Archive for the ‘The Revolution (1775-1783)’ Category

It seems like every major city has, at some point, a major fire to go with it.  London had one, Chicago had one, and Washington, D.C. had one.  San Francisco had one, but that that more to do with the big earthquake that preceded it.  Still, fire is fire, and when it rages uncontrolled, it’s a pretty devastating experience.

Citizens of the small community of New York City also experienced a fire.  I say “small community” because, by today’s standards, the city was more townish in size.  But by 1776 standards, it was pretty large.  It was also about to be occupied by the British, so there’s been some speculation that Colonials or members of Washington’s Continental Army set the blaze.  And the General certainly had motive.

He didn’t have the manpower or firepower to stop the British from taking the city, so he packed his troops and headed for the higher ground of Harlem Heights.  There certainly was discussion amongst his staff about burning the city to deny its supplies and warehouses to the enemy, but that doesn’t seem to have been Washington’s style.  At any rate, history doesn’t really name a culprit.

History does show that on September 21, 1776, the fires started.  Fanned by high winds and fueled by closely packed wooden structures, they quickly overwhelmed any defensive measures taken.  The populace could do little but grab what they could, run into the streets, and watch the conflagration, which burned all day, all night, and into the 22nd.  All told, one quarter of the city’s homes and businesses were destroyed.

In our minds, that sounds like a massive fire, but that’s because we think in a 21st-century mindset…New York City…10 million people.  In 1776, one fourth of the buildings was 500 buildings.  A lot, yes, but not the destruction our mind’s eye might conjure.

The British certainly didn’t start the fires and, in fact, they were the ones who expended the most effort to put them out.  They questioned a bunch of people concerning the fire (including a young spy named Nathan Hale), but never found a suspect.  The buildings that survived became British hospitals and prisons.  The homes still standing (and not owned by British sympathizers) were taken over by Redcoat officers.

Under British control, New York City became a Loyalist enclave, and would remain so for many years.  It was many of these “Loyalists” to the Crown that, years later, would make the push to ratify the Constitution in New York such a struggle.

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The trip from Cooch’s Bridge in northern Delaware to Chadds Ford spans but 30 miles, give or take.  But in 1777, General Washington certainly wished that distance had at least one more zero at the end.  He needed space between himself and the British army coming at him.

The loss of Cooch’s Bridge the week before, while not a major engagement, opened the Colonial gates to Philadephia, and now the infant country’s capital was threatened.  And while the Redcoats and Hessians that made up Howe’s army didn’t have the convenience of Interstate 95 to speed them along, there was only token military resistance to impede their progress…

…until Brandywine Creek.  Meandering through southeast Pennsylvania, the Brandywine blocked access to the more navigable Schuylkill River (though it was less so at this time due to recent rains).  The Brandywine was Washington’s “line in the sand”, and the higher ground on the opposite site of the creek near Chadds Ford the chosen defense point.

In the cool, damp autumn mornings, fog is often thick in lower-lying areas, particularly around rivers and streams.  The Brandywine was no exception, and the morning of September 11, 1777 saw heavy fog in the area, which General William Howe used to his advantage.  Even though he outnumbered the Continental Army, he knew he didn’t want to attempt a full-on frontal assault (Bunker Hill had taught that messy lesson early on).

So Howe used the reduced visibility the morning provided to divide his troops, and sent the greater part of his forces to the left in a flanking maneuver.  By mid-afternoon, the pieces were in place and the guns began firing, with Howe’s flanks attacking first.  Washington’s forces in place were unable to cope with the onslaught, so the General sought to reinforce them.

It was at this time that Howe unleashed his 5,000-man attack straight up the middle.  Very quickly, the battle turned against Washington and his army.  A retreat order probably didn’t have to be given, because it was a naturally-occuring phenomena along the front.  The speed of the retreat meant the cannon, critical to future defense and normally pulled by horses (many of which were killed in the battle) had to be abandoned.

Also left behind were nearly 1,300 killed, wounded, and captured…twice the number of casualties inflicted on the Redcoats.  General Washington didn’t need to consult his maps or his subordinates to know that Philadephia was now in real trouble.  He sent runners (including the intrepid Alexander Hamilton and Robert E. Lee’s father Henry) ahead to destroy flour mills along the Schuylkill and to warn the Second Continental Congress that the British were bearing down on the capital.

