The World Turned Upside Down: The Siege of Yorktown

Saratoga, New York, October 17, 1777. British General John Burgoyne capitulated to American General Horatio Gates after the armies clashed in two battles at Freeman’s Farm and Bemis Heights. The surrender was the tipping point of the American Revolutionary War, which led the French to sign an alliance with America in her fight for independence.

Three years later, the Comte de Rochambeau arrived in Newport, Rhode Island with a French army intent on supporting General George Washington’s Continental Army effort to defeat the British in a war that had endured many Patriot losses.

Comte de Rochambeau

When Rochambeau arrived on July 11, 1780, Washington’s sights were myopically focused on attacking New York in a move that might defeat General Sir Henry Clinton, commander of all British forces in America. Rochambeau and Washington met twice in the coming year. The last meeting was held in Wethersfield, Connecticut on May 20, 1781. Rochambeau argued that the Southern theater where British General Lord Charles Cornwallis was chasing American General Nathanael Greene through the Carolinas was a better choice; specifically Virginia and the Chesapeake Bay.

Lord Charles Cornwallis

On the same day as the conference, Cornwallis arrived at Petersburg, Virginia after suffering heavy casualties at the Battle of Guilford Court House at the hands of Nathanael Greene. Cornwallis had not received permission from Clinton to abandon the Carolinas, but he believed that Virginia would be easier to capture because General Lafayette, who Washington had sent to Virginia with 1200 light infantry to act against the corps of the enemy (specifically the traitor General Benedict Arnold which is another story) had moved north leaving the south and west of the state open.

Admiral de Grasse

Washington’s hope hinged on the arrival of French Admiral de Grasse’s fleet in New York harbor to block up any British fleet which might be in the harbor and as a sufficient means of conveyance transport for Continental and French troops. Although he agreed to rendezvous with Washington’s army in White Plains, New York to attack Clinton, Rochambeau had a secret agenda. He wrote to de Grasse:

I must not conceal from you, Monsieur that the Americans are at the end of their resources, that Washington will not have half of the troops he is reckoned to have. It is therefore of the greatest  consequence that you will take on board as many troops as possible; that 4,000 or 5,000 men will not be too many, whether you aid us to destroy the works at Portsmouth, Virginia or to force Sandy Hook in seizing New York. There, Monsieur, are the actual and sad pictures of the affairs of this country.

By July 7, the allied forces were gathered at White Plains. Together they totaled some 5,000 troops. But on August 1, 1781, Washington received a letter from Lafayette that caused him to reconsider his desire to attack New York.

Cornwallis is taking up a strong position at Yorktown and Gloucester, sealing himself off if the British fleet should not be on hand to rescue him. Yorktown is surrounded by a river and a morass. Gloucester is a neck of land projecting into the river and opposite Yorktown.

That decision was made for him when Washington received a dispatch on Tuesday August 14 that de Grasse declined to sail to New York because he did not want to risk his ships navigating the difficult waters of the harbor and the Hudson River. Instead, he proposed to sail up the Chesapeake with twenty-nine ships and 3,000 troops. Admiral de Barras anchored in Newport, Rhode Island would rendezvous with de Grasse.

The allied armies marched south to Virginia. The logistical details of moving two armies plus hundreds of camp followers along with munitions and equipment was slow when speed was of the utmost importance before the French fleet decided to sail out of the Chesapeake.

When the news arrived at British headquarters in Manhattan that de Barras had left Newport, the British fleet embarked under the command of Admiral Thomas Graves. On September 5, the fleets encountered one another near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay near Yorktown. A battle ensued, that wound down at sunset, with the British fleet drifting eastward and away from the bay. The next day, Admiral Graves determined that his fleet had suffered too much damage to engage the French again, and sailed back to New York.

Battle of the Chesapeake Bay

The snare had been sprung trapping Cornwallis’ army in Yorktown, Virginia, situated between the James and York Rivers and the Chesapeake Bay. The little town was on a high stony bluff that ran parallel to the York River. It occupied a strategic location controlling upstream portions of the river and its tributaries and their access to the Chesapeake Bay.

When the allied armies arrived in mid-September, they set up below the town, pinning Cornwallis against the river. Washington set up camp in forested land about a mile from the enemy’s left. Rochambeau’s tents were pitched five hundred yards to the north. Washington’s principle officers, including his second in command, General Benjamin Lincoln, as well as General Lafayette, General Baron von Steuben, and artillerist General Henry Knox were camped along the perimeter of the encampment.

Cornwallis and his staff were quartered in the governor of Virginia’s house: General Thomas Nelson. Cornwallis received a letter from Sir Clinton that assured him, “I shall endeavor to reinforce your command by all means within the compass of my power.”

Cornwallis had never contemplated the possibility of a siege. Yet here it was, the reality of it staring at him like so many horrible eyes from Hell. He declared to his officers, “Nothing but the hope of relief will induce me to attempt this defense.” Still the British quietly abandoned their advanced posts and sneaked back to the defensive lines around Yorktown.

“Their movement is not only unmilitary,” Pennsylvania General Anthony Wayne proclaimed, “but an indication of confused precipitation and I do not understand why Cornwallis has done it.”

By the night of October 5, the allies began laying out a trench called a parallel. A steady rain masked the sounds of the sappers and miners (the men digging and clearing the trench) making their way across a broad, undulant field plowed into deep furrows by the enemy’s cannonballs. Sharpshooters protected the men digging the trenches in case of an enemy sally as Cornwallis sent infantrymen to clear the trench, but the sharpshooters repulsed them.

With the British cleared from the trench, a tradition associated with a siege was the Opening of the Trenches, a ceremony in which the troops of the day marched to their appointed places with drums beating and banners flying before planting their flags in the rampart ahead of them. Colonel Alexander Hamilton, an aide to George Washington, had threatened earlier to resign from the army if he wasn’t given a field command. Washington pacified him and Hamilton led some of his new infantry unit in the ceremony. Washington had the honor of igniting the bore hole of one of General Knox’s heavy siege guns and ceremoniously discharging the first shot from the American battery.

