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.
When General Sir William Howe’s British army occupied Philadelphia in 1777, he commandeered the house of a wealthy local patriot as his residence. The house wasn’t large enough to properly accommodate meetings with his officers, so he decided to seize the house across the street, belonging to the Irish Quaker Lydia Darragh, the local midwife. Darragh protested that she had already sent her children away and she herself had nowhere to go. Howe let her stay as long as she made her house available for British officers to rest, and she retire early if they had any evening meetings.
Although Darragh was Quaker and had family in the British Army, her oldest son was a soldier in the Continental Army and she despised the British. She routinely listened at the door of Howe’s evening meetings. On the night 3 December 1777, she heard of Howe’s plan to launch a surprise attack on Washington camped at White Marsh outside the city to the northwest.
The next morning, Darragh was granted permission to leave the city to purchase flour. On her way she met an American cavalry officer to whom she delivered the information about the impending attack. Washington planned to use the information to surprise the British and force them to fight another Bunker Hill-style battle on ground his choosing.
Washington was in desperate need of a morale boosting victory. Horatio Gates’ victory at Saratoga had some in the Continental Congress calling for Gates to replace Washington. Furthermore, the Continental Army was woefully under supplied and lacked shoes, clothing, and blankets for the coming winter. Desertion was becoming a problem. The arrival of Morgan’s Riflemen, and Glover’s and Patterson’s brigades from up north further exacerbated the supply situation, not to mention the morale situation as the Washington’s men hadn’t won a victory since Princeton the winter before. Darragh’s information was a God-send.
On the evening of 4 December 1777, Howe’s army departed Philadelphia in hopes that a night attack on Washington’s encampment would destroy the Continental Army. However just after midnight, Howe’s surprised light infantry encountered fully alert cavalry pickets and American skirmishers. Washington planned on engaging the British army, withdrawing in feigned confusion back to his entrenchments, fixing the British with a Bunker Hill style defense, and then attacking both flanks. Unfortunately Howe saw through the ruse.
For the next three days, both sides skirmished and jockeyed for position as Howe continually kept trying to out flank Washington’s strong entrenchments and Washington tried to force Howe into attacking them. The British got the better of the Americans in most engagements, but Howe couldn’t find a way to defeat Washington without doing exactly what Washington wanted him to do. To everyone’s surprise, Howe withdrew his men back to Philadelphia on the eighth of December. The shame of the withdrawal would lead to Howe’s resignation as commander in chief of the British Army in North America.
Though he still held the field of battle, the frustrated and disappointed Washington accepted that he would not be able to encamp his army in the warm houses of Philadelphia for the winter. He still had to monitor Howe so he needed to quarter for the winter relatively close to Philadelphia, but far enough away to preclude any surprise attack by the British. Washington chose a clearing along Valley Creek wherein resided a local iron forge, about twenty miles away from his encampment at White Marsh.
The trek from White Marsh took the exhausted and demoralized Continental Army almost eight days. On 19 December 1777, the Continental Army arrived at Valley Forge.
By early October, 1777, the feud between Horatio Gates, the commander of the Continental Army in the Hudson Valley, and his best general, Benedict Arnold came to a head. Arnold was furious that Gates had not mentioned him in the dispatches to Washington about the victory at Freeman’s Farm, a victory that was solely due to the aggressive Arnold. Gates confined him to his tent, and Arnold offered to return to Washington in Pennsylvania, but he didn’t.
The Battle at Freeman’s Farm prevented Gen Burgoyne from attacking Bemis Heights, where Gates had entrenched his Army, blocking the passage south to Albany. Burgoyne was short on all types of supplies, particularly food. The Battle of Bennington had stripped him of his Indian allies, who lost faith in Burgoyne after the Hessian defeat there. Moreover, Daniel Morgan’s Riflemen were expert woodsman and harassed the British formations day and night, and even worse, prevented Burgoyne’s foraging parties from scouring the countryside for supplies. Burgoyne decided to wait for relief by Henry Clinton’s columns that were supposed to attack up the Hudson Valley from New York City. But Clinton wouldn’t arrive for another two weeks. Burgoyne’s Army would starve before then.Uncharacteristically, Burgoyne called for a council of war with his officers, and they almost all advocated to retreat back to Canada. The proud Burgoyne refused. He decided to attack. The entire army would punch through Gate’s left flank on the Bemis Heights and continue on to Albany, while the Continental Army was reeling from the assault.
On the morning of 7 October, 1777, Burgoyne launched a 1500 man reconnaissance in force to identify weak points in Gate’s left flank. The Americans, swollen with militia from the surrounding area after the recent victories, outnumbered the British nearly 2-1 and Gates saw an opportunity to make the odds even better.
Gates attacked the British force. Morgan’s Riflemen, with no British light infantry or Indians to oppose their movement through the woods, snuck around to their rear and took a frightful toll on the British and Hessian officers and NCOs. Morgan’s men even almost killed Burgoyne, who while observing the battle from afar still had a hole in his coat, hat, and saddle from the riflemen. Gates nearly destroyed the force, and was prepared to return to the entrenchments: A day’s work well done. But then Arnold showed up.
Arnold took the force forward against Gates’ orders and attacked the British camp. Gates had no choice but to reinforce the aggressive Arnold and Morgan as they stormed the British redoubts. The fighting was fierce, but reinforcements in the form of Benjamin Lincoln’s men from the right half of the Bemis Heights’ entrenchments carried the day. In the final moments Arnold’s horse was hit, and when he fell, crushed Arnold’s leg. Gates’ messenger finally caught up to Arnold, and he returned to his tent, carried by his men in a litter.
