September 22, 1776 One Life to Lose

The young and unseasoned Patriot-turned spy placed his trust, where it did not belong. It would prove to be a fatal decision.

From the earliest days of the American war for independence, the nine Hale brothers of Coventry Connecticut fought on 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 a teaching contract.

Nathan Hale’s unit participated in the siege of Boston. Hale himself joined 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.

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, responding 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.

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British Landing on Long island

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. “Those who have committed no fault” he said, “want no pardon”.

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 the adversary was trapped and waiting to be destroyed at their convenience.

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British retreat from Long Island

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, oarlocks stuffed with rags, the Patriot army withdrew as a rearguard tended fires, convincing the redcoats in their trenches that the Americans were still present.

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

The Battle of Long Island would almost certainly have ended in disaster for the Patriot cause, 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.

Expecting a British assault in September, General Washington grew increasingly desperate for information on British movements.

Nathan Hale Capture

The general asked for volunteers for a dangerous mission, to go behind enemy lines, as a spy.  Up stepped a volunteer.  His name was Nathan Hale.

Hale set out on his mission on September 10, disguised as a Dutch schoolmaster. He was successful for about a week but appears to have been something less than “street smart”.  

The young and unseasoned Patriot-turned spy placed his trust, where it did not belong.

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 cause of Liberty.

The hanging of Nathan Hale

Hale took Rogers into his confidence, believing the two to be playing for the same side. It was a fatal error in judgement.

Barkhamsted Connecticut shopkeeper Consider Tiffany, a British loyalist and himself a sergeant of the French and Indian War, recorded what happened next: “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.”

The “stay behind” spy Hercules Mulligan would have far greater success reporting on British goings-on, from the 1776 capture of New York to the ultimate withdrawal seven years later.  But that must be a story for another day.

Nathan Hale was brought to the gallows on September 22, 1776 and hanged as a spy.  He was 21.  CIA.gov describes Nathan Hale as “The first American executed for spying for his country”.

Nathan Hale

There is no official account of Nathan Hale’s final words, but we have an eyewitness statement from British Captain John Montresor, who was present at the hanging.

Montresor spoke with American Captain William Hull the following day under flag of truce, where 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‘.

George-Washington-Brooklyn-Heights

July 8, 1776 The Liberty Bell

In Denver, a group of blind girls were allowed to touch the Bell. One of them wanted to read the letters. You could have heard a pin drop, as a hushed crowd heard a small, sightless girl, pronounce these words:  “Proclaim…Liberty…throughout…all…the…land.”

For thousands of years, bells have rung out to announce religious and civic occasions, weddings, funerals and other public announcements. The rich tones of a well-cast bell is capable of carrying for miles. Great Britain has so many bells, the place has been called the “Ringing Isle”.

The first bell in the city of Philadelphia would ring out to alert citizens of civic events and proclamations, and to the occasional public danger.  Originally hung from a tree near the Pennsylvania State House, (now known as Independence Hall), that first bell  dates back as far as the city itself, around 1682.

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Eighty-foot-high replica of the Liberty Bell, built for the Sesquicentennial International Exposition in 1926

The “Liberty Bell” was ordered from the London bell foundry of Lester and Pack in 1752, (today the Whitechapel Bell Foundry), though that name wouldn’t come around until much later.   Weighing in at 2,080 lbs, the bell arrived in August of that year.  Written upon it was a passage from the Book of Leviticus, the third book of the Hebrew Bible; the third of five books of the Torah. “Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof”.

Mounted to a stand to test the sound, the first strike of the clapper cracked the bell’s rim. Authorities attempted to return it, but the ship’s master couldn’t take it on board.  The bell was broken into pieces, melted down and re-cast by two local workmen, John Pass and John Stow.

The recast bell used 10% copper, making the metal less brittle.  Pass and Snow bragged that the bell’s lettering was clearer on this second casting than the original. The newly re-cast bell was ready in March 1753, when City officials scheduled a public celebration to test the sound. There was free food and drink all around, but the crowd gasped and started to laugh when the bell was struck. It didn’t break this time, it was worse.  Somebody said the thing sounded like two coal scuttles, banging together.

Humiliated, Pass and Stow hurriedly took the bell away, and once again broke it into pieces, and melted it down.

The whole performance was repeated, three months later. This time, most thought the sound to be satisfactory, and the bell was hung in the steeple of the State House. One who did not like the sound was Isaac Norris, speaker of the Pennsylvania Provincial Assembly.  Norris ordered a second bell in 1754 and attempted to return the old one for credit, but his efforts proved unsuccessful.

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Chief Little Bear with Liberty Bell, 1915

The new bell was attached to the tower clock, while the old one was, by vote of the Assembly, devoted “to such Uses as this House may hereafter appoint.”  One of the earliest documented uses of the old bell comes to us in a letter from Benjamin Franklin to Catherine Ray, dated October 16, 1755: “Adieu. The Bell rings, and I must go among the Grave ones, and talk Politiks.

Legends have grown around the bell, ringing in the public reading of the Declaration of independence on July 4, 1776.  The story is a myth.  There was no such reading on that day.  The 2nd Continental Congress’ Declaration was announced to the public four days later on July 8, to a great ringing of bells.  Whether the old bell itself rang on this day, remains uncertain. John C. Paige, author of an historical study of the bell for the National

Liberty bell, 1908
Liberty Bell, 1908

Park Service, wrote “We do not know whether or not the steeple was still strong enough to permit the State House bell to ring on this day. If it could possibly be rung, we can assume it was. Whether or not it did, it has come to symbolize all of the bells throughout the United States which proclaimed Independence.”

