May 2, 1779 Mary Silliman’s War

Much is written about the history of warfare.  The strategy, the tactics, and the means of supply which make it all happen.  Far less has been written about a subject, equally important, if not more so.  The very real service to the nation, provided by the loved ones, most often the women, when the warriors leave their homes.

Sometime around 1980, Commandant of the United States Marine Corps General Robert H. Barrow captured the nature of the art of the warrior:  “Amateurs think about tactics”, he wrote, “but professionals think about logistics.”  Lieutenant General Tommy Franks, Commander of the 7th Corps during Operation Desert Storm, was more to the point:  “Forget logistics, you lose.”

Much is written about the history of warfare.  The strategy, the tactics, and the means of supply which make it all happen.  Far less has been written about a subject, equally important, if not more so.  The very real service to the nation, provided by the loved ones, most often the women, when the warriors leave their homes.

Mary Fish Noyes Silliman
Mary Fish Noyes Silliman

In the early days of the American Revolution, Gold Selleck Silliman served as a Colonel in the Connecticut militia, later promoted to Brigadier General.  Silliman patrolled the southwestern border of Connecticut, where proximity to British-occupied New York was a constant source of danger.  Silliman fought with the New York campaign of 1776 and opposed the British landing in Danbury, the following year.

Mary (Fish) Noyes, the widow of John Noyes, was a strong, independent woman, of good pioneer stock.  She had to be.  In an age when women rarely involved themselves in the “business” side of the household, Mary’s first husband died intestate, leaving her executrix of the estate, and head of household.

Image21Gold Selleck Silliman, himself a widower, merged his household with that of Mary on May 24, 1775, in a marriage described as “rooted in lasting friendship, deep affection, and mutual respect”.  The two would have two children together, who survived into adulthood:   Gold Selleck (called Sellek) born in October 1777, and Benjamin, born in August 1779.

Understanding that the coming Revolution could take her second husband from her as well, Mary acquainted herself with Gold’s business affairs, as well as the workings of the farm.  Throughout this phase of the war, Mary Silliman ran the family farm, entertained militia officers, housed refugees of war violence, managed the labor of several slaves and that of her adult stepson, drew accounts and collected rent on her late first husband’s properties, all while her husband was away, leading the state militia.

Before the war, Gold Silliman served as Attorney for the Crown.  He returned to civil life in 1777 following the Battle of Ridgefield, becoming state’s attorney.

On May 2, 1779, nine Tories ostensibly under orders from General Henry Clinton, set out in a whale boat from Lloyd’s Neck on Long Island, rowing across Long Island sound and onto the Connecticut shore.  One of them, a carpenter, had worked on the Silliman home and knew it well.  Eight of them beat down the door in the dead of night, kidnapping Silliman and Billy,  Gold’s son by his first marriage.  Mary Silliman, six-months pregnant at the time, could do little but look on in horror.

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Lloyd’s Neck, Long Island

The two captives were taken to Oyster Bay in New York and finally to Flatbush, and held hostage at a New York farmhouse.  Patriot forces having no hostage of equal rank with whom to exchange for the General, the two Sillimans languished in captivity for seven months.

Mary Silliman wrote letters to Connecticut Governor Jonathan Trumbull, to no avail.  At last, heavily pregnant, she set out for the headquarters of General George Washington himself.  An aide responded that…sorry…had Silliman been kidnapped while wearing the uniform, efforts could be made to intercede.  As it was, the captive was a civilian.  He was on his own.

Mary was left to run the farm, including caring for her own midwife, after the woman was brutally raped during a lighting raid in which English forces burned family buildings and crops, along with much of Ridgefield.  All the while, Mary herself wanted nothing more than the return of her husband, and to become “the living mother of a living child”.

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From the film:  Mary Silliman’s War

With all other options exhausted, Mary contracted the services of one David Hawley, a full-time Naval Captain and part-time privateer.  Hawley staged a daring raid of his own, rowing across the sound and kidnapping a man suitable for exchange with Gold Silliman, in the person of Chief Justice Thomas Jones, of Long Island.

British authorities balked at the exchange and the stalemate dragged on for months.  In the end, Mary Silliman got her wish, becoming the living mother of a living child that August.  Gold Selleck and Billy Silliman were exchanged the following May, for Judge Jones.

The 1993 made-for-TV movie “Mary Silliman’s War” tells a story of non-combatants in the American Revolution.  The pregnant mothers and farm wives, as well as Silliman’s own negotiations for her husband’s release, by his Loyalist captors.  The film is outstanding, the history straight-up and unadulterated with pop culture nonsense, as far as I can tell.  The film is available for download, I found it for nine bucks.  It was nine dollars, well spent.

