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Journal of John Reuber, Hessian soldier in the regiment of Colonel Johann Rall.
'7 November, in the morning before day-break, all the regiments and corps were assembled, the Hessians on the right wing at the north haven; the English troops upon the left wing at the south haven. When it was now day and the Americans perceived us, but nothing more very plainly, at once these two ships of war, on both sides, made their master-strokes upon the fort, and we began at the same time on the land with cannon, and all the regiments marched forward up the hill and were obliged to creep along up the rocks, one falling down alive, another being shot dead. We were obliged to drag ourselves by the beech-tree bushes up the height where we could not really stand
At last, however, we got about on the top of the hill where there were trees and great stones. We had a hard time of it there together. Because they l now had no idea of yielding, Col. Rall gave the word of command, thus: "All that are my grenadiers, march forwards!" All the drummers struck up the march, the hautboy-players blew. At once all that were yet alive shouted, "Hurrah!" Immediately all were mingled together, Americans and Hessians There was no more firing, but all ran forward pell-mell upon the fortress. |
Before we came up, the Americans had a trench about the fortress, as soon, as we were within which, the order came to halt. Then the Americans had a mind to run out through us, but then came the command: "Hold! you are all prisoners of war." The fort was at once demanded by Gen. V. Kniphausen. The Rebels were allowed two hours for capitulating; when they were expired, the fort was surrendered to General V. Kniphausen with all the munitions of war and provisions belonging thereto within and without the furl, all guns and arms were to be laid down, and when all this was done, Ralts regiment and the old Lossberg, being made to form into two lines fachn~ each other, they were required to march out between the two regiments and deposit their guns and other weapons.
Then came the English and took them to New York into custody, and when the first transport was off, the second marched out of the citadel and was as strong as the first, and they also were conducted to New York inso confinement. And when all this was got through with, it was night. thus the Hessians took possession of the fort, and the rest marched again round so Kingsbridge into our old camp we had before stopped so long. Then came the order that the fort should be called Fort Kniphausen.
Fall of Ft Washington Hessian Account - History
D ecember 1776 was a desperate time for George Washington and the American Revolution. The ragtag Continental Army was encamped along the Pennsylvania shore of the Delaware River exhausted, demoralized and uncertain of its future.
The troubles had begun the previous August when British and Hessian troops invaded Long Island routing the colonial forces, forcing a desperate escape to the island of Manhattan. The British followed up their victory with an attack on Manhattan that compelled the Americans to again retreat, this time across the Hudson River to New Jersey.
The British followed in hot pursuit, chasing the Americans through New Jersey and by December had forced the Continental Army to abandon the state and cross the Delaware into Pennsylvania. With New Jersey in their firm control and Rhode Island successfully occupied, the British were confident that the Revolution had been crushed. The Continental Army appeared to be merely an annoyance soon to be swatted into oblivion like a bothersome bee at a picnic.
To compound Washington's problems, the enlistments of the majority of the militias under his command were due to expire at the end of the month and the troops return to their homes. Washington had to do something and quickly.
His decision was to attack the British. The target was the Hessian-held town of Trenton just across the Delaware River.
During the night of December 25, Washington led his troops across the ice-swollen Delaware about 9 miles north of Trenton. The weather was horrendous and the river treacherous. Raging winds combined with snow, sleet and rain to produce almost impossible conditions. To add to the difficulties, a significant number of Washington's force marched through the snow without shoes.
The next morning they attacked to the south, taking the Hessian garrison by surprise and over-running the town. After fierce fighting, and the loss of their commander, the Hessians surrendered.
Washington's victory was complete but his situation precarious. The violent weather continued - making a strike towards Princeton problematic. Washington and his commanding officers decided to retrace their steps across the Delaware taking their Hessian prisoners with them.
The news of the American victory spread rapidly through the colonies reinvigorating the failing spirit of the Revolution. The battle's outcome also gave Washington and his officers the confidence to mount another campaign. On December 30 they again crossed the Delaware, attacked and won another victory at Trenton on January 2, and then pushed on to Princeton defeating the British there on January 3.
Although not apparent at the time, these battles were a decisive turning point in the Revolution. The victories pulled the languishing Revolution out of the depths of despair, galvanized colonial support, shocked the British and convinced potential allies such as France, Holland and Spain, that the Continental Army was a force to be reckoned with.
Elisha Bostwick was a soldier in the Continental Army who took part in the battle and published his memoirs shortly after. We join his story as Washington (whom he refers to as "his Excellency") and his force begin to cross the Delaware:
"[Our] army passed through Bethleham and Moravian town and so on to the Delaware which we crossed 9 miles north of Trenton and encamped on the Pennsylvania side and there remained to the 24th December. [O]ur whole army was then set on motion and toward evening began to re-cross the Delaware but by obstructions of ice in the river did not all get across till quite late in the evening, and all the time a constant fall of snow with some rain, and finally our march began with the torches of our field pieces stuck in the, exhalters. [They] sparkled and blazed in the storm all night and about day light a halt was made at which time his Excellency and aids came near to the front on the side of the path where soldiers stood.
I heard his Excellency as he was coming on speaking to and encouraging the soldiers. The words he spoke as he passed by where I stood and in my hearing were these:
'Soldiers, keep by your officers. For God's sake, keep by your officers!' Spoke in a deep and solemn voice.
While passing a slanting, slippery bank his Excellency's horse's hind feet both slipped from under him, and he seized his horse's mane and the horse recovered.
Our horses were then unharnessed and the artillery men prepared. We marched on and it was not long before we heard the out sentries of the enemy both on the road we were in and the eastern road, and their out guards retreated firing, and our army, then with a quick step pushing on upon both roads, at the same time entered the town. Their artillery taken, they resigned with little opposition, about nine hundred, all Hessians, with 4 brass field pieces the remainder crossing the bridge at the lower end of the town escaped.
Marched the next day with our prisoners back to an encampment. I here make a few remarks as to the personal appearance of the Hessians.
|Washington Crossing the Delaware|
an allegorical representation painted by
the German-American Emmanuel Leutze in 1850
When crossing the Delaware with the prisoners in flat bottom boats the ice continually stuck to the boats, driving them down stream the boatmen endeavoring to clear off the ice pounded the boat, and stamping with their feet, beckoned to the prisoners to do the same, and they all set to jumping at once with their cues flying up and down, soon shook off the ice from the boats, and the next day recrossed the Delaware again and returned back to Trenton, and there on the first of January 1777 our years service expired, and then by the pressing solicitation of his Excellency a part of those whose time was out consented on a ten dollar bounty to stay six weeks longer, and although desirous as others to return home, I engaged to stay that time and made every exertion in my power to make as many of the soldiers stay with me as I could, and quite a number did engage with me who otherwise would have went home. "
Bostwick's account appears in Commager, Henry Steele and Robert B. Morris, The Spirit of 'Seventy Six (1958) Fischer, David Hackett, Washington's Crossing (2004).
To John Hancock
Since I had the Honor of addressing you last,1 an important Event has taken place of which I wish to give you the earliest Intelligence.
The preservation of the Passage of the North River was an Object of so much Consequence that I thought no pains or Expence too great for that purpose, and therefore after sending off all the valuable Stores except such as were necessary for its Defence, I determined agreeable to the Advice of most of the General Officers, to risque something to defend the Post on the East Side call’d Mount Washington.2
When the Army moved up in Consequence of Genl Howe’s landing at Frog Point, Colo. Magaw was left on that Command with about 1200 Men, and Orders given to defend it to the last. Afterwards reflecting upon the smallness of the Garrison, and the Difficulty of their holding it if Genl Howe should fall down upon it with his whole Force, I wrote to Genl Greene who had the Command on the Jersey Shore, directing him to govern himself by Circumstances, and to retain or evacuate the post as he should think best, and revoking the absolute Order to Colo. Magaw to defend the post to the last Extremity.3
Genl Greene struck with the Importance of the Post, and the Discouragement which our Evacuation of Posts must necessarily have given, reinforced Colo. Magaw with Detatchments from several Regiments of the Flying Camp, but cheifly of Pennsylvania, so as to make up the Number about 2000.4 In this Situation things were Yesterday, when Genl Howe demanded the Surrendry of the Garrison, to which Colo. Magaw returned a spirited Refusal. Immediately upon receiving an Account of this Transaction, I came from Hackinsack to this place, and had partly cross’d the North River when I met Genl Putnam and Genl Greene who were just returning from thence, and informed me that the Troops were in high Spirits and would make a good Defence, and it being late at Night I returned.5
Early this Morning Colo. Magaw posted his Troops partly in the Lines thrown up by our Army on our first coming thither from New York, and partly on a commanding Hill laying North of Mount Washington (the Lines being all to the Southward).6 In this Position the Attack began about Ten O’Clock, which our Troops stood, and returned the Fire in such a Manner as gave me great Hopes the Enemy was intirely repulsed. But at this time a Body of Troops cross’d Harlem River in Boats and landed inside of the second Lines, our Troops being then engaged in the first.
Colo. Cadwalader who commanded in the Lines sent off a Detatchment to oppose them, but they being overpowered by Numbers gave way upon which Colo. Cadwalader ordered his Troops to retreat in Order to gain the Fort. It was done with much Confusion, and the Enemy crossing over, came in upon them in such a Manner that a Number of them surrendered.
At this Time the Hessians advanced on the North Side of the Fort in very large Bodies, they were received by the Troops posted there with proper Spirit and kept back a considerable time. But at Length they were also obliged to submit to a superiority of Numbers and retire under the Cannon of the Fort.7
The Enemy having advanced thus far halted, and immediately a Flag went in with a Repetition of the demand of the Fortress as I suppose. At this Time I sent a Billet to Colo. Magaw, directing him to hold out, and I would endeavour this Evening to bring off the Garrison, if the Fortress could not be maintained, as I did not expect it could, the Enemy being possessed of the adjacent Ground. But before this reached him he had entered too far into a Treaty to retract. After which, Colo. Cadwalader told another Messenger who went over, that they had been able to obtain no other Terms than to surrender as prisoners of War.8 In this Situation Matters now stand. I have stopped Genl Beall’s and Genl Heards Brigades to preserve the Post and Stores here, which with the other Troops I hope we shall be able to effect.
I dont yet know the Numbers killed or wounded on either Side, but from the heaviness and Continuance of Fire in some places, I imagine there must have been considerable Execution.9
The Loss of such a Number of Officers a⟨nd⟩ Men, many of whom have been trained with more than common Attention, will I fear be severely felt. But when that of the Arms and Accoutrements is added much more so, and must be a farther Incentive to procure as considerable a Supply as possible for the New Troops as soon as it can be done. I have the Honor to be with great Respect Sir Yr most obt Servt
LS , in Tench Tilghman’s writing, DNA:PCC , item 152 Df , DLC:GW copy, DNA:PCC , item 169 Varick transcript , DLC:GW . Congress read this letter on 19 Nov. ( JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789 . 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends , 6:963).
4 . The strength of the American garrison at Fort Washington on this date was about twenty-nine hundred officers and men (see note 9). Colonel Magaw reportedly told his captors after his surrender that “there were only 2200 men on the Island in the Morning, but that a Reinforcement, the numbers of which he was not acquainted with, came over during the attack” ( Mackenzie, Diary description begins Diary of Frederick Mackenzie Giving a Daily Narrative of His Military Service as an Officer of the Regiment of Royal Welch Fusiliers during the Years 1775–1781 in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York . 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass., 1930. description ends , 1:109). No other accounts of American reinforcements crossing the Hudson to Fort Washington during the engagement have been found, however, and the danger and difficulty inherent in making a daylight crossing under combat conditions suggest that the last reinforcements probably were sent to Fort Washington during the previous night or earlier (see Freeman, Washington description begins Douglas Southall Freeman. George Washington: A Biography . 7 vols. New York, 1948–57. description ends , 4:252–53, n.134, and Graydon, Memoirs description begins Alexander Graydon. Memoirs of His Own Time. With Reminiscences of the Men and Events of the Revolution . Edited by John Stockton Littell. Philadelphia, 1846. description ends , 191). The Pennsylvania flying camp troops at Fort Washington included Col. William Baxter’s regiment, which had been sent there about 3 Nov., and the regiments of colonels Michael Swope, Frederick Watts, and William Montgomery (see Greene to Magaw, 3 Nov., in Greene Papers description begins Richard K. Showman et al., eds. The Papers of General Nathanael Greene . 13 vols. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1976–2005. description ends , 1:331–32, and the undated list of Pennsylvania officers at Fort Washington in Force, American Archives description begins Peter Force, ed. American Archives . 9 vols. Washington, D.C., 1837–53. description ends , 5th ser., 3:729–30).
