March 11, 1805 Why can I not Fight for my Country too?

“Wrought upon at length, you may say, by an enthusiasm and frenzy that could brook no control – I burst the tyrant bands, which held my sex in awe, and clandestinely, or by stealth, grasped an opportunity, which custom and the world seemed to deny, as a natural privilege”. – Deborah Sampson

Her mother was Deborah Bradford Sampson, great-granddaughter of William Bradford, the Mayflower passenger and later Governor of Plymouth Colony. As the mother of seven, Deborah did the best she could. She also raised her young niece whose parents and baby brother were killed and scalped, by Indians. She was not one to make great choices in men, though. Jonathan Sampson would abandon his wife and children to start a new life, in Maine.

Deborah Sampson was the 5th child of this union, born in 1760 in the southeastern Massachusetts town of Plympton. Her father left the family destitute, and all the Sampson children were sent off to live with friends and relatives, a common practice at that time.

Today her bronze likeness greets visitors to the Sharon town library, 22 miles south of Boston. So, who is Deborah Sampson?

Sharon town library

At age ten, Deborah became an indentured servant to the family of Jeremiah Thomas, of Middleborough. She was treated well but, in 18th century New England, female education wasn’t a priority. Deborah would overcome the obstacle, persuading the Thomas sons to share their lessons with her. The episode would reveal a lot of who she’d become in later life.

As Revolution came to the soon-to-be former British colonies, Deborah supported herself as a schoolteacher. She became skilled at weaving and light carpentry and sold milking stools and pie crimpers, door to door.

In 1782, Deborah Sampson entered the life for which we know her, today. She bound her breasts with a linen cloth, donned male attire and went to war for her country. As a soldier.

In an age when the average man stood five-foot six-inches tall, Deborah stood 5’8″. With “plain features” according to a neighbor and what her biographer described as a “waist [which] might displease a coquette”, the transition wasn’t as unlikely as it would seem.

She joined an army unit in Middleborough under the assumed name of Timothy Thayer. She almost pulled it off too before being recognized, by a local. She paid back that part of her signing bonus not already spent and tried again, this time where she wouldn’t be known. Fifty miles away, in Uxbridge.

Sampson joined a light infantry unit under the assumed name of Robert Shirtliff, part of the 4th Massachusetts Regiment.

Deborah Sampson fought for a year and a half, as a man, and not in some rear-echelon outfit. The light infantry soldier was specifically chosen to be bigger and stronger than average, charged with rapid flanking movements, rearguard defense and forward reconnaissance, for units on the move. It was not a place where anyone would expect to find someone of her sex.

That baby-smooth chin earned her no end of grief from her fellow soldiers, but she persevered. Sampson fought in several skirmishes, the first outside Tarrytown New York, on July 3, 1782. There she received a deep gash on the forehead and two musket balls, to her thigh. Terrified that her sex would be discovered, she begged her fellow soldiers not to intervene. Her pleas fell on deaf ears. She was put on a horse, and dragged off to the hospital.

Doctors tended to her forehead but she sneaked out before they could get a look at that leg. Using a pen knife and sewing needle, Deborah removed one of the balls, herself. The other was too deep. She would carry it with her for the rest of her life, deep inside a wound that never quite healed.

The war was basically over following the American victory at Yorktown, yet negotiations dragged on, for a year. Even then, American soldiers remained in uniform.

On April 1, 1783, Sampson was assigned to be waiter to Major General John Paterson. That June a contingent of soldiers under General Paterson, were ordered to put down an anti-government protest by some 400 continental soldiers known as the Pennsylvania mutiny of 1783.

Deborah fell ill while in Philadelphia. Delirious, fading in and out of consciousness it was doctor Barnabas Binney who removed her clothes only to find the linen cloth, which bound her breasts. Thus discovered she was removed to the doctor’s home where the female members of the household joined in her care, with a trained nurse.

“Robert Shirtliff” recovered and, handed a note to give to General Paterson, assumed her secret was betrayed. She was right. Other women had been reprimanded for what she had done but Paterson seemed to admire what she’d accomplished. She was sent home with an honorable discharge, a few words of advice and enough money, to get home to Massachusetts.

She married one Benjamin Gannett two years later and moved to the Gannett family farm, in Sharon. There the couple raised three kids plus an orphan, but life was hard. As farms go this one was small, the soil depleted from generations of use.

In 1792 she petitioned the Massachusetts legislature for back pay, withheld because of her sex. She was awarded 34 pounds plus interest dating back to her 1783 discharge. The measure was signed by governor John Hancock.

