive £20,000, equivalent to over a million dollars today, in exchange for which he would give up West Point.

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General Benedict Arnold

Major André sailed up the Hudson River in the Sloop of War HMS Vulture on September 20, 1780. Dressed in civilian clothes, he was returning to his lines on the 23rd. Six papers written in Arnold’s hand were hidden in his sock when three members of the New York militia:  John Paulding, David Williams and Isaac Van Wart stopped him.  Paulding was wearing a Hessian overcoat, and André thought they were Tories. “Gentlemen”, he said, “I hope you belong to our party”. “What party”, came the response and André replied “The lower (British) party”. “We do”, they said, to which André announced himself to be a British officer who must not be detained. That was as far as he went.

The discovery of these papers brought Benedict Arnold’s treachery to light.  Unaware that General Arnold himself was the culprit, Lt. Col. John Jameson dispatched letters to General George Washington and Benedict Arnold, warning the two of the plot.   Washington was literally on the way to a breakfast meeting with Arnold, when the General received the note.  Thus forewarned, Arnold slipped out a side door and escaped to a British ship, waiting nearby.

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John André was tried and sentenced to death as a spy, and jailed on September 29. He asked if he could write a letter to General Washington. In it he asked not that his life be spared, but that he be executed by firing squad, considered to be a more “gentlemanly” death than hanging.

General Washington believed that Arnold’s crimes were far more egregious than those of John André, and he was impressed with the man’s bravery.  Washington wrote to General Sir Henry Clinton, asking for an exchange of prisoners.

Having received no reply by October 2, Washington wrote in his General Order of the day, “That Major André General to the British Army ought to be considered as a spy from the Enemy and that agreeable to the law and usage of nations it is their opinion he ought to suffer death. “The Commander in Chief directs the execution of the above sentence in the usual way this afternoon at five o’clock precisely.”

John André was hanged in Tappan New York on October 2, 1780.  He was 31.

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During his nine-month stay in Philadelphia, John André lived in Ben Franklin’s home, while the British army occupied the city. As they were packing to leave, Swiss born Pierre Du Simitiere came to say goodbye. He was shocked to find such a fine Gentleman as André, looting the Franklin residence. The man had always been known for extravagant courtesy, and this was completely out of character. He was packing books, musical instruments, scientific apparatus, and an oil portrait of Franklin, offering no defense or even explanation, in response to Simitiere’s protests.

Portrait of Ben TNLong afterward, in the early 20th century, the descendants of Major-General Lord Charles Grey returned the painting to the United States, indicating that André had probably looted Franklin’s home under orders from General Grey, himself. A Gentleman always, it would explain the man’s inability to defend his own actions. Today, that oil portrait of Benjamin Franklin hangs in the White House.

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September 10, 1776 One Life to Lose

The young Patriot, untrained and unskilled in the ways of deception, placed his trust where it did not belong.

From the earliest days of the American Revolution, the Hale brothers of Coventry Connecticut, fought for the Patriot side. Five of them helped to fight the battles at Lexington and Concord. The youngest and most famous brother was home in New London at the time, finishing the terms of his teaching contract.

Nathan Hale’s unit would participate in the siege of Boston, Hale himself joining George Washington’s army in the spring of 1776, as the army moved to Long Island to block the British move on the strategically important port city of New York.

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General Howe appeared at Staten Island on June 29 with a fleet of 45 ships. By the end of the week, he’d assembled an overwhelming fleet of 130.

There was an attempt at peaceful negotiation on July 13, when General Howe sent a letter to General Washington under flag of truce. The letter was addressed “George Washington, Esq.”, intentionally omitting Washington’s rank of General. Washington declined to receive the letter, saying that there was no one there by that address. Howe tried the letter again on the 16th, this time addressing it to “George Washington, Esq., etc., etc.”. Again, Howe’s letter was refused.

The next day, General Howe sent Captain Nisbet Balfour in person, to ask if Washington would meet with Howe’s adjutant, Colonel James Patterson. A meeting was scheduled for the 20th.

Patterson told Washington that General Howe had come with powers to grant pardons. Washington refused, saying “Those who have committed no fault want no pardon”.

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Patriot forces were comprehensively defeated at the Battle of Brooklyn, fought on August 27, 1776. With the Royal Navy in command on the water, Howe’s army dug in for a siege, confident that his adversary was trapped and waiting to be destroyed at his convenience.

On the night of August 29-30, Washington withdrew his army to the ferry landing and across the East River, to Manhattan.