5 . GW, who had gone to Hackensack from Fort Lee earlier on 15 Nov., returned to Fort Lee during the evening after receiving Nathanael Greene’s letter of that date (see GW to the Board of War, 15 Nov. [second letter], n.1, and Greene to GW, 15 Nov., and note 1). GW was crossing the Hudson River from Fort Lee to Fort Washington when he encountered generals Putnam and Greene returning from Fort Washington and decided to go back to Fort Lee for the night. For GW’s visit to Fort Lee between 13 and 15 Nov. and his failure during that time to reverse Greene’s decision to continue holding Fort Washington, see GW to John Augustine Washington, 6–19 Nov., n.10.
6 . Because the five-sided earthen fort was designed to hold only about twelve hundred men and it had little defensive ditching around it and no barracks, ammunition magazines, or readily accessible source of water, Magaw deployed most of his troops outside the fort’s walls in positions covering the most likely routes of attack. About a mile and a half south of the fort, Magaw’s 5th Pennsylvania Regiment, Cadwalader’s 3d Pennsylvania Regiment, “and some broken companies of Miles’s and other battalions, principally from Pennsylvania,” all under Cadwalader’s command, manned a defensive line across Harlem heights ( Graydon, Memoirs description begins Alexander Graydon. Memoirs of His Own Time. With Reminiscences of the Men and Events of the Revolution . Edited by John Stockton Littell. Philadelphia, 1846. description ends , 194). On Laurel Hill about half a mile east of Fort Washington, in positions overlooking the Harlem River, were posted various regiments of the flying camp troops. At the northern end of the high ridge on which Fort Washington stood, about three-quarters of a mile from the fort, Col. Moses Rawlings’s Maryland and Virginia riflemen defended a steep slope facing toward King’s Bridge, which lay about a mile and a half to the northeast. The area west of Fort Washington was not defended because the rugged 230–foot high bank of the Hudson River made it unlikely that any attack would come from that direction.
“The true reason of our loss of Fort Washington , I believe,” an anonymous American correspondent wrote on 17 Nov. from Fort Lee, “was the extensiveness of our lines. We had too few men to oppose the different attacks, and yet, when collected together, too many to garrison the fort” ( Force, American Archives description begins Peter Force, ed. American Archives . 9 vols. Washington, D.C., 1837–53. description ends , 5th ser., 3:741 see also Graydon, Memoirs description begins Alexander Graydon. Memoirs of His Own Time. With Reminiscences of the Men and Events of the Revolution . Edited by John Stockton Littell. Philadelphia, 1846. description ends , 191–93).
7 . General Howe employed four separate forces in attacking Fort Washington. Lord Percy’s corps of British and Hessian troops began the engagement about ten o’clock this morning by advancing on Harlem Heights from the south. After pushing back the American pickets and taking a small advanced redoubt, Percy’s corps halted in front of the first American line to wait for a flanking attack by the 42d Regiment, which was aboard bateaux on the Harlem River near Col. Roger Morris’s house, GW’s former headquarters. Although Howe originally planned for the 42d Regiment to make a feint without landing in order simply to distract the Americans, he changed his mind after the engagement began, and he ordered the regiment’s commander Lt. Col. Thomas Sterling to land his men in the vicinity of Morris’s house, which stood behind the second American line on Harlem Heights, and to attack westward across Manhattan Island to trap the defenders in the first line or at least cause them to abandon their position. It was this landing that Colonel Cadwalader sent a detachment of fifty men under Capt. David Lenox to oppose. Joined soon afterwards by a hundred more men from the first line and about one hundred and fifty men from the fort, Lenox’s detachment inflicted heavy casualties on the 42d Regiment as it rowed across the Harlem River and disembarked, but when the British regulars got ashore sometime shortly after noon, they quickly overwhelmed Lenox’s men and pursued them and some of the other retreating Americans to the Hudson River, taking about one hundred and seventy prisoners. Percy’s corps moved forward about the same time and closely followed Cadwalader’s men as they hastily evacuated their line and retreated to the fort in a generally successful effort to avoid being cut off by the 42d Regiment (see Howe to George Germain, 30 Nov., in Davies, Documents of the American Revolution description begins K. G. Davies, ed. Documents of the American Revolution, 1770–1783 (Colonial Office Series) . 21 vols. Shannon and Dublin, 1972–81. description ends , 12:258–64 Graydon, Memoirs description begins Alexander Graydon. Memoirs of His Own Time. With Reminiscences of the Men and Events of the Revolution . Edited by John Stockton Littell. Philadelphia, 1846. description ends , 194–97, 199–201 Mackenzie, Diary description begins Diary of Frederick Mackenzie Giving a Daily Narrative of His Military Service as an Officer of the Regiment of Royal Welch Fusiliers during the Years 1775–1781 in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York . 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass., 1930. description ends , 105–8 and Lydenberg, Robertson Diaries description begins Harry Miller Lydenberg, ed. Archibald Robertson, Lieutenant-General Royal Engineers: His Diaries and Sketches in America, 1762–1780 . New York, 1930. description ends , 109–12).
Howe’s other two attacking forces both started at King’s Bridge on the north side of Fort Washington. General Knyphausen’s corps of Hessians and Waldeckers marched by land in two columns to assault the high hill defended by Rawlings’s riflemen, while two battalions of British light infantry and two battalions of British guards, all under the command of Gen. Edward Mathew, were transported on flat boats about a mile down the Harlem River to attack the northern positions on Laurel Hill. The embarkation of Mathew’s men was hindered greatly by the tide, which had been miscalculated in planning the operation, and it was not until noon that they were in position to make their attack. Knyphausen was obliged to hold back his troops until that time in order to coordinate his and Mathew’s attacks. Mathew’s light infantry and guards had little trouble in routing the flying camp troops on Laurel Hill, who offered only light resistance before fleeing to the fort. Two battalions of British grenadiers and the 33d Regiment, under the command of Lord Cornwallis, subsequently landed in support of Mathew’s force. Knyphausen’s corps experienced much greater difficulty in overcoming Rawlings’s riflemen. Fighting from behind a well-placed abatis near the top of a steep, rocky, and heavily wooded slope, the riflemen poured a deadly fire on the attacking Hessians and Waldeckers below until the fouling of their rifles with powder from excessive firing and a determined bayonet charge by the Germans forced them to retreat to the fort (see >Howe to Germain, 30 Nov., in Davies, Documents of the American Revolution description begins K. G. Davies, ed. Documents of the American Revolution, 1770–1783 (Colonial Office Series) . 21 vols. Shannon and Dublin, 1972–81. description ends , 12:258–64 Lydenberg, Robertson Diaries description begins Harry Miller Lydenberg, ed. Archibald Robertson, Lieutenant-General Royal Engineers: His Diaries and Sketches in America, 1762–1780 . New York, 1930. description ends , 109–12 Kemble Papers description begins [Stephen Kemble]. The Kemble Papers . 2 vols. New York, 1884-85. In Collections of the New-York Historical Society , vols. 16–17. description ends , 99–100 Baurmeister, Revolution in America description begins Carl Leopold Baurmeister. Revolution in America: Confidential Letters and Journals, 1776–1784, of Adjutant General Major Baurmeister of the Hessian Forces . Translated and annotated by Bernhard A. Uhlendorf. New Brunswick, N.J., 1957. description ends , 69–70 Ewald, Diary description begins Johann Ewald. Diary of the American War: A Hessian Journal . Translated and edited by Joseph P. Tustin. New Haven and London, 1979. description ends , 15–17 Wiederhold, “Capture of Fort Washington,” 95–97 and Graydon, Memoirs description begins Alexander Graydon. Memoirs of His Own Time. With Reminiscences of the Men and Events of the Revolution . Edited by John Stockton Littell. Philadelphia, 1846. description ends , 197, 200).
Edward F. De Lancey in 1877 argued that Howe’s victory at Fort Washington should be attributed principally to the vital intelligence about the fort and its garrison that Howe obtained from Ens. William Demont, the adjutant of Magaw’s 5th Pennsylvania Regiment who deserted to the British on 2 Nov. (see De Lancey, “Mount Washington and Its Capture on the 16th of November, 1776,” in Magazine of American History, with Notes and Queries , 1 , 65–90). For a refutation of De Lancey’s argument, see Ward, War of the Revolution description begins Christopher Ward. The War of the Revolution . Edited by John Richard Alden. 2 vols. New York, 1952. description ends , 2:940. See also Ketchum, Winter Soldiers description begins Richard M. Ketchum. The Winter Soldiers . Garden City, N.Y., 1973. description ends , 133–34, 407, and Greene Papers description begins Richard K. Showman et al., eds. The Papers of General Nathanael Greene . 13 vols. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1976–2005. description ends , 1:358.
GW visited Fort Washington during the early part of the engagement and observed some of the action on Harlem Heights. Greene says in his letter to Henry Knox of the next day that on this morning he, GW, Israel Putnam, and Hugh Mercer went from Fort Lee to Fort Washington “to determine what was best to be done.” They embarked “Just at the instant” that Percy’s corps appeared on a hill south of the Harlem Heights lines, and by the time they reached Fort Washington, Percy’s men had driven back the American guards and were directly in front of Cadwalader’s front line. “There we all stood in a very awkward situation,” Greene writes. “As the disposition was made and the Enemy advancing we durst not attempt to make any new disposition—indeed we saw nothing amiss. We all urged his Excellency [GW] to come off. I offerd to stay. General Putnam did the same and so did General Mercer, but his Excellency thought it best for us all to come off together, which we did about half an hour before the Enemy surrounded the fort” (ibid., 351–59).
Alexander Graydon in his memoirs includes an account of the loss of Fort Washington by Lambert Cadwalader, who says that after GW and the generals accompanying him arrived at the fort this morning, they “crossed the island to Morris’s house whence they viewed the position of our troops, and the operations of the enemy in that quarter. Having remained there a sufficient time to observe the arrangement that had been made for the defence of that part of the island, they retired by the way they came, and returned to Fort Lee, without making any change in the disposition of the troops, or communicating any new orders. It is a fact, not generally known, that the British troops took possession of the very spot on which the Commander-in-chief, and the general officers with him, had stood, in fifteen minutes after they left it” ( Graydon, Memoirs description begins Alexander Graydon. Memoirs of His Own Time. With Reminiscences of the Men and Events of the Revolution . Edited by John Stockton Littell. Philadelphia, 1846. description ends , 199–200 see also Mackenzie, Diary description begins Diary of Frederick Mackenzie Giving a Daily Narrative of His Military Service as an Officer of the Regiment of Royal Welch Fusiliers during the Years 1775–1781 in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York . 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass., 1930. description ends , 109).
8 . “The Rebels,” Frederick Mackenzie says in his diary entry for this date, “were driven on all sides, and by one o’Clock as many of them as The Fort would hold were driven into it, and the remainder into the ditch, and an unfinished outwork. The [British and German] troops being drawn round the Fort at a proper distance the place was immediately summoned, about 3 oClock they surrendered, and about 4 o’Clock they marched out” (ibid., 106).
