Tagged: AmericanRevolution

Private Joseph Plumb Martin

Joseph Plumb Martin was the son of a Massachusetts reverend and was sent to live with his grandparents in Connecticut after the Battles of Lexington and Concord. In June 1776, he threatened to join the crew of a American privateer out of Hartford if his grandparents didn’t allow him to join the Continental Army which just arrived in New York to defend against the inevitable British invasion there. His grandparents relented and on 29 June 1776, the 16 year old joined the Connecticut State Troops, and almost immediately was recruited into the 8th Connecticut Continental Line. He wouldn’t see his grandparents again until 1783.

Pvt Martin fought in every major battle from Long Island to Yorktown. He crossed the Delaware and surprised the Hessians at Trenton and was promoted to corporal in early 1777. He froze his ass off at Valley Forge and after MG Sullivan’s Iroquois campaign in 1779 was promoted to sergeant. He stayed a sergeant for the rest of the war and was present when LTG Washington disbanded the Continental Army in 1783.

What set Martin apart from the thousands of other Continental Army soldiers was that he kept a diary nearly every day of the war. Many officers at the time kept journals but few soldiers could read and write. Martin’s journal provides a nearly unique view into a soldier’s life in the Continental Army and its operations. He rarely mentions any officers above his company commander and mentions George Washington only once: when Washington once returned his salute while on guard duty.

The diary is a nearly unique look into the daily life of an American soldier in the Continental Line. Martin’s diary is definitive proof that some things never change and Joe will be Joe no matter the time period.

The Battle of Sullivan’s Island

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.

The Battle of Trois-Rivieres

America’s first invasion of Canada in 1775 started off well. Colonel Benedict Arnold’s surprise attack through the Maine wilderness was a disaster, with troops having to eat their belts, but it fixed Governor Guy Carleton in Quebec, and allowed Brigadier General Richard Montgomery who moved north from Fort Ticonderoga to seize Montreal and besiege Quebec. On New Year’s Eve, a surprise assault in a blinding snowstorm was discovered by an alert sentry mere seconds before the Americans were over the wall. Montgomery was killed and the new commander Brigadier General John Thomas, with the headstrong Arnold (still an ardent patriot at this point in the war) settled in for a siege.

In May 1776, the first British and Hessian troops from Europe under General John Burgoyne arrived to put down the rebellion. With just 2000 men, Thomas couldn’t continue the siege and retreated toward Montreal. But the American governor there so alienated the population of the city that they banded together with a small outlying British garrison, and the Mississauga, Seneca, and Cayuga Indians to throw out the Americans. By this point Brigadier General John Sullivan arrived with reinforcements, saw the futility of trying to hold Montreal with a superior British approaching from Quebec, took command of everyone, and headed quickly back to Ft Ticonderoga.

They would have made it intact if they hadn’t been intentionally led astray by a Canadian guide on 8 June 1776. The treacherous canuck led the American army into a swamp while “looking” for the ford at Trois-Rivieres. By the time they extricated themselves Carleton’s vanguard caught them. In the chaos that followed, 50 Americans were killed and 230 captured. The British had ten casualties.

Sullivan still managed to save the bulk of the men, which prevented Burgoyne from invading the nascent United States in 1776, but America’s first invasion of Canada had failed.

A Fortuitous Snowstorm

The fortification of Dorchester Heights by the Continental Army made Boston untenable for the British: Henry Knox’s cannon dominated the city and the harbor. On 5 March 1776, Gen Howe prepared 2500 redcoats to seize the Rebel position just as he had done ten months before at Bunker Hill. The operation would commence at dawn the next day.

General George Washington expected the attack and placed 6000 troops on Dorchester Heights to repel it. But he also knew that if the British managed to close and come at his poorly trained and poorly disciplined troops with the bayonet, no amount of continentals would matter – they would break. Even a Pyrrhic victory for the British like Bunker Hill would spell the end of the siege of Boston. Washington’s critical shortage of powder would be exposed to all the world, and without the cannon the British navy could supply Howe indefinitely. That would leave Washington just one remaining option: Storm the city.

Washington couldn’t chance a loss of the Dorchester Heights without possession of Boston – It would be the end of the Revolution. And he couldn’t storm the city while the navy was in the harbor… Unless it was distracted.

Which it would be supporting Howe’s assault.