Washington firing the first gun.

At daybreak, the Continentals commenced an uninterrupted stream of fire that produced a relentless, unnerving, and deafening roar. The French Grand Battery opened and their 18- and 24- pound siege cannon were pounding Yorktown. Residents fled to the waterfront and hid in hastily built shelters on the sand cliffs. Dozens were killed and wounded—many with arms or legs severed—while their houses were destroyed. Cannonballs plunged into the York River and sent up streams of cascading water. British boats went up in flames under the bombardment. The Nelson house where Cornwallis was quartered was partially destroyed forcing the general and his staff to find shelter in a grotto.

On the night of October 11, the allied armies’ sappers and miners began work on the second parallel, just three hundred yards from the British fortifications of redoubts 9 and 10 near the York River. Rochambeau came to inspect the trenches proclaiming “We shall see if the pear is ripe.”

Washington held a secret war council on the night of October 13. It was determined that the allied forces would take redoubts 9 and 10 the following night. General Lafayette would command the charge against redoubt 10 on the right with a second of his choosing— Colonel de Gimat. The French under General Baron De Viomenil would assault redoubt 9 on the left.  Lafayette’s choice of second infuriated Alexander Hamilton. He went to Washington to complain that he had seniority over Gimat and that he should be second. Washington pacified Hamilton. Colonel John Laurens, another young aide to Washington, would also lead a battalion.

The bayonet assault would be conducted with the sappers and miners leading the way to cut through the abatis (sharpened tree trunks) arming the enemy redoubts. The sappers and miners were told:

You will advance beyond the trenches and lay down on the ground to await the signal to advance which will be three shells fired from the battery near your position. Your watch word is ‘Rochambeau’. This signal will also deploy the French waiting to assault redoubt 9.

 They determined Rochambeau a good watch word because if it was said fast, it sounded like “rush on boys.” The sappers and miners crept into position. Then, three shells with their fiery trails mounted the air in quick succession and lit the sky over Yorktown. “Up! Up!” was reiterated through the detachment of waiting men. They sprinted across a quarter mile landscape pocked and rutted from exploding shells toward the redoubt with British musket fire raking them as they ran, but the men cried “the fort’s our own” and “rush on boys!” They reached the redoubt. Snapping off the edges of the abatis, they cleared a passage for the infantry. The miners, who were told not to enter the fort, surged past their officers declaring, “We will go!”

Behind the sappers, Lafayette, Alexander Hamilton, John Laurens and their infantry battalions leaped out of the trenches and ran toward redoubt 10. To their left, the French regiments under Comte Deux-Ponts were hacking at the abatis surrounding redoubt 9 while Hessian sentries shouted “Who’s there?” and opened fire. Hand to hand combat commenced, but in ten minutes it was over and the Americans and French took possession of the redoubts.

Storming of Redoubt 10

Cornwallis wrote to Clinton:

My situation now becomes very critical. We dare not show a gun to their old batteries, and I expect that their new ones will open tomorrow morning. Experience has shown that our fresh earthen works do not resist their powerful artillery, so that we shall soon be exposed to an assault in ruined works, in a bad position, and with weakened numbers. The safety of the place is, therefore, so precarious that I cannot recommend that the fleet and army should run the great risk in endeavoring to save us.

Then the British tried to retreat to Gloucester across the York River on the night of October 16 only to be deterred by a terrible thunderstorm. The following morning, a British drummer beating a parley appeared on the enemy’s parapet.  A British officer stood beside him with a white handkerchief in his hand. Cornwallis had surrendered.

Colonel John Laurens

Now, the terms of the surrender were to be negotiated. Colonel John Laurens was one of the commissioners. He was by General Benjamin Lincoln’s side when the garrison at Charleston manned with 5000 troops fell on May 12, 1780. Lincoln surrendered to General Sir Henry Clinton and Clinton had denied Lincoln’s army the honors of war.

When an army fought bravely and well before surrendering, the vanquished soldiers were accorded the honors of war, which meant that they marched from their works with flags flying, drums beating, and their band playing a tune of the conqueror.

The humiliation was reciprocated as part of the terms. When the British commissioners protested that Cornwallis wasn’t present at Charleston, Laurens stated, “It is not the individual that is here considered. It is the nation. This remains an article, or I refuse to be a commissioner.”  The terms of the surrender were accepted by both parties.

At noon on Friday, October 19, 1781, a glorious, warm autumn day, sunny and bright with the leaves on the trees just beginning to turn, a portion of the trenches and fortifications surrounding Yorktown were leveled so that the British and Hessians could march out of their works onto Hampton Roads where the allied armies were lined up two ranks deep in a line that stretched for more than a mile with the French on the left and the Americans on the right.

At two o’clock, the mournful distant sound of fifes and drums were heard coming from Yorktown. The waiting armies silenced. The British army which had been reduced from 8,000 to 5,000, with 550 killed or wounded, 2,000 sick and 200 deserters, marched out of Yorktown led not by Cornwallis but by his second in command, General Charles O’Hara, to the slow beat of the drum, their twenty-two regimental flags ignominiously furled and stored in their cases.

O’Hara gave apologies for Cornwallis’ absence and then tried to surrender his sword to Rochambeau. Rochambeau indicated Washington. Washington indicated his second in command, General Benjamin Lincoln. Lincoln accepted the sword and his humiliation had been repaid.

General Benjamin Lincoln

The American Revolutionary War lasted two more years until the Treaty of Paris was signed on September 3, 1783. The surrender also had an effect on Great Britain’s other global endeavors such as the Siege of Gibraltar. And now America would face her biggest challenge of all—how to govern herself.