The letter summoning the garrison to surrender that British Adjutant Gen. James Paterson wrote Magaw this afternoon reads: “The Commander in Chief [Howe] demands an immediate & categorical Answer to his second Summons of Fort Washington. The Garrison must immediately surrender Prisoners of War, and give up all their Arms, Ammunition, & Stores of every kind, and send two Field-Officers to Head-Quarters as Hostages for so doing. The General is pleased to allow the Garrison to keep Possession of their Baggage, and the officers to have their Swords” ( Tatum, Serle’s Journal description begins Edward H. Tatum, Jr., ed. The American Journal of Ambrose Serle: Secretary to Lord Howe, 1776–1778 . San Marino, Calif., 1940. description ends , 142 see also Mackenzie, Diary description begins Diary of Frederick Mackenzie Giving a Daily Narrative of His Military Service as an Officer of the Regiment of Royal Welch Fusiliers during the Years 1775–1781 in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York . 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass., 1930. description ends , 108–11 Kemble Papers description begins [Stephen Kemble]. The Kemble Papers . 2 vols. New York, 1884-85. In Collections of the New-York Historical Society , vols. 16–17. description ends , 1:100 Lydenberg, Robertson Diaries description begins Harry Miller Lydenberg, ed. Archibald Robertson, Lieutenant-General Royal Engineers: His Diaries and Sketches in America, 1762–1780 . New York, 1930. description ends , 112 and Extract of a Letter from an English Officer, 26 Nov., in Force, American Archives description begins Peter Force, ed. American Archives . 9 vols. Washington, D.C., 1837–53. description ends , 5th ser., 3:855–56).
The note that GW sent to Magaw has not been identified. It was carried by Capt. John Gooch of the 9th Continental Regiment, a friend of General Greene. Gooch, William Heath says in his memoirs, volunteered for the mission. “He ran down to the river, jumped into a small boat, pushed over the river, landed under the bank, ran up to the fort, and delivered the message—came out, ran and jumped over the broken ground, dodging the Hessians, some of whom struck at him with their pieces, and others attempted to thrust him with their bayonets—escaping through them, he got to his boat, and returned to Fort Lee” (Wilson, Heath Memoirs , 97). An anonymous correspondent who wrote on 17 Nov. from Fort Lee, says that Gooch reported to GW that Fort Washington “was so crowded that it was difficult to pass through it, and as the enemy were in possession of the little redoubts around it, they could have poured in such a shower of shells and richochet-balls, as would have destroyed hundreds in a little time. And the flag arriving at this moment with the promise of the preservation of their baggage, and safety to their persons, in case of a surrender, prudence dictated that it should be given up” ( Force, American Archives description begins Peter Force, ed. American Archives . 9 vols. Washington, D.C., 1837–53. description ends , 5th ser., 3:741).
9 . General Howe says in his letter to Lord Germain of 30 Nov. that 2, 870 Americans were captured at Fort Washington and the American casualties were three officers and fifty men killed and six officers and ninety men wounded ( Davies, Documents of the American Revolution description begins K. G. Davies, ed. Documents of the American Revolution, 1770–1783 (Colonial Office Series) . 21 vols. Shannon and Dublin, 1972–81. description ends , 12:258–64). Joshua Loring’s undated return of American prisoners, which Howe enclosed in his letter to Germain of 3 Dec., indicates that 2,818 American officers and men were captured at Fort Washington (see ibid., 10:417, and Force, American Archives description begins Peter Force, ed. American Archives . 9 vols. Washington, D.C., 1837–53. description ends , 5th ser., 3:1057–58), and an undated list of American officers killed and wounded at Fort Washington shows that four officers were killed and at least three officers were wounded (see ibid., 729–30). If Loring’s return is correct and the wounded but not the dead are included in its figures, there were at least 2,872 Americans at Fort Washington on 16 November. An unknown but small number of Americans escaped across the Hudson (see Graydon, Memoirs description begins Alexander Graydon. Memoirs of His Own Time. With Reminiscences of the Men and Events of the Revolution . Edited by John Stockton Littell. Philadelphia, 1846. description ends , 235, and Lydenberg, Robertson Diaries description begins Harry Miller Lydenberg, ed. Archibald Robertson, Lieutenant-General Royal Engineers: His Diaries and Sketches in America, 1762–1780 . New York, 1930. description ends , 111).
British losses in the attack on Fort Washington were 19 officers and men killed, 102 officers and men wounded, and 7 men missing. The 42d Regiment, which made the flanking attack near Morris’s house, had 9 officers and men killed and 73 officers and men wounded. The Germans lost 58 officers and men killed and 272 officers and men wounded. Casualties were particularly heavy in two of the Hessian regiments that participated in the attack on Rawlings’s riflemen. Knyphausen’s regiment had 7 officers and men killed and 66 officers and men wounded. Wutginau’s regiment had 16 officers and men killed and 64 officers and men wounded. The total casualties for Howe’s army during this engagement are 77 killed, 374 wounded, and 7 missing (see Mackenzie, Diary description begins Diary of Frederick Mackenzie Giving a Daily Narrative of His Military Service as an Officer of the Regiment of Royal Welch Fusiliers during the Years 1775–1781 in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York . 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass., 1930. description ends , 1:110 see also the British and Hessian casualty return, 1 Dec., in Force, American Archives description begins Peter Force, ed. American Archives . 9 vols. Washington, D.C., 1837–53. description ends , 5th ser., 3:1055–57).
Fall of Ft Washington Hessian Account - History
During the American Revolution, the Battle of Fort Washington occurred on November 16, 1776 near Washington Heights, New York. The battle, fought between approximately 3,000 American forces and approximately 8,000 British forces supplemented by Hessian troops, ended as a clear British victory when the fort’s entire garrison surrendered. With coordinated efforts, British troops were able to overwhelm the American defense of the fort and take control of this last remaining American stronghold in Manhattan.
Structure and Value
The eventual location of Fort Washington was identified as key to the American control of the Hudson River valley against British incursions. With a position on high land overlooking the Hudson River, the fort, in conjunction with Fort Lee across the river, was intended to protect the river from opposing warships upon completion. Construction of the fort required significant effort to bring enough soil to the location to construct the fort. Upon completion, the fort consisted of five earthen walls, each with a bulwark. The walls included openings for gun emplacements covering every angle and overlooked approximately four open acres surrounding the structure. In addition to the primary fort, numerous defenses surrounded the fort. Multiple gun batteries were placed in proximity at key strategic locations and lines of trenches and foxholes were dug into the surrounding hills.
Upon completion, Fort Washington controlled the high ground overlooking the Hudson River, thus protecting the American positions from warships. Between the elevation and defenses of Fort Washington and Fort Lee, British ships could not mount an adequate attack against the forts. As a result, the forts were considered critical to the American positions along the Hudson River even though all exterior defenses were not fully completed.
Prelude to Battle
Following the Battle of White Plains where American Commander-in-Chief George Washington and his army was defeated, British commander William Howe turned his attention to Fort Washington. The fort was one of the last American garrisons remaining on the island of Manhattan. Although Washington considered abandoning the fort and moving the remaining troops to New Jersey, he elected to continue manning the fort at the encouragement of General Nathanael Greene. Greene felt the strength of the fort was sufficient to hold off any British attacks and would help keep communication channels open.
In the months preceding the Battle of White Plains, minor skirmishes were fought along the approaches of Fort Washington, along with an attempt to fire on the fort from the water. Due to the fort’s strength, all attempts were turned back and Commander Robert Magaw, in charge of the garrison, became confident he could hold out in a siege through December of 1776, despite having only a small number of troops under his command. Unfortunately, his adjutant, William Demont, provided the details of the fort to the British when he deserted the American forces.
Following the Battle of White Plains, Washington divided his American army by committing a significant portion of his troops to prevent an invasion of the New England states and committing another portion to guard the Hudson Highlands and prevent further British advances. This left Washington with approximately 2,000 troops which he moved to Fort Lee. Based on his actions, Howe decided on attacking Fort Washington was the next step for the British forces and would significantly damage or destroy American strength in the area. He began making plans for a coordinated, multi-prong attack designed to overwhelm the fort’s defenses.
On November 16, Howe initiated the attack with forces approaching from three different directions. British forces attacked from the south and east. Hessian troops attacked from the north. While the northern assault was delayed because of the tides of the river, the southern and eastern assaults proceeded according to schedule with artillery support from the south and a British frigate.
The southern defenses of Fort Washington, which were never fully completed, fell to a British charge after the American forces tried to hold off the British troops as they crossed the river. The eastern defenses also fell quickly to the British assault. While the southern and eastern defenses proved porous, the northern defenses held out longer but eventually collapsed against the onslaught of British troops. As each section of defense collapsed, the American troops withdrew from the trenches and exterior defenses to the fort itself.
When the British emissary, Captain Hohenstein, demanded the fort’s surrender, a messenger arrived from Washington. Washington, observing the battle from Fort Lee, sent the messenger to Magaw requesting the fort be held until night with the hopes the remaining forces could be evacuated under cover of darkness. Although Magaw requested four hours to consult with his officers and decide on the surrender request, Hohenstein demanded an answer within a half hour. With these constraints and with his men in danger, Magaw elected to surrender the fort instead of attempting to hold it against the opposing forces until nightfall. He attempted to gain concessions and better terms for his men as a condition of surrender without success.
According to the terms of surrender, the American troops were allowed to retain their belongings. However, after the Hessian troops entered the fort, the evacuating Americans had most of their belongings taken from them. In addition, many of the surrendering troops were beaten, although the Hessian officers stopped the beatings quickly. Over 2,800 American troops were taken prisoner as a result of the surrender of Fort Washington. Of those troops, only 800 survived until a prisoner exchange approximately 18 months later.
Three days after the surrender of Fort Washington, American forces abandoned Fort Lee. The remaining American forces under Washington’s command fled across New Jersey and into Pennsylvania. The loss of Fort Washington damaged the morale of the American forces and colonies with the retreat of the main American army.
While the Battle of Fort Washington was a clear and decisive British victory, the movements of Washington and his army following the fort’s surrender created the circumstances for later battles. Despite losing the fort, troops and material captured by the British, Washington’s retreat into Pennsylvania set the stage for the future battles of Trenton and Princeton, both of which significantly accelerated the loss of morale caused by the defeat at Fort Washington.
The Role of Alexander Hamilton
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The attack on redoubt No. 9 would be undertaken by French troops, while the No. 10 siege would be led by Colonel Alexander Hamilton. The Founding Father wasn’t the top pick of Major General Marquis de Lafayette for the job, but Hamilton, who wanted to improve his reputation by proving himself on the battlefield, talked Washington into it.
To speed up the siege of the two redoubts𠅏rench troops were to take redoubt No. 9, while Hamilton’s men were assigned No. 10—Washington ordered the use of bayonets, rather than “pounding them slowly into submission with cannon,” writes Ron Chernow in Alexander Hamilton.
ter nightfall on October 14, the allies fired several consecutive shells in the air that brilliantly illuminated the sky,” Chernow writes. At that point, Hamilton and his men rallied from their trenches and sprinted across a quarter-mile of field with fixed bayonets. 𠇏or the sake of silence, surprise, and soldierly pride, they had unloaded their guns to take the position with bayonets alone. Dodging heavy fire, they let out war whoops that startled their enemies. . The whole operation had consumed fewer than ten minutes.”
Fall of Ft Washington Hessian Account - History
Stomping at the ground then rearing back and twisting in the air, the horse heaved then lunged. She panicked at the chaos bounding through the woods about them, the whooping yells, the desperate cries, the exploding muskets. The Indians were everywhere. Then her rider, faithfully guiding his men to safety, suddenly fell from the sky, lifeless to the ground. These were the final moments of the soldier who drew this winter's image of Fort Washington.