Sampson went on a speaking tour where she’d extoll traditional feminine roles. Then she’d step out and return to the stage in uniform, flawlessly performing a long and taxing series of military drills. She did it for money but, once expenses were paid there was little left. She often borrowed money from her family and from a friend, named Paul Revere.

Revere wrote to Massachusetts member of Congress William Eustis in 1804: “I have been induced to enquire her situation, and character, since she quit the male habit, and soldiers uniform; for the more decent apparel of her own gender… humanity and justice obliges me to say, that every person with whom I have conversed about her, and it is not a few, speak of her as a woman with handsome talents, good morals, a dutiful wife, and an affectionate parent.

On this day in 1805, Congress approved her application. An invalid pension of $4 a month.

Deborah Sampson wasn’t the first woman awarded a military pension, that honor went to Margaret Cochran Corbin. At the battle of Fort Washington on November 16, 1776, Corbin continued to fire the gun in whose service her husband was killed, only minutes before. A fine job she did too, before being hit by enemy fire. With her jaw and her left breast severely damaged, her left arm all but ripped from her body, Corbin entered captivity following British victory.

Corbin never did regain use of that left arm. Gruff and thoroughly unfeminine she made few friends among the women of her age, preferring instead the rough and masculine company of fellow soldiers.

Deborah Sampson adopted the more traditional role of wife and mother and died of yellow fever in her 66th year. She went to her rest in the Rock Ridge cemetery in Sharon, Massachusetts. So it is the bronze likeness of Massachusetts’ “official heroine” greets visitors to the Sharon town library, the only person so honored, by an American state.

Every day, visitors of all ages pass her likeness, in front of that library. Do they know her name? Who knows, but wouldn’t she set a fine example for our daughters and granddaughters. Not at all the sort of role model our girls are subjected to, in our own day and age.

December 16, 1773 Tea Party

7,000 gathered at Old South Meeting House on December 16th, 1773, the last day of Dartmouth’s deadline. Royal Governor Hutchinson held his ground, refusing Dartmouth permission to leave. Adams announced that “This meeting can do nothing further to save the country.”


In the time of Henry VIII, British military outlays as a percentage of central government expenses averaged 29.4%.   That number skyrocketed to 74.6% in the 18th century, and never dropped below 55 percent.

The Seven Years’ War alone, fought on a global scale from 1756 – ‘63, saw England borrow the unprecedented sum of £58 million, doubling the national debt and straining the British economy.

For the American colonies, the conflict took the form of the French and Indian War.  The British government saw its American colonies as the beneficiary of much of their expense, and wanted to be reimbursed.  For the colonists, the never-ending succession of English wars meant that they were largely left alone to run their own affairs.

Several measures were taken to collect revenues, as colonists bristled at the heavy handed taxation policies of the 1760s.. The Sugar Act, the Currency Act:  in one 12-month period, Parliament passed the Stamp Act, Quartering Act, and the Declaratory Act, and deputized Royal Navy Sea Officers to enforce customs laws in colonial ports.

The merchants and traders of Boston specifically cited “the late war” and the expenses related to it, concluding the Boston Non-Importation Agreement of August 1, 1768. The agreement prohibited the importation of a long list of goods, ending with the statement ”That we will not, from and after the 1st of January 1769, import into this province any tea, paper, glass, or painters colours, until the act imposing duties on those articles shall be repealed”.

gaspee-shippey

The ‘Boston Massacre’ of 1770 was a direct result of the tensions between colonists and the “Regulars” sent to enforce the will of the Crown.  Two years later, Sons of Liberty looted and burned the HMS Gaspee in Narragansett Bay, RI.

The Tea Act, passed by Parliament on May 10, 1773, was less a revenue measure than it was an effort to prop up the British East India Company, by that time burdened with debt and holding eighteen million pounds of unsold tea.  The measure actually reduced the price of tea, but Colonists saw it as an effort to buy popular support for taxes already in force, and refused the cargo.  In Philadelphia and New York, tea ships were turned away and sent back to Britain while in Charleston, the cargo was left to rot on the docks.

British law required a tea ship to offload and pay customs duty within 20 days, or the cargo was forfeit.  The Dartmouth arrived in Boston at the end of November with a cargo of tea, followed by the tea ships Eleanor and Beaver.  Sam Adams called for a meeting at Faneuil Hall on the 29th, which then moved to Old South Meeting House to accommodate the crowd.  25 men were assigned to watch Dartmouth, making sure it didn’t unload.