Bells are easily melted down and recast as bullets, and the bell was removed for safekeeping before the British occupation of Philadelphia, in 1777. The distinctive large crack began to develop sometime in the early 19th century, around the time when abolitionist societies adopted the symbol and began calling it “The Liberty Bell”.

The Philadelphia Public Ledger reported the last clear note ever sounded by the Liberty Bell, in its February 26, 1846 edition:

“The old Independence Bell rang its last clear note on Monday last in honor of the birthday of Washington and now hangs in the great city steeple irreparably cracked and dumb. It had been cracked before but was set in order of that day by having the edges of the fracture filed so as not to vibrate against each other … It gave out clear notes and loud, and appeared to be in excellent condition until noon, when it received a sort of compound fracture in a zig-zag direction through one of its sides which put it completely out of tune and left it a mere wreck of what it was.”

The bell would periodically travel to expositions and celebrations, but souvenir hunters would break off pieces from the rim.  Additional cracking developed after several of these trips, and the bell’s travels were sharply curtailed after its return from Chicago, in 1893.

passandstow

With the 1915 World’s Fair about to open in San Francisco, there were discussions of sending the Liberty Bell to California.  The bell had never been west of St. Louis at that time, and the Philadelphia establishment balked. Former Pennsylvania governor Samuel Pennypacker complained that “The Bell is injured every time it leaves…children have seen this sacred Metal at fairs associated with fat pigs and fancy furniture. They lose all the benefit of the associations that cling to Independence Hall, and the bell should, therefore, never be separated from [Philadelphia].”

With the California tour off for now, Philadelphia Mayor Rudolph Blankenburg offered the next best thing. Bell Telephone had just completed a new transcontinental line, 3,400 miles of wire suspended from 130,000 poles. Three hundred dignitaries gathered at Bell offices in Philadelphia and San Francisco on February 11, 1915. With Alexander Graham Bell himself listening in from his own private line in Washington DC, the Liberty bell was sounded at 5pm, with all of them listening in on candlestick phones.

The California trip gained fresh impetus following the May 7 sinking ofn the British liner Lusitania.  A cross-country whistle stop tour was planned for the bell, using the “best cushioned” rail car, in history.

As the nation’s most prominent German-American, Mayor Blankenburg himself came along, delivering “loyalty lectures” to immigrant groups on the importance of devotion to their adopted home country.  “It is important to prepare against a possible foe abroad“, he would say, “….Let us, therefore, abolish all distinctions that may lead to ill feeling and let us call ourselves, before the whole world, Americans, first, last and all the time.”

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“A quarter of the U.S. population (including a girl in Moline, Illinois) turned out for the Liberty Bell”. H/T Smithsonian

The Liberty Bell drew crowds beyond anyone’s wildest expectations.  Fully one- quarter of the American population turned out to see the liberty bell, a generator rigged so the bell could be seen by day or night.  In many cities, those on the train couldn’t see where the crowd ended.

“Big Jim” Quirk, one of the police officers assigned to the train, recalled “In Kansas City, an old colored man who had been a slave came to touch it—he was 100 years old.” When the train pulled into another town, “an aged Mammie hobbled to the door of her cabin near the tracks, raised her hands and with her eyes streaming tears called out, ‘God Bless the Bell! God Bless the Dear Bell!’  It got to us somehow.”

In Denver, a group of blind girls were allowed to touch the Bell. One of them wanted to read the letters. You could have heard a pin drop, as a hushed crowd heard a small, sightless girl, pronounce these words:  “Proclaim…Liberty…throughout…all…the…land.”

Liberty Bell, Atchison, Kansas
Liberty Bell 1915, Atchison, Kansas. H/T Smithsonian Magazine, for this image

The Liberty Bell was enlisted once again in 1917 as the United States prepared to send her soldiers “over there” in the first democratically financed war, in history. Americans hurried to buy up war bonds, far exceeding the national goal of $2 Billion.

Today, two other bells join the Liberty Bell in the Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia, PA. Weighing in at 13,000lbs, a half-ton for every original colony, the Centennial Bell was cast for America’s 100th birthday in 1876. To this day, this enormous bell rings once an hour, in the tower at Independence Hall.

In 1976, the people of Great Britain presented a gift to the people of the United States, in recognition of the friendship between the former adversaries.  Weighing in at six tons and cast at the same foundry which produced the original bell, the “Bicentennial Bell” was dedicated by her Royal Highness, Queen Elizabeth, II, on July 6, 1976.  On the side of the bell are inscribed these words:

FOR THE
PEOPLE OF THE UNITED STATES
FROM THE
PEOPLE OF BRITAIN
4 JULY 1976
LET FREEDOM RING

Back in 1893, the Liberty Bell passed through Indianapolis.  Former President Benjamin Harrison may have had the last word on the subject, a sentiment fit to be inscribed on the old bell itself, below that verse from the Torah. “This old bell was made in England”, Harrison said, “but it had to be re-cast in America before it was attuned to proclaim the right of self-government and the equal rights of men.

liberty-bell-museum

June 17, 1775 Act Worthy of Yourselves

Two months before the battle, Dr. Warren spoke 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.”

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.

Bunker Hill, 2

Thousands of Patriot Militia poured into the area following the April battles of Lexington and Concord, hemming in the British who controlled Boston and its surrounding waterways.

Reinforced and provisioned from the sea over which the Crown held undisputed control, British forces under General Sir Thomas Gage could theoretically remained in Boston, indefinitely.

