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.
The British grand strategy for subduing the troublesome New England colonies was to seize the Hudson River valley and cut them off from the middle and southern colonies. To this end, Gen. John Burgoyne attacked from Canada while Gen. William Howe was supposed to do the same from New York City. However, Howe unilaterally decided to sail his army into the northern Chesapeake and march on Philadelphia. On 9 September 1777, Howe’s British, Loyalists, and Hessians landed, and Washington planned to meet them at Chadd’s Ford along the Brandywine Creek.
Unfortunately for the Americans, a Philadelphia loyalist informed Howe of series of smaller fords on the East and West Brandywine Creek some miles to the north of Washington. On the morning of 11 September 1777, Howe marched the bulk of his army around Washington while he sent his Hessians to fix the Continental Army at Chadd’s Ford. Washington learned of the maneuver fairly early in the day, but didn’t act on it for several hours. He decided to go look for himself.For several hours, Washington conducted his own personal leader’s reconnaissance of the battlefield, accompanied only by the newest brigadier general in the Continental Army, Casimir Pulaski. Pulaski was a former colonel in the Bar Confederation, a Polish revolt against the Russians, who fled to America after the First Partition of Poland. Pulaski was by far and away the most experienced cavalryman in North America at the time, and about noon on 11 September 1777, Pulaski was showing Washington the finer points of mounted reconnaissance when they both were nearly killed.
Waiting in a copse of trees, was Maj Patrick Ferguson, a light infantry pioneer in the British Army. With him was a company of light infantry armed with breech loading marksman’s muskets specially designed by Ferguson himself. Washington and Pulaski rode to within thirty yards of Ferguson and his men. Ferguson ordered them killed but stopped his men after the duo turned their backs to them. Ferguson called to Washington and Pulaski, and they both rode off. Ferguson stated later that he alone could have put four rounds into each before they were out of range, but it was ungentlemanly to shoot the “well dressed hussar and his august companion in the back”. Ferguson never regretted his decision to spare the two.
By mid afternoon, Howe’s army appeared on the flank of the Continental Army, but Washington re-positioned. He sent Sullivan with three divisions to make a stand on a small hill topped by the Birmingham Meeting House. However, as Sullivan was conferring with the division commanders, the British emerged from the wood line and surprised Sullivan’s own division as it was forming. The line broke and the rest withdrew from the hill. Sullivan reformed at Dilworth, and as Washington confirmed he was facing the bulk of Howe’s army to the north, re-positioned Lafayette and his reserve under Greene. The Continentals stopped the British advance, and the fighting degenerated into a slug fest with American and British troops firing volleys point blank at each other, followed by bayonet charges. Nonetheless, the Continentals held.
At Chadd’s Ford, the Hessians also attempted to force the American position with little success. However, a British column from the north got lost in the forest attempting to flank Washington’s position at Dilworth, and appeared on the flanks of “Mad” Anthony Wayne’s defense of the ford. Though fiery and eccentric, Wayne was not stupid, and retreated. Washington recognized that he was now out maneuvered, and withdrew the army back to Philadelphia to fight another day. Greene and Lafayette provided a skillful rear guard.
Though a defeat, the Battle of Brandywine Creek showed that the Continental Army was beginning to mature. For the first time, they fought the British regulars and Hessian professionals toe to toe on ground of British choosing and gave as well as they got. Furthermore, the Continental leadership showed that it too could execute complicated and demanding maneuvers, none more so than a withdrawl while in contact. The Continental Army was not a professional force by any means in 1777, but it began to act like one.
The Continental Congress abandoned Philadelphia a little over a week later. They would flee to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which would have the honor of being the country’s capital for a single day, 21 September 1777, and then on to York, PA.
Howe marched into Philadelphia on 28 September thinking he had just won the war. However, the seizure of the enemy’s capital as a means of victory is a distinctly Western European construct. In Europe, the capital was the center of a nation’s culture, industry, and state bureaucracy, without which a nation can no longer fight. In the late 18th century it was unthinkable for a Briton to continue a war if London fell, or Frenchman to continue if Paris fell. But the ideals laid out in in the Declaration of Independence, and later the U.S. Constitution, are not tied to a piece of terrain. If an American capital falls, it just moves to another spot. You can’t occupy an idea.
Howe might have won Philadelphia, but he lost the war.
In mid August, 1777, British General John Burgoyne’s plan to capture Albany and the Hudson River valley, which would separate New England from the Middle and Southern colonies, was beginning to suffer from logistical problems. In addition to gunpowder and food, his army was in desperate need of horses. To remedy this, he dispatched LieutCol Frederich Baum and 800 Hessians, mostly dismounted dragoons, to the town of Bennington, Vermont which he expected to be defended by no more than the remnants of Seth Warner’s brigade of Green Mountain Boys, at most 400 men.