Washington decided to gamble everything on a single throw of the dice. While Howe and his best troops were busy south of the city supported by the British Navy, Washington’s best regiments would assault over the Boston Neck, overwhelm the redoubt with sheer numbers, and seize the city. The casualties would be excessive, but a loss at Dorchester would be fatal to the Revolution if he didn’t already have Boston. He would lead the attack the moment Howe’s men were committed on the peninsula and unable to reinforce the Boston neck.

On the night of 5/6 March 1776, Rebel spies reported British assault troops were loading flatboats for transport across the harbor. Washington brought up his best regiments, including the fishermen from Marblehead that proved so critical in the year ahead, to assault positions before the neck. The morning of 6 March was expected to be the bloodiest of the war.

But it wasn’t to be: A fierce and blinding, but unexpected, snowstorm hit Boston around midnight and continued throughout the morning. About noon it stopped as quickly as it started. But by then Howe couldn’t attack. His flatboats would be easy targets for Knox’s guns. He knew surprise was lost and Washington would reinforce the heights. Losing a large part of his army in another Bunker Hill just to be bottled up on another peninsula would gain him nothing. (Remember he didn’t know about the shortage of powder.) The next day Howe drafted a note to Washington offering not to burn Boston to the ground if he was allowed to evacuate unmolested.

Washington quickly agreed. On 17 March as the last Redcoat and loyalist were boarding ships in the harbor, Washington triumphantly entered Boston. As he was traversing the Boston Neck, he eyed the British redoubts and fortifications he planned to personally assault on the morning of 6 March 1776.

No amount of troops could have forced the Neck: The Americans would have been massacred, and Washington would have undoubtedly been killed leading the charge. It wasn’t the last time Washington and the Continental Army was saved by the weather.

The Fortification of Dorchester Heights

On 2 and 3 March 1776, Henry Knox’s cannon from Ft Ticonderoga opened fire on British positions around Boston. They did the same on the late afternoon of 4 March. But as the British were safely tucked away riding out Knox’s bombardment, LTG George Washington put in motion his plan to fortify Dorchester Heights, which overlooked Boston and the harbor.

As soon as the sun sank below the horizon, thousands of Continentals trudged up the heights with hay bales. With these they created a wall in the darkness that obscured their movements and muffled the sound of thousands of soldiers digging. Then they dug trenches and gun pits for cannon throughout the night. By 4am, the last of Knox’s guns were in place. The hay bale wall was dismantled and the bales were used to reinforce the position. The guns on Dorchester Heights dominated Boston Harbor. Admiral Shuldham informed Gen Howe, the commander of the British army in Boston, that the city was untenable. The stunned Howe replied, “The rebels have done more in one night than my whole army would have done in a month.”

But it was all a bluff: Washington barely had enough powder to hold the heights if the British attacked as they did at Breed’s Hill, much less clear the British Navy from the harbor.

The Raid on Nassau: America’s First Amphibious Assault

In the early months of 1776, George Washington was desperate for gunpowder. So the Continental Congress dispatched the fledgling US Navy to seize British stores along the Carolina and Georgia coasts. In secret, they also authorized Commodore Esek Hopkins to raid into the Caribbean.

On 3 March, 1776, Hopkin’s and his small flotilla appeared off the coast of the British colony of Nassau. Captain Samuel Nichols and 200 Marines landed on the island in the first amphibious assault in Marine Corps’ history, and bloodlessly seized the fort.

The next day the Marines seized the town on the other side of the island only to find that the British governor and the townsfolk worked all night loading most of the powder onto ships. The ships departed at first light and slipped by Hopkins.

Henry Knox Fires his Guns

In the autumn of 1776, the Siege of Boston was at a perceived stalemate. The British could sortie and end the American Revolution anytime it wanted: LTG George Washington did not have enough powder to fight a battle, and the Continental Army didn’t have the discipline to retreat; the army would disintegrate. But Washington did have more than 20,000 militiamen and the lack of powder was a closely guarded secret. However, even though Washington had few pieces of artillery, which made the lack of powder less obvious, he still needed more cannon to end the siege. Henry Knox would change that.

Henry Knox was a bookseller from Boston. He was never a soldier but Washington was impressed with his military expertise, obtained solely from reading, and made him his chief of artillery. In September of 1776, Henry Knox set off with a motley crew of engineers, artillerists, and backwoodsmen to Ft Ticonderoga which Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold had captured that summer. It was packed with cannon.

Knox had no way to transport the cannon, so he waited for the harsh New England winter and created a “Noble Train of Artillery” by placing the cannon on sleds drawn by oxen. They cut their way for 300 miles over the snowy Berkshire Mtns. The trek took three months and by the end of January, 60 tons of cannon were at Washington’s disposal.