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The Battle of the Chesapeake was an incredibly important naval engagement late in the American Revolution.  But it wasn’t the battle itself that was so important, as it essentially was a draw.

When we think of modern-day naval battles, we envision long-range standoff platforms like Aegis-class cruisers acting as vanguards for massive aircraft carriers that project power for hundreds of miles in any direction.  Silent submarines patrol the ocean depths, nearly impossible to detect.  And above it all, a series of satellites relay information at light-speed to help choreograph the nautical dance below.

In the 18th century, naval warfare looked a lot different.  There were ships with giant masts and rows of cannon.  Their “force projection” was measured in hundreds of feet.  And there were rules of warfare.  Like this one:  if a captain came upon the enemy fleet anchored like sitting ducks in a harbor, he didn’t just unfurl the cannon, commence firing, and lay waste to their existance.  Ships formed lines and fought against each other…that was just the way it was done.

So on September 5, 1781, when British Admiral Graves arrived at Chesapeake Bay and found much of the French fleet anchored and, in fact, unmanned, he simply waited for them to get going and form their battle line.  It was conventional wisdom to fight the “conventional” way, but in this case, it turned out to be a bad (very bad) idea.

Admiral de Grasse’s French ships got underway and the fight took place during the afternoon.  The results were rather inconclusive, with the French suffering more killed, but inflicting greater damage on their British opponent.

For the next several days, the two forces stalked each other until de Grasse turned around and headed for Chesapeake Bay, hoping his plan had worked.  When they got back, he discovered it had.  Comte de Barras had arrived from Rhode Island with his ships.  Added to de Grasse’s forces, they now not only held Chesapeake Bay, but they soundly outnumbered the now-weakened British fleet.

The British Army, encamped at Yorktown (at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay), now had the French fleet as its nearest neighbor, and could not be resupplied by sea.  It wasn’t long until General Washington’s army arrived and Yorktown would become the place of final defeat for Lord Cornwallis, his troops, and the British Crown in the Colonies.

The Battle of the Chesapeake wasn’t important for what it accomplished, but for the accomplishments it made possible a month later.

Recommended Reading: His Excellency: George Washington

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I’m doing a little finalization work on the project car I have and, while it’s not terribly difficult work, I’m a relative novice.  So I’m taking my time, which means it takes a long time to get each step accomplished.  But it’s going reasonably well…well enough that, with continued success, it may get done this weekend.  So the extra hours in the garage means I’m spending a little less time behind the keyboard.  But let’s take a shot at something.

The Battle of Cooch’s Bridge probably doesn’t come to mind when thinking of the battles fought during the American Revolution.  And that’s probably ok, because it wasn’t a large battle by any means.  “Skirmish” or “kind of large fight” or maybe “royal rumble” would be more appropriate (though the WWE might have a word with you about filching one of their terms).  But the circumstances surrounding it make it somewhat unique.

The battle itself, which occurred on September 3, 1777, was fought between 700 British (a mix of  German Hessians and Redcoats) and 450 American militia, led by Brigadier General William Maxwell.  The engagement began a few miles south of Cooch’s Bridge, when the Americans, who were waiting in ambush fired first.  The ensuing firefight saw the outnumbered Americans pushed back, though the British were not able to flank the Americans due to swampy terrain.

Maxwell’s final defense line, Cooch’s Bridge (named such because it was sitting on property owned by the Cooch family), was finally overrun when the British added some light cannon to the firepower.  Each side lost about the same number of men (30-40 killed and wounded), but the British took the victory because they seized the ground.

That’s the battle…here’s some of the more interesting stuff.

  • The Cooch family still owns the property where the skirmish was fought, and the original manor still stands.
  • The Cooch property sits in northern Delaware, and this was only military action of the Revolution that took place in the nation’s first state.
  • Maxwell’s defense line at Cooch’s Bridge was marked with an American flag, making it the first (but certainly not the last) time the Star-Spangled Banner was flown in combat.