With horse’s hooves and wagon wheels muffled and oarlocks stuffed with rags, the Patriot army withdrew as a rearguard tended fires, convincing the redcoats in their trenches that the Americans were still in camp.

The surprise was complete for the British side, on waking for the morning of the 30th. The Patriot army, had vanished.

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Retreat from long island, August 29-30, 1776

The Battle of Long Island would almost certainly have ended in disaster for the cause of Liberty, but for that silent evacuation over the night of August 29-30.

Following evacuation, the Patriot army found itself isolated on Manhattan island, virtually surrounded. Only the thoroughly disagreeable current conditions of the Throg’s Neck-Hell’s Gate segment of the East River, prevented Admiral Sir Richard Howe (William’s brother), from enveloping Washington’s position, altogether.

Expecting a British assault in September, General Washington was desperate for information on the movements of his adversary.  Washington asked for volunteers for a dangerous mission, to go behind enemy lines, as a spy.  One volunteer stepped up, on September 10. His name was Nathan Hale.

Hale set out the same day, disguised as a Dutch schoolmaster. He was successful for about a week but appears to have been something less than “street smart”. The young Patriot, untrained and unskilled in the ways of deception, placed his trust where it did not belong.

Nathan Hale

Major Robert Rogers was an old British hand, a leader of Rangers during the earlier French and Indian War. Rogers must have suspected that this Connecticut schoolteacher was more than he pretended to be, and intimated that he himself, was a spy in the Patriot cause.

Hale took Rogers into his confidence, believing the two to be playing for the same side. Barkhamsted Connecticut shopkeeper Consider Tiffany, a British loyalist and himself a sergeant of the French and Indian War, recorded what happened next, in his journal: “The time being come, Captain Hale repaired to the place agreed on, where he met his pretended friend” (Rogers), “with three or four men of the same stamp, and after being refreshed, began [a]…conversation. But in the height of their conversation, a company of soldiers surrounded the house, and by orders from the commander, seized Captain Hale in an instant. But denying his name, and the business he came upon, he was ordered to New York. But before he was carried far, several persons knew him and called him by name; upon this he was hanged as a spy, some say, without being brought before a court martial.”

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Hercules Mulligan

The Irish tailor Hercules Mulligan had far greater success reporting on British goings-on, and twice saved General Washington himself, from capture.   This Patriot who converted Alexander Hamilton from Tory to Patriot.  The secret member of the Sons of Liberty who, for seven years worked behind enemy lines.  Yet today, we barely remember the man’s name.. Hercules Mulligan earned the right to be remembered, as a hero of American history.  His will be a story for another day.

Nathan Hale, the schoolteacher-turned-spy who placed his trust where it didn’t belong,  was brought to the gallows on September 22, 1776, and hanged. He was 21. CIA.gov describes him as “The first American executed for spying for his country”.

Nathan_Hale_Statue_-_Flickr_-_The_Central_Intelligence_Agency_(1)There was no official record taken of Nathan Hale’s last words, yet we know from eyewitness statement, that the man died with the same clear-eyed personal courage, with which he had lived.

British Captain John Montresor was present at the hanging, and spoke with American Captain William Hull the following day, under flag of truce.  He gave the following account:

“‘On the morning of his execution, my station was near the fatal spot, and I requested the Provost Marshal to permit the prisoner to sit in my marquee, while he was making the necessary preparations. Captain Hale entered: he was calm, and bore himself with gentle dignity, in the consciousness of rectitude and high intentions. He asked for writing materials, which I furnished him: he wrote two letters, one to his mother and one to a brother officer.’ He was shortly after summoned to the gallows. But a few persons were around him, yet his characteristic dying words were remembered. He said, ‘I only regret, that I have but one life to lose for my country‘.

August 30, 1776 A Damn Close-Run Thing

The silent evacuation over the night of August 29-30 had averted disaster, a feat made possible only through the nautical skills of the merchants and rum traders, the sailors and the fishermen of Colonel John Glover’s Marblehead, Massachusetts militia, the “Amphibious Regiment”.

When General George Washington raised his sword under the branches of that ancient elm on Cambridge commons, by that act did he take command of an “army”, equipped with with an average of only nine rounds per man.

116037-040507-01.tif1776 started out well for the cause of American independence, when the twenty-six-year-old bookseller Henry Knox emerged from a six week slog through a New England winter, at the head of a “Noble train of artillery’.

Manhandled all the way from the frozen wilderness of upstate New York, the guns of Fort Ticonderoga were wrestled to the top of Dorchester Heights, overlooking the British fleet anchored in Boston Harbor.

General sir William Howe faced the prospect of another Bunker Hill.   A British victory, yes, but one which came at a cost that  Howe could ill afford to pay again.

