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

Camden, South Carolina may not be a place that’s familiar to you, and that’s ok, because I’ve never been there, either.  But, like nearly every other town in existance, the World Wide Web provides us with an instant connection.  Displaying typical southern charm and called home by roughly 7,000 people, Camden is one of South Carolina’s oldest cities and appears to have a rich history.

Of course, not all the history is so great, at least for Americans.  Take this little nugget as an example…

In Revolutionary history, Camden (well, actually a battlefield just to the north of the city) is home to the Battle of Camden.  Fought on August 16, 1780, it was the worst Continental Army defeat in the entire war.  Think on that for just a minute…

In a series of conflicts spanning 7 or 8 years (depending on where you put the starting and ending points of the Revolution), the Continental Army suffered numerous defeats…we’ve talked about several.  Fort Washington and New York in the north, Richmond and Savannah in the south.  And there were smaller places in between.  Savannah fell with barely a shot fired.

So what makes Camden so embarrassingly special?  That’s a multi-part answer.  First, General Horatio Gates’ Continental forces significantly outnumbered (by nearly two-to-one) their Redcoat counterparts (led by the famous Cornwallis) in both men and cannon.  In addition, Gates was a former British officer, well-versed in British tactics and battlefield strategy.

But advantages like this mean little when the General made mistakes that nullified them.  Though he knew British formations well, he lined up some of his most inexperienced men opposite the most experienced British troops.  He was fighting in an area that was heavily loyal to the British, which meant getting fresh food and supplies from locals was, in the best case, problematic.  And that lack of good food and water led to sickness and disease, which compromised the power of his fighting force.  These were not the kinds of mistakes a leader of Gates’ caliber should be making…or were they?

Maybe Gates wasn’t nearly the General he thought he was.  Sure, there was the miracle of Saratoga a couple of years back, but unlike commanders who learn by placing their experience within a proper context, Gates learned that American troops were simply better than the British.  This was just clearly wrong, as copious amounts of battlefield testimony would have verified.

He may have been the big loser at Yorktown, but Charles Cornwallis was a brilliant tactician, and Gates was overmatched.  And that became apparent after the first volley at Camden.  The right flank simply disintegrated and men turned and fled the field.  The one militia to hold its ground (800 men from North Carolina) offered up stiff resistance, but with most other men heading for cover, they were badly outnumbered.

In one hour, the Continental Army (again, with a two-to-one advantage in men) had been trounced.  Killed and wounded totaled 900, with another 1,000 captured…half the original force…in one hour.  In addition, the Continental Army lost all 7 cannon and most of their supplies.  The British?…less than 70 killed and less than 250 wounded.

The disaster that was the Battle of Camden was the end of the line for General Horatio Gates.  He was stripped of his command, and just narrowly avoided a court-martial.

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This evening’s (brief) edition of Today’s History Lesson begins with a “thank-you” to Frances Hunter.  Frances Hunter’s American Heroes is a terrific website devoted to the story of the Lewis & Clark Expedition.  Yeah, you know, the two guys that discovered the Pacific Ocean.  Well, if that’s all you think there is to the story, you have no idea how deep the rabbit hole goes.  If you haven’t been, go visit.  It’s like Morpheus offering you “the red pill.”  While writing about Andre Michaux, Frances held a contest which I happened to win, earning me a copy of Hunter’s latest book, The Fairest Portion of the Globe (and it just arrived yesterday).  It’s historical fiction that includes Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, the afore-mentioned Michaux, and a host of other historical characters.  I’m super-excited to dig in.


Thomas Hickey.  A member of General George Washington’s Life Guard and conspirator in the plot to either kidnap or kill the General.  When we visited him last week, he had just been caught and arrested.  But June 28, 1776 would see no declaration for independence for this young Sergeant.


He was to be made an example for other soldiers who would might consider acting against their uniform.  He was taken to a field and hanged on a gallows.  But his sentence was not witnessed by only a few, as may have been the case of Major John André.  Instead it was done in front of 20,000 Continental Army soldiers.  And while there were 20 or so arrests made in the case, no one else received the death penalty, as they turned “state’s evidence” to further implicate Hickey.

