In the late 18th century, Great Britain levied deeply unpopular taxes on its colonies in order to pay for the Seven Years War, or the French and Indian War as it was known in North America. Despite what your teachers told you, the taxes were not mainly for the defense of the thirteen North American colonies. They were also to pay for the subsidies to Prussia, who fought Austria, Russia, Saxony, and France on the continent nearly by itself. The “Golden Cavalry of Saint George”, the nickname for British gold in lieu of soldiers to its allies, was over four times what the British paid for the defense of the Thirteen Colonies. After the Seven Years War, Britain’s debt was nearly three quarters of its gross domestic product. The Thirteen Colonies weren’t the most prosperous in the British Empire (the sugar plantations of the West Indies held that honor), but they were the most resilient and could absorb and weather new taxes, if they chose to do so.
The taxes were unpopular because in the colonial charters the legislatures and governors of the Thirteen Colonies had sole authority to tax their people. If the colonial legislatures wanted to raise a tax, that was no problem, they could be replaced if it was too onerous. And they did levy taxes for defense against the French and Indians along the frontier. But there was no recourse if Parliament levied taxes directly i.e. taxation without representation. It didn’t matter if it was for defense or not. British military protection of its colonies was the price the Crown and the Parliament paid for their loyalty. That Parliament taxed them directly was considered double-dipping and a violation of their charter at best, and a violation of the unwritten social contract of empire and their basic human rights as Englishmen at worst. As the thinking went, if Parliament could disregard one of the main tenets of a colonial charter, where would their tyranny stop? Nowhere, if Ireland was any example. Ireland was a ready made case study of direct British Parliamentary rule, and American colonists had no wish to endure that.
The taxes at the end of the French and Indian War sparked widespread discontent among the colonists, and most were quickly repealed, such as the infamous Stamp Tax which placed a levy on all printed paper. The Stamp Act was especially loathed, as it was not only a tax, but it was also an indirect suppression of free speech, a human right that all Englishmen enjoyed. However their repeal did not include the tea tax because Parliament wanted to prove the point that they could tax the colonies directly at will despite their charters. Parliament figured that Englishmen loved their tea too much, and would endure the tax and subsequent higher price. Parliament would get their tax precedent and the colonists their tea. Parliament was wrong.
The Boston Tea Party in 1773 led directly to further coercive laws by Parliament to bring the “petulant” North American colonists to heel. They included the Quebec Act which extended the province of Quebec south to the Ohio River to keep the colonies from expanding west (which was ignored), and the aptly named Coercive Acts aka the “Intolerable Acts”. There were four Coercive Acts: the first closed the port of Boston to trade, the second forbade meetings and gatherings in Boston, the third forbade the detaining of British soldiers in the colonies for crimes committed, and the fourth called for the quartering of British troops in private homes.
By March 1775, the colonies seethed under these laws and rebellion was all but assured between King George III’s Great Britain and his thirteen colonies on the Atlantic coast of North America. This was particularly true in New England whose residents were all but in open war against the Crown.
On 23 March 1775, the forcibly disbanded Virginia House of Burgesses defiantly met at St John’s Church in Richmond. During the debate on whether to raise Virginia’s militia to help the patriots in New England, a fiery 40 year old lawyer, Patrick Henry, got up to speak. Patrick Henry was a natural orator who spoke without notes or preparation. As he reached the crescendo of his eight minute discourse in favor of Virginians taking up arms against Great Britain, Patrick Henry concluded,
“It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, “Peace! Peace!”, but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”
The motion passed easily.
In the 18th century, Ireland chaffed under Great Britain’s rule, specifically Poyning’s Law, the Declaratory Act, and the various anti-Catholic laws imposed and enforced by the state controlled Anglican Church. Poyning’s Law, passed in 1498, denied the Irish the ability to call a parliament unless it was approved by the King of England and his Privy Council. The Declaratory Act, better understood by its official name the Dependency of Ireland on Great Britain Act of 1719, declared that the British House of Lords was the final appellate court for all Irish court cases and that the British Parliament could pass legislation for the Kingdom of Ireland. Finally, through Parliament and the King, the Anglican Church enforced the Penal Laws which were a collection of restrictions and discriminatory laws, such as the Popery Act of 1698, against Roman Catholics. Since Ireland was predominately Roman Catholic, most Irishmen could not hold office, be a lawyer, own firearms or enlist, buy land, vote, intermarry with Protestants, adopt children, convert to Catholicism, buy a horse worth over 5 pounds, and Irish priests were forced to register (1698) in order to preach. Six years later in 1704, Irish priests were outlawed and bounties placed on their heads for their arrest. The register made their arrests quite convenient and lucrative for Protestant bounty hunters.
In 1778, Catholic France allied with the nascent United States of America in her fight against Great Britain. The British feared an invasion of Ireland as French support for dissident minorities on the British Isles, particularly Catholic minorities, was a time honored tradition. The British formed Irish Volunteer companies from Anglican Irishmen to fight any potential French invasion and uprising. However, as more British regiments were sent to the Caribbean and North America, the Irish Volunteers began to take Catholics upon an oath of loyalty. By 1778, the threat of French invasion was minimal, but the Irish Volunteers didn’t disband. With the emerging middle class consciousness caused by the Industrial Revolution, the Irish Volunteer companies morphed into political organizations more concerned with popular local causes, and there was no more popular local cause in Ireland than Irish Catholic emancipation. In 1778, the companies gave an Irish voice to those who advocated for the repeal of the harsh Penal Laws, deemed passé and obsolescent in the Age of Enlightenment. Later that year, the Papists Acts of 1778 mitigated much of the official discrimination against Catholics, but the backlash was severe. By late 1779, Irish Catholics were forced to defend themselves against Anglican riots and violence. The Irish Parliament, called in defiance of Britain, deliberated on how to break the British and Anglican hold on Ireland.
That same winter at Morristown, New Jersey, the Continental Army was enduring “the coldest winter in North America in 400 years”. New York Bay froze solid. General George Washington referred to the winter of 1779/80 as “the hard winter” and worse than the one at Valley Forge two years before. By March, one third of the 12,000 strong Continental Army had deserted, and one third more were not fit for duty. Furthermore, the logistics’ system of the Continental Congress had collapsed upon itself and the states were told to supply their own soldiers at Morristown. Morale was rock bottom.
Washington needed to improve morale, prevent a mutiny, give his men some respite to the ceaseless drilling and camp labor, and hopefully prevent more desertions. Irish and Scots-Irish immigrants made up a significant percentage of the Continental Army, about two fifths, with the ratio of officers being larger. Encouraged by his wife Martha who spent most of the winter with her husband, Washington planned something special for his men. On 16 March 1780, Washington a member of Philadelphia’s Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, issued a general order recognizing the Irish quest for freedom from British rule. More practically, Washington gave the Continental Army the next day off to show solidarity with the Irish fight for independence. The next day was the seventeenth of March, St Patrick’s Day.
“Head Quarters Morris Town March 16th, 1780
The general congratulates the army on the very interesting proceedings of the parliament of Ireland and the inhabitants of that country which have been lately communicated; not only as they appear calculated to remove those heavy and tyrannical oppressions on their trade but to restore to a brave and generous people their ancient rights and freedom and by their operations to promote the cause of America.
Desirous of impressing upon the minds of the army, transactions so important in their nature, the general directs that all fatigue and working parties cease for tomorrow the seventeenth, a day held in particular regard by the people of the nation. At the same time that he orders this, he persuades himself that the celebration of the day will not be attended with the least rioting or disorder, the officers to be at their quarters in camp and the troops of the state line to keep within their own encampment.”
In the Pennsylvania Division, the division commander, Major General Baron Von Steuben, and his two brigade commanders, Brigadier Generals Anthony Wayne and Mordecai Gist, each bought a “hogshead” of rum (63 gallon cask) for their men to celebrate.
Happy Saint Patrick’s Day
In mid-December 1776, the young United States of America, who recently declared independence from Great Britain in July, was a hair’s breadth away from losing the war. Since August, Major General George Washington has lost every major battle he had fought and had been chased out both New York and New Jersey. The Continental Army’s strength was a mere fraction of what it was during the heady days after the capture of Boston, nine months before. 80% of the Continental Army was killed, wounded, captured, or had deserted since the loss at Long Island in August. Even worse, morale for the remainder was rock bottom, and their enlistments ended in 11 days. The Continental Army had just finished fleeing across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania, abandoning the vital of state of New Jersey, with its prosperous farms and fertile recruiting grounds, destroying most of the boats on the river to delay the pursuing Hessians.