Feature image, top of page:  Silliman house, ca. 1890

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

April 26, 1777  The Female Paul Revere

The Dutchess County Militia had to be called up.  The Colonel himself had only a single night to prepare for battle, and this rider was exhausted.  The job would have to go to Colonel Ludington’s first-born.  His daughter, Sybil.

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

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.

Revere 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.

download (55)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, a long-standing advocate for attacks on civilian targets.  In 1777, Tryon was also a Major-General of the provincial army.  On April 25th, Tryon set sail for the Connecticut coast of Long Island Sound with a force of 1,800, intending to destroy Danbury.

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.

In April 1777, Ludington’s militia was disbanded for planting season, returned to homes across the countryside.  Soaked to the skin and exhausted, a rider arrived at the Ludington farm on the night of the 26th, on an equally soaked and exhausted horse.  With a driving rain cascading in sheets off an empty saddle, the rider explained the purpose of his visit.  15 miles away, British regulars and a loyalist force were burning Danbury to the ground.

The Dutchess County Militia had to be called up.  The Colonel himself had only a single night to prepare for battle, and this rider was done for.  The job would have to go to the Colonel’s first-born.  That meant Ludington’s daughter Sybil, and she was barely sixteen.

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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 darkness 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 beat back a highway bandit.

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

35 miles east of Danbury, General Benedict Arnold was gathering a force of 500 regular and irregular Connecticut militia, along with Generals David Wooster and Gold Selleck Silliman.

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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, earlier in the war.

Though the British operation was a tactical success, the mauling suffered at the hands of 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.

The old Keeler Tavern in Ridgefield is now a museum.  The British cannonball fired into the side of the building, remains there to this day.

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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 of 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.”

The pride which would one day be Arnold’s undoing, was assuaged.  For a time.

Henry Ludington became Aide-de-Camp to General George Washington, and grandfather to Harrison Ludington, future mayor of Milwaukee and the 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.

download (60)Mary Silliman was left to run the farm, and negotiate for the release of her husband.  The 1993 made-for-TV movie “Mary Silliman’s War” tells a story of non-combatants, pregnant mothers and farm wives, during the Revolution.

General 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, even George Washington himself, and then stepped off the pages of history.

Paul Revere’s famous ride would likewise have faded into obscurity, but for the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  86 years later.

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April 19, 1775  Shot Heard ‘Round the World

Taking positions across the village green to block the soldiers’ line of march, 80 “minutemen” turned and faced 700 of the most powerful military, on the planet.

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Old North Church, Boston

The column of British soldiers moved out from Boston late on the 18th, their mission to confiscate the American arsenal at Concord and to capture the Patriot leaders Sam Adams and John Hancock, known to be hiding in Lexington.

Boston Patriot leaders 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 that 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. It was Prescott alone who would make it as far as Concord, though hundreds of riders would fan out across the countryside, before the night was through.

The column entered Lexington at sunrise on April 19, bayonets gleaming in the early morning light.  Armed with a sorry assortment of weapons, colonial militia was waiting, pouring out of Buckman Tavern and fanning 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, 80 “minutemen” turned and faced 700 of the most powerful military, on the planet.

Stand Your Ground

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.

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.

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Regulars would clash 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.

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“Soldiers were often buried where they fell on the battlefield. This gravestone, located just in front of the marker, indicates that British soldiers were buried near this spot on April 19, 1775”.H/T HMdb.org, & their HISTORICAL MARKER DATABASE

Some British soldiers marched 35 miles over those two days, the 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 80, Whittemore was the oldest known combatant of the Revolution.

Whittemore took a 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 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 the Regulars 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 colony.

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

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

 

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March 5, 1776 Head Fake

General Howe was stunned on awakening, to 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.”

Over the night and the following day of April 18-19, 1775, individual British soldiers marched 36 miles or more, on a 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.

2b38d80b603c96328378781e9fb45c3dIn 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.

A 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 upstate New York, was bristling with cannon and other military stores.  Better yet, 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.

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Flag flown by George Washington, during the siege of Boston

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’ shot and powder, per man.  The British garrison occupying Boston, was 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.  Knox proposed a 300-mile, round trip slog into a New England winter, to retrieve the guns of Fort Ticonderoga:  brass and iron cannon, howitzers, and mortars.  59 pieces in all.  Washington’s advisors derided the idea as hopeless, but the General approved.

henry-knox-moving-canning-from-fort-ticonderoga

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 western Massachusetts, over the Berkshire mountains and on to Cambridge, historian Victor Brooks called it “one of the most stupendous feats of logistics”, of the age.

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It must have been a sight that January 24, when Knox returned at the head of that “Noble Train of Artillery”.

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Bunker Hill

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, in an engagement that went into history as the battle of Bunker Hill.

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.