By mid February the gun carriages were complete. On 19 February 1776, Henry Knox, personally siting each gun, unleashed a furious barrage on British positions around Boston. It was ineffectual but it reinforced the perception that the Continental Army had plenty of gunpowder.

However, firing on British positions wasn’t going to end the siege. The guns needed to fire on the British Navy supplying Gen. Gage in the city. They could do that from the unoccupied Dorchester Heights to the south of the city, but the heights were a no mans land because the British fired on any American attempt to fortify the position. Washington needed a way to occupy the Heights with the cannon and dig in before the British cleared it with fire.

Colonel Henry Knox figured that one out too.

Common Sense

During the American Revolutionary War, it is generally agreed that 1/3 of the population of the Thirteen Colonies supported independence from Great Britain, 1/3 did not, and 1/3 were on the fence, falling on whichever side seemed to be the most advantageous at the time. On 10 January, 1776, a small pamphlet, Common Sense, was published in Philadelphia by an anonymous author which immediately unified the 1/3 that supported independence from Great Britain, and a good many of the fence sitters, if only temporarily.

Penned by Thomas Paine, an English born recent immigrant to America, Common Sense provided an easily digestible and, pardon the pun, common sense argument on why American independence was not just desirable for the Thirteen Colonies, but for mankind itself, particularly those that languished under a dictatorial absolute monarch. (Which, to be fair, the British monarchy wasn’t, but perception is reality.)

Unlike most Enlightenment treatises, which targeted other scholars, Paine’s target audience was America’s lower and middle classes. He eschewed the appeals to authority to obscure Greek and Roman thinkers, as Voltaire, Rousseau, and even Franklin were wont to do, and made his case, convincingly, through straight logic emphasized by Bible quotes for his primarily devout Protestant working class audience.

Common Sense flew off the printing presses and is the bestselling book in American history. It is the high water mark of Enlightenment literature and so influential that the future Declaration of Independence, US Constitution, Polish Constitution of 1791, and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen were direct results of the mere 48 page pamphlet.

There are no asterisks, and Common Sense is just as relevant today as it was 245 years ago.

Thomas Paine’s Common Sense is Required Reading for Humanity.

Some Quotes:

“I offer nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense.”

“Some writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by wickedness; the former promotes our happinesspositively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher.”

“The World is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.”

“In England a king hath little more to do than to make war and give away places; which in plain terms, is to impoverish the nation and set it together by the ears. A pretty business indeed for a man to be allowed eight hundred thousand sterling a year for, and worshipped into the bargain! Of more worth is one honest man to society and in the sight of God, than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived.”

Society in every state is a blessing, but government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one: for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries by a government, which we might expect in a country without government, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer.

“A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.”

“Small islands, not capable of protecting themselves, are the proper objects for kingdoms to take under their care; but there is something absurd, in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island.”

The Battle of Hammond’s Store and the Burning of William’s Fort

William Washington at the Battle of Cowpens

In December 1780, the Southern Department’s new commander, Major General Nathaniel Greene, split the remains of the Continental Army in the Carolinas with the recently promoted Brigadier General Daniel Morgan. Though unconventional, splitting the army allowed Greene the most foraging, resupply, and recruiting area to rebuild the remnant of the Continental Army he inherited after its destruction at Camden in August. While rebuilding his army in his new basecamp at Cheraw South Carolina, Greene would keep an eye on Cornwallis at Winnsboro, and operate against the British and Loyalists on the east side of the Broad River. Morgan would operate on the west side of the Broad River, resupply and rebuild his force with what little that remained of the militia that won the Battle of King’s Mountain, and to “give protection . . . and spirit up the people” in the midst of the vicious Patriot and Loyalist civil war being waged in the Carolinas and Georgia.

From his camp at Grindal Shoals on the Pacelot River, Morgan received word that a raiding party of 250 Georgian loyalists was about 20 miles away at Fair Forest destroying Patriot settlements and farms between the Loyalist stronghold at Ninety-Six and Winnsboro. On 27 December 1780, Morgan dispatched Lieutenant Colonel William Washington (a distant cousin of George Washington) and 85 Continental Dragoons with 200 Carolina and Georgia mounted militia to attack the Loyalists. The Loyalists quickly learned of the Washington’s mission and fled back towards Ninety-Six. Washington caught up to the Loyalists at Hammond’s Old Store on the Bush River on 30 December after a hard 40 mile ride.