The eleven-month siege of Boston came to an end on March 17 when that fleet evacuated Boston Harbor, and removed to Nova Scotia.  Three months later, a force of some 400 South Carolina patriots fought a day-long battle with the nine warships of Admiral Sir Peter Parker, before the heavily damaged fleet was forced to withdraw.  The British eventually captured Fort Moultrie and Charleston Harbor along with it but, for now, 1776 was shaping up to be a very good year.

Declaration of IndependenceThe Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, that July.

King’s Regular and Rebel alike understood the strategic importance of New York, as the center of communications between the New England colonies, and those in the south.  Beginning that April, Washington moved his forces from Boston to New York, placing his troops along the west end of Long Island in anticipation of the British arrival.

The British fleet was not long in coming, the first arrivals dropping anchor by the end of June.  Within the week, 130 ships were anchored off Staten Island, under the command of Admiral sir Richard Howe, the General’s brother.  By August 12 the British force numbered 400 vessels with 73 warships, with a force of some 32,000 camped on Staten island.

American forces were badly defeated at the Battle of Brooklyn, fought on August 27, 1776. The British dug in for a siege, confident that their adversary was cornered and waiting to be destroyed at their convenience, while the main Patriot army retreated to Brooklyn Heights.

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“British troops in the type of flat-bottomed boat used for the invasion of Long Island. Hessians in their blue uniforms are in the two boats that are only partly visible”. H/T Wikipedia

Cornered on land with the British-controlled East River to their backs, it may have been all over for the Patriot cause, but for one of the great feats of military history.   The surprise was complete for the British side on waking for the morning of August 30, to discover that the American army, had vanished. The silent evacuation over the night of August 29-30 had averted disaster, a feat made possible through the nautical skills of the merchants and rum traders, the sailors and the fishermen of Colonel John Glover’s Marblehead, Massachusetts militia, the “Amphibious Regiment”.

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Retreat from long island, August 29-30, 1776

That October, the defeat of General Benedict Arnold’s home-grown “Navy” on the waters near Valcour Island in Vermont, cost the British fleet dearly enough that it had to turn back, buying another year of life for the Patriot cause.

By December, the Continental army had fled New York, to the south of New Jersey.  Already reduced to a puny force of only 4,707 fit for duty, Washington faced a decimation of his army by the New Year, with the end of enlistment for fully two-thirds of those.  With nowhere to go but on offense, Washington crossed the Delaware river in the teeth of a straight-up gale over the night of December 25, defeating a Hessian garrison at Trenton in a surprise attack on the morning of December 26.

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While minor skirmishes by British standards, the January 2-3 American victories at Assunpink Creek and Princeton demonstrated an American willingness, to stand up to the most powerful military of its time.  Cornwallis had suffered three defeats in the last ten days, and withdrew his forces from the south of New Jersey.  American morale soared, as enlistments came flooding in.

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Battle of Princeton, January 3, 1777

The American war for independence would not be over, for another six years.  Before it was through, more Americans would die in the fetid holds of British prison ships than in every battle of the Revolution, combined.  Yet, that first year had come and gone, and the former colonies were still in the fight.

A generation later, Lord Arthur Wellesley described the final defeat of a certain “Corsican corporal” at a place called Waterloo.  Wellesley might have been talking about the whole year of 1776 in describing that day in 1815:  “It was a damn close run thing“.

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July 4, 1826 Friends and Rivals

In an ending no fiction writer would dare put to paper, both men died on the same day, July 4, 1826.  Fifty years to the day from the birth of the Republic, they had helped to create. 

Delegates to the 2nd Continental Congress originally pushed for Richard Henry Lee to write the Declaration of Independence.  It was he who delivered the all-important resolution on June 1, 1776:  “Resolved, that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States...”

committLee was appointed to the Committee of Confederation, assigned to write the Articles by which the fledgling nation would govern itself.  Lee believed that two such committees were too much and, soon, he would be called home to care for a critically ill wife.

So it is that a committee of five were appointed to write the Declaration of Independence, including Massachusetts attorney John Adams, and a young Virginia delegate named Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson had no interest in writing the Declaration of Independence and suggested that Adams pen the first draft. Adams declined, and described the following conversation, in a letter to Massachusetts politician Timothy Pickering:

“Jefferson proposed to me to make the draft. I said, ‘I will not,’ ‘You should do it.’ ‘Oh! no.’ ‘Why will you not? You ought to do it.’ ‘I will not.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Reasons enough.’ ‘What can be your reasons?’ ‘Reason first, you are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second, I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third, you can write ten times better than I can.’ ‘Well,’ said Jefferson, ‘if you are decided, I will do as well as I can.’ ‘Very well. When you have drawn it up, we will have a meeting.”

