November 16, 1776 The First Salute

242 years ago today, three thousand American Patriots fought a desperate and losing battle against 8,000 British forces and their Hessian allies for Washington Heights, in New York.  1776 miles away at that very moment, little Sint Eustatius had just become the first nation in history, to recognize American independence.

Sint Eustatius, known to locals as “Statia”, is a Caribbean island of 8.1 sq. miles in the northeastern Caribbean, located between St. Kitts and Puerto Rico.

Throughout the 18th century, Sint Eustatius had close ties with North America, and became wealthy from the trade in a variety of goods.  Sugar, molasses, gin, rum and cotton were only a few of the goods shipped from, or through, Sint Eustatius. Colonial ports from Maine to Virginia shipped products to the island in return, including barrel staves, beans, flour, cod, horses, lumber and tobacco.

At its height, the island was handling over 3,000 vessels per year, making St. Eustatius the “Golden Rock” of the Caribbean.

Andrew Doria
Andrew Doria

As a Dutch Colony, Sint Eustatius was required to remain neutral during the American Revolution. The government in Holland warned Governor Johannes de Graaff to stay away from the American “rebels” fighting for independence, but de Graaff didn’t see it that way.  The trade in powder, ammunition and arms continued throughout the Revolutionary period, with covert support smuggled in from Spain, France and dissident interests in Holland.

For a time, little Sint Eustatius was the only link between Europe, and the American colonies.

On November 16, 1776, the Brig Andrew Doria sailed into Sint Eustatius’ principle anchorage in Oranje Bay, flying the Continental Colors, the first national flag of the fledgling United States.  The brig, under command of Captain Isaiah Robinson, was there to obtain munitions and military supplies. Andrew Doria also carried a precious cargo, a copy of the Declaration of Independence.

This was the Americans’ second attempt to send the Declaration to their Dutch associates, the first having been captured on the way to Holland.  Wrapped in papers containing some obscure espionage code, British investigators labored in vain to unlock this strange new cipher. They could have spared themselves the effort.  That first copy of the declaration was sheathed in notes written in Yiddish, personal greetings to some of the Jewish merchants of Holland.

Fort Oranje on Statia
Fort Oranje, Sint Eustatius

It was traditional in those days, that vessels approaching a foreign harbor fire a gun salute upon entering. Captain Robinson fired a 13-gun volley on entering the bay, one for each of the thirteen American colonies.

Tradition dictated that a salute be fired in return, typically two guns fewer than that discharged by the incoming vessel, but such an act carried meaning.  Such a return salute was an act of overt recognition, that a sovereign state had entered the harbor. Such a salute would amount to formal recognition of the thirteen American colonies, as free and independent states.

St Eustatius 1st Salute
First Salute

The commander at Fort Oranje, overlooking the anchorage, didn’t know how to respond. Governor de Graaff ordered an 11-gun return salute fired from the guns of Fort Oranje.

At the time, none could have known:  242 years ago today, three thousand American Patriots fought a desperate and losing battle against 8,000 British forces and their Hessian allies for Washington Heights, in New York.  1776 miles away at that very moment, little Sint Eustatius had just become the first nation in history, to recognize American independence.

Playing the role of the young tattle-tale to an older sibling, nearby Saint Kitts immediately dispatched a vessel to England, to inform the British government of the event. The British were furious, of course. The trade between St. Eustatius and the American Colonies became the principal cause of the fourth Anglo-Dutch war, begun on December 12, 1780.

Admiral George Bridges Rodney forced the surrender of Sint Eustatius the following February, complaining that “This rock, of only six miles in length and three in breadth, has done England more harm than all the arms of her most potent enemies, and alone supported the infamous rebellion. When I leave the island of St. Eustatius, it will be as barren a rock as the day it erupted from the sea. Instead of one of the greatest emporiums on earth, it will be a mere desert and known only by report.”

Sint_Eustatius_wapenAdmiral Rodney pretty much had his way. The census of 1790 shows 8,124 on the Dutch island nation. In 1950, the population stood at only 790. It would take 150 years from Rodney’s departure, before tourism even began to restore the economic well-being of the tiny island.

Today, Sint Eustatius celebrates the 16th of November as “Statia America Day”, in recognition of that first salute.