It should be noted that the British and Hessian forces that fought at Cooch’s Bridge were not a fighting force unto themselves.  They were merely advance scouts for General William Howe’s much larger army, which had landed in Maryland in late August.  These forces would be the ones that swept into Philadelphia later in September, pushing General Washington and his men 20 miles outside the city…to a place called Valley Forge.

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The Marquis de Lafayette may not have been a Colonist, but it didn’t take him long to become something of a celebrity in the Colonies.  His arrival in South Carolina was a story of heroism, daring escape, and swashbuckling action on the high seas.

His youth, good looks, royal upbringing, wealth, and penchant for finery warmed him to the people in short order.  But most of all, his love of freedom, a willingness to share his military knowledge with a fledgling Colonial army, and his desire to fight the British made him most welcome in this time of Revolution.

His stay in South Carolina last only a couple weeks before he began his month-long journey north to Philadelphia, where he met his first roadblock, the Second Continental Congress.  For them, LaFayette was yet another French “glory seeker” foisted on them by Silas Deane (an envoy to France).  Thomas Jefferson thought the French lad possessed “…a canine appetite for popularity and fame“, a charge that may have been true to a degree.

But when the Marquis offered to fight without pay, well, the men who wrote the checks (but had no money to do so) suddenly saw him as a valuable asset (of course, it didn’t hurt to have the unfailing support of Benjamin Franklin, either).

On July 31, 1777, the Marquis de LaFayette was commissioned into the Continental Army as an honorary Major General.  General Washington was encouraged, by Franklin, to befriend his new subordinate, but that was unnecessary advice, as the two found an instant connection.  The man who would become the nation’s first President was something of a father-figure to LaFayette throughout the War.

He also became a close compatriot with Alexander Hamilton, then a young 20-something Lt. Colonel serving on Washington’s staff who could communicate with the Army import in fluent French.  The two, along with Hamilton’s close companion John Laurens, were something of a Revolutionary “Three Musketeers”.

In his impressive work on Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow writes that the Marquis was a bit temperamental and was given to some of the foibles stereotypical of French aristocracy of the day.  But Chernow is quick to add that LaFayette “proved to be a valiant officer of surprisingly mature judgement and more than rewarded the faith of his admirers.”

We’ll see some examples of that in the future.

And a Happy Birthday to my older brother!!

Recommended Reading: Alexander Hamilton

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The Battle of Stony Point is probably one of the more unconventional engagements of the American Revolution.  But before discussing the uniqueness of the battle, let’s have a little background.

Stony Point, in New York, is located on the Hudson River, just a few miles south of West Point Military Academy.  Sir Henry Clinton, leading the British campaign, had occupied the area in June of 1779 as part of a plan to lure General Washington’s troops into a final decisive battle that would give the British control of the Hudson River.

The British didn’t construct a fort so much as they simply fortified the area, building earthen embankments with pikes and numerous cannon positions.  They believed that, with the Hudson to the rear and swamps on either side, Stony Point was solidly defended and only open to attack from the west.

The Continental Corps of Light Infantry, comprised of four regiments (1,350 men) and led by Brigadier General Anthony Wayne, was tasked with removing the British forces (roughly 700 dug-in Redcoats commanded by Lt. Col. Henry Johnson) from Stony Point.  So let’s dive in and see what was unusual about the battle.

First, it was fought at night.  The Americans began their assault at midnight on July 16, 1779.  The Hudson River was affected by tides, and the Wayne’s forces exploited this, flanking the heaviest defenses at low tide, coming in on the River’s edge from the north and south, and climbing Stony Point itself.  The flanking manuever was aided by cloud cover (no moonlight) and high winds which forced British ships to move downstream.

Second, the main attack was made without firing a shot.  In order to achieve surprise, these men were not allowed to fire a single musket ball.  This attack from the rear would be performed with fixed bayonets only.  Wayne did send a battalion out to the front to lay down fire and keep the British otherwise occupied, but the actual assault would be “fire-free”.

Third, the engagement’s duration was measured in minutes.  In less than half an hour, Wayne’s forces had captured Stony Point with a loss of just 15 killed and 85 wounded.  Wayne, who led the main attack himself, was hit in the head by gunfire, but the musket ball had already lost most of its momentum, so the wound wasn’t fatal.  Their opponents saw 20 killed and 550 captured.