The Siege of Yorktown is part of my four book historical fantasy series on the American Revolution—Angels and Patriots. I used a lot of references including biographies so I could see the siege from the different points of view from those who were there.

To name a few, some of Connecticut Private Joseph Plumb Martin’s points of view as a sapper were delightful. There was the amusing story of Colonel Alexander Hamilton and General Henry Knox working in their captured redoubt and arguing over whether or not it was manly to jump behind a blind when the British fired shells into the redoubt. I suppose a shout out should go to the French. Viva la France!

This is my July 3 contribution to the Historical Writers Forum Blog Hop about American History June 28 – July 4, 2021! Catch up on the other great blogs in this series. https://www.facebook.com/Historical-Writers-Forum-Blog-Hop-Page-313883642875335

Resources:

Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton New York: Penguin Books, 2004. Print.

Ketchum, Richard. Victory At Yorktown New York: Henry Hold and Company, LLC, 2004. Print.

Lockhart, Paul. The Drillmaster of Valley Forge New York: Harper Collins, 2008. Print.

Martin, Joseph Plumb, Memoir of a Revolutionary Soldier, The Narrative of Joseph Plumb Martin New York, Dover Publications, 2006, Print. Originally published 1830.

Mattern, David B. Benjamin Lincoln and the American Revolution Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1998. Print.

Philbrick, Nathaniel. In The Hurricane’s Eye New York: Penguin Books, 2018. Print.

Puls, Mark. Henry Knox Visionary General of the American Revolution New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. Print.

Featured Image: The painting Surrender of Lord Cornwallis by John Trumbull is on display in the Rotunda of the US Capitol. General Benjamin Lincoln is in the center on the horse.

General Charles Lee: Patriot or Poltroon? (A Military Scandal of the American Revolution)

October 28, 1776. General George Washington’s Continental Army lost the battle at White Plains, New York. The army had spent the past nine months battling British General William Howe and losing every engagement including New York City. Now, the Continentals were forced to retreat again, to North Castle Heights north of White Plains.

General Charles Lee

Washington moved his army across the Hudson River to New Jersey and left his second-in-command, General Charles Lee in North Castle Heights with a brigade. A month later, two American forts on the shores of the Hudson fell to the British. With British General Charles Cornwallis following his troops, Washington requested Lee cross the Hudson and join forces with him. Lee declined the request.

On November 28, after informing the Continental Congress that he would remain to “annoy, distract, and consequently weaken [the enemy] in a desultory war”, Lee responded to Washington’s repeated requests. Then, he made a mistake. On December 12, with his bodyguards, servant, and pack of little dogs, Lee left his encampment and stopped at a tavern three miles away at Basking Ridge, New Jersey. The following morning a party of British dragoons, galloped toward the tavern. They shot out all the windows and forced Lee to surrender. Lee’s capture spread like wildfire.

A Hessian captain wrote: We have captured General Lee, the only rebel general whom we had cause to fear.

Charles Lee was born in Cheshire, England in 1731 or 1732 into a genteel family and received an excellent education. He came to North America and fought for the British army in the French and Indian War. When the war was over, he returned home and became a soldier of fortune. He moved to North America in 1773. The Patriots hailed him as a military expert. Because he was better educated and had more military experience than other officers, Lee hoped he would be named commander in chief of the Continental Army. Instead, Congress chose George Washington. Lee was selected as a major general and resigned his commission with the British army.

Lee had a dark side. He was slovenly, used foul language, sarcasm, and insults, and criticized his superiors. On the other hand, he was a composed, brilliant and courageous leader in battle.

Engraved caricature of Charles Lee with his dog, Spada

After his arrest at Basking Ridge, Lee was held in captivity in New York City. In February 1777, feeling that Congress had abandoned him and that the Americans had no chance to win the war, he submitted a secret military plan to General William Howe, commander of all British forces in America. There is no evidence that Howe read the plan. Lee also offered to mediate the return of America to the British Crown by requesting that Congress send a delegation to meet him. These acts could have been interpreted as treason.

Charles signed a parole in April 1778 preventing him from reentering American military service until a formal prisoner exchange was finalized. He rode to York, Pennsylvania, where Congress sat, to promote a new military plan. He objected to the Continental Army’s training to face British regular soldiers on the field of battle, which Lee called the “European Plan.” He claimed “only a plan of defense, harassing and impeding can alone succeed.”

When he arrived at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, Washington enthusiastically greeted him. But Lee was critical of Baron von Steuben, a Prussian officer who had arrived in America to train the troops. Furthermore, Lee was unfamiliar with many officers and out of touch with the much improved Continental Army.

On June 18, the Continental Army left Valley Forge, to follow the British army evacuating Philadelphia. General Sir William Howe had resigned and returned to England. General Sir Henry Clinton was given command of all British forces in America. His army marched across New Jersey toward New York with a twelve mile long baggage train.

George Washington

Washington sent detachments to harass Clinton’s rearguard including Generals William Maxwell, Charles Scott, and Colonel Daniel Morgan. These men formed the vanguard of the Continental Army under the young Marquis de Lafayette. Washington offered the command to Lee, but Lee thought the small size of the detachment was beneath his experience. When the detachment grew to 3,700 with the addition of General Anthony Wayne’s men, Lee changed his mind.

By June 26, Clinton’s army was halted at Monmouth Court House. At a June 27 council of war, Washington failed to give Lee clear orders. The commander in chief ordered an attack without specifying a general engagement, but said the rest of the army would come up in supporting distance of Lee. Lafayette asked Lee if he had a plan of attack. Lee replied he had none and thought it would be “better for the service to act according to circumstances.”