Siege_of_Boston.Dean.USMA.edu.history

In the first days of March, Washington placed several heavy cannons 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.  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 out of heavy 10′ timbers.  With the path to the top lined with hay bales to muffle their sounds, pre-built fortifications were manhandled to the top of Dorchester heights over the night of March 4-5, along with the bulk of Knox’ cannons.

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Boston as seen from Dorchester heights

General Howe was stunned on awakening, to 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 assault on the hill, as American reinforcements poured into the position.  By day’s end, Howe faced the dismal prospect of another Bunker Hill, this time against a force of 6,000 in possession of heavy artillery.

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Engraving depicts the British evacuation of Boston

A heavy snowstorm descended late in the day, interrupting British plans for the assault.  A few days later, Howe had thought better of it.  Washington received an unsigned note on March 8, informing him that the city would not be put to the torch, if the King’s Regulars were permitted to leave unmolested.

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”.

It’s doubtful whether Washington possessed sufficient 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 whole episode may have been one of the greatest head fakes, in all military history.

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February 7, 1775  Bringing A Knife to a Gunfight

It is often said that you should never bring a knife to a gunfight.  You probably don’t want to draw a rhetorical popgun, either.  Not if the other guy is carrying a cannon.

In early 1775, Benjamin Franklin was on an extended diplomatic mission to England.  The balance had not yet tipped toward Revolution, though things were headed in that direction.

113An unnamed British military officer felt the need to run his mouth before the Parliament, at the expense of his fellow British subjects in the American colonies.  “Americans are unequal to the People of this Country”, he said, “in Devotion to Women, and in Courage, and worse than all, they are religious”.

On this day in London, February 7, 1775, the man who would be called “The First American” for his early and tireless campaign for colonial unity, published his response.

Franklin himself was not the most religious man, but he reminded his readers that it was the zealous Puritans who rid Great Britain of the hated King Charles I.

Franklin went on to relate a history of the Seven Years’ War, in which the colonial militia were forever saving inept and blundering British regulars from themselves.

“Indiscriminate Accusations against the Absent are cowardly Calumnies”, he wrote, but old Ben saved his best for the crack about American men not liking women.  Franklin noted that the British population was declining at the time, while in the American colonies, numbers were increasing.  American men, he concluded, are clearly more “effectually devoted to the Fair Sex”, than their counterparts across the pond.

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It is often said that you should never bring a knife to a gunfight.  You probably don’t want to draw a rhetorical popgun, either.  Not if the other guy is carrying a cannon.

 

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

December 26, 1776 Trenton

Most of his troops were about to end their enlistments, effective at the end of the year. A mere five days away.  Washington himself, who had become Commander-in-Chief of an Army with an average of nine rounds’ powder per man, thought they may have reached the end, writing to his cousin in Virginia “I think the game is pretty near up”.

1776 started out well for the Patriot cause, with the British evacuating Boston in March, the June victory at Fort Moultrie South Carolina, and the Continental Congress adopting the Declaration of Independence on July 4.

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Battle of Valcour Island

Things took a turn for the worse in August, with General George Washington’s defeat at the Battle of Long Island, and the loss of the strategically important port of New York that September. It wasn’t all bad, Benedict Arnold’s October defeat at Valcour Island in Vermont, cost the fleet of General Sir Guy Carleton dearly enough that it had to turn back, buying another year of life for the Patriot cause.

By the end of November, General Howe pushed the last American troops out of New York, chasing Washington’s shrinking army through New Jersey and across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania.

Washington’s men gathered up or destroyed every boat they could find for miles, while across the Delaware, British General Lord Cornwallis established outposts from New Brunswick to Burlington, including one at Trenton, New Jersey.

Camping on the western banks of the Delaware, Washington was in desperate straits. Most of the Patriots’ military supplies and artillery had been lost in the defense of New York.  Food, ammunition and equipment were in short supply, men were deserting as the string of defeats brought morale to a new low.

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Most of his troops were about to end their enlistments, effective at the end of the year. A mere five days away.  Washington himself, who had become Commander-in-Chief of an Army with an average of nine rounds’ powder per man, thought they may have reached the end, writing to his cousin in Virginia “I think the game is pretty near up”.

The Americans needed a decisive victory, and quickly, if their cause was to survive. Washington planned a three-pronged attack on the Hessian garrison at Trenton, himself at the head of a 2,400 man army, flanked by a 1,900 man diversionary force under Colonel John Cadwalader and a blocking move by 700 men under General James Ewing.

As the army began the famous crossing of the Delaware that Christmas night, the password was “Victory”. There was only one recognized response:  “Or Death”.

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Washington’s men made the crossing in 40-60′ “Durham Boats”, with flat-bottom barges transporting horses and artillery

Washington’s three crossings soon dissolved into one, as Cadwalader and Ewing both turned back. The weather that night was dreadful.  A howling ‘nor-easter’ came up at 11:00, hampering the crossing as freezing rain changed to sleet and sleet to snow. Horses balked at being led onto flat-bottom barges.  Cannon weighing as much as 1,720 lbs had to be tied down to prevent capsize. With visibility near zero, several men fell overboard during the crossing.  One soldier said it “blew a perfect hurricane”.