And finally, the victors didn’t stick around long.  Realizing they didn’t have enough men to hold against a concerted British counterattack, they abandoned Stony Point just two days later.  Of course, they took the cannon and other supplies with them.

With the British now concerned about French involvment in the conflict, they moved southwards, and the Battle of Stony Point was, for all intents and purposes, the end of the American Revolution in the northern colonies.

Recommended Reading:  The Stony Point Battlefield website

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John Adams, a prominent Massachusetts lawyer, liked to mince words.  A seasoned orator often accused of being overly enamored with the sound of his own voice, Adams didn’t address a lot of topics that weren’t worth talking about for a long time.  Ok…actually he did.  In later years, his penchant for pontification (coupled with his Santa-Claus-like figure) earned him the nickname “His Rotundity”.

But when speaking of Independence Day in a letter to wife Abigail, he kept it pretty simple.  He wrote:  “I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival.  It ought to be commemorated as the Day of Deliverance by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty.  It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more.“

Now it may come as a surprise to some that Adams wasn’t writing about July 4th. Yeah, it’s the day we celebrate our independence from Great Britain. But for the members of the Second Continental Congress, “Independence Day” didn’t occur then.

It actually started almost a month before (on June 7, 1776), when Richard Henry Lee, another lawyer (from Virginia), proposed what became known as The Lee Resolution.  It called for a formal severing of ties with the British Crown and declared the Colonies independent.  But before actually committing the Resolution to a vote, some time was taken for the Congressional delegates to consolidate their support and gain the necessary votes for passage.  Furthermore, five delegates were formed into a committee to draft an official declaration of independence.

A final draft copy was presented to the Congress on the 28th of June, and debate and counting votes began in earnest on July 1st.

And on July 2, 1776, a breaththrough was achieved when South Carolina’s delegates changed their position and voted for independence.  In addition, Delaware’s deadlock was broken, and John Dickinson and Robert Morris abstained in Pennsylvania’s delegation.  The final vote showed a unanimous vote among the 13 Colonies…sort of.  Only 12 voted as the delegates from New York (in the heart of Tory country) hadn’t yet received authority from their constituents to vote on independence (they got it the following week).

Ties with Great Britain and the King had officially been ended, and this event, on the 2nd, was what put Adams’ pen to paper.

So why do we celebrate Independence Day on the 4th of July?  Well, after the vote on the 2nd, Congress had to approve the language of what was to become one of America’s two most famous documents…the Declarlation of Independence.  That approval came on the 4th and it’s when printing and distribution of the document commenced.

Recommended Reading: 1776

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For many Americans Colonists, the time for “words with the homeland” was over.  By the time June of 1775 rolled around, clashes with British soldiers in Massachusetts had already left Colonial blood pooled on the ground.  It was now time to fight.  A Continental Army had just been formed and, on the 15th of June, George Washington was chosen to lead it.

The 15th was also when the Colonists received word that the British were looking to take control of the Charlestown peninsula.  On it were Breed’s Hill and Bunker Hill, which would give the British the strategic high ground, overlooking Boston and its harbor.  Armed with this advanced information, General William Prescott decided to get there first and, under the cover of night, he and 1,200 of his men made for Bunker Hill and began building an earthen works to serve as “musket ball absorption” material.

And as dawn broke on June 17, 1775, everyone got a surprise.  When British General William Howe arrived with 2,400 soldiers, he was shocked to see his enemy in an advantageous position (on the high ground) and waiting for him.  For his part, General Prescott was shocked to see that he and his soldiers were not dug in on Bunker Hill, but rather on neighboring Breed’s Hill.  I suppose digging in the dark with an 18th-Century map as a guide could get one into trouble.

General Howe may have figured that, if the Colonists couldn’t get their hills straight, they couldn’t shoot straight, either.  So, once out of their transport (a British frigate) and on solid ground, Howe marched them into battle and discovered he was only 50% right.

It’s reported that the famous words, “Don’t one of you fire until you see the whites of their eyes!” were said by General Prescott at this point.  But even if he didn’t, accounts bear out that the Colonists waited (almost too long) to fire.  And when they did, they pushed a British force twice their size back down the hill.  The British regrouped and again charged, but were again repulsed with heavy loss.