7,000 gathered at Old South Meeting House on December 16th, 1773, the last day of Dartmouth’s deadline.  Royal Governor Hutchinson held his ground, refusing Dartmouth permission to leave.  Adams announced that “This meeting can do nothing further to save the country.”

sons-of-liberty

That night, somewhere between 30 and 130 Sons of Liberty, some dressed as Mohawk Indians, boarded the three ships in Boston Harbor.  There they threw 342 chests of tea, 90,000 pounds in all, into Boston Harbor.  £9,000 worth of tea was destroyed, worth about $1.5 million in today’s dollars.

In the following months, other protesters staged their own “Tea Parties”, destroying imported British tea in New York, Philadelphia, Charleston, and Greenwich, NJ.  There was even a second Boston Tea Party on March 7, 1774, when 60 Sons of Liberty, again dressed as Mohawks, boarded the “Fortune”.  This time they dumped 3,000lbs of the stuff into the harbor.  That October in Annapolis Maryland, the Peggy Stewart was burned to the water line.

For decades to come, the December 16 incident in Boston Harbor was blithely referred to as “the destruction of the tea.” The earliest newspaper reference to “tea party” wouldn’t come to us until 1826.

John Crane of Braintree is one of the few original tea partiers ever identified, and the only man injured in the event. An original member of the Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati and early member of the Sons of Liberty, Crane was struck on the head by a tea crate and thought to be dead.  His body was carried away and hidden under a pile of shavings at a Boston cabinet maker’s shop.  It must have been a sight when John Crane “rose from the dead”, the following morning.

intolerable-acts

Great Britain responded with the “Intolerable Acts” of 1774, including the occupation of Boston by British troops.    Minutemen clashed with “Lobster backs” a few months later, on April 19, 1775. 

No one alive today knows who fired the first shot at Lexington Green. History would record that sound, as “The shot heard ’round the world”.

May 14, 1796 Revolution in the midst of Pandemic

Had the program begun a year earlier, the US/Canadian map might look quite different, than it does today.

VACCINATION_06Childhood memories of standing in line. Smiling. Trusting. And then…the Gun. That sound. Whack! The scream.  That feeling of betrayal…being shuffled along. Next!

Ask anyone of a certain age and they can show you the scar, round or oblong, jagged around the edges and just a little lower than the surrounding skin.

Between 1958 and 1977, the World Health Organization conducted a great campaign, a global effort to rid the world of the great scourge, of smallpox.

Child_with_Smallpox_Bangladesh
Young girl afflicted with smallpox, Bangladesh, 1973

Today we face a worldwide pandemic of the COVID19 virus, calculated to produce a crude mortality rate of .28% and an Infection Fatality Rate (IFR), of 1.4%.  Hat Tip worldometers.info

The four Variola virus types responsible for smallpox produce a death rate between one in ten at the low end and two – three out of four with an average of 30%.

The disease is as old as history, believed to have evolved from an African rodent virus, at least 16,000 years ago.  The Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses V died of smallpox in 1145, BC.

Survivors are left with severe scarring and often blinded.  Josef Stalin was famously pockmarked after acquiring the illness at age 7.    Other famous survivors include Abraham Lincoln, Queen Elizabeth I and Pocahontas.

image003And did you know?  The American Revolution was fought out, entirely in the midst of a smallpox pandemic.

How it all began, is uncertain.  By the fall and winter of 1775, the disease was raging through British-occupied Boston.

In the south, escaped slaves crossed over to British lines only to contract smallpox, and die.  The disease hit Texas in 1778.  New Orleans was particularly hard hit with its densely populated urban areas.  By 1780 it was everywhere from Mexico to the Great Plains to Alaska.

Native populations were particularly hard hit.  As many as 11,000 were killed in the west of modern-day Washington state, reducing populations from 37,000 to 26,000 in just seven years.53baa4eb65efbcef1e7377485bf1f97b.jpegThe idea of inoculation was not new.  Terrible outbreaks occurred in Colonial Boston  in 1640, 1660, 1677-1680, 1690, 1702, and 1721, killing hundreds, each time.  At the time, sickness was considered the act of an angry God.  Religious faith frowned on experimentation on the human body.