Jonathan Heart was a talented artist. He liked to draw and created many images throughout his Military career including several sketches of Fort Franklin, layouts of Forts Pitt, Harmar and Washington, a location map of Fort Finney, a plan of the old fort at Venango, maps of the Muskingum Valley for the Ohio Company and the land south of Lake Erie fed by the Cuyahoga River.
As a young man, In 1768, Jonathan graduated from Yale college with honors. By the time of the Revolutionary war he had built up a small business of his own and when the war broke out, he walked away from it and enlisted in the militia as a private. He fought courageously at Bunker Hill and the Siege of Boston. He was promoted to ensign and then to Lieutenant in 1777. He married Abigail Riley that same year. Toward the close of the war, in 1782, he served as Captain Heart under General Washington in New York and his wife gave birth to their only child, Alces Everlin. All of this done with little or no pay. It was about an idea.
After the war, while learning to be a surveyor because he was unable to revive the business he left, Jonathan accepted a captain's commission from congress and joined the First American Regiment. He spent months in Connecticut going from town to town, visiting cabins, churches, town halls and taverns trying to convince others why they should serve their country with him on the western frontier. In 1785 with his regiment assembled, he headed west.
Captain Heart and his men helped build Fort Harmar, at what is now Marietta, Ohio. While there he sketched the Campus Martius, an impressive fortification built by early Marietta settlers to protect themselves from Indian attack. H also sketched a plan of the ancient flat-topped pyramids and enclosures along the Muskingum River. Completely fascinated, he spent many hours at the formations, sometimes late in the evening, alone, pondering the culture and the people that made the works. Other times he gathered there with friends to venture other possibilities. His investigations and writings make him one of the country's first military archaeologists. Later, as commander of the the Fort he established the first Masonic Lodge in the North-Western Territory. Like George Washington he was a Freemason, too.
Captain Heart and his men marched 150 miles above Pittsburg in 1787 and built Fort Franklin on French Creek. The captain scouted the location and designed the defensive work himself. The fortress was fundamental in further securing the territory and allowing others to enter and settle.
In 1789 he floated down the Ohio river with Major John Daughty and helped build Fort Washington. They started in the hot summer stillness of June and finished as winter swept into December. It was probably during that first winter when he created the image of the fort above. The drawing is finely detailed apart from the gauzy contrasts which gives the work an illuminating glow. His time at the pencil that day was a devotion.
In 1791 he was promoted to Major and in the fall of that year, he left Fort Washington under the command of General St. Clair on a fort building expedition. The army constructed Fort Hamilton, at what is now Hamilton, Ohio, then Fort St. Clair and Fort Jefferson (located just south of Greenville) then they began moving north to build one last garrison. While camped on the Wabash River they were attacked by a powerful Indian force. The three hour battle, which began at dawn on November 4th, is known as St. Clair's Defeat. Nearly a 1,000 soldiers and citizens were killed. The Indians only lost a few dozen.
Major Heart was slain while guiding men back from an ordered retreat - by a musket ball, shot through his head and off his horse, lifeless to the field he fell.
Captain Heart's plan of the ancient Marietta works, 1787
For information on St. Clair's Defeat, see Wabash 1791: St. Clair's defeat by John F. Winkler
The biographical information of Captain Heart was taken from :
Journal of Captain Heart, by Consul Willshire Butterfield, Joel Munsell's Son's, 82 State Street, Albany, New York, 1885
Fort Washington at Cincinnati, Ohio by Robert Ralston Jones, The Society of Colonial Wars in the State of Ohio, 1902
History of Berlin, Connecticut by Cathrine M. North, The Tuttle Morehouse and Taylor Company, New Haven, copyright, 1916
October 18th, 1787 French Creek report to the War Department of "immediate consequence" including a warning of warriors singing the war song and threats of "taking up the hatchet."
October 29th, 1787 - The captain is with the Munsee Indians. "They do not intend to join in a war ."
Captain Jonathan Heart, U.S.A., kept a journal during his regiment's march from Connecticut to Fort Pitt (Pittsburgh), between September 7th and October 12th, 1785. The entries are filled with fascinating accounts including trials at the Drum Head and soldiers sentenced to run the gantlet! View here.
Here's an old plan of Fort Washington. It's not dated, but it could have been made when the fort was still in operation.
There's actually two here for viewing - the original and the adjusted original. When the plan of the fort was made it was oriented correctly on the paper with north at the top but when the text and buildings were added, later, it appears the sketch was inadvertently turned upside down. This means when you're looking at the original plan the top of the fort is actually facing south.
To fix this I removed the title description on top, the descriptions on the side and the two buildings outside the fort then turned the entire image, including the compass symbol, 180 degrees. Then I reinserted the text and buildings. (The numbers on the fort that correspond to the side descriptions are still upside down but easily readable.) By turning the image I believe I'm showing the exact position of the fort's northern orientation as intended by the plan's creator.
Battle of Fort Washington
The Battle of Fort Washington was a British victory, and brutal loss to the Americans whose casualties were more than 6 times the British casualties.
In November of 1776, Fort Washington was the only point on Manhattan Island still held by the Americans. The Continental army was stationed at Harlem Heights near Fort Washington, led by General Nathanael Greene. They’d retreated here after the Battle of White Plains. General Nathan Greene was in charge of keeping an eye on their position against the British, and if he thought it necessary he was to give the order to withdraw.
The British, led by General William Howe, were planning three attack strategies: General Lord Percy was to attack from the South, General Mathews and Lord Cornwallis were supposed to cross Harlem River and attack from the East, while the main attack was going to be General Von Knyphausen and the Hessian troops on the front of the American’s position. General Howe decided that he would send a message to the Americans, giving them the chance to surrender before he sent in the attack.
View of the attack against Fort Washington and rebel redouts near New York on the 16 of November 1776 by the British and Hessian brigades. By Thomas Davies around 1776. | Public domain image, courtesy of New York Public Library at Wikimedia Commons.
In the early morning of November 15, 1776 a messenger was sent to the American’s fort asking them to surrender. The Americans, not knowing what was waiting outside their little fort, refused. Then all hell broke loose. At 10 a.m., Percy’s men attacked, followed by Mathews and Cornwallis at noon. They gained a hole on the fort, and British militia poured in.
At that moment, the Hessians crossed the river and began to attack the patriots from the head. The Americans were completely overwhelmed, and were forced to flee inside the fort. With all of the Americans pent up inside of Fort Washington, and the British firing unceasingly on them, the Patriots were forced to surrender Fort Washington and give up their last hold on Manhattan Island.
It was a sad loss for the American army. They lost 2,900 soldiers in the fight to keep Fort Washington. The British only lost 450 men before the Americans surrendered their position.
9 Revolutionary War
“The American Revolution as it actually unfolded was so troubling and strange that once the struggle was over, a generation did its best to remove all traces of the truth.” — Historian Nathaniel Philbrick Referring to Benedict Arnold’s Contradictory Role
“Nation Makers,” Howard Pyle, 1911, Brandywine River Museum
War between Great Britain and its American colonies began over a year before Continental Congress declared independence in 1776, with many soldiers fighting initially against British policy but not for independence. Soldiers that didn’t favor independence still opposed British policies on taxes, western expansion, religious freedom, slavery, and smuggling — in varying combinations depending on circumstance and region. By the end of 1775, King George III had blockaded the eastern seaboard but Rebels had British Redcoats surrounded in Boston. Colonial militia led by Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen’s Green Mountain Boys captured Fort Ticonderoga in upstate New York along with its ammunition and cannons. As Allen’s boys celebrated with His Majesty’s liquor, Arnold and his men sailed and rowed across Lake Champlain to St. John, seized British vessels and took control of the strategically important lake. In a herculean effort, Colonel Henry Knox’s Massachusetts and Connecticut militia laboriously hauled sixty tons worth of Ticonderoga cannons, mortars, and howitzers by horse, ox-drawn sledges, and human muscle across the forests, swamps, and rivers of the Berkshire Mountains in the dead of winter, surrounding the Redcoats in the Siege of Boston. The Redcoats eventually fled for Nova Scotia, agreeing to not burn the city in exchange for not being blasted to kingdom come as they sailed from Boston Harbor.
George Washington, head of the motley group of farmers and craftsmen known as the Continental Army, guessed right that when the Redcoats came back they’d return to New York rather than Boston. It was more important economically and had a sizable Loyalist population. There were plenty of Rebels there, too, but the size of the British fleet made many of them rethink their position. The British had a small occupying force in the colonies in 1775 but came back with a major army in . Congress declared independence in Philadelphia just as the British sailed into New York and citizens and militia had to decide quickly whom to side with as they heard the public pronouncements. On July 9th, next to the site of the old Dutch fort in New Amsterdam and near today’s Charging Bull on Wall Street, some brave New York Sons of Liberty tore down King George’s statue in Bowling Green to melt it for cannonballs.
Sons of Liberty Pulling Down Statue of King George III, NYC, July 9, 1776, Johannes Adam Simon Oertel (1859). The Anachronistic Painting Includes 1850s Garb On The Statue and American Indians.
New York: A Sobering Start
Washington marched his men south from Boston and moved them into position across the East River from Manhattan to Brooklyn Heights, within sight of the Redcoats across the harbor on Staten Island. The British offered Washington a pardon if he’d give up, but he refused. In August 1776, British routed Washington’s green troops, taking the western part of Long Island in the largest battle of the war, the Battle of Brooklyn Heights. The British had the Continentals trapped in Brooklyn but Washington’s men slipped away in the fog, safely across the East River to Kip’s Bay, Manhattan — then known as New York Island, or York City. (Historian David McCullough called the escape in the fog “America’s Dunkirk,” referring to the British evacuation from Nazi-occupied northern France in 1940.) The Brits also failed to pin down the Rebels in Manhattan in September. Washington’s men dug in their heels and won their first battle at Harlem Heights, but lost twice more at White Plains and Fort Washington in northern Manhattan. They gave up and retreated to New Jersey and Pennsylvania that November, leaving Redcoats in control of New York and parts of eastern New Jersey. To mock them, British buglers played traditional fox hunting songs as the Continentals ran away.
Lord Stirling Leading an Attack Against the British at the Battle of Long Island, 1776, Alonzo Chappel, 1858
It wasn’t a great start and some congressmen like John Adams criticized the retreat, but Washington’s men lived to fight another day as the saying goes. The important thing was keeping the army intact and they spent the winter of 1776-77 at Morristown, New Jersey. In May, they moved to the well-entrenched Middlebrook Encampment, positioned near a ridge on First Watchung Mountain from which they could view Redcoats in New York City to the east through a spyglass (monocular) and to the south at New Brunswick, N.J. Washington himself may have been lucky to escape capture that year. Some of his soldiers planned to defect to the British as soon as they invaded New York and rumors spread that they also planned to capture or kill Washington. A man convicted of passing counterfeit Continental bills heard about the plot in prison and relayed it to Washington. They hung the lead conspirator, Thomas Hickey, in front of 20k spectators.
The British captured one Continental spy behind the lines in Manhattan, Nathan Hale, who purportedly said, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country” before the scaffold dropped from under him. The story was apocryphal, but the resistance needed any inspirational stories they could muster. In the 1980s, CIA director William Casey wasn’t so impressed he wanted Hale’s statue taken down at their Arlington headquarters because he was caught.
After the New York rout, the independence movement seemed on the verge of collapse. That Fall, Redcoats chased Patriots out of Newport, Rhode Island. For the next three years, they held that most important port in New England for slavery, rum, and American piracy. Common Sense author Thomas Paine wrote, “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country.” Sure enough, they did. Within the space of a few weeks, Washington’s army had shrunk from around 15k regulars to 3-5k. Your author’s own ancestor was a sunshine patriot: clockmaker Effingham Embree deserted Washington when the British promised he could keep his Manhattan shop open if he signed a loyalty oath. Embree’s case was common, as demonstrated by historian Jane Kamensky. While it’s easy to project onto history simple stories of good vs. bad and people “choosing sides,” Kamensky believes that Americans’ sides were often chosen for them by work, marriage, friends, family, money or survival. Many changed sides often, to the chagrin of Thomas Paine, “with the circumstances of every day.”