Thomas Jefferson would spend the following seventeen days, writing the first draft.  He and Adams had only just met during the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.  The two would develop a close personal friendship which would last for most of their lives.

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The friendship between the two men came to an ugly ending during the Presidential election of 1800, in which the mudslinging from both sides rose to levels never before witnessed in a national election.

Jefferson defeated one-term incumbent Adams and went on to serve two terms as President of the United States.  Upon Jefferson’s retirement in 1809, one of the Declaration’s signers, Dr. Benjamin Rush, took it upon himself to patch up the broken friendship between the two founding fathers.

Dr. Rush worked on this personal diplomatic mission for two years.  In 1811, he finally succeeded.

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Jefferson Seal

There followed a series of letters between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, which together constitute one of the most comprehensive historical and philosophical assessments ever written about the American founding.

The correspondence between the pair touched on a variety of topics, from the birth of a self-governing Constitutional Republic, to then-current political issues, to matters of philosophy and religion and issues related to their advancing years.

Both men understood that they were writing not only to one another, but also to generations yet unborn.  Each went to great lengths to explain the philosophical underpinnings of his views, Adams the firm believer in strong, centralized government, Jefferson advocating a smaller federal government which was more deferential to the states.

By 1826, Jefferson and Adams were among the very last survivors among the founding generation.  James Monroe alone, would survive these two.

In an ending no fiction writer would dare put to paper, both men died on the same day, July 4, 1826.  Fifty years to the day from the birth of the Republic, they had helped to create.  Adams was 90 as he lay on his deathbed, suffering from congestive heart failure.  His last words were “Thomas Jefferson still survives”.  There was no way of knowing.  The author of the Declaration of Independence had died of a fever,  five hours earlier at his Monticello home near Charlottesville, Virginia.  Jefferson was 82.

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John Adams son John Quincy was himself President at the time of the two men’s passing, and remarked that the coincidence was among the “visible and palpable remarks of Divine Favor”.

A month after the two men passed, Daniel Webster spoke of the pair at Faneuil Hall, in Boston.

“No two men now live, (or) any two men have ever lived, in one age, who (have) given a more lasting direction to the current of human thought. No age will come, in which the American Revolution will appear less than it is, one of the greatest events in human history. No age will come, in which it will cease to be seen and felt, on either continent, that a mighty step, a great advance, not only in American affairs, but in human affairs, was made on the 4th of July 1776″.

 

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July 2, 1776 Independence Day

56 men would sign the Declaration of Independence in the days and weeks that followed, giving birth to a nation unique in all history.  A nation founded on an idea.

The first Virginia Convention organized in 1774, when Royal Governor Lord Dunmore dissolved the colony’s House of Burgesses. The colonial governing body had called for a day of prayer, a show of solidarity with her sister colony in Boston, after the British government closed the harbor in retaliation for the “Boston Tea Party“.

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Three additional such meetings would take place in the following year-and-one-half, to discuss increasingly fractious relations with the British Empire. No expression emerged from these conventions, in favor of independence.

That would change on May 15, 1776, when the fifth Virginia Convention declared that the colonial government as “formerly exercised” by King George III in Parliament, was “totally dissolved”. Three resolutions emerged from this body:  one calling for a declaration of rights in Virginia, another calling for the establishment of a republican constitution, and a third instructing its delegates to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, to declare independence from Great Britain.

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Richard Henry Lee’s resolution was taken almost verbatim from instructions from the Virginia Convention. 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”.

At the time, several colonies were not yet ready to declare independence.

Representatives 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 the Congress for review on June 28.

Debate resumed on July 1, 1776, with most of the delegates expressing favor for Lee’s resolution.

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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 as yet received 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 believed that July 2 would go down as Independence Day, for the young nation.

Declaration of Independence

56 men would sign the Declaration of Independence in the days and weeks that followed, giving birth to a nation unique in all history.  A nation founded on an idea.

That line was drawn in the sand, two hundred and forty two years ago, today.  As Caesar had ‘crossed the Rubicon’ nearly two thousand years earlier, a decision had been taken from which there would be no turning back.  Fifty-six men affixed their signatures to that document, affirming that to this “… we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.”