Lee’s troops marched on the morning of June 28 in increasingly intense heat through a landscape dotted with farms, orchards and crossed with fields and morasses. Lee received conflicting intelligence about Clinton’s movements: the army was retreating; they were threatening Lee’s flanks;  the main body of the British army that constituted Clinton’s first division was still at Monmouth. In actuality, the baggage train and Clinton’s division had marched off to the east and left General Lord Charles Cornwallis’ rear guard near Monmouth.

Lee’s attack on the British rearguard.

At 10:00 a.m., Lee’s forces crossed the Middle Morass and began to skirmish with the enemy’s rear guard. Suddenly, Clinton’s first division reversed course and turned to attack the Patriots. Clinton ordered Cornwallis to turn Lee’s right flank. At the sight of this, American Generals Charles Scott and William Maxwell and some artillery pulled back without Lee’s orders.

As Washington came up with the main army, he was informed there was “some confusion” in Lee’s ranks. A fifer walking the road was asked whether he served in the Continental Army. He responded yes and said that the Continental troops that had been advancing were now retreating. The first columns of retreating troops straggled past. When they were asked the reason for the retreat, none had an answer. An aide to Maxwell said Washington “was exceedingly alarmed, finding the advance corps falling back upon the main body, without the least notice given to him.”

Washington fumed with anger. He spotted Lee and the two rode to meet one another. Washington demanded, “I desire to know, sir, what is the reason for this disorder and confusion?”

“Washington Rebuking Lee at Monmouth” by John Ward Dunmore 1908

Lee stammered, “Sir? Sir?” expecting “congratulation and applause” for avoiding a crushing defeat. He said that he had never supported the attack on Clinton’s rear guard in the first place.

Washington eventually calmed down and returned Lee to the battle. At dusk, hostilities ceased. Clinton’s army moved away early the next morning. The most confusing battle of the American Revolution was a draw.

Lee was furious over Washington’s treatment of him. In the post-battle discussions, Washington was praised although it can be argued that his performance at Monmouth was lacking (that is another discussion for another time). Lee believed he was not being credited for his decision to retreat, which in his view saved his detachment from annihilation. He sent Washington a strong letter of complaint, with threats and insults knowing it would likely be made public. He insulted and blamed others calling them “wicked persons” and “dirty earwigs.” Washington found his language “highly improper” and declared Lee would have his forum. In a second letter, Lee demanded a court-martial so he could clear his name. Washington obliged.

The court-martial began on July 4, 1778 in New Brunswick, New Jersey presided over by General Lord Alexander Stirling. The charges pending were:

First, for disobedience of orders in not attacking the enemy on the 28th of June, agreeable to repeated instructions.

Second, for misbehavior before the enemy on the same day, by making an unnecessary, disorderly and shameful retreat.  

Third, for disrespect to the commander in chief in two letters dated the 1st of July and the 28th of June.

Lee served as his own defense council. He called thirteen witnesses. The prosecution, Judge Advocate General Colonel John Laurance called twenty-eight. The witnesses included Washington’s aide, Colonel Alexander Hamilton, Lee’s aide, Captain John Mercer, generals Scott, Maxwell, Wayne, Lafayette, and Knox. At the court-martial, Lee offered as his defense: he had been unreasonably provoked.

The court found Lee guilty on all counts except a shameful retreat. He was sentenced to one year suspension from the Continental Army. The verdict was passed to the Continental Congress for a final decision. Although Lee had supporters in Congress such as Dr. Benjamin Rush and Richard Henry Lee, the verdict was upheld. After Lee’s sentence expired, the Congress permanently dismissed him from the Continental Army.

Charles Lee died destitute on the evening of October 2, 1782 at the Sign of the Conestoga Wagon tavern in Philadelphia accompanied by his two little dogs and his faithful Italian servant, Giuseppe Minghini.

American Revolution enthusiasts usually rank General Charles Lee’s conduct near the top of the list with the despised, traitorous General Benedict Arnold. However, Lee has his apologists just as Arnold  does. Had Charles Lee been unjustly and unfairly treated? Historians and Revolutionary War lovers have and will continue to argue the question.

How do I feel about General Charles Lee? He is a character in my historical fantasy series of the American Revolution, Angels and Patriots, just as Benedict Arnold is. I see neither man as a pure villain, but both men let their vanity lead them to bad decisions, something many, many people have done since the dawn of man.


Resources:

Engraved caricature of Lee from vol. 3 of The Diaries of George Washington (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1978. p.299).

McCullough, David. 1776 New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005. Print.

Lender, Mark Edward and Stone, Garry Wheeler. Fatal Sunday University of Oklahoma Press, 2016. Print.

McBurney, Christian. George Washington’s Nemesis: The Outrageous Treason and Unfair Court-Martial of Major General Charles Lee in the Revolutionary War Savas Beatie, 2020. Print

The Long Stressful July of 1777

By the summer of 1777, the Revolutionary War had inflicted stress on the colonists, the Continental Army, the British, and the governmental bodies of America, Canada, and Britain.  Lack of everything on both sides of the conflict—food, fodder, clothing, money, troops, horses, confidence, faith, and loyalty—ground the souls of the most hearty and steadfast down. Governments were self-serving and citizens were fickle. The British were trying to conduct and finance conflicts in their many colonies throughout the eastern hemisphere. The Americans were struggling for power among their top ranking politicians and military commanders.  The French, with their promises of rank and dreams of monetary gain and glory in the Continental Army arrived with letters of commissions freely given out by American emissaries in Paris.

On July 4, 1777, America celebrated the first anniversary of the Declaration of Independence to the joy of patriots and the disdain of loyalists. The Continental Congress’ and the Continental Army’s troubles escalated into a never ending series of events that would test George Washington, his officers and troops’ skills, patience, and endurance. The British Army, divided by the desires of their commander-in-chief General Sir William Howe, Howe’s subordinates Generals John Burgoyne, Henry Clinton, and Guy Carlton, were in no better condition.