Washington hadn’t lost that many men to casualties in New York, but he might as well have in terms of the size of his army. He learned early on that his men, while brave in their own way, didn’t like taking orders. They were there for their own reasons and didn’t respond well to authority. If they had, they probably wouldn’t have been rebelling in the first place. Despite this lack of conviction among some, Patriot leaders refused to back down. A three-hour peace conference on Staten Island on 9/11 (1776) was a non-starter. The Howe brothers who led the New York campaign for the British, General William and Admiral Lord Richard, were predisposed toward Americans (some historians have theorized that’s why they allowed Washington to escape twice in the campaign), but their authority was limited to offering pardons and they demanded that the representatives rescind the Declaration of Independence to open negotiations. That wasn’t going to happen when the very people they were talking to, including Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, were from Continental Congress. Congress had already made up its mind and wasn’t turning back.
18th-Century Hessian Soldiers
The independence ship had already set sail regardless of how badly Washington was outnumbered. The British had far more troops: 80k (including 30k Hessian mercenaries) compared to Washington’s 3-20k, depending on the circumstances. The Hessians weren’t really professional soldiers so much as poor farmers sold to the Crown to pay off a debt. Eventually, another 20k black slaves joined His Majesty’s Troops, who promised freedom to loyal slaves. Thirty-thousand Americans had encircled Boston in 1775, the high point of rebel enthusiasm and Washington brought about 20k with him to New York, but lost most of them after the retreat.
The New York campaign symbolized strategic factors. The British occupation of New York was part of their broader plan to conquer port enclaves to snuff out America’s vulnerable import/export economy — similar to what they’d done in Ireland and a continuation of what they’d already been doing with the Prohibitory Act of 1775. They also occupied Philadelphia, forcing Continental Congress to retreat into the woods to meet wherever they could. Washington’s retreat was part of what evolved into his defensive, or Fabian, strategy of avoiding direct conflict with the larger, professionally trained Redcoats, fighting them when and where he chose in quick hit-and-run campaigns. The Continental Army could not afford a war of attrition in which both sides sustained big casualties.
Member of the Stockbridge Militia, From Revolutionary War Diary of Johann Von Ewald, 1778
What was called guerilla warfare by the 19th century wasn’t what the traditional and aristocratic Washington preferred but he had little choice since the war was largely about avoiding taxes and Continental Congress struggled to fund his army. Wouldn’t colonials willingly pay taxes if they had representation? As it turns out, it was actually the taxes part of no taxation without representation that was the kicker. The main pay Congress or states could offer soldiers was land. Pennsylvania, for instance, offered 200-1000 acre lots called depreciation lands in the western part of the state along the Ohio River. Or, they could offer Continental dollars or bonds from the fragile new government — the same one that was meeting in the woods because they’d been chased from Philadelphia. These early U.S. securities later caused a firestorm because soldiers weren’t sure if the notes would be redeemable and many sold them at cut rates to speculators knowledgeable that a national government would form and make good on earlier debt in fact, as we’ll see in Chapter 11, that very firestorm led to the country’s first two-party system. States also kicked in some local taxes. Whatever the source or form, pay was contingent on victory and promises of future land didn’t help soldiers feed their families or pay for mortgages in the meantime if they left their farms or shops to fight. It’s no wonder many came and went, not so much to desert as to keep things solvent on the home front. Local militias supplemented Washington’s regulars and were valuable but more undependable. Thomas Paine, bless his heart, donated all his royalties from Common Sense to the Continental Army but that didn’t make much of a dent.
The Rebels had some important advantages, too, though. As insurgents fighting in their own land, they didn’t have to defeat the British so much as they had to hang on until the British gave up. The British, in turn, had to win what John Adams called the “hearts and minds” of the American people, a phrase re-popularized in the 1960s during the Vietnam War when the U.S. was trying to win over the South Vietnamese population. As Carl von Clausewitz argued in On War (1816-1830), wars are both military and political. In this case, the British had to convince the American people that their best bet was staying in the British Empire. General Howe couldn’t simply chase down Washington’s men and massacre them. If he had, the military part of the war would have come to an abrupt end but he would have alienated the local population in the meantime. As mentioned in the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual (2006), excessive power can undermine political legitimacy. That’s not the case in a knockdown drag-out conflict like WWII but it’s true when one power is trying to win over a civilian population as they fight in that population’s land. The Redcoats needed to politely pummel Washington’s men into submission in a gentlemanly way that would win the respect of the public at large, while maybe intimidating them just enough to pay taxes. Complicating this tightrope act, the British had more on their plate than eastern North America. In 1776, they had other colonies in the Americas beyond the thirteen in question along with some in Asia and were struggling to control their next-door neighbor, Ireland. Being a world empire keeps you busy.
Hearts & Minds
With only around 1/3rd of Americans supporting independence (40% max), the Rebels had their own propaganda battles to fight, including getting people to think of the struggle as an actual war for independence rather than a civil rebellion, as the British and Loyalists interpreted it. I’ll use the terms Rebels or Continentals below to describe the forces fighting for independence but, depending on their location, they were also known as Patriots, colonials, Yankees or Whigs (for their political affiliation). Many Americans at the time thought of it as a civil war, but the Rebels cleverly appropriated the name Patriots, a key reversal that glossed over the fact they were committing treason against their country and projected confidence in the prospects of a new nation. The term had a slightly different meaning in the 18th century, anyway, and was considered pejorative by some Englishmen. To draw an imperfect but instructive analogy, consider what Americans’ opinions would be today if Alaskans or Hawaiians wanted to secede from the U.S. Some might be angry while others might sympathize, but virtually no one would describe the insurgents as patriotic. Still, if the Rebels were envisioning a future country and won, then it would make sense for their own history books to describe them as patriots or founders.
Conversely, textbooks today aren’t so kind to Civil War Confederate leaders like Jefferson Davis. Since they lost, the victorious country (the U.S.) retains the term civil war rather than the Southern War for Independence, as Confederates called it. In any event, Patriot mobs of the 1770s got the upper hand against Loyalists (or Royals), who tended by nature to be more genteel, wealthier, and better behaved. In the North, Rebels put Loyalists on the defensive and some fled to Canada. In many areas, Rebels disarmed Loyalists and confiscated or burned their property. As for the other 1/3rd in between, they were the type that didn’t care for politics and wanted to be left alone. They claimed allegiance to whichever army was nearby and sold food to whichever army paid the most (usually the British). They figured, arguably with good reason in the near term, that their lives wouldn’t be significantly different regardless of the outcome.
In these trying circumstances, Washington was compelled to cheat a little, at least according to the unwritten codes of 18th-century warfare that more or less prohibited fighting in the dark or in the winter. Realizing the Hessians would be preoccupied and intoxicated on Christmas, he snuck troops across the Delaware River and surrounded their camp at Trenton, New Jersey. He launched a successful attack in the dawn fog on December 26th, 1776 while posing for the most famous painting of the revolution, actually painted years later by a German during the democratic revolutions in mid-19th century Europe.
Washington Crossing the Delaware, Emanuel Leutze, 1851, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Washington set the trap by using a double agent to convince the British that his army was elsewhere at the time. The street-to-street fighting in Trenton resulted in hundreds of Hessian mercenaries being captured, some of whom took up Washington’s offer to leave their makeshift POW camp and become American citizens (including actor Rob Lowe’s 5x grandfather). German-Americans appealed to Hessians to defect and they sent the POWs out on work release as farmers, lumberjacks, and musicians. They offered some Hessians land, while others met women and defected to marry and settle in America.
After Trenton, British troops under Charles Cornwallis moved down from New York to avenge the “Christmas Surprise” but, again, as was the case in both Brooklyn and Manhattan, they had a hard time pinning down Washington. Cornwallis was another British general sympathetic, off the record, to the American cause. Cornwallis and his men found Washington and surrounded his army but decided to wait until morning to attack since the Continentals were, literally, stuck in the mud. But Washington could tell from sniffing the air that it would frost. He waited until the mercury dropped and snuck his men out in the middle of the night on frozen roads, passing near Cornwallis’ sentries. A few men stayed behind to stoke the fires, giving British scouts the impression they were still there. Cornwallis got his men up bright and early the next day but Washington’s army was nowhere to be seen. The early bird doesn’t get the worm if the rival bird stays up late the night before. Washington’s men were ten miles down the road whaling on Cornwallis’ second string at Princeton, New Jersey. Neither Trenton nor Princeton was a grand battle in the traditional sense, but they boosted morale for a struggling movement looking for any shred of good news and propagandists exaggerated them for good effect.
Benedict Arnold, Copy of Engraving by H. B. Hall After John Trumbull, 1879, National Archives
Rebels scored a more significant victory the following summer at Saratoga, New York, but Washington wasn’t there. Two of the heroic leaders, rather, were Horatio Gates and Benedict Arnold, neither of whose reputations survived the war. Gates wrote up the reports for the battles and ignored Arnold completely because of a rivalry between the two, setting in motion years of frustration on Arnold’s part that culminated in his treason against the U.S. Arnold also shattered his thigh, complicating his service thereafter. A third important hero was Gates’ engineer, Polish immigrant Tadeusz Kościuszko, whose reputation did survive the war as we’ll see below. He later led a democratic Polish uprising snuffed out by Prussia and Russia.
From the British perspective, Saratoga underscored the logistical disadvantages of foreign wars in the 18th century. They planned to isolate New England, that they saw as the main source of the rebellion, through a three-pronged attack on the Lake Champlain-Hudson River corridor, a mostly continuous water link connecting the St. Lawrence River to New York Harbor and the Atlantic Ocean. One column was supposed to approach from the west and Great Lakes, another would approach from the south coming up the Hudson River, while a third would come from the north down Lake Champlain. The three would rendezvous near Albany, New York, then march east and snuff out the rebellion where it started, in New England. Unfortunately for the army coming south, the other two armies never arrived. Barry St. Leger didn’t make it down the Mohawk River Valley after being turned back at the Siege of Ft. Stanwix by Arnold, and William Howe never made it up the Hudson River after invading Philadelphia, being under the impression that he was only obligated to go north if time permitted. That’s why Washington wasn’t there because he was trying (and failing) to keep Howe out of Philadelphia.
General Johnny Burgoyne’s third column floating down Champlain got off to a promising start, recapturing Fort Ticonderoga near the southern tip of the lake but ultimately found itself trapped alone between the lake and Hudson River. The wilderness between the lake and river was denser than they’d realized, making the distance between the two seem larger than it had looked on a map back in England. Wiser heads in England familiar with previous campaigns in the French & Indian War warned Burgoyne of that very fact, but they didn’t prevail. Had the British possessed some form of modern communication the debacle might have been avoided but, in the 18th century, their only hope for such an ambitious undertaking was to plan it months ahead of time then part ways and hope for the best. The plan also relied on support from Indian allies, who abandoned Burgoyne once they realized the other two armies weren’t going to show.
The Death of Jane McCrea, John Vanderlyn, 1804, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT
Complicating matters, “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne had come to America looking for a little R&R, with copious prostitutes and booze in tow, while the wife and kids held down the fort in London. To his credit, the arrogant playboy confidently placed bets on himself winning before he left town. His entourage cruised merrily down Lake Champlain but their supply line proved cumbersome and unwieldy as they tried to maneuver on land over to the Hudson. Nonetheless, the Brits continued to pursue the Continental Army as they fled south. Area farmers led by Kościuszko rushed in and surrounded Burgoyne’s troops, chopping down trees in his path to bog him down. Some were upset that Indians fighting with Burgoyne had slain the fiancé of a Loyalist, Jane McCrea, even though they were Rebels themselves, not Loyalists.