Unfortunately for the Hessians, John Stark was commissioned by the state of New Hampshire to raise a force of militia to protect the area. John Stark was a former Lieutenant in Roger’s Rangers, a former Continental Army Colonel (he resigned and returned to New Hampshire after being passed over for Brigadier General), and Hero of the Battle of Bunker Hill, where his men defeated a flanking attack across the Mystic River beach (which forced the costly frontal attacks) and then led the rear guard as the Americans withdrew. Stark had an uncanny ability to predict his foe’s maneuvers. He would do the same again against Baum.
Stark had twice as many men as Baum, nearly 1600, and moved on the Hessian column upon discovering it. Both sides received militia and Indian reinforcements but Baum didn’t know the area and moved into a defensive position on a hill to await more reinforcements from Burgoyne. Stark’s militia immediately surrounded the position.
On the morning of 16 August 1777, John Stark addressed his troops, “Yonder are the Hessians. They were bought for seven pounds and tenpence a man. Are you worth more? Prove it. Tonight the American flag floats from yonder hill or Molly Stark sleeps a widow!”
Molly Stark did not sleep a widow that night.
Unlike American militia in most Revolutionary War battles, Stark’s men from Vermont and New Hampshire fought as well as any regular from the Continental Line, and engaged the Hessians, Loyalists, and Indians at bayonet and saber point all afternoon. Just after the mortally wounded Baum surrendered, Hessian reinforcements from Burgoyne arrived, and they too were savaged, escaping only because night fell.
At Bennington, Burgoyne lost over a thousand men. Even worse, the remainder of his expedition was cut off from any forage and isolated in the wilderness of Northern New York. Burgoyne had no choice but to move on Albany as fast as possible, lest his men starve, or freeze to death later in the year from a lack of winter quarters.
In 1776 and early 1777, the US Ambassador to France, Silas Deane, was handing out promises of commission to any man with military experience who was willing to travel to America to join Washington’s Continental Army, which was in desperate need of trained and experienced officers. Unfortunately, most were long on resume and short on actual experience. However, in April 1777, two officers ran the British blockade in a private ship and arrived in Charlestown, South Carolina in late June.
The first was a giant bear of a man, the 56 year old Johann von Robais de Kalb, better known as Baron DeKalb. DeKalb was the son of a Bavarian shoemaker and a career soldier. At 16, he left home to join a German regiment in the French Army and served with distinction in the War of Austrian Succession and the Seven Years War, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel and made a noble for his exploits. After 30 years of service, he retired in 1764, but found that civilian life in a small estate outside Versailles with his rich French wife didn’t suit him. In 1767, he traveled to America as part of a clandestine French mission to assess the possibility of the thirteen North American colonies rebelling against Great Britain. He was so impressed with the American people that he decided he would join their inevitable revolution. He got his chance in 1777, when he met a young man of similar ambitions — Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roche Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette.Lafayette was DeKalb’s opposite in every way. The slight Lafayette was just 18 in 1777. At the age of 14, just four years previously, he married a relative of the King of France, and was commissioned a sous-lieutenant in the King’s Musketeers, and soon a lieutenant in the dragoons. He was as deficient in military matters as DeKalb was experienced. But he was as dedicated to the American cause as DeKalb after a dinner party in which the disgruntled Duke of Gloucester, King George III’s brother, expressed support for the rebellion. However France was actively trying to stay out of the American Revolution and as a relative of the French king was forbidden to depart. So the extraordinarily wealthy teenage Lafayette just went to Spain with DeKalb and several other officers destined for service in America, and bought a ship.
The “Victorie” took the men across the Atlantic and Lafayette bought coaches to take them to Philadelphia, where they planned to collect Silas’ promised commissions as major generals. But Washington had been burned by adventurers with imaginary exploits who convinced Deane they were something they weren’t, and Continental Congress couldn’t afford to pay a general’s salary to someone who wasn’t. They refused to honor Deane’s promises.
The rich Lafayette offered to serve for no pay. This, and the timely intercession of Ben Franklin by correspondence, won over the Continental Congress, who was still debating the merits of turning away so well connected a Frenchman. On 31 July 1777, the 19 year old Marquis de Lafayette became the youngest major general in the history of the US Army, an accomplishment that still holds today. He received his commission exactly 18 years after his father, a colonel of grenadiers, was killed at the Battle of Minden fighting the Prussians in the Seven Years War. Lafayette departed to assume a position on Washington’s staff shortly thereafter.