The elevation of Breed’s and Bunker’s Hill across the river, changed that calculation.  Should colonial forces obtain artillery of their own, they would be able to rain down hell on British forces bottled up in Boston.  It was just this scenario that led Henry Knox into a New England winter later that year, to retrieve the guns of Fort Ticonderoga.

The Massachusetts Provincial Congress received word on the 13th that the British planned to break out of Boston within the week, taking the high ground of 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 the Charlestown peninsula.

Bunker_Hill_by_Pyle

Colonel William Prescott led about 1,200 men onto the peninsula on the night of the 16th. Some work was performed on the hill which gives the battle its name, but it was farmer Ephraim Breed’s land to the southeast, which offered the more defensible hill from which to defend the peninsula.

Shovels could be heard throughout the night.  The sun rose on June 17 to reveal a 130′ defensive breastwork across Breed’s hill. Major General William Howe was astonished. “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 on the earthworks. 128 guns joined in as the morning bore on, including incendiary shot which set fire to the town. Militia continued to reinforce the high ground throughout the morning hours, as Regulars commanded by General Howe and Brigadier General Robert Pigot crossed the Charles River and assembled for the assault.

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First Assault

The British line advanced up Breed’s Hill twice that afternoon, Patriot fire decimating their number and driving survivors back down the hill to reform and try again. Militia supplies of powder and shot began to give out as the British 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.

Finally, there was nothing left with which to oppose the British bayonets.  The Militia was forced to retreat.

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Second Assault

Most of the colonists’ casualties occurred at this time, including Boston physician and President of Massachusetts’ Provincial Congress, Dr. Joseph Warren.  Dr. Warren had been appointed Major General on June 14, but the commission had not arrived as of yet.  On this day, he fought as a private soldier. He had been  but the commission had not yet taken effect.

Two months before the battle, Dr. Warren spoke 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.”

“Act worthy of yourselves”. 

That they did.

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Final Attack

The Battle of Bunker Hill ended in victory for the British, in that they held the ground when the fighting was over. It was a Pyrrhic victory. Howe lost 226 killed and 828 wounded, over a third of their number and more than twice those of the Militia.

One Eighth of all the British officers killed in the Revolution, died on Ephraim Breed’s Hill. General Henry Clinton wrote afterward, of the battle:  “A few more such victories” he said, “would have shortly put an end to British dominion in America”.

June 11, 1775 The Battle of Machias

Called by some the “Lexington of the Sea”, the little-known episode was the first naval battle of the American Revolution.

In the Passamaquoddy tongue, “Machias” roughly translates into “bad little falls”, after the river that runs through the place. Five hours and 15 minutes drive-time from Boston, Machias Maine sports a campus for the University of Maine, a municipal airport and, even today, a year-round population barely exceeding 2,000.

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Machias-area residents who discussed downtown revitalization Tuesday evening said the Bad Little falls was the town’s most distinctive element. (KATHERINE CASSIDY PHOTO)

Not necessarily a place where you’d expect the first naval combat of the American Revolution.

In 1775, the modern state of Maine was still part of Massachusetts. Machias itself, a small fishing village on the “Down East” New England coast, was a thorn in the British side since the earliest days of the Revolution.   A local pilot intentionally grounded the coastal patrol schooner HMS Halifax that February, in Machias Bay.  The place also served as a base from which privateers preyed on British merchant shipping.

In April, a British foray from the occupied city of Boston had culminated in the Battle at Lexington Green.  While the King’s troops held the ground in the wake of the early morning skirmish, the decision of the afternoon’s battle at nearby Concord was quite different.  The colonial’s response to the column of “Regulars” was that of a swarming beehive, resulting in a Patriot victory and a British retreat under fire, all the way back to Boston.

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Boston was all but an island in those days, connected to the mainland only be a narrow “neck” of land.  A Patriot force some 20,000 strong took positions in the days and weeks that followed, blocking the city and trapping four regiments of British troops (about 4,000 men) inside of the city.

For General Thomas Gage, in charge of all those troops, the best hope for resupply was by water.

British Royal Navy Admiral Samuel Graves wanted the guns from the wreck of the Halifax, concerned they would otherwise fall into rebel hands.  Gage wanted lumber, with which to build barracks.  So it was that the wealthy merchant and Tory loyalist Ichabod Jones was enlisted to help, blissfully unaware of the dim view in which his activities were held by fellow colonials.

Jones arrived at Machias on June 2 aboard the merchant ships Unity and Polly, under guard of the armed schooner HMS Margaretta, commanded by Midshipman James Moore.  They had come to trade food for lumber but the townspeople were split, and voted against doing business with Jones.  This provoked a threat from the Margaretta, which moved into range to bombard the town.  The action resulted in a second vote and the trade was approved, but Jones’ response was ham-fisted.   The merchant would only do business, with those who had voted with him in the first place.

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HMS Margaretta

Local militia leader Colonel Benjamin Foster conceived a plan to seize the merchant, and saw his opportunity on June 11, when Jones and Moore were in church.  They almost had the pair too, but Jones saw some twenty men approaching, and fled for the woods.  Moore was able to get back to the Margaretta, but events soon spun out of control.

Colonel Foster and his brother, a man with the delightful name of Wooden Foster, seized the Unity.  A group of thirty began to construct breastworks to serve as protection, while others commandeered the coastal packet Falmouth.   There was gong to be a fight.

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A group of Machias men approached Margaretta from the land and demanded her surrender, but Moore lifted anchor and sailed off in attempt to recover the Polly.  A turn of his stern through a brisk wind resulted in a boom and gaff breaking away from the mainsail, crippling the vessel’s navigability. Unity gave chase followed by Falmouth.