General John Burgoyne began his long march from Montreal with an army of 8,000 troops, Native Americans, camp followers, and some loyalist militia with the goal to ultimately take Albany, New York and cutoff New England from the other colonies.

220px-General_John_Burgoyne_-_Reynolds_c._1766
British General John Burgoyne

He expected his commander-in-chief to rendezvous with him, but William Howe had other ideas: take Philadelphia, the capital of the American government by loading 18,000 British and Hessian troops and 5,000 camp followers on board his brother, Admiral Richard Howe’s ships, sail up the Chesapeake, and march to Philadelphia. Many of his officers worried their destination was south and about the misery of the approaching heat while they rocked on the waves, some for as long as three agonizing weeks while the embarkation took place.

On July 6, American held Fort Ticonderoga situated on the southern tip of Lake Champlain fell to Burgoyne’s army without a fight. Subsequently, other American strong holds fell like dominoes in the following days: Fort Anne, Fort Edward, Skenesborough, and Hubbardton in the New Hampshire Grants. The fall of Ticonderoga generated shock waves in England and America. Its exaggerated importance as the key to the continent produced despair in Philadelphia and jubilation in Whitehall, England.

king-george-iii-wikicommonsjpg
King George III

When the news reached London, King George III was rumored to have rushed into the Queen’s chambers exclaiming, “I have beat them! I have beat all the Americans!”

William Howe’s second-in-command, General Henry Clinton, returned from England on July 5 and warned him that the British secretary of state to the colonies, Lord George Germain expected William to rendezvous with Burgoyne’s army in Albany. The ever torpid and stubborn Howe ignored Clinton’s reminders, as the two were longtime rivals.  Thus, William, keeping his plans a secret from his officers except Richard, continued to embark his troops onto ships. Clinton feared that the 7,500 troops planned to remain in New York under his command would succumb to an easy rebel defeat and was too small to assist Burgoyne’s army without leaving New York vulnerable.

Meanwhile, Congress was grappling with decisions on what to do with the influx of French officers arriving to demand the fulfillment of agreements doled out to them by the American emissaries were fulfilled. One such officer, who had already approached Congress, was French General Philippe du Coudray, a proclaimed specialist in artillery and engineering. General du Coudray arrived in June to claim his position to replace General Henry Knox as commander of the army’s Artillery corps.

As a result, Generals Nathanael Greene, Henry Knox, and John Sullivan submitted their letters of resignation. The letters were read aloud in Congress the first week in July. The letters were seen by congress as “an attempt to influence our decisions and an invasion of the liberties of the people, and indicating a want of confidence in the justice of Congress.” They directed Washington to accept the generals’ resignations if they could not serve their country under the authority of Congress.

On July 11, after hearing the news of the defeat at Fort Ticonderoga, Washington moved his army from Morristown, New Jersey near the New Jersey-New York border until William Howe’s intentions became clear. This left New Jersey open for Howe to march overland to the Delaware River, but Howe’s attention was already turned to the Chesapeake. Washington spread out the Continental Army to watch the Hudson River, the Delaware River, New Jersey, and the Hudson Highlands at Peekskill and West Point.

General Howe’s experienced officers felt anxiety over where they were going while awaiting their embarkation. Colonel Carl von Donop, commander of the brigade of Hessian grenadiers, jotted down his thoughts in the middle of July: “God knows where we shall go south or north, but the heat which is beginning to make itself felt with the approach of the dog-days makes one wish that the general would choose north rather than south.”

But the rotund pompous General James Grant, who spent seven years as governor of East Florida and led the feint near the Red Lyon Inn during the Battle of Long Island, offered a different opinion. “The most intelligent are wide of the mark from a mistaken idea of climate which is the same all over America in the months of July and August. During that time the heats are as great at Boston as at St. Augustine.”

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General Philip Schuyler

During this time, American General Philip Schuyler, in command of the Northern Army engaged with Burgoyne’s army, appealed to New York state officials for more troops. His appeal fell on deaf ears. Washington, however, was listening and he sent General John Nixon with 600 Massachusetts Continentals, and later instructed General Israel Putnam to send “four of the strongest Massachusetts regiments to proceed immediately to Albany.” George Washington, after writing to Congress, also sent General Benedict Arnold and Benjamin Lincoln to contend with Burgoyne’s movements.  Arnold requested Colonel Daniel Morgan and his regiment of riflemen from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, called Morgan’s Rifles, to aide him.

After three weeks of embarking his army onto ships, General William Howe and his brother, Richard, set sail for the Chesapeake on July 23. Washington was still unaware of their destination.

On July 27, the French officers, among them the nineteen-year-old Marquis De Lafayette,

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Marquis de Lafayette

arrived in Philadelphia after a 650 mile trip from Charleston, South Carolina. The sick and bedraggled Frenchmen arrived only to have John Hancock, Robert Morris, and James Lovell shuffle them around until they were finally told they were not needed and to go home.  But Lafayette had sent a letter to Congress who read it, overturned their decision and allowed Lafayette to stay under a modified agreement which gave Lafayette the major general commission Silas Deane had promised.

On the domestic front in Braintree, Massachusetts, Abigail Adams was expecting a child in July. Her husband, John, was away at Congress. She wanted him home in time for her delivery and longed for his soothing tenderness. On a night in early July, she was taken with a “shaking fit” and feared the life within her was lost.

Abigail Adams
Abigail Adams

Two weeks later, after several days of labor she wrote to John that she had given birth to a stillborn baby girl.

“It appeared to be a very fine babe, and as it never opened its eyes in this world, it looked as though they were only closed for sleep.”

I chose to write about this month because I’m writing about it in my work in progress, the third book in my series, Angels and Patriots. Of course, the events were much more complicated emotionally, physically, and intellectually which I have tried to convey in my book. I’ve written about two and a half years of the Revolutionary War thus far in my series and this one month exhausted even me.