On June 26, 1721, Dr. Zabdiel Boylston in consultation with Reverend Cotton Mather, performed the first smallpox inoculations in America.  Two male slaves, an adult and and a two-year-old were inoculated, along with Dr. Boylston’s 6-year-old son.  All three became mildly ill but recovered, never again to be bothered by smallpox.inoculationColonists were chary of the procedure, deeply suspicious of how deliberately infecting a healthy person, could produce a desirable outcome.  John Adams submitted to the procedure in 1764 and gave the following account:

“Dr. Perkins demanded my left arm and Dr. Warren my brother’s [probably Peter Boylston Adams]. They took their Launcetts and with their Points divided the skin about a Quarter of an inch and just suffering the blood to appear, buried a thread (infected) about a Quarter of an inch long in the Channell. A little lint was then laid over the scratch and a Piece of Ragg pressed on, and then a Bandage bound over all, and I was bid go where and do what I pleased…Do not conclude from any Thing I have written that I think Inoculation a light matter — A long and total abstinence from everything in Nature that has any Taste; two long heavy Vomits, one heavy Cathartick, four and twenty Mercurial and Antimonial Pills, and, Three weeks of Close Confinement to an House, are, according to my Estimation, no small matters.”

tumblr_m79lms1miv1rwijh0o1_500As Supreme Commander, General Washington had a problem.  An inoculated soldier would be unfit for weeks before returning to duty.  Doing nothing and hoping for the best was to invite catastrophe but so was the inoculation route, as even mildly ill soldiers were contagious and could set off a major outbreak.

The northern army was especially hard hit in Quebec, with general Benedict Arnold reporting some 1,200 out of 3,200 Continentals sick in the Montreal area, most with smallpox.  It was “almost sufficient to excite the pity of Brutes” he said, “Large barns [being] filled with men at the very heighth of smallpox and not the least things, to make them comfortable and medicines being needed at both Fort George and Ticonderoga.”

Major General John Thomas, Commander of the Army in Quebec was dead of the disease.  John Adams complained “The smallpox is ten times more terrible than Britons, Canadians and Indians, together.”

By mid-1776, half the continentals in and around Montreal were infected.  The order was given to withdraw.  John Adams cited smallpox, as the cause.  Smallpox01In February 1777 while encamped in Morristown,  Washington became convinced that the benefits outweighed the risks.  Washington himself had survived the dreadful disease.  Martha Washington had undergone the procedure, known as variolation.    He ordered his medics to cut small incisions on the arms of his troops, and to rub the pus from infected soldiers, into the wounds.  Thus inoculated, soldiers were kept under strict quarantine and issued either new or “well washed, air’d and smoaked” clothing. 

The program had enthusiastic support from the likes of Jefferson, Franklin and Adams.  Nearly every continental soldier was inoculated before the end of the war.  Had the program begun a year earlier, the US/Canadian map might look quite different, than it does today.

In Washington’s day, the method used live virus, accounting for the long sick time and high mortality rate. In the 1790s, Doctor Edward Jenner of Berkeley, Gloucestershire, England observed milkmaids developing the signature pustules of smallpox on their hands, after touching infected udders. The Orthopoxvirus responsible for “Cowpox” is very similar to that which produces smallpox but results in far milder symptoms. history-smallpox-Google-SearchThe implications were stunning.  Orthopox could be administered in place of live Variola, virtually eliminating side effects and reducing the chance of smallpox outbreak, to zero.

On this day in 1796, Dr. Jenner administered the first modern smallpox vaccination.  The new vaccine was soon being used around the world.

18740597_1338905459526756_4752634614505034047_nSo it was on December 9, 1979, smallpox was officially described, as eradicated.  The only infectious disease ever so declared.

Few among us born after 1980, bear the scar their parents know so well.  Today, stockpiles of live Variola exist only in laboratories, and military bioweapon stockpiles.  Just in case of terrorism, or some rogue nation ever resorting to biological warfare.

Today we grapple with a virus, with a 98.6% recovery rate among those infected.  God help us all if that other stuff ever gets out of the lab.

 

May 12, 1780 Disaster at Charleston

As the British war effort collapsed in the north, Secretary of State for the American Department Lord George Germain set his sights on a “southern strategy”.  The idea had been around since 1775, that the crown enjoyed greater support in the south.  Break the back of the rebels down there, and the war would be won.

With the Revolution approaching the two-year mark, British war planners believed that the fractious northeast must be split off and separated from the more loyalist mid-Atlantic and southern colonies.  A three prong pincer movement was devised by which the western pincer under Lieutenant Colonel Barrimore Matthew “Barry” St. Leger was to move east from Ontario along the Mohawk river, meeting up with a combined force of British regulars, Hessian mercenaries, loyalists and Indian allies under General John “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne, moving south from Quebec.