Musket fire was exchanged from both sides and hand grenades were thrown onto the decks of the Unity.   Soon, the Margaretta was boarded from both sides, the fighting hand to hand.

Called by some the “Lexington of the Sea”, the little-known episode was the first naval battle of the American Revolution and ended in victory for the Patriot side.  Four Royal Navy seamen were killed outright and another ten wounded including Moore himself, who received a musket ball to the chest and died the following day.

Patriot losses amounted to ten killed and another three wounded.

HMS Margaretta served out the remainder of the Revolution as the renamed Machias Liberty.  British payback came on October 18 when Falmouth Massachusetts, the modern-site of Falmouth Maine and not to be confused with either of the modern-day towns of  Falmouth Massachusetts, or Falmouth Maine, was burned to the ground.

British forces attempted a second assault on Machias, with an amphibious landing of 1,000 troops over the 13th – 14th of August, 1777.  The attempt was beaten back by local militia and their Passamaquoddy and Penobscot allies, with both sides claiming victory.  The nearby village of Castine would be occupied in 1779 as would Machias itself during the War of 1812.  On both occasions, captured territories were re-dubbed the Crown Colony of “New Ireland”, a refuge for Loyalists and a base for future military operations.

The Crown Colonies of New Ireland survived for four years in the first instance and eight months in the second.  The failed Penobscot expedition of 1779 to retake the colony would result in the most catastrophic defeat suffered by American Naval forces until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor 162 years later, but that must be a story for another day.

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Britain defending New Ireland from the Penobscot Expedition by Dominic Serres

May 17, 1781 Faces of the Founders

To look into the eyes of the men who fought the Revolution is to compress time, to reach back before the age of photography, and look into the eyes of men who saw the birth of a nation.

Imagine for a moment, being able to see the faces of the American Revolution.

Dr Eneas Munson

Not the paintings. Those are nothing out of the ordinary, save for the talent of the artist.  I mean their photographs. Images that make it possible for you to look into their eyes.

In a letter dated May 17, 1781 and addressed to Alexander Scammell, General George Washington outlined his intention to form a light infantry unit, under Scammell’s leadership.

Comprised of Continental Line units from Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Hampshire, Milford, the Massachusetts-born Colonel’s unit was among the defensive forces which kept Sir Henry Clinton penned up in New York City, as much of the Continental army made its way south, toward a place called Yorktown.

FOTR, Rev Levi Hayes
Reverend Levi Hayes was a fifer with a Connecticut regiment

Among the men under Scammell’s command was Henry Dearborn, future Secretary of War under President Thomas Jefferson. A teenage medic was also present.  His name was Eneas Munson.

One day that medic would become Doctor Eneas Munson, professor of the Yale Medical School in New Haven Connecticut and President of the Medical Society of that state. 

And a man who would live well into the age of photography.

The American Revolution ended in 1783.  By the first full year of the Civil War, only 12 veterans of the Revolution remained on the pension rolls of a grateful nation.

Two years later, Reverend EB Hillard brought two photographers through New York and New England to visit, and to photograph what were believed to be the last six.  Each was 100 years or older at the time of the interview.

FOTR, Peter Mackintosh
Peter Mackintosh was apprenticed to a Boston blacksmith, the night of the Boston Tea Party

William Hutchings of York County Maine, still part of Massachusetts at the time was captured at the siege of Castine, at the age of fifteen.  British authorities said it was a shame to hold one so young a prisoner, and he was released.

Reverend Daniel Waldo of Syracuse, New York fought under General Israel Putnam, becoming a POW at Horse Neck.

Adam Link of Maryland enlisted at 16 in the frontier service.

Alexander Millener of Quebec was a drummer boy in George Washington’s Life Guard.

Clarendon, New York native Lemuel Cook would live to be one of the oldest veterans of the Revolution, surviving to the age of 107.  He and Alexander Millener witnessed the British surrender, at Yorktown.

FOTR, Jonathan Smith
Jonathan Smith Fought in the Battle of Long Island on August 29, 1778

Samuel Downing from Newburyport, Massachusetts, enlisted at the age of 16 and served in the Mohawk Valley under General Benedict Arnold.  “Arnold was our fighting general”, he’d say, “and a bloody fellow he was. He didn’t care for nothing, he’d ride right in. It was ‘Come on, boys!’ ’twasn’t ‘Go, boys!’ He was as brave a man as ever lived…He was a stern looking man, but kind to his soldiers. They didn’t treat him right: he ought to have had Burgoyne’s sword. But he ought to have been true. We had true men then, twasn’t as it is now”.

Hillard seems to have missed Daniel F. Bakeman, but with good reason.  Bakeman had been unable to prove his service with his New York regiment.  It wasn’t until 1867 that he finally received his veteran’s pension by special act of Congress.

FOTR, James Head
James Head was only thirteen when he joined the Continental Navy. Head was taken prisoner but later released in Providence, and walked 224 miles home to Warren, Maine.

Daniel Frederick Bakeman would become the Frank Buckles of his generation, the last surviving veteran of the Revolution. The 1874 Commissioner of Pensions report said that “With the death of Daniel Bakeman…April 5, 1869, the last of the pensioned soldiers of the Revolution passed away.  He was 109.

Most historians agree on 1839 as the year in which the earliest daguerreotypes were practically possible.

When Utah based investigative reporter Joe Bauman came across Hillard’s photos in 1976, he believed there must be others. 

Photography had been in existence for 35 years by Reverend Hillard’s time.  What followed was 30 years’ work, first finding and identifying photographs of the right vintage and then digging through muster rolls, pension files, genealogical records and a score of other source documents, to see if each was involved in the Revolution.