I chose to share that exhaustion.

Resources:

Pancake, John S. 1777 The University of Alabama Press, 1997. Print.

Auricchio, Laura. The Marquis Lafayette Reconsidered New York: Penguin Random House, 2014. Print.

O’Shaughnessy, Andrew Jackson. The Men Who Lost America New Haven & London Yale University Press, 2013. Print.

Puls, Mark. Henry Knox Visionary General of the American Revolution Palgrave McMillian New York, 2008. Print.

Snow, Dean. 1777 Tipping Point at Saratoga Oxford University Press New York, 2016. Print.

Harris, Michael C. Brandywine Savas Beatie LLC El Dorado Hills, California 2017. Print.

Philbrick, Nathaniel. Valiant Ambition Penguin Books New York, 2016. Print.

McCullough, David, John Adams Simon & Schuster New York 2001. Print.


My award-winning historical fantasy book series:

Angels & Patriots Book One. Sons of Liberty, Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill is available on Amazon in paperback, Kindle eBook, or read for free on Kindle Unlimited. Angels & Patriots Book One

Angels & Patriots Book Two. The Cause of 1776 is available on Amazon in paperback, Kindle eBook, or read for free on Kindle Unlimited. Angels & Patriots Book Two

Women Camp Followers of the American Revolution

Most of their names are forgotten or were never recorded. They were wives, daughters, and girlfriends of British, American, and German soldiers and officers. Some followed the army looking for food and protection and work because they were no longer able to support themselves after the men left for war. Others were determined to be with their husbands no matter the cost. These women played a vital role in the American Revolution, sewing, nursing, cooking, guarding baggage, and offering support only they could provide their husbands. They suffered giving birth while enduring the hardships of war and moving armies.

Today, women who followed the army are referred to as “camp followers,” even though that term was not used in the eighteenth century. While General George Washington and many officers did not like to admit it, the army needed them even though the army could barely provision its own troops.  But, if women were not permitted in military camps, the army stood to lose a number of good soldiers. Men with families in need asked for furloughs or deserted in order to provide for their destitute loved ones.

On August 4, 1777, Washington wrote:

“the multitude of women in particular, especially those who are pregnant, or have children, are a clog upon every movement. The Commander in Chief earnestly recommends it to the officers to use every reasonable method in their power to get rid of all such as are not absolutely necessary.”

In fact Washington’s disdain for the camp followers was demonstrated three weeks later on August 24, 1777, when he marched his army through Philadelphia. Washington ordered that “not a woman belonging to the army is to be seen,” so the considerable number of camp followers were spirited off into alley ways and side streets. As the women tramped along parallel to the army’s line of march, they seethed with resentment and “poured after their soldiers.”

Washington’s resentment seems somewhat hypocritical. Martha Washington spent every winter with her husband in the Continental Army camp. She performed a lot of the same tasks as the camp followers, but she also brought an air of gentility and insisted on some formal social activities, as did American general Nathanael Greene’s wife, Caty, General Henry Knox’s wife, Lucy, and Sarah Alexander, wife of Major General Lord Stirling, when they were in camp. Caty sometimes brought her children to camp. Other times, she left them with relatives.

A year before Washington’s march through Philadelphia, American General William Smallwood and his Maryland Battalion consisting of nearly 700 men, joined General Washington’s forces in New York. The battalion included wives, mothers, daughters, mistresses, and other assorted women looking for safety and work.  Captain Nathaniel Ramsey’s wife, Margaret Jane Peale “Jenny” traveled in a small carriage and endured many of the hardships of army life with her husband. Jenny didn’t perform manual labor. Instead, she acted as a hostess, and her quarters became the center of social life for the Maryland officers.

A month later, in August 1776, when British General William Howe’s army landed on Gravesend Beach on the southern tip of Long Island in preparation for their first battle for New York with the Continental Army, women and children were among the British troops.

There were some 250 women and 500 children among British General John Burgoyne’s army that marched south from Montreal, Canada in June 1777, with the ultimate intention of taking Albany, New York.  Burgoyne had his mistress with him. His German commander, General Fredrich von Riedesel Baron of Eisenbach, was accompanied by his wife, Baroness Frederika Charlotte Riedesel. Frederika spent a year traveling from Germany with their three small daughters to be with her husband.

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Frederika Charlotte Riedesel

Frederika and her children joined other officers’ wives who followed at some distance behind the first line of advance.  Frederika wrote about Burgoyne’s small tactical victory at the Battle of Freeman’s Farm in September and his retreat at the Battle of Bemis Heights on October 7, a turning point in the American Revolution.  She also documented her own harrowing experiences in her journal:

I saw the whole battle myself, and, knowing that my husband was taking part in it, I was filled with fear and anguish and shivered whenever a shot was fired….

It was a terrible bombardment, and I was more dead than alive … Little Frederika, was very much frightened, often starting to cry, and I had to hold my handkerchief over her mouth to prevent our being discovered.

The greatest misery and extreme disorder prevailed in the army.  The commissary had forgotten to distribute the food supplies among the troops … more than thirty officers came to me because they could stand the hunger no longer.

My children lay on the floor with their heads in my lap.  And thus we spent the whole night.  The horrible smell in the cellar, the weeping of the children, and, even worse, my own fear prevented me from closing my eyes.

An incident occurred a few months earlier on the morning of July 27, 1777, as a group of Native Americans, an advance party from Burgoyne’s army led by a Wyandot called Panther, descended on the village of Fort Edward. Two warriors, one of whom was Panther, were escorting twenty-five-year old Jane McCrea and her companion, Sara McNeil, to the British camp. McNeil was related to one of Burgoyne’s generals and McCrea was engaged to a loyalist. The women became separated and McCrea was killed and scalped.