These were no empty words.  One of those signers, Benjamin Franklin, stated in all candor, that now “We must all hang together or, assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

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On this day in 1984, exactly 208 years after a young nation declared its independence, a memorial was dedicated in the Constitution Gardens, on the National Mall in Washington, DC. The monument consists of fifty-six stone blocks, each bearing the inscribed likeness of the actual signature, of every man who so pledged his life, his fortune and his sacred honor.

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Today, this day is 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.

Happy Independence Day.

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June 16, 1775 Act Worthy of Yourselves

“You are to decide the important question, on which rest the happiness and liberty of millions yet unborn.  Act worthy of yourselves.”

The city of Charlestown, Massachusetts occupies a hilly peninsula to the north of Boston, at the point where the Mystic River meets the Charles. Like Boston itself, much of what is now Charlestown was once Boston Harbor.  In 1775 the town was a virtual island, joined to the mainland only by a thin “neck” of land.

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Thousands of Patriot Militia poured into the area following the April battles of Lexington and Concord, blocking British forces in control of Boston and its surrounding waterways.

The Massachusetts Provincial Congress received word on June 13 that a massive assault was planned for the 18th, intending to take the high ground at Dorchester Heights to the south, and Charlestown to the north. Major General Israel Putnam was directed to set up defenses on Bunker Hill, on the northwest end of Charlestown.

Col. William Prescott led 1,200 men onto the peninsula on the night of the 16th, with orders to construct fortifications on Bunker Hill.  Some work was performed on the hill which gives the battle its name, but it was farmer Ephraim Breed’s land 1/3rd of a mile closer to Boston, which offered the more tenable hill from which to defend the peninsula.

Shovels could be heard throughout the night.  The sun rose on the morning of June 17 to reveal a six-foot-high defensive earthwork running the length of Breed’s hill.  Peering through the early morning fog, General Howe was astonished at what he saw. “The rebels,” he said, “have done more work in one night than my whole army would have done in one month.”

The warship HMS Lively opened fire on the redoubt shortly after 4am, with little effect, as Prescott’s men continued work on the entrenchment. 128 guns joined in as the morning bore on, including incendiary shot, setting fire to the town.

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Ten miles to the south, a 7-year-old future President of the United States stood atop a hill with his mother Abigail, listening to the thunder of the guns and watching the smoke rise above Charlestown. John Quincy Adams would later write that he “witnessed the tears of my mother and mingled with them my own.”

Militia continued to reinforce the high ground throughout the morning hours, as Regulars commanded by Major General William Howe and Brigadier General Robert Pigot crossed the Charles River and assembled for the assault.

Battle_of_Bunker_HillThe British line advanced up Breed’s Hill twice that afternoon, Patriot fire decimating their number and driving the survivors back down the hill to reform and try again.

Militia supplies of powder and shot began to give out as the Redcoats advanced up the hill for the third assault. “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes”. The quote is attributed to Prescott, but the order seems to have originated with General Putnam and passed along by Prescott, Seth Pomeroy, John Stark and others, in a desperate attempt to conserve ammunition.

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Finally, there was nothing left with which to oppose the British bayonets.  In desperate hand to hand fighting, the Militia was forced to retreat.

Most of the colonists’ casualties occurred at this time, including Boston physician and President of Massachusetts’ Provincial Congress, Dr. Joseph Warren. Warren had been appointed Major General on June 14, but declined command, believing Putnam and Prescott to be more experienced soldiers.  On this day, Dr. Warren fought as a private soldier.

Two months before the battle, Joseph Warren had spoken to his men. “On you depend the fortunes of America”, he said. “You are to decide the important question, on which rest the happiness and liberty of millions yet unborn.  Act worthy of yourselves.”

That they did. The Americans had gone toe-to-toe with the most powerful military of its time, suffering 452 killed and wounded.  Lieutenant Lord Rawdon recognized Dr. Warren on the third assault, and killed him with a musket ball to the head.  Warren’s body was bayoneted beyond recognition and thrown into a ditch.

Dr. Warren’s body was exhumed some ten months later after the British evacuation of Boston, and identified by a false tooth made for him by the amateur dentist, Paul Revere.  It may be the first instance of forensic dentistry, in American history.

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The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill, by John Trumbull

The Battle of Bunker Hill was a military victory for the British side, but it was a Pyrrhic victory.  Howe lost 226 men killed and 828 wounded, over a third of his number and over twice that of the Militia. One-eighth of all the British officers killed and one-sixth of those injured during the entire Revolution, occurred on Breed’s Hill.

General Thomas Gage wrote after battle, “The loss we have sustained is greater than we can bear.”  Private Nathanael Greene, destined to become one of the Continental Army’s most important Generals, quipped “I wish [we] could sell them another hill at the same price.”

 

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