General Howe’s third attempt however, was successful.  The Colonists, now out of ammunition, had no way to further defend their positions and were forced to abandon them.  And once the British Regulars took the hill, they held the high ground and put lead and powder into the Colonial retreat.  In fact, a majority of the casualties among the Colonists (100+ dead, 300 wounded) occurred during the retreat, when they were most exposed.  But the Continental Army, still in its infancy, had stood its ground against a vastly superior force that was better equipped and better trained.

And as General Howe looked back at his path up the hill, he saw the bodies of nearly 250 men and officers lying still on the slopes.  He would have also seen more than 800 men with injuries, slight or grevious.  Howe’s Pyrrhic victory would be the last direct frontal assault the British would attempt in the Revolution.

Recommended Reading:  The American Revolution Website – All Revolution, all the time.

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Today’s History Lesson is likely to be brief.  Well, as brief as a name like Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier will allow.  Every time I wrote the name Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, it’d be like adding another paragraph to the piece.  So I’ll just use his title and, once I do that, not only will the lesson maintain its brevity, the person behind the name will probably become more familiar.

The Marquis de LaFayette.

Remember him from the American Revolution?  The Frenchman’s participation in our War for Independence was the product of some “cloak-and-dagger” action.  In December of 1776, Silas Deane (an envoy from the Colonies to France) had struck a deal with de LaFayette to lend his military expertise to America’s fight for freedom.

But things got complicated.  King Louis XVI, whose was already in a bad way with the British, was concerned about further angering King George.  So he forbade the 19-year-old military man from leaving the country, and ordered him to join his father-in-law’s regiment.  LaFayette tried to leave anyway…and was preparing his own ship for departure (the Colonies were too poor to even pay for his transit), when the police swept in to arrest him.

LaFayette disguised himself as a tourist.  Not actually, but he tried to make himself look as much like an innocuous courier as possible.  He eluded capture and made his way to Spain.  From there he set sail for America, where the next drama unfolded.

The ship he boarded had to stop in the West Indies to sell cargo, and LaFayette, facing arrest there, simply purchased the ship’s cargo, and ordered it delivered to the Colonies.

On June 13, 1777, the Marquis de LaFayette stepped onto American soil in South Carolina.  He would journey north, join Washington’s army, endure Valley Forge, and serve with distinction in the Continental Army.

We’re sure to discuss this man again.

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The sound of the gavel that ended the First Continental Congress in October of 1774 was still ringing through the streets of Philadelphia when it was replaced by gunfire in the streets of Lexington and Concord the following April.  The push for independence was gaining momentum among the people and, as the opposition to “overseas oversight” became stronger, less savory elements in the Colonies were becoming more brazen and more violent in their actions against those that sided with England.

Caught in the middle were a significant group of colonists that wanted independence, but believed that such a venture would certainly lead to an unwinnable war against an unbeatable British army and navy.  And once this certainly-bloody, but short-lived, conflict was over, additional blood from those deemed traitors would flow through the streets of Boston, Philadelphia, New York, and dozens of other places.

It was against this volatile backdrop of diverse opinions that the men of the First Continental Congress met again for what would become the Second Continental Congress.  All meetings have “action items”, and one of those from the first meeting was to meet again.  The date set was May 10, 1775 and their meetings opened, once again, in Philadelphia.

And though they didn’t know it at the time, this group of 56 men would meet almost continually for the next six years…that’s one long congressional session.  In 1775, they would discuss items like peace initiatives with the British Crown while simultaneously creating a Continental Army.  But as the relationship with the Crown disintegrated, issues like maintaining and funding an army and getting out of town (when Philadelphia fell to the British) would be added to the agenda.

There were a few new faces in the meeting hall.  John Hancock, who would become the Congress’ President, was there.  The stately Benjamin Franklin was also present, though events would see him (and eventually John Adams) sent to France.  And current President Peyton Randolph would be called back to Virginia, and his place was taken by a young man named Jefferson…Thomas Jefferson.

All told, 12 of the 13 Colonies were represented (just like at the first gathering).  But Georgia would remain without true delegates only until July.  And for the next six years, these men would work as a one-house government to hold together a fragile rebellion against an overwhelmingly powerful opponent.