General William Howe was to move north from New York city and converge on the Hudson river valley, completing the pincer movement.

SARAmapFOSTBurgoyne’s movements began well with the near-bloodless capture of Fort Ticonderoga in early July, 1777. By the end of July, logistical and supply problems caused Burgoyne’s forces to bog down. On July 27, a Huron-Wendat warrior allied with the British army murdered one Jane McCrae, the fiancé of a loyalist serving in Burgoyne’s army. Gone was the myth of  “civilized” British conduct of the war, as dead as the dark days of late 1776 and General Washington’s “Do or Die” crossing of the Delaware and the Christmas attack on Trenton.

McCrae’s killing was as a hornet’s nest to the cause of patriot recruitment, and a severe blow to loyalist morale.

The_Death_of_Jane_McCrea_John_Vanderlyn_1804_cropMeanwhile, attempts to solve the supply problem culminated in the August 16 Battle of Bennington, a virtual buzz saw in which New Hampshire and Massachusetts militiamen under General John Stark along with the Vermont militia of Colonel Seth Warner and Ethan Allen’s “Green Mountain Boys”, killed or captured nearly 1,000 of Burgoyne’s men.

Burgoyne’s Indian support evaporated in the wake of the disaster at Bennington, as did that of Barry St. Leger, following the failed siege of Fort Stanwix. St. Leger’s September arrival at Ticonderoga, was too late to save Burgoyne from what was to come.

Fun fact: On June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress adopted the resolution: “Resolved, that the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white, on a blue field, representing a new constellation.” The measure wouldn’t be adopted until the September 3 signature of the Secretary of congress but the design was well publicized.  Massachusetts recruits brought the news to Fort Stanwix, also known at the time as Fort Schuyler. The garrison cut up petticoats and other articles of clothing, and fashioned a banner.  So it was the first official United States flag was raised over Fort Schuyler during the battle of August 3, 1777.

As it happened, General Howe moved his forces south by sea to capture Philadelphia. It was Burgoyne alone who met the Americans in battle, first at the small but costly September 19 victory at Freeman’s Farm and then at the decisive battle for Saratoga, the disastrous October 7 defeat at Bemis Heights.

The British defeat was comprehensive.  Burgoyne surrendered ten days later, bringing the kingdom of France and Spain into the war on the American side.

il_794xN.920226534_c944Meanwhile Howe’s capture of Philadelphia met with only limited success, leading to his resignation as Commander in Chief of the American station and Sir Henry Clinton, withdrawing troops to New York.

As the war effort collapsed in the north, Secretary of State for the American Department Lord George Germain set his sights on a “southern strategy”.  The idea had been around since 1775, that the crown enjoyed greater support in the south.  Break the back of the rebels down there, and the war would be won.

The southern strategy began well in late 1778, with the capture of Georgia’s colonial capital at Savannah.  Patriot forces held Savannah under siege between September 16 and October 18 1779, without success.  A series of diplomatic and logistical blunders culminated in the frontal assault of October 9, one of the bloodiest American defeats of the revolution, saved largely by the intervention of 545 black colonial troops of the “Chasseurs Volontaires de Saint-Domingue” who later returned to their homeland to help win the Haitian Revolution.

Franklin-Sq-Monument
Franklin Square Monument remembers the contributions of the Haitian militia, in the Siege of Savannah

Savannah remained in British hands, for the rest of the war.  Meanwhile, the Patriot forces of General Benjamin Lincoln found themselves under siege South Carolina, penned up in Charleston by a force of some 5,000 under generals Sir Henry Clinton and Lord Charles Cornwallis.

George Washington had once departed a city in the face of superior enemy forces but Lincoln bent to the wishes of Municipal leaders, and hunkered down to defend the city.

In 1776 and again in 1779, Charleston had successfully repulsed the British invader.  In the Spring of 1780, Henry Clinton succeeded where others had failed.  Outnumbered and outsmarted with Lincoln’s forces bottled up in the city, Major General William Moultrie the hero of 1776, said “at this time, there never was a country in greater confusion and consternation.”

siege_charlestonFort Moultrie surrendered without a fight on May 7. Clinton demanded unconditional surrender the following day but Lincoln bargained for the “Honours of War”. Prominent citizens were by this time, asking Lincoln to surrender. On May 11, the British fired heated shot into the city, burning several homes. Benjamin Lincoln surrendered on May 12.