On 19 December 1776. Thomas Paine published the pamphlet, “The American Crisis” in response to the continued disasters. It begins,
“THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value…”
On Christmas Night, 1776, the Marblehead fishermen of Colonel John Glover’s 14th Continentals “The Amphibious Regiment” ferried the remnants of the Continental Army, whose enlistments would expire on New Year’s Day, across the Delaware River back into New Jersey. The process took all night and into Christmas morning. Washington wanted to attack the Hessian garrison at dawn, but there simply wasn’t enough boats and what few there were, were used inefficiently by the young Continental Army, inexperienced in the ways of logistics. Luckily, a blinding snowstorm covered the move from prying eyes. This was little comfort to the men in the columns who eventually had to make a nine mile forced march through it. Nonetheless , they surprised the Hessian regiment at Trenton who were hung over from Christmas celebrations the night before.
At a drunken card game during the Christmas celebration, Hessian Col Johann Raul was slipped a note by a loyalist informer of Washington’s maneuver, but he never read it. At 8 am Christmas morning, the Continental Army attacked, with Washington in the van. Edward Hand’s Pennsylvania Riflemen and John Sullivan’s Continentals prevented any Hessian escape blocking the road to Princeton and bridge over Assunpink Creek respectively. Though most of the Hessian command was still drunk or hungover from the celebrations the night before, the American attack was spotted in enough time for the Hessians to react. Their duty company fought a house to house battle, slowly falling back through the town, delaying the Continental Army long enough for Raul to form most of his men in a field outside of town. After Knox’s cannon came into action, Raul knew he had to break out. His mercenary professionals moved quickly into a flank attack on Washington’s disorganized main body in order to escape, but Washington deftly parried the thrust, but only because he was in position to do so. Though chaotic, the Battle of Trenton lasted only 19 minutes before the Hessians surrendered and promptly began losing their boots to the ragged but jubilant soldiers of the Continental army.
The entire Continental Army reenlisted the next day. George Washington gave America its first Christmas present.
In 1713 at the end of Queen Anne’s War in which the Five Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy stayed neutral at the request of France, the British and their Cherokee allies evicted the Tuscarora Indians from present day North Carolina. The Iroquois Confederacy accepted the now vehemently anti-British Tuscarora refugees as the Sixth Nation of the Confederacy. The Tuscarora settled on their southern lands to prevent settlers out of New York and Pennsylvania from encroaching on Confederacy lands and hunting grounds. For the next sixty years the Confederacy maintained a delicate balance of aggressive neutrality between the empires of Great Britain and France in order secure cheap, but superior, British trade goods from the colonies, while preventing France’s First Nation allies from raiding their lands and hunting grounds.
In 1778, the Iroquois could no longer maintain their neutrality between Britain and France’s ally, the United States of America. Since 1775, the elders at the Council Fire at Onondaga avoided war by simultaneously pledging fealty to their “Great Father” George II and claiming they could not wage war against their “brothers” in the colonies. (This was a diplomatic coup for the Americans, had the Iroquois thrown in with the British against the Americans in the militarily disastrous year of 1776, the war would have been drastically different for the fledgling American nation.) After the winter of 1776/7, colonial trade goods were scarce, upon which the Iroquois, with no manufacturing capability of their own, were completely dependent as their old ways were forgotten, and forced the Iroquois to choose sides. The British promised to supply them from Fort Niagara, and if they won, enforce the Proclamation of 1763, which limited colonial settlers to land east of the Appalachians. The British negotiators, whose most effective advocate was Molly Brant, the common law wife of British Chief of Indian Affairs Sir William Johnson and brother to Mohawk war chief Joseph Brant, brought the Mohawk, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca nations to the British. Under the influence of half black-half Abenaki, French Catholic, adopted Mohawk, Oneida war chief Joseph Louis Cook (get all that) and Presbyterian minister Samuel Kirkland , two of the frontier fixers and traders that dominated American colonial diplomacy with Indian nations in the 18th century, the Oneida and Tuscarora sided with the Americans. Thus began the Iroquois civil war.
1777 and 1778 were disastrous years for the Oneida, Tuscarora and settlers on the American frontier. The Battle of Oriskany showed the dubious value of militia used as line infantry against Indian and Loyalist irregulars. Only the successful American counterattack from Fort Stanwix, by its regular garrison which lifted its siege, prevented Barry St Leger from invading New York through the Mohawk Valley in support of Burgoyne. The Oneida and Tuscarora homelands were overrun and occupied, and the New York and Pennsylvania frontiers were set ablaze. Hundreds of homesteads were raided, and the Cherry Valley and Wyoming Valley massacres made international headlines.
The Continental Congress authorized an expedition in the spring of 1778 against the Iroquois but it was too late in the season to muster the supplies necessary for a campaign in the frontier wilderness. Any large body of troops would starve, and any small body would be destroyed by the Iroquois. Furthermore, Washington’s regulars were fresh from Valley Forge and chased Sir Henry Clinton’s redcoats back to New York. Every Continental was needed for a showdown with Clinton if he sortied from New York and sought battle. Limited raids against Iroquois towns with militia were all that could be managed. As any settler could tell you, counterattack was the only viable option for defense on the frontier; sitting and waiting out an Indian raid in a stout farmstead, blockhouse, or fort provided only temporary reprieve if, and only if, and relief force was immediately dispatched. In any case, passive defense did nothing to prevent its reoccurrence. Since the Onondaga were the “Keepers of the Council Fire”, the Americans invaded their homeland in 1778 and fired their “castle” or fortified village, where for centuries the chiefs of the five nations met. The Iroquois elders just moved to Genesee, the primary Seneca castle. Furthermore, the raid just rallied the remainder of the four nations of the Iroquois Confederacy against the Americans. Any invasion of the Iroquois homeland had to break the Seneca, the largest and most militant of the Six Nations, whose warriors comprised nearly 2/3’s of Iroquois’ military might.
George Washington was keen on an invasion of the Iroquois Confederacy, particularly Seneca lands, to relieve the pressure on his precarious logistical situation. The productive farms on the frontier couldn’t feed the Continental Army if they were under constant assault. The army had to be seen doing something about the Iroquois and “asway public outrage” over the raids and depredations. The biggest problem was the Seneca villages were the farthest away from any potential Continental Army assembly areas in Pennsylvania and New York. In late 1778 and early 1779, Washington turned to his most experienced frontier commander, Major General Philip Schuyler and he devised a plan. Then Washington’s most trusted subordinate, Nathaniel Greene approved and modified it. The campaign would be one of logistics and Greene as the Continental Army’s Quartermaster General would have to supply it. In order to have adequate troops to defeat the Iroquois, Loyalists and British, any invading army must carry the majority of their provisions with them. Every previous Indian expedition failed because it was either too small to do any good or the army melted away when the supplies ran out. Schuyler and Greene eventually recommended a three prong invasion with the main effort up the Susquehanna Valley with supporting efforts up the Allegheny Valley from Fort Pitt and another from the Mohawk Valley in the east then south through the Susquehanna Valley. Instead of multiple small forts connected by wagon roads protecting the lines of communication, as was standard during the French and Indian War, Pontiac’s War and Lord Dunmore’s War, the expedition would build just a single defensible depot deep in Iroquois territory and carry most of their supplies on pack horses. This reduced the amount of troops siphoned off the main attack, sped up the main column since they couldn’t have to build roads, and allowed “flying columns” to raid Iroquois villages not along the main route of advance. The idea was to overwhelm the Iroquois by attacking in force at multiple points. (If this sounds like Napoleon’s Corps system, you wouldn’t be wrong.) Finally the regulars from the Continental Army itself would conduct the campaign and the unreliable militia would guard the frontier.