Recommended Reading: John Adams

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I imagine that referring to Richmond as a fire hazard might be a bit of a stretch, but it certainly has been true in the past.  One of those times, near the end of the Civil War, was discussed by my good friend Michael a while back.

But there was another time that Richmond burned, so let’s visit that for Today’s History Lesson.  In 1780, the British Army gained a new Brigadier General.  Benedict ArnoldHaving been thwarted in his attempt to turn over West Point’s fort to the British, Arnold abandoned the Colonists and the Continental Army for a General’s commission with the Redcoats.

In late December, Arnold arrived at the capital of Virginia with about 1,500 men, having been sent south to disrupt the colonial supply lines.  Richmond had been largely abandoned by its defenders, leaving it essentially an open city, free for the British taking.  The British General then sent word to Virginia’s governor, one Thomas Jefferson (whose government had also left the city), stating that he would spare the city if he was given the tobacco supplies.

Jefferson refused to comply and, on January 5, 1781, Benedict Arnold and his troops ransacked Richmond, burning or destroying much of the city.

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On December 29, 1778, the city of Savannah, Georgia fell to the British.  Under the command of Lt. Colonel Archibald Campbell, roughly 3,000 men (British regulars, Hessian conscripts, and some colonial Loyalists) had set sail from New York in late November, landing near Savannah just before Christmas.

The move south marked a change in strategy for the King’s military.  To this point, the war had been concentrated in the northern Colonies.  But the fighting, by mid-1778, was approaching a stalemate, and the British felt a campaign in the south might be to their advantage.  But just as important was the British territory in the Caribbean, which was threatened by Spanish and French aggression.  A Royal Navy presence in the southern Colonies would serve as an additional deterrent.

The defense of Savannah was left to General Robert Howe (shown above), and his was a pretty uneviable position.  With fewer that 1,000 men under his command and no authority to command the state militia, he was badly outnumbered.  Furthermore, the British advance on the port city was aided by their ability to find an unguarded path through the swampy areas just outside Savannah that served to flank Howe’s positions.  Situated badly and at a significant numerical disadvantage, the battle was over before it even began.

Howe ordered his forces to withdraw from Savannah, and the Redcoats took control, having barely broken a military sweat, suffering only a handful of killed and wounded.  They captured the fort, its ammunition and artillery, and more than 450 prisoners.  General Howe would be forced to retreat into South Carolina, and would later be court-martialled (and acquitted) for the loss of the city.

The Continental Army (with French assistance) would try unsuccessfully to recapture Savannah the following year, and it would remain in British hands until they left after the Revolution ended.

Recommended Reading: From Savannah to Yorktown: The American Revolution in the South

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I hope you’ve all had a wonderful Christmas.  Ours has been very good.  My wife gave me one of those shiatsu back massage pad thingys, and it’s great.  I’m thinking I’ll probably take it to the office…or I may never leave the house again.  Since we’re all (or at least some of us are) filled with good food and treats and such, maybe Today’s History Lesson should be kept brief.

Let’s talk river crossings.  We’ve all done it at one time or another (likely hundreds of times).  You’re driving in your car, you come to a bridge, and you know what to do.  It all comes naturally.  Unless it’s one of those gigantic bridges, then you might gawk for a moment and feel your heart race just a bit.  But you cross the river and get to the other side and life goes on.

But (in Rudolph-style) do you recall the most famous river crossing of all?  It happened on Christmas night when General George Washington left Pennsylvania, crossed the Delaware River, and landed in New Jersey.  It was December 25, 1776, and the General had a date in Trenton…with the Hessians.

Who were the Hessians?  They were not the guys for whom that famous college football trophy is named.  The Hessians were German soldiers who had been conscripted (forced) to join the British ranks to fight against the Continental Army.  Since most of them came from the German state of Hesse,…you get the picture.

This all-boat crossing, which began at 3:00pm, would take 12 hours to complete, and featured all of the winter conditions you’d expect…ice floes, strong winds, cold, and sleet.  But Washington’s army crossed safely and proceeded to ruin the Hessian Christmas, although it’s pretty safe to say that citizens forced to fight in a foreign country probably didn’t feel a whole lot like fighting the day after the biggest holiday of the year.  The Continental Army suffered 3 killed and a half-dozen wounded.  The Hessians?…20-some killed and about 100 wounded.