FOTR, George Fishley
George Fishley served in the Continental army, and served in the Battle of Monmouth

There were some, but it turned out to be a small group.  Peter Mackintosh for one, was a 16-year-old blacksmith’s apprentice, from Boston.  He was working the night of December 16, 1773, when a group of men ran into the shop scooping up ashes from the hearth and rubbing them on their faces.  It turns out they were going to a Tea Party.

James Head was a thirteen year-old Continental Naval recruit from a remote part of what was then Massachusetts.  Head would be taken prisoner but later released. He walked 224 miles from Providence to his home in what would one day be Warren, Maine.

Head was elected a Massachusetts delegate to the convention called in Boston, to ratify the Constitution.   He would die the wealthiest man in Warren, stone deaf from his service in the Continental Navy.

FOTR, Simeon Hicks
Rehoboth, Massachusetts “Minuteman” Simeon Hicks mobilized after the battles of Lexington and Concord, and help to seal off the British garrison in Boston.

George Fishley served in the Continental army and fought in the Battle of Monmouth, and in General John Sullivan’s campaign against British-allied Indians in New York and Pennsylvania.

Fishley would spend the rest of his days in Portsmouth New Hampshire, where he was known as ‘the last of our cocked hats.”

Daniel Spencer fought with the 2nd Continental Light Dragoons, an elite 120-man unit also known as Sheldon’s Horse after Colonel Elisha Sheldon.  First mustered at Wethersfield, Connecticut, the regiment consisted of four troops from Connecticut, one troop each from Massachusetts and New Jersey, and two companies of light infantry. On August 13 1777, Sheldon’s horse put a unit of Loyalists to flight in the little-known Battle of the Flocky, the first cavalry charge in history, performed on American soil

FOTR, Daniel Spencer
Daniel Spencer fought with the 2nd Continental Light Dragoons, an elite unit of 120 also known as Sheldon’s horse and known for the first cavalry charge, ever carried out on American soil

Bauman’s research uncovered another eight in addition to Hillard’s record, including a shoemaker, two ministers, a tavern-keeper, a settler on the Ohio frontier, a blacksmith and the captain of a coastal vessel, in addition to Dr. Munson.

The experiences of these eight span the distance from the Boston Tea Party to the battles at Monmouth, Quaker Hill, Charleston and Bennington.  Their eyes saw the likes of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton & Henry Knox, the battles of the Revolution and the final surrender, at Yorktown.

Bauman collected the glass plate photos of eight and paper prints of another five along with each man’s story, and published them in an ebook entitled “DON’T TREAD ON ME: Photographs and Life Stories of American Revolutionaries”.

To look into the eyes of such men is to compress time, to reach back before the age of photography, and look into the eyes of men who saw the birth of a nation.

April 5, 1761, That Other Ride, You Never Heard About

Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of…Sybil Ludington

“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.

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In 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.

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At 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.

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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 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. She 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 to six children, borne of the union. Gus died when the eldest was only eleven and Mary thirty-five, leaving Mary to raise Eskridge’ 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. Eleven-year-old George would grow to become a General in the cause of Liberty and first President of the United States, a man who himself died childless whom we remember today as “Father of the Country”, George Washington

October 19, 1778 The Road to Independence

Over the course of the Revolution, the Patriot cause received aid from sources both sought after and providential.

On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress declared a break from Great Britain. The former colonies were to be a free and independent nation. That same day and an ocean away, a business was formed to aid in the pursuit. An enterprise formed between the French House of Bourbon, and Spain.

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The Rodrigue Hortalez Trading Company was a ruse, a fictitious outfit organized by the French playwright, politician and spy, Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais.

In May of 1776, Beaumarchais obtained one million livres from France and the same amount from Spain, weeks before the committee of five put pen to paper, to compose the Declaration of Independence. In addition to all that money there were muskets, cannon, gunpowder, bombs, mortars, tents and enough clothing for 30,000 men, traveling from French ports to the “neutral” Netherlands Antilles island of St. Eustatius.

The delivery could not have been more timely. When General Washington took command on July 3, 1775 the Continental Army faced the most formidable military on the planet with enough powder for something like nine rounds per man.

Here’s a great trivia question for you…what foreign government first openly recognized the fledgling nation? It was little St. Eustatius who first acknowledged American Independence, firing the traditional “First Salute” on November 16 of that year, an overt recognition that an independent nation state in the form of the brig Andrew Doria, had entered its harbor.

Hortalez & Co. was one of four channels of Spanish aid. New Orleans Governor Luis de Unzaga began providing covert aid to the American rebels in 1776, expanding the following year under his successor, Bernardo de Gálvez y Madrid, Count of Gálvez.  

It is he for whom Galveston Texas, bears that name.

saratoga-reenactment

Meanwhile, the Spanish port at Havana was opened to the Americans under Most Favored Nation status, and further Spanish aid flowed in from the Gardoqui family trading company in Bilbao whose Patriarch, Don Diego de Gardoqui, would become Spain’s first Ambassador to the United States. According to the Ambassador, the House of Gardoqui alone supplied the American patriots with 215 bronze cannon, 30,000 muskets, 30,000 bayonets, 51,314 musket balls, 300,000 pounds of powder, 12,868 grenades, 30,000 uniforms, and 4,000 field tents. The Spanish Prime Minister, José Moñino y Redondo, Count of Floridablanca wrote in March 1777, “the fate of the colonies interests us very much, and we shall do for them everything that circumstances permit”.