On hearing the news, American troops holding the towns of Ninety-Six and Camden surrendered, bringing the British haul to “5,266 prisoners, 311 artillery pieces, 9,178 artillery rounds, 5,916 muskets, 33,000 rounds of ammunition, 15 Regimental colours, 49 ships and 120 boats, plus 376 barrels of flour, and large magazines of rum, rice and indigo”. (H/T Wikipedia).

It was the worst American defeat, of the Revolution.

SiegeofCharlestonIn the summer of 1780, American General Horatio Gates suffered humiliating defeat at the Battle of Camden. Cornwallis idea of turning over one state after another to loyalists failed to materialize, as the ham-fisted brutality of officers like Banastre Tarleton, incited feelings of resentment among would-be supporters.  Like the Roman general Fabius who could not defeat the Carthaginians in pitched battle, General Washington’s brilliant protege Nathaniel Greene pursued a “hit & run” strategy of “scorched earth”, attacking supply trains harassing Cornwallis’ movements at every turn.

British tactics made Patriot militia stronger, not weaker and they proved it in October, defeating Loyalist militia at King’s Mountain in South Carolina, the “Greatest All-American fight of the Revolution”.

Kings-MountainThrough the Carolinas and on to Virginia, Greene’s forces pursued Cornwallis’ army. With Greene dividing his forces, General Daniel Morgan delivered a crushing defeat, defeating Tarleton’s unit at a place called Cowpens in January, 1781. The battle of Guilford Courthouse was an expensive victory, costing Cornwallis a quarter of his strength and forcing a move to the coast in hopes of resupply.

British troops were harassed that summer by Continentals under the Marquis de Lafayette. By October, Cornwallis found himself pinned down, under siege in a place called Yorktown with Washington himself before him and the French fleet of the Comte de Rochambeau, at his back.

The main British army surrendered on October 19, effectively ending the American Revolution. The ragtag militia once held in such contempt had stood toe to toe with the most powerful military on the planet.  And won.

 

March 5, 1770 Blood on the Snow

On this day in 1770, the insults of a cocky 13-year-old led to one of the seminal events, of the American Revolution.

In living memory, France and Great Britain have always been allies.  In war and peace from the Great War to World War 2 to the present day, but such was not always the case.  Between the Norman Invasion of 1066 and the Napoleonic Wars of 1802-1815, the two allies have found themselves in a state of war no fewer than forty times.

Throughout most of that history, the two sides would clash until one or the other ran out of money, when yet another treaty would be trotted out and signed.

New taxes would be levied to bolster the King’s treasury, and one or the other would be back for another round. The cycle began to change in the late 17th century for reasons which may be summed up with a single word.  Debt.

In the time of Henry VIII, British military outlays as a percentage of central government expenses averaged 29.4%. By 1694 the Nine Years’ War had left the English Government’s finances in tatters. £1.2 million were borrowed by the national treasury at a rate of 8 percent from the newly formed Bank of England.

The age of national deficit financing, had arrived.

In one of the earliest known debt issues in history, Prime Minister Henry Pelham converted the entire national debt into consolidated annuities known as “consols”, in 1752.  Consols paid interest like regular bonds, with no requirement that the government ever repay the face value.  18th century British debt soared as high as 74.6%, and never dropped below 55%.

The Seven Years’ War alone, fought on a global scale between 1756 to 1763, saw British debt double to the unprecedented sum of £150 million, straining the national economy.

American colonists experienced the conflict in the form of the French and Indian War, for which the Crown laid out £70,000,000.  The British government saw its American colonies as beneficiaries of their expense, while the tax burden on the colonists themselves remained comparatively light.  townsend

For American colonists, the never ending succession of English wars had accustomed them to running their own affairs.

The “Townshend Revenue Acts” of 1767 sought to force American colonies to pick up the tab for their own administration, a perfectly reasonable idea in the British mind. The colonists had other ideas.  Few objected to the amount of taxation as much as whether the British had the right to tax them at all. They were deeply suspicious of the motives behind these new taxes, and were not about to be subjugated by a distant monarch.

The political atmosphere was brittle in 1768, as troops were sent to Boston to enforce the will of the King. Rioters ransacked the home of a newly appointed stamp commissioner, who resigned the post following day. No stamp commissioner was actually tarred and feathered, a barbarity which had been around since the days of Richard III “Lionheart”, though several such incidents occurred at New England seaports.  More than a few loyalists were ridden out of town on the backs of mules.