Lafayette’s commission infuriated DeKalb. The proud and quiet, but equally competent German was much more qualified for a commission as a major general than the young Lafayette (and all of the Continental generals, and even Washington for that matter…) He had grown fond of the Frenchman, who looked to DeKalb as a mentor and great friend, but the slight couldn’t stand. He lobbied for a commission for a month before the large and thoroughly exasperated German burst into Congress and demanded his commission, laying out his extensive military career to the aghast assembly. Still they refused. The resigned DeKalb finally requested payment to return to France, which he implied was the least bit of recompense for a breach of trust between himself and the fledgling nation. On 17 September 1777, the ashamed Congress relented, and the next day, DeKalb left for Washington’s staff to eventually take command of two Massachusetts’ brigades on the left of the Continental Line.
MG DeKalb added much needed professionalism to the Continental Army. When Washington ordered the army into winter quarters at Valley Forge later that year, DeKalb was instrumental in the training and discipline of the Continental Army. Unfortunately, history would award his fellow German, Baron Von Steuben, the lion’s share of the credit for the professionalization of the Continental Army at Valley Forge, but it couldn’t have been done without DeKalb.
For the next two years DeKalb would be Washington’s most trusted and stalwart division commander, and always in the thick of the fighting. DeKalb was tragically killed during the disaster at Camden in 1780, fighting to the last with his regulars, as Horacio Gates’ militia fled the British and Tory bayonets.
MG Lafayette would follow a different course. Lafayette had come to America “not to teach, but to learn” and this greatly impressed Washington. He inserted himself wherever he was needed. The young man would become the son Washington never had. Despite his youth, Washington trusted Lafayette with his most difficult and sensitive commands and missions. For example, Washington entrusted the young 19 year old with an invasion of Canada in 1778, which was cancelled at Lafayette’s request due to lack of supplies and men. However, “The Fearsome Horseman” as he was known among the native tribes, brought the Oneida nation over to the American cause, whose support would be much needed in Sullivan’s Iroquois campaign the next year. Lafayette would be hugely influential in the delicate negotiations with France to coordinate a common strategy after France’s entry into the war. Lafayette would fight for America wherever and whenever needed for the rest of the war, and it was his independent command that maneuvered Cornwallis into a box at Yorktown.
After the war, Lafayette would return to France and continue his service in the name of Liberty. He would be one of the few nobles not exiled, or executed by the guillotine during the French Revolution. He stood firm for a representative government in France, and was one of Napoleon’s few political enemies after his rise to emperor. Lafayette continued his quest after the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. It was a 70 year old Lafayette at the barricades as head of the National Guard during the Revolution of 1830. Afterwards, he turned down an offer as dictator after the royalist troops were routed.
Lafayette died in 1834 a hero to both America and France. He was buried in a French cemetery, but underneath soil taken by his son, Georges Washington, from Bunker Hill, whose memorial Lafayette dedicated.
At a eulogy in America, former president John Quincy Adams said of Lafayette, he was, “high on the list of the pure and disinterested benefactors of mankind”
By 1826, the American “Era of Good Feelings” that came about after its perceived victory in the War of 1812 was over a decade old. The underdog victory over the British, the collapse of the Federalist Party after the treasonous Hartford Convention, and the defeat of Native Americans at Tippecanoe, Fallen Timbers, and Horseshoe Bend, which opened up the West, led to an era when the people referred to themselves not as “Virginians” or “Pennsylvanians”, but as “Americans”. The American System survived the Panic of 1819, the worst of America’s early recessions, stronger than before. Francis Scott Key’s “The Defense of Fort McHenry” was being sung in taverns across the country to the tune of an old British drinking song, “To Anacreon in Heaven”. But the Era of Good Feelings among Americans was not destined to last.
Some people in America still believed they were entitled to the fruits of other men and women’s labor and expertise without just compensation. Moreover, they believed that those same people were considered property and that their Natural and Unalienable Rights were the product of a man made government, not the Providence of God or whatever deity they worshiped. Ergo, these slaves did not benefit from the Rule of Law as promised in the US Declaration of Independence and codified in the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The issue of Slavery (and to a lesser extent initially, the treatment of Native Americans in this vein) would dominate politics for the next thirty years.
By the mid-1820s, many of the American Founding Fathers had passed on. And most could not reconcile “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” with the institution of Slavery. The divisiveness was personified by two men, the best of friends and sometimes the worst of enemies, who were both on their deathbeds in July of 1826.