If only all the battles of the Revolution had been this easy…

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Valley Forge.  The name is instantly recognizable.  The images we conjure are probably pretty similar, because we all know at least part of the story surrounding this most famous of places.  They are images of suffering, intense hunger, disease, cold, and death.  We see soldiers, feet wrapped in rags and their bodies shrouded in tattered uniforms or torn blankets, huddled around campfires in a desperate struggle to survive.

Valley Forge.  The name is instantly appropriate.  It was a crucible of fire, a place of harsh refinement that helped to strengthen the Army.  In his book Washington’s Secret War, Thomas Fleming contends that the American Revolution was won here.  Valley Forge is hallowed ground in American history, and many of the soldiers that walked it had no shoes to remove.

The Colonists’ fight for freedom had started to produce some good results.  A huge victory at Saratoga in October of 1777, led by General Horatio Gates, stunned the British and gave the Army and the people a big boost in confidence.  In addition, it convinced the French to openly align itself with the Colonies. 

But not all the news was good.  A month before Saratoga, General William Howe’s army had captured Philadelphia from General Washington’s outnumbered troops, forcing the fledging government to leave.  After trying unsuccessfully to push the British out of the capital, Washington settled his forces 20 miles away, arriving there December 19, 1777.  Washington chose Valley Forge with good reason.  It was close enough to keep an eye on the British, but far enough away to discourage a full assault in the dead of winter.

But his troops were in bad shape.  Food was scarce, the government had little money to pay for it, and the money they did have was largely worthless.  Many citizens were undoubtedly wary of selling supplies to a government that, right now, could only pay with I.O.U.’s.  The soldiers’ clothes were in tatters and, again, there was little money for replacements.  And while the men would be able to build reasonable shelters, and the winter would be pretty average, the constantly damp conditions would turn the camp into a giant petri dish.  Typhus, pneumonia, and other ailments would serve to decimate the Army, with mortality rates approaching 20%.

But such were the times, when a poverty-stricken (and sometimes divided) Congress, together with a suspicious (and sometimes divided) populace, served to put the nation’s Army on the anvil…an anvil that created an Army of fighting men.

Recommended Reading: Washington’s Secret War: The Hidden History of Valley Forge – See how General Washington really became a leader of men and country in Valley Forge…an outstanding read.

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The Siege of Yorktown had begun in late September of 1781.  General Charles Cornwallis, having first arrived earlier in the year with a handful of troops, now held charge of a garrison numbering more than 7,000 soldiers.  Located in southeastern Virginia, Yorktown sat (and still sits) at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay just northwest of Norfolk.

With such a large force of British soldiers, it was bound to attract the attention of the Continental Army.  Even so, General Washington had originally wanted to launch attacks in New York, where his forces held a numerical advantage.  But it was the Navy that would have the last word…the French Navy.

The Navy, under the command of Admiral de Grasse, notified the American commander in August that his force of warships, with 3,000 additional soldiers, was headed for Virginia and suggested the American forces join them there.  In late September, everyone was in place.  The British fleet, sent to attack the French, was bested in the Battle of the Chesapeake and Washington, de Lafayette, and Rochambeau had nearly 20,000 men on station at Yorktown.

As September turned into October, the siege was on.  While subjecting the trapped British soldiers to constant shelling from both the French warships and hundreds of artillery pieces, the squeeze was slowly put on Yorktown.  Cornwallis sent messages for help, but the promised relief from New York (Washington’s original target) was late in arriving.  With ammunition almost gone and food just as scarce, the British commander was left with little choice but to sue for peace, which he did on October 17th.

General Cornwallis and Captain Thomas Symonds (representing the British Navy) both signed the instrument of surrender on October 19, 1781…five days before the promised relief forces arrived from New York.  Though it would be nearly two years before the Treaty of Paris was signed, the Revolution was, for all intents and purposes, over.  British rule in the American Colonies was finished.

Recommended Reading: His Excellency: George Washington – In the last 3 or 4 years, I’ve become a real fan of Ellis’ works.

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Without a doubt, the most important treaty in the history of America was the treaty that finally established the existence of a free and independent America.  The Treaty of Paris, signed on September 3, 1783, officially ended the American Revolution and recognized the Thirteen Colonies as autonomous states.