Washington’s mounted force crested a hill and unexpectedly saw the Loyalists formed up on the top of the hill opposite them. The dragoons wasted no time and “gave a shout, drew swords, and charged like mad” across the saddle between the hills. The militia followed. The Loyalists immediately broke, and mounted Continentals and Patriots cut them down. Morgan later reported 100 Loyalists killed, fifty wounded, and forty captured without a single Patriot casualty, making the “Battle” of Hammond’s Store one of the costliest Loyalist defeats in the South to date in the war.

Most of the Loyalists who survived the Patriot onslaught fled towards “William’s Fort”, a Loyalist stockade about seven miles to the south, just outside Ninety-Six. Washington sent Colonel Joseph Hayes’ Little River Regiment of Militia with ten dragoons under Cornet James Simon to pursue and take the fort. When Simon arrived at William’s Fort, he gave the Loyalist commander, Brigadier General Robert Cunningham thirty minutes to surrender before he attacked. Cunningham was a popular and charismatic loyalist leader and was recently promoted to brigadier general by Cornwallis. Cunningham was so popular and prominent a local leader that in 1778 he was elected to South Carolina’s pro-Patriot Provincial Congress. Cornwallis entrusted to him command of all Loyalists in the region around Ninety-Six and expected him to clear the Carolina backcountry after Ferguson’s failure at King’s Mountain. But when confronted by the fiery young Continental officer, possibly with fresh tales of massacre at Hammond’s Store still echoing in his ears (there were a disproportionate number of dead to wounded and captured at the earlier battle), Cunningham abandoned William’s Fort after most of his men deserted. Hayes and Simon attacked when they recognized what was happening, and inflicted five more dead and thirty more wounded and captured on the Loyalists. The Patriots then gathered what stores they could, and not wishing to run afoul of any relief force from Ninety Six, returned to Washington at Hammond’s Store, and then back to Morgan at Grindal Shoals.

The Burning of William’s Fort and especially the Battle of Hammond’s Store shocked Cornwallis. Cornwallis’ first report was that Morgan had an army of 3000 that was marching on Ninety-Six to finally clear that thorn in the Patriots’ side, and Hammond’s Store was just the beginning. Cornwallis quickly found out that Morgan had less than 2000, but he could no longer ignore Morgan and concentrate on re-invading North Carolina. The Patriot capture of Ninety-Six, a post “of so much consequence” to the Loyalist cause, or even worse, Augusta, would unravel his campaign in the Southern Colonies and give Greene even more much needed time to rebuild at Cheraw.

On New Year’s Day, 1781, Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton received a dispatch from Lord Cornwallis to move toward Ninety-Six and with his British Legion and 71st Regiment, defend against any attack by Morgan. The next day, Tarleton learned Washington withdrew and that Ninety-Six was in no immediate danger. The impetuous Tarleton decided to attack. Following Cornwallis’ intent, Tarleton proposed pushing Morgan towards King’s Mountain where he, and if they were lucky Greene, could be trapped and destroyed by the combined weight of Tarleton’s and Cornwallis’ commands.

Of course that plan didn’t come to fruition, but what did happen was the Patriot victory at Hammond’s Store set in motion a chain of events which led directly to the Battle of Cowpens two weeks later on 17 January 1781.

The First American Flag: The Grand Union Flag

In October 1775, the Continental Army besieging Boston was in desperate need of supplies, primarily gunpowder. From spies in England, Continental Congress learned of supply ships that traveled regularly from London to Nassau in the Caribbean and authorized the purchase and outfitting of two ships to capture them. They purchased the Philadelphia merchantman, Black Prince, from Continental Congressman Robert Morris on 13 October (birthday of the US Navy), renamed her the Alfred, and outfitted her as a ten gun sloop-of-war.

To differentiate American warships from British warships, the 13 Colonies needed a flag. In November, Continental Congress adopted the red British Ensign with the addition of 13 white stripes on the red field and called it the Grand Union Flag. The optimistic thinking behind the design was that it allowed American crews of captured British vessels the ease of creating a new flag to fly over their prize by just sewing white stripes on the captured British ensigns. In any case, it was the first American national flag, and it was raised for the first time on 3 December 1775 at the commissioning ceremony of the Alfred. LTG George Washington would raise the Grand Union Flag for the first time at the Continental Army encampment outside Boston on New Year’s Day 1776.