In early 1779, Washington’s spies learned that Clinton was going to invade Connecticut to try and lure Washington into a battle, bait for a trap he wasn’t going to take. Clinton’s Connecticut foray however did provide the opportunity to release a few brigades for operations against the Iroquois. Washington took it one step further – almost one third of the Continental Army was tasked to the invasion of the Iroquois Confederacy. Initially, command of the invasion was offered to the victor of Saratoga, Horatio Gates, but he begged off ostensibly for health reasons, much to Washington’s relief. Washington then offered the command to John Sullivan, who reluctantly accepted.
Sullivan had a mixed record so far in the war and is the prime example of American generals having to learn their profession the hard way. As one of Washington’s division commanders, he did well at Trenton, Princeton, and Long Island, where he was captured and then paroled, and at Brandywine. But Sullivan was surprised at Germantown, led an unsuccessful raid on Staten Island, and damn near severed the Franco-American alliance after its first battle. Sullivan and French Admiral Comte d’Estang led a joint operation against Newport, Rhode Island, but a storm scattered the French fleet which then retired to Boston. This left Sullivan’s army vulnerable and had to retreat after the British garrison sortied. Sullivan accused the French of cowardice. Sullivan was a solid commander and tactician but had problems managing and coordinating with his peers. An independent command was perfect, but not one that most thought destined to fail.
Sullivan also knew this was his last shot as one of Washington’s trusted subordinates. The Continental hard core that emerged from Valley Forge demanded competent and aggressive commanders. This wasn’t 1776 when Washington relied on anyone with any military experience to command. This was 1779 when the cream had already floated to the top, the likes of Schuyler, Greene, Knox, Wayne, Stark, Morgan and amazingly competent foreigners like Von Steuben, Lafayette, Pulaski, de Kalb and Kościuszko all wanted a piece of Washington’s time in 1779. Problematic leaders such as Charles Lee, Israel Putnam, Horatio Gates and others were all marginalized by Washington by 1779; Sullivan was dangerously close to being part of the latter group. The Iroquois expedition was Sullivan’s last chance.
Sullivan wasn’t going to waste it, much to Greene and Washington’s frustration. When Sullivan arrived at Easton, Pennsylvania in early spring to take command, he found the troops woefully undersupplied. Furthermore, the rangers, guides, and “go-betweens” promised by the Pennsylvania legislature were nowhere to be found. If the expedition departed when Washington demanded, no later than 1 May, the expedition was doomed to failure. 1779 was the culmination of the Continental Army’s systemic supply inefficiencies and difficulties, and Greene was doing the best he could, but it wasn’t enough for Sullivan and his priority campaign.
Sullivan began a vicious writing campaign to Washington, Greene, the Pennsylvania legislature and eventually the Continental Congress about the perceived lack of support, mostly in vain. New roads were cut to the Wyoming Valley, 1500 pack saddles manufactured, tents sewn to equip the whole expedition, and enough bateaux built and competent bateaux men hired to accompany the expedition along the rivers. Still, the difficulties persisted. Greene, to his credit, managed to supply enough to begin the campaign, with promises of continual supply throughout the summer until the expedition’s completion. Sullivan departed Easton on 18 June for the Wyoming Valley where he stayed for the next month amassing supplies and men. Though 5000 troops were allocated by Washington, Sullivan was never in direct command of more than 4000 or so due to expiring enlistments and other requirements by Washington. Sullivan considered it barely enough to contend with the Iroquois.
In 1779, the remaining Four Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy had a combined population of just 13,000, or less than half the population of Philadelphia at the time. (In today’s terms the entirety of the Iroquois population was just a bit more than the population of the neighborhood I grew up in, Carrick in Pittsburgh.) Theoretically, of those 13,000, the Four Nations could put about 3,000 warriors into the field against Sullivan augmented by about 300 loyalists. Brant and Butler also knew that their men were much better fighters in the forests than the Americans, and routinely outfought twice their number of American militia. However the size and composition of Sullivan’s expedition convinced many warriors to evacuate their families to Fort Niagara ahead of the invasion. Unlike the Continental Army, Brant’s warriors’ option to stay were strictly voluntary. His warriors could come and go as they pleased. Thousands departed to pack up their villages and escort their families to Fort Niagara. Brant and Butler had but 1000 Iroquois warriors and 250 loyalist rangers to oppose Sullivan. All the British and Iroquois could do was launch counter raids to distract from the massive build up. Sullivan wasn’t going to get his climactic big battle with the Iroquois that Washington wanted, and he was going to find empty villages.
Every measure was taken to keep the build up a secret, but the immensity of the expedition precluded any such possibility. The British, loyalists and Iroquois knew of the buildup. However, Joseph Brant, a Mohawk Pine Tree war chief, but generally accepted leader of the Iroquois warriors (a “Pine Tree” war chief was an elected position because according to Iroquois law, only Seneca could be formal war chiefs of intertribal war bands) and John Butler, command of the loyalist Butler’s Rangers who have been harassing the American frontier for two years, could do little about it. The British governor of Quebec was convinced of an American invasion of Canada in 1779 and no British regulars were spared for the defense of the Iroquois homeland or Fort Niagara. Even worse, the sheer size of Sullivan’s Expedition, 3000 in the Wyoming Valley, 1500 in the Mohawk Valley, and 1000 in the Allegheny Valley, convinced many Iroquois that the homeland must be evacuated.
Schuyler and Greene might have written the plan, but Washington had some very specific commander’s intent and guidance. In May, Washington reiterated the plan and emphasized the objectives to Sullivan. There could be no mistake since they were in the very first paragraph of the letter,
The expedition you are appointed to command is to be directed against the hostile tribes of the six nations of Indians, with their associates and adherents. The immediate objects are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops now in the ground and prevent their planting more…”
Washington and Sullivan needed those villages captured intact with their inhabitants. Hostages were needed for prisoner exchanges and to ensure any Iroquois compliance with a peace treaty. (On the 18th century frontier, any treaty with an Indian tribe that did not involve hostages was unenforceable due to the relationship between individual warriors and the personal leadership of their chief) Sullivan was not authorized to conclude a peace treaty, only the Continental Congress could do that, he was allowed to suspend operations if the Iroquois handed over Butler, Brant and several other chiefs and warriors involved in the frontier raiding. The only caveat was that Sullivan could only do so after “the total ruin of their settlements is effected”. The expedition’s objective was to break the Iroquois with the added effect of forcing them to seek support from the British and overburdening the British supply system in Canada. There would be no peace with the Iroquois until their homeland was “not merely overrun, but destroyed”.
On 31 July 1779, the Continental brigades of Enoch Poor, William Maxwell, and Edward Hand with his Light Corps in the lead departed Fort Wyoming to cannon salutes of its remaining garrison. The expedition had encamped among the charred ruins of the Wyoming Valley settlements which was a daily reminder of the reason for the campaign. The two miles long column had rotating advanced, flank, and rear guards with rangers, Oneida and Stockbridge Indians, and former Iroquois captives as scouts ahead. The column also contained 1500 packhorses, 800 head of cattle, a mobile blacksmith shop, and 200 “artificers” to repair equipment along the way. 200 boats and bateaux accompanied the column along the river and carried the majority of the expedition’s supplies. The eighty mile march to Tioga, at the confluence of the Chemung and Susquehanna rivers, was mostly without incident. The enormity of Sullivan’s command caused Butler and Brant to withdraw and issue desperate pleas to Niagara and local bands of Indians to concentrate deeper in the Confederacy interior.
Sullivan reached former Oneida, now abandoned Cayuga, castle at Tioga on 11 August where he was to meet James Clinton’s Continental Brigade (no relation to the British Commander in Chief in North America) coming down the Susquehanna from Canjoharie on Otsego Lake in the Mohawk Valley. Clinton’s 150 mile march was also surprisingly unimpeded. Clinton torched several former Tuscarora, now abandoned Onondaga and Mohawk towns, on the march. On 19 August, Sullivan sent Poor’s brigade out to meet Clinton as Butler and Brant finally began harassing the expedition and Sullivan was concerned that Butler was trying to defeat him in detail. Clinton linked up with Sullivan at Tioga on the 22th.