Tadeusz Kościuszko Wearing the Eagle of the Society of the Cincinnati, Awarded by General Washington, Portrait by Karl Gottlieb Schweikart
The style of fighting also took the British off guard. Traditional codes of honor dictated that soldiers not shoot officers marked by ribbons on their uniforms, but the practical farmers were happy to have the most important men specially marked and shot them first. They fired new guns that, unlike traditional smooth-bored muskets, had rifled (or spiraled, grooved) barrels, allowing greater distance and accuracy for their cylindrically-shaped bullets. Morgan’s Riflemen led by Daniel Morgan made good use of the improved weapon and was one of several militias that, collectively, might have contributed as much to Rebel victory as Washington’s Continental Army. Other important militia battles included Cowpens and Kings Mountain in South Carolina in 1780.
After a series of battles spread over a month, including Freeman’s Farm and Bemis Heights, Burgoyne gave up on St. Leger and Howe and raised the white flag. Kościuszko selected the high ground at Bemis Heights that made the difference. Burgoyne surrendered his entire army in a stupendous victory for the struggling Continental Army, losing his bet back home. General Gates wrote his wife, “If old England is not by this lesson taught humility, then she is an obstinate old slut, bent upon her ruin.”
Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, After Jean-Marc Nattier, 1755, Bibliothèque-musée de la Comédie-Français
The French covertly purchased the bullets loaded into those rifles, as they did the solid cast de Valliere cannons that could shoot longer and straighter than their British counterparts. French arms dealer Pierre Beaumarchais funneled weapons to America and sent exaggerated reports to France about rebel heroics around Boston, hoping to convince King Louis XVI to side with them. The eccentric watchmaker and financier was a perfect cover since he was best known as a playwright who worked with Mozart on operas, including The Barber of Seville (1773) and The Marriage of Figaro (1778). The Americans couldn’t pay him in full but, nearly 200 years later, President John Kennedy wrote a check to his descendants.
Ben Franklin in Coonskin Cap
The Saratoga victory was exactly the kind of news Beaumarchais and Benjamin Franklin in Paris could parlay into an overt (public) alliance between America and France, a power still looking to avenge their defeat to the British in the French & Indian War. The question was whether or not the “United States” was for real and whether their soldiers could prove themselves on the battlefield against the British. Saratoga proved they could.
Franklin was too old to fight in the war but indispensable to victory because of his role as ambassador to France. He arrived in Paris in a coonskin cap, pandering to the Enlightenment philosophes’ infatuation with the natural man and bearing his famous lightning rods as gifts. The “electrical ambassador” was a crowd favorite in Paris, with his recognizable, bespectacled face appearing on various novelty items, including spittoons. He even became Grand Master of the local Freemason lodge, Les Neuf Soeurs. Tailors sewed “insurgent coats” and “lightning-conductor dresses” while hairdressers created coiffures à la Boston and à la Philadelphia. Their attention wasn’t just on Franklin but rather the nascent American republic, with its emphasis on low taxes and disregard for monarchy. Unlike the British, who howled throughout the war about American hypocrisy regarding slavery, the French performed plays set in the idyllic Virginia countryside with slaves and masters alongside each other singing about liberty.
Franklin’s colleagues on the diplomatic mission, John Adams and Silas Deane, grew frustrated with his partying and frivolity but he was just biding his time. When news of the Saratoga victory hit Paris, conveniently after the French Navy had time to rebuild its fleet, Franklin struck while the iron was hot and secured a military and commercial alliance with France that obligated both to continue fighting against the British until the war concluded. Franklin cleverly sent peace feelers to the British he knew the French would intercept to increase his leverage. Miraculously, Franklin managed to coax a huge commitment from an absolutist French king to fund a republican revolution.
This had repercussions as helping America came back to haunt Louis XVI. The commitment was so large that it bankrupted his monarchy and contributed to his overthrow in the French Revolution a decade later (Chapter 11) and Jefferson even helped revolutionaries draft their declaration. Spain and Holland joined the treaty, the last such European alliance the U.S. entered into until World War II. John Adams secured U.S. diplomatic recognition and a five million-guilder loan from the Netherlands while negotiating a trade agreement with neighboring Prussia. Adams’ embassy at the Hague, Netherlands was the first American embassy on foreign soil.
When wealthy American merchants learned that their loans to Continental Congress would be backed by European gold and silver, they grew more patriotic and agreed to 6% tax-free bonds to help finance the war. Those closest to Congress’ soon-to-be Superintendent of Finance, Robert Morris, learned of the impending alliance first and grabbed up the bonds. Morris mentored one of Washington’s young soldiers, Alexander Hamilton, who later shaped the country’s financial system as Secretary of the Treasury. A relieved Washington mollified (and motivated) his officers by paying them with the new bonds. This might seem like a dry offshoot of the war, but this bridge between government, the military, and finance is a big reason why the United States came into being. In retrospect, we think of the war’s participants as anticipating a great nation but, at the time, there wasn’t much motivation for the united in United States other than the war itself. The union nearly fell apart after the war but the interests of wealthy Americans and officers in redeeming their bonds helped stitch the union together.
David Bushnell’s Turtle (Cutaway View)
While the Franco-American alliance was a huge boost to the Americans, it also rallied the English public more behind the war than they had been. Prior to Saratoga, many Britons weren’t interested and some Whigs even backed the American rebels. With France in the war, the pro-American British faction fell silent, at least for a while, and many people in Parliament and on the street took notice. Yet, more importantly, the Franco-American alliance dispersed the war geographically, making it harder for the British to focus on the North American mainland.
War @ Sea
With more countries involved, the war spread to the Caribbean, Netherlands, Gibraltar, and India, at which point King George said it was “a joke” to continue worrying about “winning back Pennsylvania.” The British were concerned with holding Canada, protecting England from invasion, and fighting a worldwide naval conflict. Without a sizable navy, the U.S. harassed the British as best they could. Washington and Ben Franklin ran an informal navy of privateers (sanctioned pirates with letters of marque) numbering around 1500 vessels, that captured over 2k British ships. One of Franklin’s biggest goals, other than bedeviling the Royal Navy, was to seize hostages to trade back for American POWs. Patriot David Bushnell also constructed the first submersible in history used in combat, though the Turtle failed in its mission to attach explosives to British ships in New York Harbor. It was difficult to maneuver and the British found it and sank it.
British John Paul Jones as Pirate
One of the Navy’s earliest leaders was Benedict Arnold, whose outnumbered “Driftwood Fleet” — made from whatever scraps they could patch together along with some stolen vessels — stalled British advances on Lake Champlain in 1776. The U.S. sent some ships off the coast of Ireland to attack the British on their way to America. The American Navy’s biggest hero was Scottish-born John Paul Jones (not to be confused with the namesake bassist from Led Zeppelin). French Queen Marie Antoinette’s milliner created a hat à la John Paul Jones with a plume she declared she’d like to put on his cap if she was so honored as to meet him. Notice the difference between the French and British portraits of Jones on the left and right.
Hessian Map of Philadelphia Campaign (Brandywine), Marburg State Library (Germany) & West Jersey History Project (Text in French)
Casimer Pulaski by Jan Styka, 1925, WikiCommons
Philadelphia & Valley Forge
Word of the French alliance came none too soon for Washington. While British General William Howe left Johnny Burgoyne in the lurch by not going up the Hudson River to rendezvous at Albany (Saratoga), he succeeded in taking the key enclave of Philadelphia in September 1777. Washington’s army put up a stiffer fight than they had in New York but Howe still prevailed at the 11-hour Battle of Brandywine Creek on 9/11, sending 12k Continentals into retreat (circled in the map above). The Redcoats soon seized the Patriot capital.
One bright spot was the heroics of another Polish immigrant Casimir Pulaski. Pulaski was renowned for his horsemanship in Poland’s struggle for independence from Russia and Benjamin Franklin recommended him to Washington. When he arrived in Boston from France, he wrote Washington: “I came here, where freedom is being defended, to serve it, and to live and die for it.” He made his way to Washington’s camp and led a daring mounted charge at Brandywine that prevented the British from capturing Washington (likely ending the Revolution) and went on to train the United States’ fledgling calvary as a brigadier general.
Sidenote: When historians and archaeologists moved Pulaski’s remains from a plantation to his monument in Savannah, Georgia, they noticed that his bones more resembled those of a woman than a man. Upon further examination, they determined that the “Father of the American Cavalry” was intersex . His baptism in Poland, in fact, records Pulaski as female with a debilitatadis (debility).
In the winter of 1777-78, Washington struggled to keep his ragtag army together at Valley Forge, their fort north of Philadelphia on the Schuylkill River. They’d fought well enough defending Philadelphia to gain confidence but still needed to hone their skills. Washington brought Pulaski with him to help augment their infantry with cavalry. They built a secure fort at Valley Forge but many soldiers still died of flu, typhus, typhoid, scurvy, and dysentery while apathetic civilians sold food to the British, who paid higher rates. Oneida People brought corn to the hungry troops. Some men froze to death and Washington personally shot captured deserters. It’s no wonder that someone once said of the American Revolution that “Seldom have so few done so much for so many” — a phrase British Prime Minister Winston Churchill recycled to praise the Royal Air Force after the German Blitzkrieg during WWII. After the war, tight-fisted taxpayers in some states didn’t even authorize the promised gift of land to soldiers whose sacrifice won them their independence.
George Washington and Lafayette at Valley Forge, John Ward Dunsmore, 1907, Library of Congress
Many officers, including those like Benedict Arnold and Horatio Gates who had proven themselves at Saratoga, questioned whether Washington should even be in charge as commander since he did not have an impressive battlefield résumé. But Washington had wisely repositioned Arnold just before Saratoga, sending him north to help Gates fight Burgoyne, precisely the sort of move that one would expect of a good commander. And, to his credit, Washington realized that battlefield strategy was not his strength. He was not a battlefield tactician why would he be since he was, by trade, a tobacco farmer? His men weren’t disciplined enough in battle, either. It’s one thing to hoot and holler and fire off a few rounds while hiding behind a stone wall like the Minutemen did in the British retreat from Lexington and Concord. It’s quite another to confront a real army and stand your ground in the face of gleaming bayonets when you’re not trained.
With his back against the wall at Valley Forge, Washington made three key choices. First, with what little funds Congress could muster, Washington imported his own mercenary to drill his troops: Prussian General Baron Von Steuben, a veteran of the French & Indian War. Steuben communicated with Washington and the other officers through a French interpreter. Steuben trained the troops in the formal art of war as it was then practiced in Europe, teaching them to reload faster, how to fight with bayonets, and how to march more efficiently. Washington’s men were using their bayonets as tools and eating knives but hadn’t learned to fight with them in close quarters, where they were more effective than difficult to load muskets.
Continental Infantry, Henry Alexander Ogden, 1897
Steuben also had a little heart-to-heart with Washington about leadership. The Baron encouraged Washington to not go so rough on his troops all the time and to thank them for their sacrifice and service – to inspire rather than just coerce them. He helped Washington teach his men to “relish the trade of soldiering,” a tough sell in any century, let alone the 18th. While it may have seemed like an abstract pipedream to freezing, sick soldiers and may seem corny today, they needed to be reminded that the war would lead to a new republic. If you pardon a football analogy, it was time for the halftime speech.
Second, Washington tricked the British into thinking that his army was bigger than it was. With many of his men sick and others disgruntled, cold and hungry, the Redcoats probably could’ve destroyed them right then and there by attacking Valley Forge, ending the revolution. Washington made public proclamations to the effect that his army was roughly 40k, knowing the British would never believe it. Simultaneously, he forged detailed inventories of his army and supplies showing his “true” strength to be only around 9k, not 40k. Historians disagree on how large, exactly, the Continental Army was at that point, but most agree it had shrunk to something far smaller than that. Washington saw to it those documents fell into the hands of known British spies who relayed them to General Howe. Howe didn’t think he could take down an army quite as large as 9k and chose to wait until the following spring to engage. This episode is a good example of why it’s helpful to leave moles in place once you discover them because they’re ideal for conveying misinformation.