“Revolutionary” fighting had ended on colonial soil in 1781 with the Battle of Yorktown.  But it’s important to note that, in 1781, the British didn’t consider the war lost…or even over.  They had plans to continue the conflict, but they were fighting the French elsewhere, and things were going badly enough that the British felt that peace with America would actually weaken the Franco-American alliance.  So the British presented a treaty proposal to Benjamin Franklin recognizing the colonies as independent, which somewhat upset our ally.

But then successes by the British Navy in the Mediterranean weakened the French position to the point that the French fell into agreement with the treaty as well.  It’s somewhat ironic that the French and British signed the treaty due to their weakened positions relative to each other as much as they did because of American strength.  But sign they did, as did our representatives in Paris: John Jay (who co-authored The Federalist Papers), John Adams (who became our 1st VP and 2nd President), and Benjamin Franklin (who spent the war in France as our Ambassador).

The birth of America, first begun more than seven years prior, was now complete.

Recommended Reading: Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

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The Second Continental Congress,  gathering in May of 1775 on the heels of the opening shots of the American Revolution, was pretty strongly divided.  A small contingent of delegates favored separation from England, while the larger body wanted to make every attempt to put off war and reconcile to the Crown.  The majority was led by John Dickinson (shown here), one the wealthiest and most respected men in the Colonies who, despite his many writings in favor of independence, still desired peace above war.

John Adams, who also held Dickinson in high regard, vehemently disagreed with his “pacifist” stance, and said so in a strongly worded letter to a friend.  The letter, which also condemned the British government and endorsed war with England, was intercepted by the British and published in a bunch of newspapers.  Needless to say, Adams probably felt like he had just defended the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre, as friend and foe alike sought to distance themselves from the patriot.

As a result, a sheepish minority in the Congress gave way to Dickinson, who crafted The Humble Petition (aka The Olive Branch Petition).  In it, the Colonists stated their desire to negotiate trade regulations, tariffs, and taxes with England, rather than having them dictated from afar.  Dickinson believed that, even with taxation, if the Colonists had a say in the legislation, their desire for “Taxation with Representation” could be achieved.

Furthermore, the delegates believed that sending the Petition to England on the heels of the British defeat at Lexington and Concord just eight weeks prior might add a little extra incentive to the King.  The first draft, written by Thomas Jefferson, was considered a little too strongly worded, so Dickinson rewrote most of it himself.  It was submitted by the Congress to the King on July 8, 1775, having been drafted and approved three days prior.

Of course, the Petition required six weeks to travel to England.  When it finally arrived, King George III refused to even open the Petition.  Having gotten wind of Adams’ letter and hearing of the actions the Colonists, he pronounced the Colonies in a state of rebellion.

The road to full-blown Revolution in America had now been trod, and the majority in the Congress now recognized that reconciliation was all but impossible.

Recommended Reading: A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic

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Yet another back-post…and hopefully the last for a while.  It turns out my ISP has been having trouble since a big storm rolled through here early Thursday morning.  But things seem to be better today, so maybe that’s a good sign.

July 4, 1776 is well known as the day that the Declaration of Independence was approved by the Second Continental Congress.  But the events of June 7, 1776 were just as momentous.  It was on this day that Richard Henry Lee stood in the assembly and proposed a resolution of independence.  Hailing from Virginia and a lawyer by trade, Lee brought the motion from his home state with the other delegates to Philadelphia.

The proposal, called the Lee Resolution, was only 80 words in length, and read as follows:
Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.

That it is expedient forthwith to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign Alliances.

That a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective Colonies for their consideration and approbation.

The motion was quickly seconded by Massachusetts delegate and fellow attorney John Adams. But the motion didn’t pass right away, as some of the delegates had to return home to sell the proposal to local constituents, while other delegations had to be granted the ability to vote for independence by their states.

In the meantime, a five-member committee was formed to create the formal document to present when independence was ratified.  It was out of this committee that the Declaration of Independence would come, penned by a young man named Thomas Jefferson.

But it was Lee’s motion on this day in 1776 that started the process.

Recommended Reading: American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Foundation of the Republic

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