Sullivan wasn’t idle at Tioga while waiting on Clinton. Tioga was to be the logistics hub for the entire expedition. Though it wasn’t in the center of the Confederacy as Washington suggested, it was on the southern border of the Confederacy homeland and the perfect place to transfer supplies from boats, and eventually wagons once the road completed, to the pack horses necessary for an expeditious movement into the heart of the Iroquois homeland. “Fort Sullivan” was constructed upon the ruins of the Oneida castle on the Tioga peninsula. Three days after Clinton arrived, the entire army but a 300 man garrison of Fort Sullivan departed for the interior of the Iroquois Confederacy.
For the last few weeks, Butler and Brant were content to ambush and harass Sullivan’s massive force, but the Seneca war chiefs demanded Sullivan be stopped before his army reached the prosperous interior villages. Sullivan more than doubled Butler and Brant’s force, but they planned on ambushing the Americans as they had so effectively at the Battle of Oriskany two years before. The place they chose was the hill at Newtown which controlled the trails and Chemung River that served as the gateway to the Cayuga heartland. Butler and Brant’s 1200 loyalists and warriors built camouflaged earthworks on the southeast corner of the hill directly over the path of Sullivan’s approaching force. The position covered the fords near the confluence of Baldwin Creek and the Chemung River which ran north and south of the hill respectively. There they waited in ambush.
Unfortunately for the British and Iroquois, what worked two years prior against militiamen, did not work against trained and veteran Continental troops. The advanced guard consisted of three companies from Dan Morgan’s Provisional Rifle Corps, and they spotted the ambush immediately. Morgan quickly brought up the rest of Hand’s Light Corps and Sullivan’s artillery to fix Butler and Brant in the earthworks. In a battle drill that Sullivan’s formations had been practicing for months, Maxwell’s New Jersey brigade flanked right along the east bank of the Chemung while Poor’s New Hampshire and Clinton’s New York brigades did the same over the swampy “morass” along Baldwin’s Creek on the left. Hand’s brigade began its assault on the earthworks when Morgan observed Butler and Brant had already begun withdrawing from the untenable position, astonished by the rapidity and agility of the Continental attack. The Iroquois and loyalist force ran a gauntlet of fire from Poor’s and Clinton’s men in a running battle as they retreated. The only thing preventing a complete rout and encirclement of the Iroquois force was a counterattack by Brant on the far end of Poor’s brigade. Brant was eventually driven off by another quick and coordinated attack by nearby Continental regiments.
British Lt-Col John Butler and Chief Joseph Brant’s army disintegrated. The warriors who were convinced the Americans did not possess the capability and will to break into the Cayuga homeland, now had to face the inevitability of an American assault on the Seneca homeland. The Seneca were the “Keepers of the Western Door” of the Iroquois but there was nothing geographically preventing an attacker from laying waste to the Seneca from the east. For that, the Seneca relied on the other five nations. Though not very bloody in terms of casualties, less than a hundred on both sides, the Battle of Newtown was decisive. Sullivan’s victory laid bare the Iroquois heartland, and the entirety of the remaining Four Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy fled east to suckle at the British bosom around Fort Niagara for the winter. Brant and Butler continued to agitate Iroquois chiefs and the British commander at Fort Niagara for men. However after Newtown, the primary British concern was the continued occupation and successful defense of Fort Niagara, not the Iroquois homeland, and the Iroquois warriors were too concerned about feeding their families through the winter than fighting Sullivan’s massive army.
The only significant engagement for the rest of Sullivan’s Expedition was an ambush on 13 September of a 30 man patrol under Lt Thomas Boyd by Seneca chief Little Beard. Boyd and several of his men were captured, tortured and executed in retribution for the destruction caused by Sullivan’s army. As recorded by the British, Boyd was killed when he was tied to tree by his own intestines then forced to run around it until he died. Sullivan eventually burned down Little Beard’s village too.
With virtually no further resistance by Butler and Brant after Newtown, Sullivan’s army went about the grim business of eliminating the Iroquois’ ability to sustain themselves. As Sullivan pushed deeper into the Confederacy, battalion and brigade sized Continental “flying columns” struck out against remote Iroquois villages. American soldiers marveled at the size and prosperity of the long houses and cabins. Many had glass windows and were “larger and more elegant” than their colonial equivalent. Most of the villages rivaled their own villages in the east, and were more prosperous than many. In the Iroquois fields, the “Three Sisters”, corn, beans and squash, were ripe and ready to be eaten. Too green for the Iroquois women and children to pick and take with them to Fort Niagara in July and August, they provided vital sustenance for Sullivan’s columns. Despite all of the logistical preparation done by Greene the previous spring and summer, Sullivan was still forced to forage to keep up his momentum. Much to Washington and Greene’s chagrin, that Sullivan started so late actually significantly contributed to the successful conclusion of the campaign. What food not on the packhorses was provided by the Iroquois fields and what they couldn’t eat, was destroyed.
On 15 September 1779, Sullivan’s Expedition reached Little Beard’s Seneca castle at Genesee. It was abandoned like the rest of the Iroquois villages previously encountered. There they found Boyd’s tortured body around the tree and the rest of the captives mutilated nearby. Sullivan turned out the entire army to extinguish Genesee and its fields teeming with corn, beans, and squash. With the westernmost village of the Seneca destroyed, Sullivan did not have any plans to press on and capture Fort Niagara. There were no fat fields to forage off of in the eighty miles of untouched wilderness between Genesee and Fort Niagara (This area was a Seneca hunting ground). His men had marched hundreds of circuitous miles in the last few months, and still had to be back in winter quarters in New Jersey before the first major snowfall. There would be no mad snowy dash forward to capture British fort by surprise, as Montgomery and Arnold attempted at Quebec in 1775. His primary objectives mostly accomplished, though he had almost prisoners. Nonetheless, Sullivan turned his army around and returned to Tioga, and destroyed any villages he bypassed on his 136 mile trek through the Iroquois heartland.
In total, Sullivan’s expedition destroyed 40 Iroquois villages and approximately 160,000 bushels of food. This isn’t including Col David Brodhead’s expedition up the Allegheny River from Fort Pitt. His expedition destroyed a further “ten towns, 165 houses, 500 acres of corn, and $30,000 worth of produce”. Brodhead’s combined Delaware and Continental force (The Delaware were allies of the United States against the Iroquois and British since the Treaty of Fort Pitt in September 1778, America’s first foreign treaty) centered on the 14th Pennsylvania Regt but only carried 30 days’ worth of supplies. Brodhead departed Fort Pitt on 14 August and was back by late September, burning abandoned Seneca villages at the headwaters of the Allegheny River. Despite his orders to do so, Brodhead never came close to linking up with Sullivan.
The devastated lands of the former Four Nations were informally given over to the Oneida and Tuscarora nations. By mid-October, Fort Sullivan and Tioga were abandoned, and Sullivan’s brigades were marching back east. Hand’s New Yorkers unfortunately continued the devastation of the Iroquois homeland by arresting bands of friendly Mohawk in the lower Mohawk Valley on the way back. Since these Mohawk stayed neutral in the conflict, and didn’t assist the Sullivan Expedition, Hand turned their homes over to New York settlers. These incidents greatly soured the Oneida and Tuscarora on the United States and threatened to undo any goodwill between the nations and country.
In the west, Sullivan’s expedition strengthened the Delaware-American alliance, but not enough to prevent it from falling apart when the Americans demanded too much from the Delaware for the campaign against Detroit. George Rogers Clark did manage to secure treaties at Vincennes with the Shawnee and Wyandot after word reached of Sullivan’s success.
As for the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga and Mohawk, their land was destroyed, and they would never be able to challenge the United States again. Sullivan’s expedition did not put an end to the British and Iroquois raiding, and hundreds of loyalists and rangers descended on the American frontier with fury and vengeance in 1780. But they had to travel further and couldn’t stay as long. Furthermore, they had to travel through hostile Oneida and Tuscarora lands, increasingly stiffened by settlers who took land that the small Oneida and Tuscarora nations couldn’t possibly fully occupy.