Washington’s crossing may have itself been forced to turn back from the difficult crossing, but for the indispensable nautical skills of Colonel John Glover’s Marblehead Militia, the “amphibious regiment”.

Two froze to death on the overnight march to Trenton. Men were so poorly equipped that many of them lacked boots, the soaked and freezing rags wrapped around their feet not enough to keep them from leaving bloody footprints in the snow.

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Loyalists had warned the Hessian commander, Colonel Johann Rall, that American forces were planning an action. As late as December 22, a spy had warned British General James Grant that Washington was holding a war council.  His warning to the Hessian commander was “Be on your guard”.

Approaching Trenton along parallel roads, General John Sullivan sent word to Washington that the weather was wetting his men’s gunpowder. Washington responded, “Tell General Sullivan to use the bayonet. I am resolved to take Trenton.”

The Patriot force arrived at Trenton at 8am December 26, completely surprising the Hessian garrison. There is a story about the Hessians being drunk or hungover after Christmas celebrations, but the story is almost certainly untrue.

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Unaware of Washington’s march on Trenton, 50 colonists had attacked a Hessian outpost earlier that morning. While Washington worried that his surprise was blown, Colonel Rall apparently believed that this was the attack he’d been warned about. He expected no further action that day.

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Conrad Heyer crossed the Delaware with General Washington, and lived long enough to see the dawn of the age of photography

The tactical surprise was complete for the American side. Hessian soldiers spilled out of their quarters and tried to form up, but most were shot down or dispersed. A few American civilians, residents of Trenton, even joined in the fight. All told, Hessian losses were 22 killed, 92 wounded, 918 captured and 400 escaped. Four Hessian colonels were killed, including Rall himself. The Americans suffered the two who had frozen to death, and five wounded. They had won the first major victory of the Revolution.

On December 30, the Americans once again crossed the Delaware, eluding a main force under Generals Cornwallis and Grant, proving on January 3rd at a place called Princeton, that they could defeat a regular British army in the field.

Encouraged by these victories, many of Washington’s men extended their terms of enlistment, and new enlistments flooded in. The American Revolution would slog on for almost six more years.  For today, the Patriot cause had lived to fight another day

November 16, 1776 First Salute

Governor de Graaff ordered an 11-gun return salute fired from the guns of Fort Oranje, making Sint Eustatius the first nation in history to acknowledge the independence of the United States.

St Eustatius MapSint Eustatius, known to locals as “Statia”, is a Caribbean island of 8.1 sq. miles in the northern Leeward Islands.  Formerly part of the Netherlands Antilles, the island lies southeast of the Virgin Islands, immediately to the northwest of Saint Kitts.

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

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

Golden Rock

Sint Eustatius was a Dutch Colony, and should have remained neutral during the American Revolution. The government in Holland warned Governor Johannes de Graaff to stay away from the rebels fighting for independence, but the Governor would have none of it. The trade in powder, ammunition and arms continued throughout the revolutionary period, with covert support smuggled from Spain, France and dissident interests in Holland. For a time, Sint Eustatius was the only link between Europe and the fledgling American colonies.

first_salute, 1On the 16th of November, 1776, the Brig Andrew Doria sailed into Sint Eustatius’ principle anchorage in Oranje Bay. Flying the Continental Colors of the fledgling United States and commanded by Captain Isaiah Robinson, the Brig was there to obtain munitions and military supplies. Andrew Doria also carried a precious cargo, a copy of the Declaration of Independence.

It was the Americans’ second attempt to send the Declaration to their Dutch associates, the first having been captured on the way to Holland. Seemingly wrapped in papers containing some obscure espionage code, British investigators labored in vain to unlock this strange new cipher. They could have spared themselves the effort: they were personal notes in Yiddish, greetings to some of the Jewish merchants of Holland.

It was traditional in those days, that vessels approaching a foreign harbor would fire a gun salute upon entering. Captain Robinson fired a 13 gun volley on entering the bay, representing the 13 American colonies. The commander at Fort Oranje, overlooking the anchorage, wasn’t sure how to respond.

first_saluteTradition dictated the firing of a salute in return, typically two guns fewer than that fired by the incoming vessel.  Such an act carried meaning. The firing of a return salute was the overt recognition that a sovereign state had entered the harbor. Such a salute amounted to formal recognition of the independence of the 13 American colonies.

Governor de Graaff ordered an 11-gun return salute fired from the guns of Fort Oranje, making Sint Eustatius the first nation in history to acknowledge the independence of the United States.

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

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

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

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

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