As mentioned before, the actual plot to kill General Washington is a bit murky, but there is little doubt that it existed.  The fact that everyone turned on Thomas Hickey may be the cause of the glorification of the story down through the years.  The famous “Poisoned Peas” tale is likely just a tale, and may come out of the sensationalism.  As it goes, Hickey made an arrangement with one of Washington’s servant girls to lace his peas with arsenic.  The servant girl warned the General who, rather than eat the peas, threw them out to the chickens roaming in the yard.  They ate the peas and promptly died, leading to Hickey’s arrest.

That certainly doesn’t coincide with what we discussed last week, but as we know, stories get bigger over time.  Anyways, there you have it.  Hickey’s hanging and some vegetables that most kids already believe to be poisoned.

I happen to love peas, as long as they’re not from a can…those are deadly.

Recommended Reading: Thomas Hickey – This is some good information. Keep in mind that records of this incident (now more than 230 years old) are murky. But I think this is interesting reading.

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During the American Revolution, New York City was very much a center for British sympathizers.  That’s not especially surprising, as we’ve mentioned it on a couple of occasions.  And what’s more, the violence and persecution (I think the term is appropriate here) against them was widespread, as the pro-independence Colonists there had little trouble finding Loyalists to torment.

So when General George Washington arrived on the scene in April of 1776 to oversee military preparations, it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out that the Loyalists might target him in order to exact a bit of revenge.  The British, still stinging from the loss of Boston in March, probably would have welcomed a change of leadership at the head of the Continental Army.

On June 21, 1776, a plot to convince Patriot soldiers to defect to the British was uncovered.  It was orchestrated by William Tryon, New York’s former governor, who had been ousted from his position by the Patriots.  David Matthews, New York City’s current mayor and a Tory, was accused of funding the operation, which involved bribes to Continental Army soldiers.  And while it was never completely proven, Matthews spent some time in prison.

But most shocking was the discovery that members of Washington’s guard, most notably, Sergeant Thomas Hickey, were involved.  Having been assigned to his position in March, he was caught passing counterfeit money.  While in prison, he told a fellow soldier that his crimes were part of a much larger plot.

Evidence seems to suggest that included in the plans was the capture or assassination of General Washington and other members of his staff.  There doesn’t seem to be 100% consensus on whether a plot to kill the General actually existed.  Some historians seem to think so, while others are doubtful.  In his biography of Alexander Hamilton (which I’ve quoted dozens of times), Ron Chernow writes of a definite assassination plot.  So I’m inclined to believe that one existed.

How far-reaching such a plan reached is hard to say, but we know for sure that only Thomas Hickey’s neck would feel the bite of the hangman’s rope, as his execution was carried out a week later.

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We pick up where we left off yesterday, with British troops having left Boston in search of Samuel Adams and John Hancock.  Revere and Dawes had reached both and warned them of the British approach, at which point both packed their bags and headed for Philadelphia.

And as the dawn began to break on April 19, 1775’s version of Lexington, Major John Pitcairn led 700 British regulars into town.  There to greet them were 75-80 Colonial Minutemen, led by Captain John Parker.  The British major probably looked on the “rabble” assembled before him and chuckled.  He ordered the forces arrayed against him to pack up and head home…probably with the condescending tone of an arrogant schoolmaster scolding a wayward child.

Of course, we know what happened next.  A shot was fired (“the shot heard round the world”) from an unknown gun, and the skirmish was on.  Scattered shots were soon replaced by organized volleys from the British.  The wiser of the Minutemen (most all of them) turned and ran for cover, but not before 8 men were killed, including Parker’s cousin.

News carried quickly even in those computer-less, telephone-less days.  When the British arrived in Concord (to seize military supplies) less than 2 hours later, he found an enemy that numbered in the hundreds.  Bullying tactics now would be a much more difficult proposition.  While the British were able to capture and destroy some weapons, it quickly became apparent that the Colonials were not backing down.  So as fighting broke out anew and British began taking casualties, the orders were given to head back to Boston.

And throughout the 15-mile retreat, they were shot at by an ever-growing number of Minutemen, who picked off their targets from behind rocks and trees.  At the end of these engagements, casualty counts showed the British with more than 300 killed, wounded, or missing.  The “rabble” they faced suffered fewer than 100.