As darkness fell, Burgoyne realized he couldn’t hold the camp against a determined American attack the next day. He retreated to Saratoga, harassed by Morgan the entire time. Gates’ initially couldn’t follow, his two best line commanders, Arnold and Lincoln, were both wounded, and the army disorganized. But it didn’t matter, Burgoyne couldn’t go anywhere – he was surrounded, and out of supplies.
On 17 October, 1777, Burgoyne surrendered his command at Saratoga to Gates. 5900 British, German and Canadian troops marched into American captivity. Gates and Arnold moved south to deal with Clinton’s excursion up the Hudson Valley, and the British and Canadian troops around Lake Champlain and Fort Ticonderoga retreated back to Canada.
The American victory at Saratoga sent shockwaves throughout the world. News of the victory reached Paris in December, and by February, Benjamin Franklin convinced France’s King Louis XVI to support the nascent American republic against the British monarchy.
In 1778, the American Revolution became a world war.
After his victories over Washington at Brandywine and Paoli, Gen Howe felt that he had the opportunity to open Philadelphia to the sea. So he sent Hessian detachments to reduce the American forts on the Delaware River, while the bulk of his army camped at Germantown, Pennsylvania.
But the Continental Army wasn’t defeated. Mistakes were made at Brandywine and Paoli, but they were due more to the relative lack of professionalism in the Army, than in any collapse in morale. The Continental Army had fought well at Brandywine, and was still full of fight. Washington planned to make Howe pay for the arrogance of splitting his army. Washington decided to recreate the Battle of Trenton from the previous Christmas: He’d surprise Howe at Germantown in a dawn attack. But instead of crossing the Delaware River in secrecy, he’d march four separate columns through the exceptionally dark and foggy autumn night. Then he’d have all four columns converge on Howe precisely as the sun broke the horizon. Howe would never expect it.
Washington did surprise Howe, but of the four columns, only two arrived, and neither at the same time. The plan was for Sullivan and Greene to attack the center, as two columns of militia attacked the flanks of the British camp. The militia columns never arrived, one got lost and the other was held up by a small Hessian outpost. In the foggy morning, Sullivan arrived on time, but Greene was delayed and began his attack later than Sullivan, whom he still didn’t have contact with. Both columns pushed the British light infantry, who fought savagely to give the line regiments time to organize. Sullivan’s advanced guard almost captured an incredulous Howe and his staff, who rode forward to admonish the light infantry for running from “skirmishers and foraging parties”.
Washington’s plan further broke down when the 40th Regiment of Foot barricaded itself in Clivden, the name for the stout stone mansion of the chief justice of the Pennsylvania Judiciary, John Chew. Sullivan wisely left a regiment to contain the British in Clivden, and bypassed to continue the assault. However, Henry Knox and the reserve arrived, and he convinced Washington to let him reduce the house with his guns. While Knox was setting up his cannon, one of Greene’s brigades, who was lost, stumbled into one of Sullivan’s brigades in the fog. They mistook each other for redcoats and opened fire. Both brigades broke.
At Clivden, Knox poured fire from his light guns into the mansion, which proved amazingly resilient. Unfortunately, Sullivan’s men, who were so far successful, heard Knox’s cannon behind them, and assumed they were out maneuvered just as they had been at Brandywine. Furthermore, their officers were coming to the realization that the militia attacks on the flanks had not materialized and Greene’s men were nowhere to be found (They were at least fighting though, just not where Sullivan expected them to be). Sullivan’s two remaining brigades felt they were out maneuvered, outnumbered, and alone. They too broke and ran.
Howe never expected a dawn surprise assault by the Washington because the bold plan was beyond the capabilities of his army, much less the Continental Army. Nonetheless it was the best chance Washington had to seize the initiative and defeat Howe before setting into winter quarters. If it would have worked, we’d be talking about Germantown instead of Saratoga as one of the decisive battles of the American Revolution. But it was not to be.
Burgoyne’s invasion of the Hudson Valley had been fraught with difficulties, but it could still cut the troublesome New England from the Middle and Southern colonies. Baum’s defeat at Bennington was a disaster and the loss in prestige stripped away many of the Indian allies Burgoyne relied on for skirmishing and reconnaissance. To the south, American Major General Horatio Gates massed his army on Bemis Heights, a position Burgoyne would have to secure if he wanted to continue to Albany.
Bemis Heights was a strong position but not impregnable. As the British approached, the command difficulties between the cautious Gates and his aggressive subordinate came to a head. BG Benedict Arnold wanted to go out and meet the British before they got into position.
To placate the irritating Arnold, Gates allowed him to take his division forward to Freeman’s Farm while he stayed on Bemis Heights. The forests north of Freeman’s Farm were well suited to American familiarity with fighting in the wilderness and Arnold slowly wore down the enemy. Morgan’s Riflemen targeted British officers and the cannon crews which sowed chaos in the British lines. Seeing Arnold’s success, Gates fed men into the battle, but never enough at any one time to fully press the advantage. Arnold kept pushing a break in the British lines, but a timely charge led by one of Burgoyne’s few remaining artillery officers finally secured the breach. In the meantime, Hessian troops again marched unwittingly on to the American flank. In the end, Arnold and the Continentals fell back to Bemis Heights.
The British held the field and the Americans were back where they started. But the British paid a heavy price for Arnold’s aggressiveness. Burgoyne took casualties that he couldn’t afford, and Bemis Heights were still an obstacle that he’d have to overcome. He lost a lot of troops because of Arnold, and the task of taking Bemis Height didn’t get any easier.