The Massachusetts House of Representatives sent a petition to King George III asking for the repeal of the Townshend Act.  A Circular Letter sent to the other colonial assemblies, called for a boycott of merchants importing those goods affected by the act.  Lord Hillsborough responded with a letter of his own, instructing colonial governors in America to dissolve those assemblies which responded to the Massachusetts body.

tea-act-gettyimages-53071471The fifty gun HMS Romney arrived in May, 1769.  Customs officials seized John Hancock’s merchant sloop “Liberty” the following month, on allegations the vessel was involved in smuggling.  Already agitated over Romney’s impressment of local sailors, Bostonians began to riot. By October, the first of four regular British army regiments arrived in Boston.

On February 22, 1770, 11-year-old Christopher Seider joined a mob outside the shop of loyalist Theophilus Lillie.  Customs official Ebenezer Richardson attempted to disperse the crowd.  Soon the mob was outside his North End home.  Rocks were thrown and windows broken.  One hit Richardson’s wife.  Ebenezer Richardson fired into the crowd, striking Christopher Seider.  By nightfall, the boy was dead.  2,000 locals attended the funeral of this, the first victim of the American Revolution.

bostonmassacrebychampneyEdward Garrick was a wigmaker’s apprentice, who worked each day to grease and powder and curl the long hair of the soldier’s wigs.

Weeks earlier, the wigmaker had given British Captain-Lieutenant John Goldfinch, a shave.

A cocky 13-year old, Garrick spotted the officer and taunted the man, yelling “There goes the fellow that won’t pay my master!”

Goldfinch had paid the man the day before.  The officer wasn’t about to respond to an insult from some snotty kid but private Hugh White, on guard outside the State House on King Street, took the bait.  White said the boy should be more respectful and struck him on the head, with his musket.  Garrick’s buddy and fellow wigmaker’s apprentice Bartholomew Broaders began to argue with White, as a crowd gathered ’round to watch.

As the evening pressed on, church bells began to ring.  The crowd, now fifty and growing and led by the mixed-race former slave-turned sailor Crispus Attucks threw taunts and insults, spitting and daring Private White to fire his weapon.   The swelling mob turned from boisterous to angry as White took a more defensible position, against the State House steps.  Runners alerted Officer of the Watch Captain Thomas Preston to the situation, who dispatched a non-commissioned officer and six privates of the 29th Regiment of Foot, to back up Private White.

Bayonets fixed, the eight took a semi-circular defensive position with Preston himself, in the lead.  The crowd, now numbering in the hundreds, began to throw snowballs.  Then stones and other objects.  Private Hugh Montgomery was knocked to the ground and, infuriated, came up shooting.

2009_BostonMassacre_site_3658174192The two sides stopped for a few seconds to two minutes, depending on the witness.  Then they all fired.  A ragged, ill-disciplined volley.  There was no order, just the flash and roar of gunpowder on the cold late afternoon streets of a Winter’s day.  It was March 5.  When the smoke cleared, three were dead.  Two more lay mortally wounded and another six, seriously injured.

The mob moved away from the spot on King Street, now State Street, but continued to grow in the nearby streets.  Speaking from a balcony, acting Governor Thomas Hutchinson was able to restore some semblance of order, only by promising a full and fair inquiry.

Future President John Adams defended the troopers assisted by Josiah Quincy and Loyalist Robert Auchmuty.  Massachusetts Solicitor General Samuel Quincy and private attorney Robert Treat Paine handled the prosecution in two separate trials, one for Captain Preston, the other for the eight enlisted soldiers.

Two were convicted but escaped hanging, by invoking a medieval legal remnant called “benefit of clergy”. Each would be branded on the thumb in open court with “M” for murder.  The others were acquitted, leaving both sides complaining of unfair treatment.  It was the first time a judge used the phrase “reasonable doubt.”

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Boston Massacre–A Battle for Liberty. Murals of the Capitol, by Constantino Brumidi

The only conservative revolution in history, was fewer than six years in the future.

There is a circle of stones in front of the Old State House on what is now State Street, marking the site of the Boston Massacre.  British taxpayers continue to this day, to pay interest on the debt left to them, by the decisions of their ancestors.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Afterward

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

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

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

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

 

April 28, 1752 John Stark, American Cincinnatus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Frontiersman Simon Kenton, running the gauntlet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Battle of Bennington

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

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

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

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

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

April 19, 1775 Lexington and Concord

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 15, 1783 A Pair of Spectacles

The politician who alienates a battle hardened army in the field walks on dangerous ground.  Don’t pay for their services, that’s a good way to do it.