Most of the refugee Iroquois settled on British reservations in Ontario where they stayed. At the end of the American Revolution, the British abandoned the Iroquois and they weren’t even mentioned in the Treaty of Paris in 1783. Some of the refugee Iroquois attempted to return to their devastated former homeland, only to find their lands occupied by Oneida, Tuscarora and American settlers. The fighting between them brought about the Treaty of Fort Stanwix in 1784. At Fort Stanwix that October, Seneca and Mohawk chiefs ceded most of the Iroquois land west of the Susquehanna, including all of the Allegheny Valley and all of the Ohio Country which the Iroquois still saw as their land by right of conquest during the Beaver Wars in the 17th century. The remaining Iroquois elders of the reestablished Council Fire at Buffalo Creek (present day Buffalo, NY) rejected the treaty as did the Western Confederation in the Ohio Country, whose former Iroquois subject nations bristled at the thought that they were still ruled by the Six Nations. But the influence wielded by the elders of the Iroquois Council Fire was a pale shadow of what it was five years before. For almost two centuries the Five, then Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy lived by the right of conquest, and in American eyes in 1784, the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy died by the right of conquest.
The Iroquois Confederacy, once the arbiter of all Indian affairs for 200 years between the Atlantic and Mississippi, and the Great Lakes and the Ohio River was reduced to a few small disparate patches of land supposedly still under British protection.
“When your army entered the country of the Six Nations, we called you ‘Town Destroyer’: and to this day when that name is heard our women look behind them and turn pale, and our children cling close to the necks of their mothers. Our counsellors and warriors are men, and cannot be afraid; but their hearts are grieved with the fears of our women and children, and desire that it may be buried so deep as to be heard no more.” – Seneca Chief Cornplanter to President George Washington. 1790
In the summer of 1779, both Henry Clinton and George Washington needed a battle.
With the entrance of France and most recently Spain into the war against Great Britain, regiments that Clinton needed to decisively crush the Continental Army were fighting in India, the Mediterranean, and the Caribbean. Without those troops, Clinton, bottled up in New York, had to force Washington to make a mistake and expose the Continental Army. To that end, he planned devastating raids into the countryside. Washington didn’t take the bait.
Washington also needed a battle, but on his own terms. The fortress at West Point, which prevented the British from sailing up the Hudson River and isolating New England, and arguably the most important piece of ground in the Thirteen Colonies, was an ideal defensive position to which Washington could withdraw when Clinton attacked. But it was too strong of a position, so frustratingly, Clinton also wasn’t taking the bait.
Washington’s need for a victory was nearly as great as it was two and a half years ago at Trenton. The Continental Army seemed about to disintegrate. Morale was rock bottom. Its supply situation was abysmal. The raids and constant skirmishing with loyalists were eating up gunpowder at a prodigious rate. Even worse, food was scarce. The winter of 1778/79 was the worst in a hundred years, worse than even the previous one at Valley Forge. It was so bad that New York Harbor froze solid. Spring was late in coming and the results of the first harvests were meagre at best.
What food there was couldn’t be bought anyway. Runaway inflation made Continental script virtually worthless. No amount of financial wizardry by Robert Morris and organizational leadership by Nathaniel Greene was sufficient to overcome the difficulties suffered by the Army Commissariat. (The crisis came to a head in 1780 when the Congress abdicated its responsibility to supply the army completely and delegated it to the states.) Furthermore, Iroquois warriors, Canadian militia, and loyalist Rangers had set the Colonies’ frontier on fire killing and enslaving its inhabitants. The fertile western valleys of New England, Pennsylvania, and Virginia were barely able to provide for their own regiments much less the rest of the Continental Army. Von Steuben, DeKalb, Lafayette and others worked hard to professionalize the Continental Army, and that was being threatened by its logistical problems. Only a victory would take the soldiers minds off their empty stomachs.
The professionalization of the Continental Army continued after Valley Forge and its regular units were more than a match for the British regulars and their Hessian mercenaries. By the spring of 1779, the trainers whom Von Steuben drilled at Valley Forge had successfully imparted their knowledge. The best of these trainers established the regimental light infantry companies during 1778 reorganization. On 12 June 1779, Washington’s Corps of Light Infantry, based on the British model since 1777, was expanded. In addition to the regimental light infantry companies, the best of these light infantrymen were formed into the “Light Infantry Brigade” of four regiments. The Light Infantry Brigade was the Continental Army’s first elite unit. Its regiments had no state designator as the brigade was comprised of men from throughout the Thirteen Colonies. If you don’t count Washington’s Headquarter’s guard, the 1779 Light Infantry Brigade was America’s first “All American” unit, and established the nearly unique American concept of dual use light/heavy infantry, which we still use today. Unlike British elite units, such as the Grenadiers and Guards, the Light Infantry Brigade was tailored to the American way of war on the frontier and trained to screen, patrol, raid, skirmish, and conduct reconnaissance, not unlike the Robert Roger’s rangers. But like the British elite, they were trained as disciplined and resilient assault troops and drilled relentlessly in the use of the bayonet, so much so that Von Steuben specifically referred to the Brigade as “his lads”.
Von Steuben’s lads were given to the Washington’s most aggressive commander, “Mad” Anthony Wayne, the commander of the Pennsylvania Line. Wayne’s first task was capturing Stony Point, 14 miles south of West Point on the west bank of the Hudson. According to legend, Wayne said, “General, if you plan it, I’ll storm Hell.” Washington supposedly replied, “Perhaps we had better try Stoney Point first.”
Stony Point was the gateway to the Hudson Highlands and dominated the river crossing at Kings Ferry where Clinton hoped to lure Washington into an engagement. Stony Point was seized by the British in May and the rocky and marshy 150 ft high shallow peninsula was heavily fortified over the next two months. Earthworks were constructed, trenches dug, and the marsh trees felled so they formed a double row of abatis. Lt. Col. Henry Johnston, whose 17th Regiment of Foot reinforced with a company each of grenadiers and loyalist regulars formed the garrison, deemed Stony Point impregnable and Clinton referred to the position as “Lil Gibraltar”. Johnston knew that the difficult terrain limited the amount of troops that could be deployed against him at any one time, and even if Washington assaulted the position with the entire Continental Army, his 750 men and fifteen cannon could easily hold until reinforcements were ferried from across the river.
Unfortunately for Johnston, Washington’s spies noted that the defense of Stony Point had a fatal flaw. At high tide the abatis covered the entire length of the position correctly rendering the position seemingly impregnable. At low tide, however, disciplined troops could wade the four feet of water on the southern edge and move around the obstacles to a small uncovered beach farther out on the river. The beach could be observed by two Royal Navy ships off shore, but if the attackers were undiscovered they could get off the beach and into the earthworks before the ships could fire.
On the afternoon of 15 July 1779, the 1150 strong Light Infantry Brigade infiltrated the ten miles over Dunderburg Mountain through the loyalist riddled countryside to Stony Point. They arrived just out of sight of the British at 8 pm. The plan was for one regiment to demonstrate to the front of the British position, while another feint to the north fixed the British eyes in that direction. The main assault would come from the south led by Wayne himself. The demonstration to the front had the only American troops with loaded weapons. Both the northern and southern attacks were with bayonets fixed on unloaded muskets to prevent accidental discharges on the approach march, which would alert the garrison. Each assault column was led by a 20 man volunteer “forlorn hope” armed with axes and picks to clear the abatis. Each forlorn hope was supported by a picked 150 man assault element to exploit the breaches. The rest of the regiments would follow and assume the assault. Wayne relied on surprise and aggressiveness to make up for the limited amount of men available in the initial assaults. He promised $500 to the first man inside the British position, $400 to the second, etc, down to $100 for the fifth. After a final ration of rum at midnight, the columns stepped out of their assault positions into the darkness.
Wayne’s southern column took a bit longer to infiltrate through the marsh and chest deep river water, but they were unspotted in the cloud covered darkness until after Major Hardy Murfree’s diversion had the full attention of the British. Lt Col. Johnston personally led a bayonet charge to clear the rebel scum, which was promptly surrounded and captured due mostly to Murfree’s quick reactions to the counterattack. In the first minutes of the battle the British lost their commander and 1/3 of the garrison. Murfree’s men were the only Americans to fire their weapons that night.
As soon as they were close enough, the forlorn hopes launched themselves at the abatis with a fury, hacking away and digging up the trees, through withering fire, to clear large enough paths through the obstacles for the regiments to pass. Most of the American casualties were from the two forlorn hopes, and the southern one, reduced to three men at the end of the battle, distracted the British further from the soaked men charging up the uncovered beach. Lt Col Francois Teisseydre, the Marquis de Fleury, commander of the 1st Regiment was the first into the British entrenchments, and personally tore down the British colours.