John Adams was America’s 2nd President and the product of strong independent rural Massachusetts’ farmers who saw human bondage as repugnant. John Adams never owned slaves, and he felt that slavery was economically inefficient (free men are always more productive than slaves) and would eventually cease. Nonetheless, he was not an abolitionist because he felt that abolitionism was antithetical to American unity.
His friend, Thomas Jefferson, the ironic author of the above passage in the Declaration of Independence and America’s 3rd President, was the product of an “enlightened” Virginia aristocratic class and a slave owner. A self-described racist, Jefferson felt that freed slaves had no place in American society, simply because of the cognitive dissonance of the passage of “all men are created equal” and the issue of Slavery. Jefferson believed that that inherent problem would cause freed slaves to become embittered with their masters and lead to the dissolution of the Union. He favored colonization of the inevitably freed slaves or their reparation back to Africa or the West Indies, as done by James Monroe and the creation of Liberia.
Both men wrestled with the issue of Slavery their entire lives. They led America through her most trying times, and defeated the greatest empire the world had ever seen despite overwhelming odds, not once but twice. But they could never agree on the issue of Slavery. For nearly six decades, they shepherded the nascent American state to the point where it could defend itself against any external threat. Unfortunately, they could not solve its most serious internal threat.
On 4 July 1826, two of America’s greatest proponents were near death, one 83 years old in Monticello Virginia, and the other 90 years old in Quincy, Massachusetts.
Exactly 50 years to the day after the Declaration of Independence was read aloud on the steps of Pennsylvania State House, and printed for distribution at John Dunlap’s printing shop, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died within hours of each other.
Despite all of their accomplishments, there was much work left to do. Care for the American experiment passed to a new generation. The children of the Revolution, epitomized by the Tennessean adventurer, politician and soldier Andrew Jackson, would have to tackle the issue of Slavery. The children of the War of 1812, personified by Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S Grant, would have to settle it.
After the victories of Trenton and Princeton, the Continental Army swelled with new recruits and the skirmishing between foraging parties and raiding between patriots and loyalists over the winter and spring of 1777 was fierce. In early spring, LTG George Washington moved the Continental Army out of winter quarters and encamped at a strong position at Middlebrook, New Jersey to prevent Gen William Howe’s British Army in New York from moving on Philadelphia overland. 1777 was expected to be the decisive year. Washington needed every advantage he could muster and mitigate every issue possible. One small issue was the Continental Army’s colors.
The Grand Union Flag which by this time was carried by the majority of the Continental regulars caused quite a bit of confusion. It had a Union Jack in the upper left corner on a field of alternating red and white stripes. Many patriots disliked the flag by 1777. Some saw it as a loyalist flag, including British troops. Moreover, it didn’t look particularly different from the Union Jack on the battlefield. At the very least, the Grand Union flag didn’t symbolize a complete break from Great Britain as was promised by the Declaration of Independence. Washington needed a new flag. In response to Washington’s request, on 14 June 1777, the Continental Congress passed the first flag law. It read, “Resolved. That the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.”
This resolution left quite a bit to the imagination, such as the size and location of the blue field, the position of the stars, even the shape of the flag and the direction of the stripes. These details were filled in, not by Betsy Ross as in the popular American myth, but by Francis Hopkinson, a signer of the Declaration and Congressional delegate from New Jersey.
Hopkinson was a talented designer and had a keen interest in designing the symbols for the new Republic. It was his recommendation that the blue field with stars replace the Union Jack in the Grand Union flag carried by the Continental Army. Although his first design was not a circle but alternating columns of two and three stars. This meant that the current colors could easily be “fixed”, without the problems of sewing a brand new flag and replacing the existing ones. (Hopkinson would go on to design just about every American symbol from the Great Seal to the dollar bill.)
Whether the first original flag of the new United States of America was sewn by Betsy Ross is so far lost to history. The entire Betsy Ross story is based on a single written testimony by her grandson given nearly a hundred years later in 1870. The story is not backed up by any physical evidence or written records whatsoever: no committee records, no bills of payment, and no journal entries in anyone’s diary or memoirs. Nothing. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, just that there is no solid evidence for it at all. The first flag had to be sewn by someone, Betsy Ross is as good a choice as any, and better than most.
The British began their invasion of the United States the same day as the flag resolution, 14 Jun 1777, when Gen John Burgoyne and his Indian allies crossed into New York from Canada, and Howe began a series of maneuvers against Philadelphia. 1777 would be a momentous, if frustrating, year for America. To meet the threat, the Continental Army would have a new flag for her regiments to rally around: a flag of thirteen alternating red and white stripes with a blue field in the corner upon which there was a circle of thirteen white stars.
The original Stars and Stripes of the United States of America.