The American Victory at Saratoga in October 1777 opened the door to more overt aid from the French, thanks largely to the tireless diplomacy of Benjamin Franklin and the Marquis du Lafayette. Representatives of the French and American governments signed the Treaties of Alliance and Amity and Commerce on February 6, 1778.

The “Southern Strategy” of 1778-80 cost the British army and its Hessian allies more casualties from disease, than from Patriot bullets. About 1,200 Hessian soldiers were killed in combat over the course of the war. By contrast, 6,354 more died of disease and 5,500 deserted, later settling in the fledgling United States.

In February 1781, General Washington sent Lafayette south at the head of a handpicked force of 1,200 New England and New Jersey troops, and 1,200 French allies.  Washington himself lead an army he himself described as “not strong enough even to be beaten”.

5,500 French Army troops led by the Comte de Rochambeau landed in Rhode Island that summer, linking up with General Washington’s Patriot army. Meanwhile, Lafayette harassed and shadowed Cornwallis’ much larger force as it moved north through North Carolina and east toward the Chesapeake Bay.

Cornwallis was looking for a deep water port from which to link up with his ships. It was at this time that Lafayette received help from a slave named James, on the New Kent Armistead Farm. James pretended to serve Cornwallis in Yorktown while sending valuable military information to Lafayette and Washington, who was now moving south through New Jersey with Rochambeau. The man would later legally change his name to James Lafayette.

rochambeau-plaque
“To the generous help of your Nation and to the bravery of its troops must be attributed in a great degree to that independence for which we have fought, and which after a severe conflict of more than five years have been obtained”.

Meanwhile, Rear Admiral Francois Joseph Paul, the Comte de Grasse, was in Santo Domingo, meeting with the representative of Spain’s King Carlos III, Francisco Saavedra de Sangronis. De Grasse had planned to leave several warships in Santo Domingo, now capital of the Dominican Republic, to protect the French merchant fleet. Saavedra promised assistance from the Spanish navy, enabling de Grasse to sail north with all of his warships. He needed those ships.  The crucial Naval battle of the Revolution took place on September 5 when de Grasse defeated the British fleet of Rear Admiral Sir Thomas Graves cutting Cornwallis off, from the sea.

yorktown

French Admiral de Barras arrived from Newport a few days later, carrying vital siege equipment, while de Grasse himself carried 500,000 silver pesos from Havana to help with the payroll and siege costs at the final Battle of Yorktown.

If there was ever a “window of opportunity”, the siege of Yorktown was it. Fully ½ of Cornwallis’ troops were sick with Malaria during the siege, a disease to which the Americans had built some degree of immunity. Most of the French were newly arrived, and thus had yet to encounter the disease’ one-month gestation.

Now out of options, General Cornwallis surrendered on October 19, 1781, the day his relief force finally sailed out of New York Harbor.

Over the course of the Revolution, the Patriot cause received aid from sources both sought after and providential. Ben Franklin, John Jay and John Adams would negotiate through two more years and four British governments before it was done. The Treaty of Paris was at last signed on September 3, 1783. The American war for Independence, had come to an end.

September 21, 1776 One Life to Lose

An ardent patriot in the cause of American independence, the young school teacher turned spy placed his trust, where it did not belong.

From the earliest days of the American Revolution, the nine Hale brothers of Coventry Connecticut fought on the Patriot side. Five of them were there to help out at the battles at Lexington and Concord. The youngest and most famous brother was still at home in New London at the time, finishing the term of a teaching contract.

Nathan Hale’s unit participated in the siege of Boston. Hale himself joined General 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.

On June 29, General Howe appeared at Staten Island 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. Washington declined to receive the letter, saying there was no one present by that address. Howe tried the letter again on the 16th, this time addressing “George Washington, Esq., etc., etc.”. Again, Howe’s letter was refused.

British Landing
British Landing on Long island

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”.

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 the adversary was trapped and waiting to be destroyed at their convenience.

Retreat-from-LI
British retreat from Long Island

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, oarlocks stuffed with rags, the Patriot army withdrew, as a rearguard tended fires, convincing the redcoats in their trenches that the Americans were still there.

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

The Battle of Long Island would almost certainly have ended in disaster for the Patriot cause, 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 became increasingly desperate for information on British movements.

Nathan Hale Capture

Washington asked for volunteers for a dangerous mission, to go behind enemy lines, as a spy.  Up stepped a volunteer.  His name was Nathan Hale.

Hale set out on his mission on September 10, disguised as a Dutch schoolmaster. He was successful for about a week but appears to have been something less than “street smart”.  The young and untrained Patriot-turned spy, placed his trust where it did not belong.

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.

The hanging of Nathan Hale

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.”

The “stay behind” spy Hercules Mulligan would have far greater success reporting on British goings-on, from the 1776 capture of New York to the ultimate withdrawal seven years later.  But that is a story for another day.

Nathan Hale was arrested on September 21, 1776, and hanged as a spy. He was 21. CIA.gov describes Hale as “The first American executed for spying for his country”.

Nathan Hale

There is no official account of Nathan Hale’s final words, but we have an eyewitness statement from British Captain John Montresor, who was present at the hanging.

Montresor spoke with American Captain William Hull the following day under flag of truce.  He gave Hull the following account: “‘On the morning of his execution,’ said Montresor, ‘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‘.

George-Washington-Brooklyn-Heights

August 30, 1776 1776

The astonishing part of this story is it all took place in the midst of a plague vastly more deadly than the COVID-19 pandemic, of our own age.

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

1776 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 wilds 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 now faced the prospect of another Bunker Hill, a British victory which had come at a cost he could ill afford, to pay again.  

The eleven-month siege of Boston came to an end on March 17 when Howe’s 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 with it but, for now, 1776 was shaping up to be a very good year.