The Americian Revolution had begun, and it began with American victory.

Recommended Recreation:  Minuteman National Historical Park

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The winter of 1779-1780 was a pretty bad one for thirteen Colonies struggling to free themselves from cross-Atlantic control.  First off, the weather was miserable.  “Washington’s army, encamped at Morristown, New Jersey, suffered more than it had at Valley Forge from severe frosts and six-foot banks of snow.”  Those words, from Ralph Ketcham’s extensive biography of James Madison, succinctly summarize some of the worst conditions anyone could remember.  Even the British, with a recent run of successes, called a halt to operations.

A young Madison (shown above), snowbound in Virginia, took the time to investigate the Colonies’ second problem:  money.  The Colonies had lots of money floating around…roughly $200 million in paper currency.  The real issue was that it wasn’t worth the paper on which it was printed.  The previous couple of years had seen currency values fall, in some cases, to less than 1% of their face value.  And James Madison came to some interesting conclusions.

After extensive reading, he determined that the value of money…well, let’s just quote him directly.  “…does not depend on its quantity.  It depends on the credit of the state issuing it, and on the time of its redemption; and is not otherwise affected by the quantity, than as the quantity may be supposed to endanger or postpone the redemption.”

Of course, a good many people disagree with that premise, even today.  Many times, we’ll say things like, “If the government has trouble paying its bills, they’ll just print more money.”  It’s a derisive statement that implies the following:  if the government prints more money, there are more dollars in the system for the same amount of goods and services.  This serves to make dollars less valuable and, by extension, goods and services more expensive.  I’m no economist, so while that line of thinking resonates with me and seems to make sense, I have no idea as to whether things really operate like that.

Anyways, Madison’s thoughts flew in the face of conventional wisdom during the Revolution as well.  So it’s not surprising that he disagreed with the rest of the Continental Congress when, on March 18, 1780, that body resolved to reduce the $200 million of outstanding currency to just $5 million with a 1:40 reverse monetary split.  Ketcham writes, “It was hoped the new currency would escape depreciation and thus stabilize Congressional finances…Yet the act stopping the Continental currency presses took power from Congress precisely when it needed more to prosecute the war.”

James Madison was despondant.  Writing to Thomas Jefferson, his new (and eventual life-long) confidant, his depressed pen would write, “It is to be observed that the situation of Congress has undergone a total change from what it originally was.  Whilst they exercised the indefinite power of emitting money on the credit of their constituents they had the whole wealth and resources of the continent within their command, and could go on with their affairs independently and as they pleased.  Since the resolution passed for shutting the press, this power has been entirly given up and they are now as dependent on the States as the King of England is on the Parliament.”

General Washington, from his vantage point in an army that, to this point, was largely unpaid and very poorly-provisioned, said, “I see one head gradually changing into thirteen…I see the power of Congress declining for the consideration and respect which is due to them as the grand representative body of America, and am fearful of the consequences.”

A twenty-something Alexander Hamilton, now part of Washington’s military staff, pored over the situation and partially agreed with Madison, though he strongly believed that foreign loans were the best solution.  He would write, “The quantity of money in circulation is certainly a chief cause of its decline.  But we find it is depreciated more than fives times as much as it ought to be. … The excess is derived from opinion, a want of confidence.”  These words were part of a letter, more than six-thousand words in length, that outlined a financial system and was composed under a pseudonym and sent to a congressman (Robert Morris).

But for the time being, the devaluation of the currency was a painful decision, and wiped out the savings of many Americans.  And 1780 was only 3 months old, and much more hardship was in the works.

Recommended Reading:  Alexander Hamilton’s letter to Robert Morris – It’s hard to believe he was just 23 years old when he penned this.

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On February 18, 1776, a young Alexander Hamilton sent a letter to the Royal Danish-American Gazette that he was joining the military.  Big news?  I’m not sure it was at the time and, in the subsequent 235 years, millions of men and women have made the same honorable decision.