An official coat of arms was designed by Sint Eustatius’ Director of Monuments Walter Hellebrand, and adopted on this day in 2004. On the left is a Golden Rock, in memory of the trade that made the island rich. On the right is Fort Oranje, Sint Eustatius’ most important landmark. The angel fish of this pristine diving destination is at the bottom, symbolizing the island’s future. Below is the Latin motto, “SUPERBA ET CONFIDENS”.  Proud and Confident.

Happy Statia America Day!

Feature image, top of page: The silky mosses, orchids and sweet smelling bromeliads of a pocket-sized tropical rain forest occupies the crater of Sint Eustatius’ dormant volcano, known as “The Quill”.

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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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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October 9, 1776 Buying Time

One day, Benedict Arnold would enter history as a traitor to his country.  For now, he and the hundreds of patriots who had literally built a fleet in wilds of upstate New York, had bought their country another year in which to continue the fight.

The American Revolution began a year earlier in 1775, when the 2nd Continental Congress looked north to the Province of Quebec.  Congress viewed the region as a potential jump-off point for British forces to attack and divide the colonies, though it was lightly defended at the time.

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 the leg, Major General Richard Montgomery was killed, and Colonel Daniel Morgan captured along with 400 fellow patriots. Quebec was massively reinforced in the Spring of 1776, with the arrival of 10,000 British and Hessian soldiers. By June, the remnants of the Continental army had been driven south to Fort Ticonderoga and Fort Crown Point.

The Congress was right about the British intent to split the colonies.  General Guy Carleton, provincial governor of Quebec, set about doing so almost immediately.

Retreating colonials had taken with them or destroyed every boat they could find, along the way.  The British set about disassembling warships from the St. Lawrence, moving them overland to Fort Saint-Jean, on the uppermost navigable waters leading to Lake Champlain, on the New York/Vermont line. They spent the summer and early fall literally building a fleet of warships along the upper reaches of the lake, while 120 miles to their south, colonials were doing the same.

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Valcour Bay as it looks, today

The Americans had a small fleet of shallow draft “bateaux” used for lake transport, but they needed something larger and heavier to sustain naval combat. A shipbuilding program of their own was needed, which Major General Horatio Gates set in motion in Skenesborough, New York, in what is now Whitehall. Hermanus Schuyler oversaw the effort, while military engineer Jeduthan Baldwin was in charge of outfitting. Gates eventually asked General Benedict Arnold, an experienced ship’s captain I civil life, to spearhead the effort. Arnold was ambivalent about the assignment, writing “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 their duty that they had to be 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, knowing that there was going to be a fight on Lake Champlain.

541px-Battle_of_Valcour_Island_1776.svgIt’s not well 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, but a fever broke out among shipbuilders which nearly 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, 15 ships determined to stop the British fleet heading south.

As 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, 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 and including fifty unarmed support vessels, entered the northern end of Lake Champlain on October 9.

Sailing south two days later under favorable winds, some British vessels had already passed the American position before realizing anyone was there. Some British warships were able to turn and give battle, but some of the largest ones were unable to turn into the wind.

Philadelphia-Sinking-Assisted-by-the-Row-Galley-Washington-Painting-by-Ernie-Haas
Philadelphia Sinking Assisted by the Row Galley Washington Painting by Ernie Haas

The Americans were able to do some damage, but larger ships and the more experienced seamanship of the English, made it an uneven fight. About a third of the British fleet was engaged that day, but the battle went badly for the Americans.

On the moonless and foggy night of the 11th, the battered remnants of the American fleet slipped through a gap in the lines, and limped 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, and abandoned. The last of the American vessels, the smallest ones, were finally run aground in a small bay on the Vermont side, now called Arnold’s Bay.

valcour2-370x236200 were able to escape to shore, the last of whom was Benedict Arnold himself, who personally torched his own flagship, the Congress, before leaving it behind, flag still flying.

The American fleet never had a chance and everyone knew it, yet the losing effort had inflicted enough damage at a point late enough in the year, that Carlton’s fleet had little choice but to return north for the winter.

One day, Benedict Arnold would enter history as a traitor to his country.  For now, he and the hundreds of patriots who had literally built a fleet in wilds of upstate New York, had bought their country another year in which to continue the fight.

Valcour Island (1)

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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.

Peggy-Shippen
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.

Capture_of_John_andre1

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.

Retreat from LI
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”.

Retreat from LI
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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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.”

 

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.