Back in the water, Wayne was shot in the head leading the southern assault group, and admonished his men to carry him into the impregnable fortress, where he hoped “to die at the head of the column”. Both the northern and southern pincers penetrated into the fortification and the remaining British and loyalists were overwhelmed at bayonet point. 472 surrendered. Wayne’s three pronged assault on Stony Point was the last major action of the war against Clinton’s army in the north.
The Light Infantry Brigade suffered 15 killed and 83 wounded, including Wayne, for killing or capturing Johnston’s entire force. Wayne’s wound was bloody and painful, and left a scar that reminded him of the battle for his remaining years, but it was not fatal. He sent off a message to Washington which read in full,
The fort and garrison, with Colonel Johnston, are ours. Our officers and men behaved like men who are determined to be free.”
Yours most sincerely,
Washington was ecstatic at the news. He and Von Steuben rode down from West Point the next morning to the sound of Johnston’s guns manned by American crews firing on the British across the river. They both literally shook the hand of every survivor in the brigade. Furthermore, Washington forced Congress to honor Wayne’s pledges to the first men to enter the British fortifications. Fleury received $500 which he gave to his men. Lt George Knox, commander of the southern forlorn hope, received $400 followed by Sergeants Baker and Spencer of the Virginia Line, and Sgt Dunlop of the Pennsylvania Line. Their names were recorded in the minutes of the next session Continental Congress. The Battle of Stony Point was a massive morale boost for Americans who were frustrated with the hardships and static nature of the war in 1778 and 1779. Congress assessed that Wayne captured $150,000 worth of stores and cannon and awarded the Light Infantry Brigade prize money as if they were privateers.
In the entirety of the American Revolutionary War, Continental Congress only awarded eleven “congressional medals”. Of that small number, three were awarded to participants in the Battle of Stony Point: General Anthony Wayne commander, Lt Col John Stewart the commander of the northern feint which wasn’t supposed to break through the British defenses but did so anyway, and Lt Col Fleury, the first man through the breach.
The battle thoroughly depressed Clinton and the British and loyalists. Descriptions of the disciplined three pronged night bayonet assault surprised members of Parliament and belied the false descriptions they were told of the Continental Army. This was magnified by Wayne’s treatment of his prisoners, a clemency that was not extended to his troops massacred at Paoli the year prior. After Stony Point the Continental Army was a given a respect that had eluded it so far in the war. The British would no longer look at Washington’s army the same way again.
On 4 July 1776, the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia approved the final wording of the Declaration of Independence. The vote to break with the Kingdom of Great Britain and its Empire actually occurred two days before on 2 July 1776 when the Second Continental Congress unanimously approved the independence clauses of the Lee Resolution. That day, John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail that “The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America”.
The vote on the Lee Resolution had been postponed for nearly a month since it was submitted on 13 June. The decision for independence needed to be unanimous and that wasn’t going to happen until the colonies formally approved. Most colonial legislatures had already approved of independence (North Carolina was first on 12 April 1776) and had directed their delegates in the Continental Congress to do the same. The only holdouts were New York, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania. New York and Rhode Island were the most loyal of the North American colonies contemplating Independence, and Pennsylvania’s Quakers didn’t want to make a complete break with Britain. However, as the “keystone” of the twelve colonies (Delaware was still technically part of Pennsylvania), Pennsylvania had the most to lose from independence but also the most to gain. If Pennsylvania could be convinced then the other two would follow its lead. The Double Benjamins of Colonial America, Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush, dedicated their very considerable talents of diplomacy to bringing around the pro rebellion, but anti independence Quaker delegates in the Pennsylvania Upper House.
Franklin and Rush had a cunning plan to sway their fellow Pennsylvania delegates. First Franklin convinced Delaware to formally secede from Pennsylvania. It didn’t take much because the Delawarians (?) were tired of waiting for the delegates from Pennsylvania’s upper counties to make a decision and were unwilling to wait on Franklin and Rush to persuade the anti independence Penn family Old Guard. So on 15 June 1776, the Assembly of the Lower Counties of Pennsylvania declared itself independent of Great Britain AND Pennsylvania, and became the Thirteenth Colony: Delaware.
Then Rush seized the moment and implemented Phase Two: He formed the Pennsylvania Provincial Conference consisting of the more pro independence elements of the Assembly of Upper Counties of Pennsylvania. They were almost exclusively from Philadelphia, the largest and most prosperous city in the now Thirteen Colonies. Rush floated the idea of a Fourteenth colony, Philadelphia. After letting the idea marinate for a few days, Franklin landed the coup de grâce: He addressed the staunchly Quaker and anti violence Penn family delegates to the effect of: nice province we have here, it would be a shame if we lost any more of it…
The Assembly for the Upper Counties of Pennsylvania voted for independence from Great Britain on 23 June 1776.
While Benjamins’ worked over the Quakers, the Second Continental Congress appointed a five person committee to draft a declaration to publicly release once the independence clauses in the Lee Resolution passed. “The Committee of Five” consisted of John Adams of Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, Robert R. Livingston of New York, and Roger Sherman of Connecticut.
For the next several weeks, the Committee of Five debated the exact wording of the declaration. However, the tedious job of physically writing it out went to the youngest member of the committee, 33 year old Thomas Jefferson, after the rest of the committee refused. The declaration went through several revisions and the last edits were completed on the morning of 2 July, 1776, just before the vote on the Lee Resolution. When the independence clauses of the Lee Resolution were approved by a unanimous vote (though New York abstained), the actual Declaration of Independence document that was releasable to the public still had notes in the margins.
The next day, Jefferson rewrote the entire document. This final draft was then circulated among the committee and members of Congress for approval on the evening of the 3rd and all morning on the 4th of July. That afternoon the Second Continental Congress approved the wording of the Declaration of Independence. But it wasn’t announced yet, as Congress wanted the Declaration of Independence read simultaneously across the Thirteen Colonies. Copies were made of the written, but unsigned, Declaration and sent by fast dispatch rider to each of the Thirteen Colonies.
But the word was out and that wasn’t going to happen. On 8 July 1776, COL John Dixon, commander of the Philadelphia militia regiment, “The Associators”, publicly read the Declaration of Independence for the first time from the steps of the Pennsylvania State House. The next day, Washington had the Declaration read to the Continental Army and citizens of New York, while British troops and Hessian mercenaries were landing on Staten Island in full view of the audience. When the Declaration was read to the local 4th New York Regiment, the inspired residents of the city marched over to Bowling Green Park, and pulled down the statue of King George III at its center. The statue ended up at the house of General Oliver Wolcott, where it was broken up (Loyalists stole more than a few pieces, including the head). As a local blacksmith had the king melted down for musket balls, the delegates from New York formally approved the Declaration of Independence, even though they never actually approved the independence clauses of the Lee Resolution. Nonetheless, from that point on all Thirteen Colonies were united in their war for independence from Great Britain.
It would take seven more years of war to make American Independence a reality.
The commander of the Continental Army, Lieut Gen George Washington, wanted a professional army. He needed one to defeat the British. The militia, and the irregulars harassing the British Army, would not accomplish this feat. Only a professional army that could meet the British on equal terms could end the American War of Independence. Valley Forge provided the perfect crucible: professional volunteers, notably Von Steuben, DeKalb, and the young Marquis de Lafayette, turned the inexperienced but dedicated Continental Line into a rival to the best Europe had to offer.
During the winter of 1777/78, America’s rebellion against Britain became a world war after France declared. King George III had to worry about the entirety of his empire, no longer just about America. The expansion of the war meant that the British did not have the troops to isolate New England from the rest of the Thirteen Colonies and the “Grand Plan” was in tatters. After their loss at Saratoga, Lord Howe was recalled and General Sir Henry Clinton was given command of British troops in North America. In Philadelphia, Clinton was ordered to withdrawal from the former rebel capital and consolidate in the loyalist enclave of New York City, and if necessary withdraw further to Nova Scotia. The British abandonment of Philadelphia was the perfect opportunity for Washington to showcase the newfound professionalization of his army and test its mettle, and bloody the remaining British in America in the process. The British column that left Philadelphia was nearly 15 kms long, with the majority being loyalist civilians and wagons of loot from the thoroughly plundered city. Washington ordered the Continental Army to give chase.