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This depiction of The Death of Jane McCrea was painted in 1804 by John Vanderlyn

American Benedict Arnold claimed that both women “were shot, scalped, stripped, and butchered in the most shocking manner…” Arnold’s outrage served to help make the death of Jane McCrea a sensation.

Mary McCauley followed the Seventh Pennsylvania Regiment. Her husband, John, was an artillery man. During the Battle of Monmouth, New Jersey, on June 28, 1778, Mary carried water from a nearby spring to the thirsty men on that hot and smoky battlefield. The water was also used to cool the blazing cannons. John collapsed during the battle, perhaps from the heat, and Mary immediately took his place at the cannon. She assisted in firing it with the rest of the crew for the remainder of the battle.

Women who offered their services to the army chose to give up the security of home (if they had one left) and embark on a journey that offered discomfort, hardship, and danger. They worked just as hard and suffered just as much as the men they worked beside. Many of the contributions of Revolutionary War era women have been forgotten. It is only appropriate to remember their courage and sacrifice, honoring them as well as the fighting men they supported.

Resources:

O’Donnell, Patrick K. Washington’s Immortals New York: Grove Press, 2016. Print.

Philbrick, Nathaniel. Valiant Ambition New York: Penguin Books, 2016. Print.

Pancake, John S. 1777 The University of Alabama Press, 1997. Print.

O’Shaughnessy, Andrew Jackson. The Men Who Lost America New Haven & London Yale University Press, 2013. Print.

https://www.history.org/history/teaching/enewsletter/volume7/nov08/women_revarmy.cfm

https://www.historyisfun.org/blog/witness-to-war/

My award-winning historical fantasy book series:

Angels & Patriots Book One. Sons of Liberty, Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill is available on Amazon in paperback, Kindle eBook, or read for free on Kindle Unlimited. Angels & Patriots Book One

Angels & Patriots Book Two. The Cause of 1776 is available on Amazon in paperback, Kindle eBook, or read for free on Kindle Unlimited. Angels & Patriots Book Two

The Taking of Dorchester Heights

General George Washington, the newly appointed commander-in-chief of the fledgling Continental Army, arrived at army headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts on July 2, 1775. The amateur general desired to prove himself with an assault on besieged Boston that would end the war in one fell swoop. The Continental Congress and Washington’s war council refused to allow it. Without consent, and a lack of gunpowder, heavy weaponry, and congressional funding, offensive operations were virtually impossible.

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General Henry Knox

But he would have his artillery. By the end of January 1776, Colonel Henry Knox had returned to Cambridge with “a noble train of artillery”. The expedition to retrieve the guns from Fort Ticonderoga, at the southern tip of Lake Champlain, had been an astounding feat of fortitude.

In a meeting of his war council, on February 16, 1776, Washington argued for attacking Boston. “A stroke well aimed at this critical juncture might put a final end to the war.”

General Nathanael Greene was concerned that an assault on a town garrisoned with British regulars could have horrible consequences, “horrible if it succeeded, and still more horrible if it failed.”

“Our defeat may risk the entire loss of liberties of American forever,” General Horatio Gates stated.

General Artemas Ward, the commanding officer of the army prior to Washington’s arrival, maintained, “The attack must be made with a view of bringing on an engagement, or of driving the enemy out of Boston and either end will be answered much better by possessing Dorchester Heights.”

Image from the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society.
General Artemas Ward

Washington’s previous plan had been to attack across the frozen waters of Back Bay. Holding on to part of that plan, he proposed a backdoor amphibious assault launched from Cambridge. The Americans would cross Back Bay to Boston’s western shores. They could possibly take the city before the British troops had a chance to return from Dorchester Heights.

General William Heath pointed out that if the enemy did “make a sally” from Boston, British General William Howe would provide for defense of the town. Washington’s plan to expect his soldiers to cross a mile and a half of open water in the face of British artillery “was madness”.

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General William Heath

It was finally agreed to build fortifications on Dorchester Heights on a single night before the British knew what was happening, just as had been done at Bunker Hill. The operation would require the procurement, supply, and maintenance of equipment, as well as, movement of troops and hospitalization of the wounded. Those things would prove to be as challenging as the military engagement.

Freezing temperatures meant that building a redoubt atop the bare, rock-hard, wind-swept hills of Dorchester was going to be difficult. The solution came from an unexpected source—Lieutenant Colonel Rufus Putnam, a cousin of Israel Putnam. Rufus had worked beside a few British engineers during the French and Indian War. Washington asked him to devise a way to quickly build a fortification on the Heights.

Rufus borrowed a book from General William Heath titled Attack and Defense of Fortified Places by the British engineer John Muller. On page 4, he discovered an engineering term he had never heard before: chandelier.

A chandelier was a double-ended wooden scaffold that sat on the ground: when it was placed beside another chandelier, the open space between the two frames was filled with fascines; bundles of tree branches that when covered with dirt formed the basis of a cannon-proof bulwark. With dozens of precut chandeliers and fascines, the Americans could create the beginnings of a redoubt atop Dorchester Heights.

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Two chandeliers, stacked with fascines.

Putnam took his plan to construct chandeliers to colonels Richard Gridley and Henry Knox. In turn, the three went to see George Washington. The solution was a scheme whereby the fortifications would be fabricated elsewhere out of sight, then, with massed manpower and oxen, hauled, along with the heavy cannon, to Dorchester Heights, where all would have to be in place and ready for action before daylight on March 5; the sixth anniversary of the Boston Massacre.

As a diversion, a cannonade and bombardment would begin against the British works on Boston Neck and Bunker Hill from the American works on Cobble Hill and Lechmere’s Point in Cambridge and from Lamb’s Dam on the Roxbury side. This required the placement of some of the heavy cannons from Ticonderoga. The causeway from Roxbury to Dorchester would be lined with a long barrier of hay bales to block the enemy’s view of the Americans moving to the Heights.