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

Tory and Patriot alike understood the strategic importance of New York, as the center of communication between the upper and lower colonies. 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 return.

The 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. 

The Howe brothers attempted to negotiate on July 14 with a letter to General Washington, addressed: “Georg Washington, Esq.” The letter was returned unopened by Washington’s aide Joseph Reed who explained there’s nobody over here, by that address. Again the letter came back addressed to “George Washington, Esq., etc.,” the etc. meaning… “and any other relevant titles.” That letter too came back unopened but this time, with a message. The general would meet with one of Howe’s subordinates. The meeting took place on July 20 when Howe’s representative offered pardon, for the American side. General Washington responded as they had done nothing wrong his side had no need, of any pardons. But thanks anyway.

By August 12 the British force numbered some 400 vessels with 73 warships and a force of 32,000 camped on Staten island.

“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

Patriot forces were badly defeated at the Battle of Brooklyn, fought on August 27, 1776. In terms of number of troops deployed and actual combat it was the largest battle, of the Revolution. The British dug in for a siege, confident their adversary was cornered and waiting only to be destroyed at their convenience while the main Patriot army retreated to Brooklyn Heights.

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 tactical feats of all military history.   The surprise was complete for the British side, on waking for the morning of August 30 to discover the 9,000-strong Patriot army, had vanished. 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”.

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 from enveloping Washington’s position, altogether.

Desperate for information about the attack he was sure would come Washington dispatched a 22-year old Connecticut schoolteacher named Nathan Hale on September 10, to keep an eye on British movements. Disguised as a Dutch schoolteacher, Hale naïvely placed his trust, where it didn’t belong. He was betrayed in just over a week.

As expected, Howe landed a force at Kip’s Bay on September 15 and the Redcoats quickly occupied the city. Patriots delivered an unexpected check the following day at Harlem Heights against an overconfident force of British light troops. It was to be the only such bright spot for the Americans who were now driven out of New York and into New Jersey and finally, to Pennsylvania.

A great fire broke out on the 21st that destroyed as much as a quarter of all the buildings on Manhattan Island. Both sides pointed the finger of blame at the other but the cause, was never determined. Nathan Hale was hanged for a spy the following day with the words, ‘I only regret, that I have but one life to lose for my country‘.

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 for the Patriot cause.

Reduced to a mere 4,707 fit for duty, Washington faced the decimation of his army by the New Year, with the end of enlistment for fully two-thirds of an already puny force.  With nowhere to go but the offense, Washington crossed the Delaware river in the teeth of a straight-up gale over the night of December 25 and defeated a Hessian garrison at Trenton in a surprise attack on the morning of December 26.

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 the age.  Cornwallis suffered three defeats in a ten day period and withdrew his forces from the south of New Jersey.  American morale soared as enlistments, came flooding in.

The American war for independence had years to go.  Before it was over, 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. 

The astonishing part of this story is it all took place in the midst of a plague vastly more deadly than the COVID-19 pandemic, of our own age. Of 2,780,369 counted by the 1770 census* in this country no fewer than 130,000 died in the smallpox pandemic of 1775-1782. That works out to 4,815 per 100,000. Contrast that with a Coronavirus death rate of 194.14 per 100,000 according to Johns Hopkins University a death rate, of less than .2% *This figure does not include Native Americans who were not counted in the US census, until 1860.

A generation later and an ocean away, 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, when he said  “It was a damn close run thing”.

Feature image, top of page: Battle of Long Island, by Alonzo Chappel.

May 16, 1771 First Blood

At a place called Alamance, North Carolina Regulators sought justice under prevailing law. Four years later the two sides met once again, at  Lexington & Concord. This time, the choices came down to Liberty, or death.

The English Civil War of 1642 – 1651 is often referred to as a single event, a war fought over religious freedom and issues of governance, over the three kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland. The conflict pitting Royalists (“Cavaliers”) against Parliamentarians (“Roundheads) may be looked at as two or even three separate events, culminating in 1649 with the death by decapitation, of English King Charles I. There appeared for a time an interregnum, governed first by “Lord Protector” Oliver Cromwell and later by his son, Richard.

Cromwell died unexpectedly in 1658 most likely, from complications of a urinary infection. Richard Cromwell succeeded his father but, with no base of political support, the younger Cromwell was out within a year. By 1660 the dead King’s son Charles II was invited to return from exile, to rule over a restored monarchy.

Oliver Cromwell’s body was exhumed from Westminster Abbey on January 30, 1661 and “executed”, his head fixed to a pike and body thrown in a pit. Some will tell you Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: “When you strike at a king, you must kill him.” Others attribute the idea to Niccolò Machiavelli. Whoever it was, the man got that right.

Three years later, Charles II rewarded a group of 8 political allies for their support, in restoring him to the crown. A colony of their own in the New World, the lands between Virginia and Spanish Florida. The Province of Carolina, the name a Latin tribute to Charles (Carolus).

The land proved unwieldy to govern. So it was that deputy governors were appointed in 1691, to govern the separate provinces of north and south Carolina.

The region was no stranger to English settlement. Ananias and Eleanor Dare welcomed a daughter into the fledgling colony on Roanoke island on August 18, 1587, Virginia, the first English child born in the New World.

Virginia Dare would disappear along with the entire settlement, leaving only the cryptic words “Croatan” carved into a post and “Cro”, carved into a tree.

The child’s grandfather John White and others would search for the settlers, in vain. What became of the Lost Colony of Roanoke remains a mystery, to this day.