Unfortunately, Washington had a problem: he was forced to give command of the vanguard to arguably his weakest senior officer: Charles Lee, his own second-in-command. Charles Lee was a former British regular officer and in 1775, Washington’s chief competition for Commander in chief of the Continental Army. When Washington was chosen, the arrogant and proud Lee was furious, and said Washington “wasn’t fit to lead a sergeant’s guard.” Lee’s hatred of Washington caused considerable political trouble in the Army and in Congress. That trouble subsided somewhat when Lee was captured in his night gown by British cavalry after a night of drinking with his staff in a tavern about three miles away from his command in December 1776. (This act probably saved the rebellion. If Lee hadn’t been comfortably having dinner with his captors during Washington’s disastrous year of 1777, his incessant politicking would have almost certainly gotten Washington replaced, with himself of course.) However, Lee was recently exchanged for a captured British general, and had only just arrived in camp. Washington really had no choice but to give Lee the command of the initial attack to force the British to battle, even though he had a number of impressive, and now experienced, commanders, such as Stirling, Greene, Wayne, and the very deserving aforementioned trainers at Valley Forge.
The experienced and tactically capable, but plodding and indecisive, Lee caught up to the British rear guard as it decamped near the Monmouth Courthouse in New Jersey on 28 June 1778. However, as the Continentals slowly formed (due to confusing and contradictory orders from Lee) the British rear guard under Lord Cornwallis quickly seized the initiative and attacked. The sight of British bayonets didn’t unnerve the Continentals, but it did unnerve their commander. Lee had missed Valley Forge and his last experience commanding troops was the woeful New York campaign where American militia routinely broke at the sight of a British bayonet, and the Continental Line consistently overwhelmed by disciplined and steady British firepower. The panicked Lee immediately ordered his men to retreat, which they did in good order.
Cornwallis, sensing weakness and an opportunity to destroy a part of the Continental Army, pressed the attack. Only the actions of Lafayette, who knew the worth of the troops he helped train at Valley Forge, prevented Lee’s division from being annihilated. Nonetheless, Lee’s retreat quickly became disorganized and the men streamed westward back toward Washington and the main body. Washington, hearing the fighting to his front, thought all was well. That is until a babbling fifer appeared and told of absolute disaster. Soon entire formations were flowing past. The surprised Washington queried the retreating troops as to who ordered the withdrawal. Upon learning it was Lee, Washington grew apoplectic, “Damn him!”, and galloped forward searching for his wayward subordinate. In the scorching heat and humidity, Washington literally rode his horse to death looking for Lee. When he found him, Washington had one of his rare public displays of anger and admonished Lee right on the road. The two had words, and Washington had Lee arrested and sent to the rear.
Washington rallied the two remaining regiments of Lee’s rear guard, both of whose commanders were out of action. One was mortally wounded rallying his men when he saw Washington. The other was captured: In the confusion of the fighting retreat, Lt Col Nathaniel Ramsay of the 13th Maryland calmly sidestepped a charging dragoon, killed him with his saber, and in the same motion swung into the saddle as the dead dragoon fell off. Ramsay then rode between the lines hurling insults and challenges to Cornwallis’ entire astonished army. A dozen dragoons took up his gauntlet and subdued the bold American. (Clinton, who had finally arrived on the field, was so taken with the daring display, he later pardoned Ramsay).
The day seemed to require great personal sacrifice among the American commanders and Washington was no exception. He also placed himself in full view of the British lines to inspire the wavering regiments of Lee’s rear guard. Hundreds of Brown Bess muskets took aim and fired at the towering figure of Washington prancing, now mounted on a chestnut mare borrowed from one of his staff, in front of the lines yelling to his men. But none hit. Washington’s stand delayed Cornwallis just long enough for the rest of the army to deploy.
“Mad” Anthony Wayne had taken control of part of Lee’s former command and with his own men held Cornwallis along the West Ravine just south of the Freemont Meeting House. Greene deployed his division to Wayne’s right and Stirling on the left. Lafayette was formally given Lee’s division and he rallied its remains as the reserve.
Cornwallis was undeterred by the determined and professional looking troops to his front. He had the best the British army had to offer. Cornwallis’ men included some of the most storied and professional regiments in the service, the Black Watch and the Coldstream Guards to name just two. Cornwallis hurled them at the American lines.
For five brutal hours, the two armies locked horns under the pitiless sun on the cloudless New Jersey summer day. Temperatures soared above a hundred degrees and sunstroke killed as many as gunpowder and cold steel. Camp followers, wives and daughters of the men on the field, known as “Molly Pitchers” brought water to the parched men at great danger to themselves. One cannoneer’s wife, Mary Hays McCauley, took her fallen husband’s place on the crew, calmly ramming home the rounds, as shot and shells rained thick among the dueling cannon.
Each British assault was thrown back, and British officers were surprised to find they were followed quickly American bayonet assaults, a rarity so far in the war. Cornwallis attempted to outflank Stirling but again Lafayette was in the right place at the right time and stymied the assault. The fighting was so close, that each side’s officers could hear the orders of their opponents through the din. One British Lieut Col, Henry Monckton, was reported by Anthony Wayne as having said, “Forward to the charge, my brave Grenadiers!” to which Wayne, 40 yards away, calmly told his own men, “Steady! Steady! Wait for the word — then pick out the king birds”.
The bitter stalemate continued. As evening began, Greene’s division occupied Comb’s Hill on Cornwallis’ left. Greene managed to get a battery on the hill which enfiladed Clinton’s line, and Washington planned to assault both of Clinton’s flanks. But darkness and exhaustion prevented the attack from beginning. Washington’s coup d’grace would have to wait until morning.
When darkness fell on the night of 28 June 1778, both sides still held the field, though Clinton pulled his men back behind the Middle Ravine to prevent the Americans from hearing his withdrawal. Clinton was in command of the only significant British force in North America, and he knew if stuck around to face Washington in the morning, he would lose the war the next day. Taking a page from Washington’s own playbook, Clinton gave his men a few hours rest then escaped in the darkness. When the sun rose, the British were gone.
Despite Lee’s bumbling, the Battle of Monmouth was the first time during the American Revolution that the Continental Army stood its ground on even terms with the British Army. The excruciatingly painful experience at Valley Forge had paid off. The actions of the American commanders, especially Washington, Stirling, Wayne, and the young Lafayette endeared them to their men, and they vowed to “follow them to Hell.” There was no more talk of Washington being replaced.
The Continental Army had come of age.
While the British regulars were locked up in Boston throughout late 1775 and early 1776, Americans in the remaining colonies threw out most of the British and loyalist officials. When Howe evacuated Boston, two large expeditionary forces were made available to Howe: one under Gen. John Burgoyne that went to lift the siege of Quebec, and another under Gen. Henry Clinton, which sailed south.
In June 1776, Britain’s only friendly harbor north of the Caribbean was in Nova Scotia. And another was needed to effectively subdue the colonies. With only 4000 men New York and Virginia were out of the question, so Clinton headed south to the supposedly friendlier Carolinas and Georgia.
Clinton sought to link up with Scottish loyalists from the backwoods of North Carolina. However, when he arrived off of Cape Fear, he found out that the Scots were defeated at the Battle of Moore’s Bridge two weeks before so he headed further south to Charleston, South Carolina.
In colonies that were prepared to fight against the Crown, South Carolina was close to the top of the list. Charleston was the third largest city in the colonies, the center of patriot resistance in the south, and home to most of the arms manufacturers in the Southern colonies. Thousands of Scots-Irish patriot militia poured into the city from the backwoods, and fortifications defending the city were started in late March 1776. Unfortunately, they were not completed when Adm Peter Parker’s flotilla of eight warships appeared off the coast in June with Clinton’s men. The northern entrance to Charleston Harbor was guarded by a half finished fort on Sullivan’s Island commanded by COL William Moultrie with 500 men and thirty pieces of artillery. Only two walls of the “fort” we’re started. But they were thick and consisted of palmetto log retaining walls filled in with sand, and had firing platforms for the guns.