Men were dispatched to round up wagons, carts, and 800 oxen. The army’s hospital in Cambridge was readied. Notices in the Boston Gazette, published out of Watertown, called for volunteer nurses. 2000 Massachusetts militia were called out.

Work details, in Roxbury, cut down trees to make chandeliers, barrels, abatis, fascines, and gabions. The barrels would be set in rows in front of the parapets to present the appearance of strengthening the works; but the real design was, in case the British made an attack, to roll them down the hill toward the approaching enemy. Carpenters in Cambridge built 45 flat-bottomed bateaux, each capable of carrying 80 men, along with two floating batteries.

For miles around, everyone was expecting something. Bets were wagered on what would happen and when. Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, John, in Philadelphia:

The preparations increase and something is daily expected, something terrible it will be. I have been in a continual state of anxiety and expectation . . . it has been said ‘tomorrow’ and ‘tomorrow’ for this past month, but when the dreadful tomorrow will be I know not.”

Washington’s fear that the American operation would be discovered was fueled when a Virginia rifleman deserted to the British. Generals William Heath and John Sullivan personally inspected the lines to ensure that the guards on duty were vigilant on the chance that British got wind of what was happening and moved first to occupy the Heights.

On the night of February 27, Colonel Henry Knox led a group of his artillerymen to install cannon and mortars on Lechmere Point. The cannonade began from there on the night of March 2. Cannons began lobbing shot and shells into Boston to divert the enemy and drown out the noise of the work parties. The British responded with a furious cannonade of their own.

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On the night of March 4, at 7:00 p.m. Henry Knox’s regiments began firing from Roxbury, Lechmere Point, and Cobble Hill at a ferocious rate. The roar of British guns answered.

British captain Charles Stuart described sheets of fire filling the sky, and that “the inhabitants [of Boston] were in a horrid situation, particularly the women…drove from their houses by shot, and, crying for protection.”

When the cannonading began, General John Thomas, with 2000 men, started across the Dorchester causeway, moving rapidly and silently, shielded from view by the long barrier of hay bales. An advanced guard of 800 men made up largely of riflemen, went first, to fan out along the Dorchester shores. A work party of 1,200 men followed the riflemen. Then came the hundreds of heavy wagons loaded with chandeliers, fascines, hay bales, barrels, and the guns from Ticonderoga. Progress up the steep smooth slopes was extremely difficult, yet some of the ox teams and wagons made several trips.

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At Cambridge, generals Nathanael Greene and John Sullivan readied 4000 troops for an amphibious assault in the event of a signal from the Roxbury meetinghouse.

The night proved to be perfect for the work operation to come. The weather was unseasonably mild. A low-lying haze prevented the British from seeing much of anything beyond Boston, and a full moon provided the Americans with the light they needed to see their way. On the Heights, the troops went to work with picks and shovels to arrange the chandeliers and fascines, and dig ditches and build breastworks. By 10:00 pm, the fortifications were sufficiently ready to defend against small arms and grapeshot.

A British lieutenant colonel, Sir John Campbell, reported to British General Francis Smith that the rebels were at work on Dorchester Heights. Smith chose to ignore it. From that point on, the work proceeded unnoticed.

General William Heath wrote, “Perhaps there never was so much work done in so short a space of time.”

At first light, the British were shocked to see two redoubts atop the hills of Dorchester—one facing east toward Castle Island and the other facing north toward Boston, with two smaller works on their flanks and heavy artillery staring down on the town.

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General William Howe

General William Howe was said to have exclaimed, “My God, these fellows have done more work in one night than I could make my army do in three months!”

Howe had been confident that the rebels would never make a move on Boston, and had promised to sally forth if they did so. As a matter of pride, he would have to attack as he vowed. His council of war believed an attack would be a terrible mistake however, despite their objections, Howe ordered 3000 troops to embark down the harbor to Castle Island from where an assault on the Heights would be launched at nightfall.

Among General Howe’s council, Captain Archibald Robertson, Captain John Montresor, and Lord Hugh Percy contended that they “ought to immediately embark” Boston altogether. By nightfall, a storm that some judged to be a hurricane, raged. Howe was glad to accept this interruption as an excuse for not undertaking an attack that would have cost the lives of many of his regulars. The following morning, he called back the detachment and informed his war council of his intentions of evacuating Boston and going to Halifax, Nova Scotia.

On March 17, 1776, General Howe and his army evacuated Boston ending the eleven month long siege. On March 19, the last of the British might in Boston harbor Blew up Castle William and burnt some of the barracks. There was a lazy attempt to cannonade Dorchester Neck. Then, on March 27, they headed for open sea.

Resources:

http://www.processhistory.org/gw-cambridge/

https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/chandelier

Memoirs of Major-General Heath. Containing Anecdotes, Details of Skirmishes, Battles, and other Military Events, During The American War. Written Br Himself. publithtrt accorying to 3ft of Congrefa. Printed at Boston, Bt I. THOMAS and E. T. ANDREWS, Faust’s Statue, No. 45, Newburt-Street. Sold by them; by I. Thomas, Worcefter; by Thomas, Andrew! Is” Pen- himam, Albany j by Thomas, Andrews (9* Butler, Baltimore; and by the Bookfellers throughout the Continent. MUG. I798.

Philbrick, Nathaniel. Bunker Hill A City, A Siege, A Revolution. 2013Penguin Books, New York, NY.

McCullough, David. 1776. 2005: Simon & Schuster, New York, NY.

My award-winning historical fantasy book series:

Angels & Patriots Book One. Sons of Liberty, Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill is available on Amazon in paperback, Kindle eBook, or read for free on Kindle Unlimited. Angels & Patriots Book One

Angels & Patriots Book Two. The Cause of 1776 is available on Amazon in paperback, Kindle eBook, or read for free on Kindle Unlimited. Angels & Patriots Book Two