Other efforts failed to establish permanent settlements in North Carolina until 1648, when Virginians Henry Plumpton and Thomas Tuke purchased tracts of land from indigenous tribes. Other Virginians moved in over the next ten years either buying land from native Americans, or obtaining grants.

By 1729, the 8 “Lord Proprietors” had sold their interests. The colonies of North and South Carolina, reverted to the crown.

Following the union of England and Scotland to form the “United Kingdom” in 1707, waves of Scottish immigrants arrived in the colonies. Some 145,000 Lowland Scots, Highland Scots and Ulster “Scots-Irish” arrived over the next seven decades.

Early arrivals among the latter encountered intolerance and violence in the New England colonies. Philadelphia became for a time the preferred destination, but the Pennsylvania frontier was already suffering the early raids from what would become the French and Indian War. By the 1740s, the vast majority of Scots and Scots-Irish immigrants were headed for North Carolina.

Poorer than their English counterparts, these Scots and Scots-Irish newcomers turned west to farm the familiar, rolling hills of the Piedmont and Sand Hills. In the 1760s, great waves of internal migrants left the eastern cities in search of better opportunities in the rural west. The merchants, businessmen and lawyers of this second wave upset the social order and long-established political customs of the region,

Class differences were exacerbated by a long period of drought. Poor “Dirt Farmers” increasingly went into debt to these new arrivals. Between 1755 and 1765, court records reflect a sixteen-fold increase in collection actions. Such suits often lead to planters losing homes and property. Newly arriving lawyers used superior knowledge of the law, many times to unfair advantage. To their victims, this “Courthouse Ring” was seen as grabbing political power for themselves. Grasping clerks and sheriffs in pursuit of taxes from cash-strapped farmers did little to lessen the sense that newcomers, were using the system for their own enrichment.

As Sons of Liberty groups from Wilmington to Boston protested the Stamp Act of 1765, a schoolteacher named Sims delivered the “Nutbush Address”, railing about abuses of county clerks, lawyers and sheriffs and demanding the preservation, of equality under the law. The poor farmer he argued, was often subjected to fees in excess of the debt in question.

Resentments grew and deepened with the arrival of royal Governor William Tryon, in 1765. A system depending on the integrity of extortionate and self-dealing officials could not stand. Governor Tryon’s support of these people formed the tipping point.

Tryon Palace, built 1770

Tryon went directly to work on a residence, befitting a man of his exalted stature. Additional taxes were levied on already strained farmers and, in 177o, Tryon moved in with his English heiress wife, Margaret.

Groups of self-styled “Regulators” had already risen up by this time, to demand honest government and fair taxation. The Tryon Palace was the final straw. In Orange County alone some 6,000 to 7,000 of the 8,000 residents at this time, supported the Regulators. No matter. To the wealthy businessmen, politicians and lawyers of the new social order, theirs was nothing but a peasant uprising, and would not be tolerated.

In 1768, a group of Regulators assaulted the courthouse, at Hillsborough. Lawyers were beaten and the shops of local businessmen, ransacked. With cases pending against several of their leaders, Regulators demanded that they themselves, be appointed jurors. Judge Richard Henderson adjourned the court with a promise to return in the morning but instead left town, in the dark of night.

Regulators deposited human waste on the judges seat. A long-dead slave was laid out on the lawyer’s bar. The mob looted and burned the judges home, stables and barn, but not before drinking all his alcohol.

Acts of violence became a regular of the western counties. On May 9, 1771, Governor Tryon showed up in Hillsborough at the head of 1,000 troops and 150 officers, to put an end to it. Not far away some 2,000 Regulators, some say as many as 6,000, were spoiling for a fight. More a leaderless mob than a disciplined force, the two sides first clashed on May 15, when Regulators captured two of the Governor’s militia.

As far as Tryon was concerned, these people were in open rebellion. The Regulators appear not to have understood the seriousness, of the situation. At 8:00 the following morning, the column approached the Regulator camp.

Captain Philemon Hawkins II came forward with a message:

Alamance Camp, Thursday, May 16, 1771

“To Those Who Style Themselves “Regulators”: In reply to your petition of yesterday, I am to acquaint you that I have ever been attentive to the interests of your County and to every individual residing therein. I lament the fatal necessity to which you have now reduced me by withdrawing yourselves from the mercy of the crown and from the laws of your country”…

William Tryon

Reverend David Caldwell departed the Regulator camp with one Robert Thompson, to negotiate. Caldwell was warned away but Tryon took Thompson, as hostage. History fails to record what was said but, in a moment of anger, the governor grabbed a musket from his militia and shot Robert Thompson, dead. Tryon’s flag bearer was fired upon and responded, “Fire and be Damned!. When the shooting stopped, both sides counted nine dead. Dozens to as many as 200 regulators, were wounded.

With 13 Prisoners, the royal Governor executed one of them, a man named James Pugh, right there in camp. Tryon hanged six of the remaining twelve in the following days. The other six were pardoned, in exchange for oath of fealty.

Was the Battle of Alamance the first action of the Revolution? Historians differ but, this is certain. A year later and a day’s drive on modern highways, Rhode Island Sons of Liberty burned the customs schooner HMS Gaspée to the water’s edge. The King’s “Tea Act” lead to the Boston Tea Party, a year later.  A blizzard of regulations came down in 1774, called the “Intolerable Acts”. The “Liberty and Union” flag, the first distinctly American flag in history flew that October, above the Massachusetts town of Taunton. Something had begun, not to be denied.

At Alamance, Regulators sought justice under prevailing law. Four years later later the sides met once again, at  Lexington & Concord. This time, the choices came down to Liberty, or death.

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