On 28 June 1776, Clinton’s men attempted to march on the rear of the fort by fording from nearby Long Island while Parker destroyed the it with cannon fire and landed marines. But the ford was chest deep, and a small blocking force prevented Clinton from ferrying across. Nonetheless, Parker was confident he could complete the task himself.
Parker opened fire and Moultrie responded in kind. To make up for a relative lack of gunpowder, Moultrie’s gunners made every shot count, greatly damaging the fleet. Parker’s fire was continuos and heavy but the spongy palmetto logs absorbed the shot. Most accounts of the battle note the logs of the fort “quivered” when hit instead of splintering. But that didn’t help the men on the platforms whom took a terrible pounding. The high watermark of the fight came just before dusk when the flag Moultrie designed was struck down fell outside the walls. SGT William Jasper yelled “We shall not fight without our flag!” and ran through the fire to grab it. He fastened it to a cannon swab so the city could see it since the flag staff was broken. The act inspired the defenders and they increased the rate of fire, so much so that when dusk fell, Parker decided that any further bombardment would just get his barely floating ships sunk.
Unable to force the narrows, Clinton’s men reboarded. Parker returned to the bigger Long Island to join with Howe’s substantially larger invasion of New York later in July.
On 19 December 1777, the 12,000 men and 3,000 camp followers of Lt. Gen. George Washington’s weary, exhausted, and demoralized Continental Army trudged into their winter encampment at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Valley Forge was to be the Continental Army’s crucible.
Nearly one third of the army lacked shoes after the shoes disintegrated in the unseasonably wet autumn. Their lack made the twenty mile march unbearable. But Washington’s first problem at Valley Forge wasn’t shoes, it was water. There was just enough snow on the ground for the men to leave a visible bloody trail with their bare feet, but not enough to melt and drink. With a population of 15,000, Valley Forge became the 5th largest city in North America, and they quickly drank nearby Valley Creek dry or foul. Furthermore, they had few buckets, so the Schuylkill River a mile away might as well have been a hundred. Some men had to wait over two days to get a drink of water.
The water situation was typical of Washington’s logistics, or lack thereof. The Continental Army was short of everything – winter clothing, blankets, food, water, gunpowder, and especially tents. But they weren’t short of wood, and Washington put the men to building 12” by 14” log huts of his own design that could house 12 men a piece. Grouped by regiment, brigade, and division, Washington dipped into his own money and offered 12 dollars for the first completed hut in each brigade. Other officers offered similar incentives, which greatly hurried construction. The first hut was completed just two days later, but most troops took until after the New Year to complete theirs.
The winter of 1777-78 wasn’t particularly cold, but it was wet. There was snow, but the weather was freezing rain more often than not. Everything was soaked and had to be dried by the small fireplace in each hut. Those soldiers on sentry duty, particularly at night, were given all of the warm and dry clothing in the hut, and when they returned cold and soaked after being replaced, they stripped down to place everything near the fire. Then the next sentry would begin collecting dry clothes for his shift.
The constant wet, standing water and mud, close quarters, and the squalor inevitable of untrained troops caused a breeding ground for disease. Valley Forge killed more men than any battle with the British. Typhus, typhoid, and dysentery ravaged the camp, although small pox did not but only because Washington forced the entire camp to get inoculated. By January most men in the army were not fit for duty. However, Washington deliberately placed the hospital huts five hundred yards away from the barracks huts to segregate the sick. Only if a man was sick enough to be carried by his mates would they venture the trip in the cold. Still, more than 3000 Continental soldiers died at Valley Forge. The conditions were abysmal.
Valley Forge was so bad that desertion was a serious problem. By mid-February some brigades had dropped to less than a thousand men. In January 1778, Washington resorted to hanging deserters, but only after multiple desertion attempts. The problem became so bad that several of his officers politicked with the Continental Congress to get Washington replaced by Horatio Gates, the victor at Saratoga. At Valley Forge, two out of every ten Continental soldiers died from disease, and one in ten deserted. What kept the other seven around?
Food for one thing. After the initial chaos of the first month, food never became a huge issue. There was never enough of it and the Continental soldiers didn’t have a feast every night, but what they had was adequate, and more importantly, not transportable. They lived on “firecakes”, a mixture of four and water roasted over a fire, that had to be consumed immediately or it turned into a rock. They also had a steady diet of meat from the rich countryside. Pvt Jospeh Plum Martin was on duty in January when “the women of Philadelphia” drove “80 yoke of oxen” into Valley Forge from the British occupied city. Local farmers and townspeople set up small markets in camp to supplement the soldiers’ diet of firecake and boiled beef or pork. The markets were the idea of Jeremiah Wadsworth, who reorganized the army’s commissariat. He took the bold step of allocating part of his budget to commissions for his deputies and agents based not on what was purchased, but what actually arrived in camp. The deputies and agents therefore had a financial incentive to actually deliver food, and the end chain disbursements cut down on graft.
However, Washington’s supply situation was still chaos in the early days of Valley Forge. Just about everything was managed by the regiments with supplies coming directly from their respective states. The troops from the nearby Middle States and New England were well kitted and taken care of, but troops from New Jersey, Maryland, and the Southern states were not, because they were effectively cut off from their sources of supply by the British. Washington needed it organized and placed his chosen successor and most competent general in charge, Nathaniel Greene. Like any good maneuver officer, Greene didn’t want the job of Quartermaster General, but there wouldn’t be a Continental Army if he didn’t take it. He energetically reorganized its logistics’ systems, and got the critical supplies more evenly distributed. Moreover, Greene organized a series of foraging expeditions to gather supplies from the countrysides of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland. Washington imposed limits on the foraging, such as receipts, payment, and leaving enough for the farmers to survive the winter. But if you were a suspected loyalist, the gloves were off. Like Sherman four score and seven years in the future, “Mad” Anthony Wayne cut a swath through Southeastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware, whom he thought were infested with loyalists while denying the forage to the British.
Howe knew of the expeditions and Washington’s army at Valley Forge, but never attacked. Valley Forge was a strong position and the British were misled on the number of troops in the Continental Army, mostly by George Washington himself. When Washington wasn’t writing letters to Congress, or anyone else who would listen about his supply situation, he was forging fake reports to Congress that he had delivered to the British by double agents. When Howe recognized a report in Washington’s own hand, he believed every word of it. At one point in February, the Continental Army was down to just 5000 men at Valley Forge, but Howe, citing Washington’s captured “reports” assumed he had 40,000.
But the biggest problem for Washington wasn’t the cold, or the food, or the British, it was morale. The soldiers of the Continental Army were mostly barely trained militia, and their officers elected or based on their civilian influence. The professionals of the Continental Line knew how to fight but not train. Even if they wanted to train and drill, they didn’t know how. Baron De Kalb was capable of training the army but he wasn’t in command of anyone so he spent most of his time drinking with his fellow officers. The men simply didn’t have enough to do outside of foraging, work parties for wood and water, and standing guard. As anyone who spent more than ten minutes with Joe knows, idle hands are the Devil’s plaything. By the beginning of February, morale couldn’t have been lower without a mutiny.
However, the Continental Army survived its darkest period at Valley Forge. February 1778 proved pivotal and three critical events raised the morale of the army. The first occurred on 6 February when France recognized the United States of America. There was now a very good chance that America wasn’t going to fight the most powerful country on the planet alone anymore.
The second occurred on the 11th of February when Martha Washington arrived in camp to spend the rest of the winter with her husband. Mrs. Washington provided a much needed new dimension to the Army’s commander, and seemed to raise the hopes, and discipline, of everyone around her. Martha Washington had run Mt. Vernon by herself for many years, and a mere glance by her had soldiers standing straighter, if they weren’t scrambling to organize and clean whatever she walked past, with the hospital huts receiving most of her attention.
Though the soldiers and officers wouldn’t initially enjoy it, the third morale boost came by direct recommendation from Benjamin Franklin. Franklin wrote Washington that he had found a Prussian who was a former lieutenant general and a veteran of Frederick the Great’s victories in the Seven Year’s War. On 23 February 1778, Washington, his wife, and his staff road out to meet the famed Prussian soldier, and newest major general in the Continental Army,
Maj. Gen. Baron Friedrich Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard Augustin von Steuben.