The great rebellion effectively came to an end in October 1781 with Lord Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown, though no one knew it at that time.  Eight years after the “shot heard round the world“, the American Revolution had slowed to a standoff.

King George III remained personally in favor of prosecuting the war even after the Patriot victory at Yorktown, while opinion in Parliament, was split.  Across the water, some 26,000 British troops remained in occupation in Charleston, Savannah and New York, backed up be a mighty fleet.

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The Americans’ greatest ally departed in 1782, never to return.  With state finances already prostrate with debt, l’Ancien régime (French: “the old order”) would be overthrown by its own revolution inside the next ten years, the French King Louis XVI and Queen Consort Marie Antoinette executed, by guillotine.

Negotiations carried on for nearly three years in Paris while, an hour’s drive north by modern highway from the British occupation of New York, the Continental Army waited at Newburgh.

France wasn’t the only one, ruined by this war.  The American Revolution debilitated the finances of all three principle belligerents, none more so than the new-born American Republic, itself.  In fact, the fledgling United States nearly died on this day in 1783, by the very hands which had given them birth.

The Articles of Confederation, ratified by the states in March 1781, provided for a loose alliance of sovereign states. In theory, Congress possessed the authority to govern foreign affairs, conduct war and regulate currency.  In practice, these powers were limited to a national body with no authority to enforce its will on the states.

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In 1780, Congress promised Continental officers a lifetime pension, equal to half-pay upon discharge.  The government in Philadelphia attempted to amend the Articles, to allow a new import duty or “impost”.  States were divided against the measure.  Two years later, the cupboard was bare.  Continental soldiers weren’t being paid at all.   

It wasn’t even possible to borrow.  That required evidence, of an income stream.

The politician who alienates a battle hardened army in the field walks on dangerous ground.  Don’t pay for their services, that’s a good way to do it.  At the outset of war, these guys left homes and fields and families, to risk their lives on behalf of the dream of Liberty.  Many among their number, had given all in service to that dream.

There was little to do during those long winter months of 1782-’83, but wait.  Each with his own financial hardship waiting at home, every man worried that his promised compensation, would not come.  The rumor mill worked overtime:  The Army would be disbanded.  The promised pensions would remain, unfunded.

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The vague unease of rumor turned to a fury of near certainty through the late winter months, as one overture after another met with defeat, in Congress.  On March 10, an unsigned letter believed to have been written by Major John Armstrong, aide to General Horatio Gates, urged unspecified action against the Continental Congress.  Another called for a meeting on the morning of March 11.  Events were building toward armed insurrection.  A coup d’état.

General George Washington reacted quickly, objecting in his General Orders of March 11 to the “disorderly” and “irregular” nature of such a meeting.  Washington specified the morning of March 15 for an officer’s meeting and requested a report, implying that he himself, would not be present.

The mood was one of surprise and anger when the Commander-in-Chief himself walked into the room, hard men pushed past the point of patience, and now determined to take action.  The General urged patience in a brief and impassioned speech remembered as the Newburgh address.

Washington’s words may as well have fallen on deaf ears.  There was little of the usual deference, in this room.

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Reconstructed Temple at the New Windsor Cantonment State Historic Site, where the critical meeting took place on March 15, 1783

The future President of the United States then produced a letter from a member of Congress, to read to his officers. The content is unimportant. George Washington gazed on the letter in his hands without speaking and, fumbling in his pocket, came up with a pair of reading glasses. These were new.  Few men in the room even knew the man required glasses.

Washington spoke:

Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.

The words were as a physical blow, on the men assembled in that room.  Obstinate and unheeding mere moments before, the realization dawned on all at once.  This man had been at their head and by their sides.  Washington had personally endured every bit of the hardship, as these men bent on mutiny.

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There was hardly a dry eye in the place.  The moment was broken for all time.  Bent on mutiny a mere moment before, the cream of the continental army now determined, to wait.  This Republic to which we owe so much may have died before it was born, two hundred thirty-six years ago on this day.  All but for one magnificent man with an actor’s sense of timing.  And a new pair of spectacles.

 

A Trivial Matter
At age twenty-six, George Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis, a widow with two children: Jacky and Patsy. The Father of the Nation never had any children of his own. At 6 feet, 3½ inches and 200-pounds, George Washington towered above his fellow Continental soldier, with an average height of 5-feet, 8-inches in height.

 

 

March 5, 1776 Head Fake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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British evacuation of Boston. March 17, 1776

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

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