A third smart move was Washington’s inoculation of troops against smallpox, the most feared “distemper” of the era. Inoculations originated in China, India, and the Ottoman Empire. They were still just gaining traction in the colonies and understandably so it was counterintuitive to give people a little dose of disease to prevent them from getting more. Puritan minister Cotton Mather (1663-1728) promoted inoculations in New England, having learned about them from one of his slaves, and Edward Jenner didn’t prove that vaccine recipients acquire immunity to the satisfaction of science until twenty years after the Revolutionary War (the vaccine, as opposed to the inoculation, was safer distinction). Great Awakening theologian and Princeton president Jonathan Edwards (Chapter 7) had died of an inoculation twenty years before Valley Forge and Congress opposed the idea. There were no hypodermic needles for an easy shot. Doctors cut the patient and infected him with a small dose of diseased human or cow tissue. But Washington understood the science, partly because he knew that he’d been immune himself since a non-lethal bout with smallpox as a boy. And he realized that epidemics were the scourge of 18th-century armies.
Just as it’s impossible to understand World War I apart from its contemporaneous Flu Pandemic, the Revolutionary War was inseparable from smallpox. Many young men didn’t volunteer for either side to avoid high odds of contracting the disease or bringing it home to their families. In the previous chapter, we saw that one motivation for writing the Third Amendment against the quartering of troops in private homes was fear of smallpox and that applied to both Redcoats and Washington’s troops. The Continental Army spread smallpox in Morristown, New Jersey the summer after Valley Forge (1777) when they invited themselves into private homes, after which Washington inoculated civilians. For armies, one big round of smallpox could result in defeat, which in Valley Forge’s case would’ve ended the United States before it really started. Whereas
30% of smallpox victims usually died, only one in fifty of Washington’s inoculated soldiers lost his life. These inoculations, along with the tireless work of a dedicated staff of surgeons and nurses, helped keep the Continental Army intact.
Harmon Stebens Powder Horn (detail), 1779, Smithsonian Institution
The revitalized troops got a chance to prove themselves the following summer when they intercepted British Commander-in-Chief Sir Henry Clinton’s Redcoats at Monmouth, New Jersey, as they marched from Philadelphia to New York. The Redcoats chose to abandon the capital they’d fought so hard to win the previous year because they feared a French naval blockade would trap them there (Philadelphia is an inland port). In sweltering heat, the Continentals fought the Redcoats to a draw at Monmouth in a traditional European-style pitched battle. They held the field at the end of the day and the British re-routed to the coast to catch boats to New York. Townswomen later immortalized as Molly Pitchers brought pitchers of water to thirsty Rebels and some “manned” cannons.
Molly Pitcher, Currier & Ives, Library of Congress
However, Washington had the nagging sense that his army could have won the battle outright if not for the hesitancy of General Charles Lee, whom he reluctantly charged with leading the assault instead of French General Marquis de Lafayette. Believing he was outnumbered roughly 2:1, Lee retreated even after he had Clinton’s troops on the run and was later court-martialed because Washington had ordered him to pursue. Washington never discovered the full truth but General Howe’s relatives did many years later. Rummaging through his desk, they found documents suggesting that Lee might have been paid by the British to fight ineffectively that day.
Treason & Espionage
The next year, Washington became fully aware of an even more notorious traitor, Benedict Arnold. Arnold was so effective early in the war — at New Haven and Fort Ticonderoga and Lake Champlain in 1775, Champlain again in the Battle of Valcour Island in 1776, and at Saratoga in 1777 where he defied orders and stormed back into battle after Horatio Gates relieved him of his command — that some have argued the U.S. would never have won the Revolution without him. Gates tried to take credit for Saratoga but soldiers reported that Arnold was the true hero, leading a courageous charge. Moreover, Arnold helped form the “original eight” of the U.S. Marines Corps (naval infantry) in 1775 at Tun Tavern.
Yet, his treason in 1778 is so infamous that Arnold’s name is synonymous with traitor. Why did he do it? Arnold resented not being credited with what he’d done on the battlefield, especially at Saratoga where he’d shattered his leg, leaving the left two inches shorter than the right. Instead, he’d been passed over for promotions in favor of seemingly lesser men. Washington seemed to be in his corner, but no one else. Privately, Washington wrote Arnold that he’d only passed him over for major general because he feared other men would quit if he didn’t award them. Arnold then tried to quit twice and both times Washington refused to accept his resignation. Radical Patriots in Congress led by Joseph Reed even tried to convict him on (trumped-up?) smuggling charges, though he was exonerated in a court-martial. This was a lot to take for the man that Johnny Burgoyne, in his testimony before Parliament, claimed was personally responsible for his defeat at Saratoga, the most important battle of the war. But there was increasing tension throughout the states/colonies between Continental regulars (especially officers) and militias. Local authorities hired militiamen as thugs when they were home to harass pacifists or people whose loyalties they suspected. Arnold rode an ostentatious carriage and was known to wear red, of all colors, on occasion. After the British evacuated Philadelphia, even the Continental Army’s best soldier didn’t escape these vigilantes’ wrath. Militias and Congress might have convinced Arnold to reconsider his loyalties, thus inadvertently causing the treason they falsely suspected. In May 1780, the exasperated Arnold wrote Washington: “Having made every sacrifice of fortune and blood, and become a cripple in the service of my country, I little expected to meet the ungrateful returns I have received of my countrymen, but as Congress have stamped ingratitude as a current coin I must take it. I wish your Excellency for your long and eminent services may not be paid off in the same coin.” In retrospect, this letter might be interpreted as a fond farewell, as Arnold had changed sides within a few months.
After one failed courtship with another woman, Arnold married Peggy Shippen, recycling the same love letters he wrote to the first. The Shippens, if not outright Loyalists, were better off when the British occupied Philadelphia and certainly didn’t favor the revolutionary government that was persecuting Arnold. The newlywed couple’s lavish parties ran the couple into debt. As a Protestant, Arnold also felt betrayed by the American alliance with “papist” (Catholic) France. For him, that was like making a deal with the devil. All this made Arnold a “turnable” candidate for the British to approach. For a sum of
$120k in today’s money, the British bought Arnold, keeping him embedded on the American side.
French Map of West Point ca. 1780, Boston Public Library Digital Map Collection
Later that summer, Washington entrusted Arnold with a strategic spot at West Point, where the Hudson River curved enough that vessels needed to slow down. Rebels laid a chain netting most of the way across the river to Constitution Island hoping to ensnare the slowing boats as they rounded the bend, to assault them from batteries along the bank. The key spot would later become site of the United States Military Academy (1802). Had the British captured West Point, they would’ve controlled the Hudson, dividing the middle and southern colonies from New England. Today, West Point has a statue overlooking the Hudson of its main designer, the forenamed Polish engineer Tadeusz Kościuszko.
Great Chain Today @ West Point
However, three AWOL Patriot soldiers coincidentally happened to mug Arnold’s civilian-dressed go-between, William Howe’s Major John André, as he relayed the fort plans to the British. They didn’t want his wallet but rather his sharp-looking boots at least that was the dashing officer’s story. Unfortunately for Arnold and André, that’s where André stashed the plans. The official version the Patriots told was that they just interrogated André when they discovered he was a British officer behind enemy lines and found the plans in his stockings after removing his boots.
Capture of Major John Andre by John Paulding, David Williams & Isaac Vanwart, Lithograph by J. Baillie, 1845
Only Known Image of Townsend, Drawn By Brother, Raynham Hall Museum
Washington interpreted André’s capture as so unlikely and coincidental that it could only be explained by divine intervention, or Providence as he called it. He wanted to swap André for Arnold so that he could punish the traitor but the British valued Arnold more than André for his military prowess (he was commissioned as a brigadier general but given a low salary since his plot had failed). Andre’s capture wasn’t just luck or Providence it was a case of Washington’s own carefully cultivated espionage paying off.
The future first president employed spies in and around occupied New York, the Setauket or Culper Ring led by Benjamin Tallmadge, that kept their ears to the ground for British troop movements. Their main source of news and information in Manhattan was Quaker Robert Townsend, whose father owned a home on Long Island that spies met in. The Culper Ring alerted Washington that he had traitors among his officers and bodyguards. Tailor and agent Hercules Mulligan also prevented Washington’s capture by warning him in time through his courier slave, Cato (New York’s loyalist governor William Tryon was part of a conspiracy to kill Washington). Spy Abraham Woodhull, alias Samuel Culper, was the central character in the AMC mini-series TURN: Washington’s Spies (2014-17) — a story that never would’ve come to light if a sharp-eyed Long Island historian in the 1930s hadn’t noticed the similarity between Townsend’s handwriting and some he’d seen in anonymous, coded letters to Washington.
Washington relished espionage and tradecraft, keeping up with state-of-the-art invisible ink and alphanumeric ciphers, and he relied on the Culper/Setauket group to keep him informed about the greater New York area. The Culper Ring — including Tallmadge, Townsend, Woodhull, Anna Strong, and Robert Brewster — was crucial to keeping the Revolution alive in the North as the fighting shifted toward the South and Caribbean. Not only did they help foil Arnold’s plot to capture the key fort on the Hudson, they helped the French navy find safe harbor in America. In 1780, the spies learned that the British knew of the impending French landing at Newport, Rhode Island, so Washington used misinformation (counter-espionage) to feign an attack on New York. The British waited there for an attack that never happened, leaving Newport open for the French. The French then sailed from Newport to Virginia to trap the British at Yorktown, as we’ll see below.
Arnold’s plan wouldn’t have been foiled without the Culper Ring and, since Washington was visiting West Point, the British might have captured him. The boot-stealing Patriots delivered John André to Ring members. They took their prisoner to the Old House tavern in Tappan, New York, where they extracted the requisite information that Arnold was the ringleader of a treasonous plot to relinquish West Point to the Brits. His job was to keep enough men out collecting wood or on other duties that the fort wasn’t fully manned and to relay information about the fort’s layout so that the British would know what to expect when they laid siege. They also considered another kidnapping plot on Washington during one of his visits there.
Mercy Otis Warren, ca. 1763, John Singleton Copley, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
André’s capture unfolded the very day Washington arrived at West Point to check up on things. He found the traitor’s abandoned, pregnant wife Peggy upstairs at their headquarters. Because of a dispatch that he mistakenly received intended for Washington, Arnold had already figured out the jig was up and fled the scene, leaving her behind. Much was made at the time about how Washington comforted Peggy as she went into a deranged, hysterical fit. However, in the 1920s, historians uncovered documents in the Sir Henry Clinton Collection indicating that it was all an act and that she’d likely orchestrated the whole plan. Women played a significant role in the boycotts leading up to the war, participated in battles as we just saw at Monmouth, and the most important propagandist/early historian of the war was Mercy Otis Warren. So too, it’s possible that Peggy Shippen Arnold was behind the most infamous treason in American history.
Peggy Shippen Arnold w. Daughter Sophia, Gardner, Philadelphia History Museum @ the Atwater Kent
Women also worked for the American side against the British. Since most men assumed they weren’t interested in politics or didn’t form their own opinions, Rebel women made ideal spies for overhearing conversations from Loyalist husbands, friends, and extended family. They devised ingenious ways to send messages, including particular ways to hang clothes on the line, as Anna Strong did for the Culper Ring to signal which inlet Robert Brewster would pick up information in before rowing the 12 miles back across Long Island Sound to Connecticut. There’s some evidence that a woman known only as Agent 355 might’ve used her relationship to John André to alert the Culper Ring to Benedict Arnold even before the boot-stealing affair that nabbed André.