Hamilton, having arrived in the Colonies less than four years before, was now a student, a writer, and a budding revolutionist.  He was entrenched at King’s College and, as a young man of just 19 (or so, depending on his exact date of birth), had already studied enough to receive a bachelor’s degree and begin advanced law studies.  He was also an avid writer, publishing a series of articles (anonymously) called “The Monitor” in the New-York Tribune from November of 1775 to early February 1776, as the Colonies were by now in a declared (by the Crown) state of rebellion, and full-out war loomed.

So his decision may have come as a surprise to some, but Hamilton was fascinated with the order of the military, its command structure, the drills, and the precision of it all…even though he saw much more of those things in the British Redcoat formations than in the Colonial militias.  In fact, he was already serving in a volunteer militia company.  And when New York’s Provincial Congress announced the formation of an artillery company to defend New York, Hamilton jumped at the chance to join.

In his letter, which he did not sign, he wrote, “It is uncertain whether it may ever be in my power to send you another line…I am going into the army and perhaps ere long may be destined to seal with my blood the sentiments defended by my pen.  Be it so, if heaven decree it.  I was born to die and my reason and conscience tell me it is impossible to die in a better or more important cause.”

And on March 14, 1776, Hamilton was assigned to lead the artillery company with the rank of Captain.  The (good) fallout from this event is extensive.  Alexander Hamilton trained his men well, he dressed them well (partly at his own expense), and he worked them into a cohesive unit that served with distinction as open conflict with the British heated up.

His conduct got him noticed by General George Washington, who eventually added the young Captain to his staff (with a new rank of Lieutenant Colonel).  And of course, the rest is history, as the two would go on to form one of the strongest tandems in the Revolution and in the formation of a young America.

And it all began with Hamilton’s good work as the “Captain of a Company of Artillery.”

Recommended Reading: Alexander Hamilton

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More than a year ago, we talked about Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.  I wrote back then that it needed no introduction as it was a sacred place in American history.  I likened the winter of 1777-78 to being placed on an anvil, where heat, and hammer blows, and high pressure work together to create a strong finished product.  In my mind, Valley Forge fits well into that analogy.

The stunning victory by the Continental Army over General Burgoyne’s British at Saratoga in September of 1777 could only be celebrated momentarily, as fresh forces swept over Cooch’s Bridge, Chadd’s Ford, and into Philadelphia, scattering the Second Continental Congress and putting General Washington’s men “on the anvil”.

Of course, for the analogy to work completely, an anvil needs a hammer, and I contend that it arrived in Valley Forge on February 23, 1778, in the form of Friedrich Wilhelm Augustin Ludolf Gerhard von Steuben. Ron Chernow paints our “hammer” as “a Prussian soldier with a drooping face and ample double chin.”  He goes on:  “He billed himself as a German baron and acted the part with almost comical pomposity.  Although the baron and the honorific ‘von’ were likely fictitious, Frederick William August von Steuben came from a military family and had served as an aide to Frederick the Great.”

Much like the Marquis de Lafayette, the government was suspect of promising to pay a foreign addition to the army, especially when it couldn’t really pay the guys already on the payroll.  But like Lafayette, Baron von Steuben arrived at his own expense and said he would dispense with pay unless the Americans were ultimately victorious.  The government liked these no-cost additions.

His goal, to quote a favorite movie of mine, was to “put backbone into young jellyfish”, and he set about doing so immediately.  His coursework included intense drillwork, formation marching, musket loading, and bayonet fixing.  I’m not sure if he offered up (like Sally Struthers) the optional degrees in Business Management or Accounting, but he rewrote the army’s drill manual and created a training guide for company commanders.

Those in command of the army at Valley Forge had little doubt that von Steuben was a potent elixir for the flagging Continental Army.  He brought precision and order to the formations.  His goals for the men, once accomplished, gave them confidence and a greater cohesion.  They learned to work together in battle.  His hammer blows were helping to create a more powerful weapon.

One private would write, “Never before or since have I had such an impression of the ancient fabled god of war as when I looked on the baron.  He seemed to me a perfect personification of Mars.”  General Washington and his staff recognized it as well, and by May, not only was the Continental Army very different from the soggy, defeated force that had staggered into Valley Forge, but Baron von Steuben was sporting a new rank…that of (honorary) Major General.

Hammer indeed.

Recommended Reading: Washington’s Secret War

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