After Arnold’s defection, the demoralized Washington realized that, aside from his under-sized, under-funded shrinking army, he now had his most trusted, talented general selling secrets to the British. The Continentals reluctantly hung André. I say reluctantly because the major was so charming that even his captors had come to like him and respect his bravery. After Washington turned down his request to go before a firing squad, André refused to be blindfolded and wrapped the noose around his neck himself.
Philadelphians Paraded A Two-Faced Effigy Of Arnold Through The Streets Before Burning It, Library of Congress, 1780
As for Arnold, his legacy was destroyed in the U.S. but there’s no denying his early and crucial role in the war. Today there’s a monument at West Point to honor the best generals of the Revolutionary War. One is conspicuously blank but everyone knows it represents Arnold. Saratoga National Historical Park, where Arnold injured his leg, has a monument of just his boot that reads: “In memory of the most brilliant soldier in the Continental Army, who was desperately wounded on this spot, winning for his country the decisive battle of the American Revolution, and for himself the rank of Major General.”
Bernardo de Gálvez, 61st Viceroy of New Spain
Spanish Grenadiers & Militia Pour Into Ft. George in Battle of Pensacola, Florida, U.S. Army Center of Military History
Southern Civil War
The silver lining in these clouds was the French and Spanish alliance, which especially helped American rebels in the South. The Spanish fought the British in Louisiana, the Caribbean, and West Florida. An army of Indians, free Blacks, Creoles, and Spanish under Louisiana Governor Bernardo de Gálvez (Galveston’s namesake) defeated Redcoats for control of Natchez, Baton Rouge, and Mobile. Then, his hurricane-battered navy defeated the British in the two-month Siege of Pensacola in 1781. Encircling the British around the southern perimeter of the colonies prevented their northern troops from being resupplied from that direction and forced them to fight on two fronts. Tying up Redcoats in Pensacola prevented them from fighting in some of the critical southern battles we’ll discuss below, including Yorktown, and Spanish naval help guarding Cap Francois, Haiti freed up French ships to fight the Royal Navy in the Atlantic. Even before the alliance, Gálvez helped Patriots by shuttling weapons, medicine, and fabric for Continental uniforms up the Mississippi River duty-free in exchange for hemp, flax, furs, and meat.
The French supplied much-needed money for the Continental Army and the American rebellion became secondary from the British perspective — put on the back burner in favor of securing fishing rights in the North Atlantic and gaining territory in the sugar-rich Caribbean from the French. The Caribbean factor also swung the center of gravity in the mainland American war south, where the fighting between American Loyalists and Rebels was intense. It’s easy for modern Americans to forget that the Revolutionary War was also a civil war. Southern Loyalists stood their ground. The British tried the enclave (port) strategy in the South, holding Savannah, Georgia but failing to take Charleston, South Carolina until late in the war. In the Siege of Savannah, free black French-Haitians fought alongside Americans trying to capture the city.
Painted by William Ranney in 1845, this depiction of the Battle of Cowpens shows an unnamed black soldier (left) firing his pistol and saving the life of Colonel William Washington (on white horse in center).
Portrait of Sir Banastre Tarleton, Joshua Reynolds, National Gallery
American troops under Nathaniel Greene led British troops under Cornwallis and Banastre “the Butcher” Tarleton on a wild goose chase across the Carolinas that included battles at the Cowpens, King’s Mountain (between rival American militias), and Guilford Courthouse. At times, the Rebels survived on alligators and frogs. Tarleton got his nickname because he violated an unwritten code of 18th-century conduct. After fighting ceased around sundown, it was customary to quit the battlefield and allow your opponents to treat and retrieve the wounded. However, a misunderstanding occurred at the Battle of Waxhaw when a Rebel musket ball hit Tarleton’s horse just as he was asking for quarter. The British thought someone had deliberately shot at Tarleton himself as he was raising the white flag and he instructed his men to go around and finish off all the American casualties with bayonets. Tarleton also had a reputation for wreaking havoc on the civilian population, raiding and pillaging in a manner that presaged Sherman’s March through Georgia in the Civil War.
One hero for the Rebels was South Carolinian Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox, who led guerilla-type raids on the British, eluded Tarleton’s capture, and was the subject of the only profitable movie ever made about the Revolution: The Patriot (2000). The movie’s savagery is accurate, except that it was true of both sides, not just the British-Loyalist. Mel Gibson’s Marion character, whom historian Sean Busick called “an 18th-century Rambo,” is based on that of Parson Weem’s 19th-century semi-fictional account. Weems was the hagiographer who invented the story of young George Washington cutting down the cherry tree.
The long fighting in the Carolinas had served a purpose, wearing down the British and exhausting their supplies. After rebel victories at the Cowpens and King’s Mountain, demoralized British troops made their way up to Virginia, where they sent the state’s governor, Thomas Jefferson, galloping away from his home atop Monticello as they neared. Jefferson’s enemies seized on his seeming cowardice and it bothered him the rest of his life, but the Revolution needed Jefferson alive (likewise, during WWII America didn’t need John Wayne on the battlefield they needed him making movies about the battlefield).
James Armistead Lafayette, After Painting By John Martin, ca. 1824, Cropped From Image @ Virginia Historical Society
Lemuel Cook, Yorktown Veteran
Cut off by the Spanish from the Gulf of Mexico, the British marched to the tip of the Yorktown Peninsula in Virginia to be resupplied by ships from New York. They sent enslaved spy James Armistead to learn more about American and French movements, not realizing that Armistead was actually a double agent who told the Rebels about the British whereabouts at Yorktown. Armistead worked first for Arnold after Arnold switched sides, even mapping routes for him, then infiltrated Cornwallis’ camp. Based on Armistead’s intelligence, and with help up north from the forenamed Culper Ring that helped the French secure Newport, Rhode Island, this is when Washington feigned an attack on New York before diverting south along with his trusted French sidekick, the Marquis de Lafayette. (All the Lafayettes and Fayettevilles across America? That’s who they’re named after.) When Lafayette returned to the U.S. in 1824 on a reunion tour, 43 years after Yorktown, he recognized the elderly Armistead in the crowd. He stopped the carriage and ran to embrace him. Armistead had added Lafayette to his name in 1787 when the Virginia Assembly freed him to honor his service.
Washington and Lafayette joined with French forces led by Comte de Rochambeau. French forces outnumbered American at
4:1 ratio. With the French Navy blockading the Chesapeake, they had the British trapped at the end of Yorktown Peninsula. Under François Joseph Paul de Grasse, the French fleet won an underrated but major engagement with the British off Virginia’s shore known as the Battle of the Capes in September 1781 (aka the Battle of the Chesapeake). After the protracted Siege of Yorktown on land, Cornwallis surrendered 30k Redcoats in October. Animated Map According to one veteran of the campaign, Lemuel Cook (right), Washington instructed his men to not laugh at the British because it was “bad enough to surrender without being insulted.” After the battle, Americans including Washington and Jefferson retrieved enslaved workers that had gone over to fight with the British, though twelve of Washington’s slipped away. Washington was also upset that the French fleet then left the colonies because he wanted them to stay to help liberate Charleston and New York. He wasn’t envisioning the war as over after Yorktown, which indeed it was not.
Second Battle of the Virginia Capes, V. Zveg, U.S. Navy Naval History & Heritage Command
The Yorktown loss wouldn’t necessarily have meant the British lost the war. They still occupied the ports of Charleston, Savannah, and New York for another year and Washington’s army had shrunk to 5k men. Another 20k slaves escaped with the aid of the British when they finally did retreat in 1792. Even as late as 1783, a combined force of British, American Loyalists, Chickasaw Indians, and slaves attacked pro-American French and Spanish troops at Arkansas Post, near the confluence of the Arkansas and Mississippi Rivers. However, support in England for war against the colonies was evaporating by 1781 and Yorktown and the preceding civil war in the Carolinas discouraged American Loyalists. Whigs who sympathized with American independence now controlled Parliament and the English public had long since lost any interest in the rebellion. King George III saw Yorktown as a mere setback, but the defeat convinced Prime Minister Lord North to cut his losses in the colonies and focus on the broader naval battle with the French and Spanish. Who would the newly independent Americans conduct most of their trade with? The British could now profit from American trade without the hassle or overhead of governing their surly subjects. Moreover, given America’s military weakness, the British wouldn’t need to comply by whatever terms they agreed to at war’s end.
Siege of Yorktown (Rochambeau & Washington), October 1781, Auguste Couder, 1836, Palace of Versailles
In retrospect, though not obvious at the time, the United States was in effect an independent country as of October 1781, though the broader war between France/Spain and Great Britain didn’t end until 1783. The American independence portion wasn’t an easy victory. The roughly 25k casualties represented 1% of the population — the equivalent of over three million today. While the military fight was an uphill struggle and one of the most violent wars in American history measured by casualty rate, the difficult task of building a new country lay ahead. Insofar as it was a tax revolt, the Revolution backfired because Americans soon found out it’s more expensive to run a country than to be another country’s colony. Still, the colonists had independence and could represent themselves politically, at least those who owned a fair amount of land.
Congress could not come through on their obligation to help the French over the next two years of their war with Britain, but at least they did not double-cross France and sign a separate treaty with the British. In the meantime, the British kept American privateer POWs on board the HMS Jersey (aka “Old Jersey” or “Hell”) for the two years between 1781-83, during which time hundreds more died from diseases, starvation and torture. Both sides tortured POWs during the war.
Meanwhile, the broader war raged on as British and French navies fought in the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian Ocean, Mediterranean, and North Sea/English Channel. By 1783, the dispute that started in Boston over taxes and smuggling was a sprawling global conflict ranging from Gibraltar to Senegambia (West Africa) to India to Indonesia to Guyana, Jamaica and the Bahamas in the Caribbean, finally ending with French victory at the Battle of Cuddalore in the Bay of Bengal in June 1783. If not a world war in the modern sense, the Revolutionary War was one of the periodic global jostlings for power that marked the colonial age.
Joseph Brant, George Romney, 1776
But who would govern the new country and how? How would it survive economically? How would it contend with Indians on the western frontier? Mohawk Joseph Brant led Indian and white Loyalist forces against the Rebels (he was an important enough Iroquois leader to have met George Washington and King George III in England). Many tribes sided with the British and were consequently wiped out by American forces. In the words of historian Caitlin Fitz, “Colonial and Indian towns alike were burned to ashes, crops destroyed, heads skinned, skulls shattered.” Troops led by General John Sullivan and directed by Washington decimated the Iroquois Confederacy of upstate New York in 1779. Iroquois called Washington Hanodagonyes, or “town destroyer.” Tribes like the Oneida and Tuscarora that allied with American Rebels didn’t fare much better in the short term or any better in the long term than those that sided with the British, though in 1778 Washington credited Oneidas with helping to win back Boston and Philadelphia and aiding at Valley Forge. Washington did not order Pennsylvania militia to club and scalp to death nearly a hundred Christian Lenape men, women, and children who were not allied with the British in the Gnadenhutten Massacre (1782), but neither did he pursue bringing the killers to justice. Conflict between Americans and Indians along the western frontier spun out of the Revolutionary era and continued for years after. General Washington set the tone for future American leaders by calling Indians “merciless savages” and “wolves and beasts” who deserved nothing but annihilation at the hands of Whites.
Iroquoian Tribes, Smithsonian Institute
The war also sectionalized slavery. We naturally think of the Civil War as abolishing slavery, but the Revolution led to abolition in northern states. Less dependent on slaves economically, they found the Declaration of Independence incompatible with the institution and, one-by-one, abolished slavery after the war. Pennsylvania, with its Quaker population, was the first in 1777, and New York last in 1820, with most of the illegal slave trade running through Rhode Island. In Massachusetts, slaves Mum Bett and Quock Walker sued the state for their freedom and won, leading to statewide abolition. Northern states replaced slavery with a system of segregation and discrimination toward their relatively small black populations that later served as a template for the post-Civil War “Jim Crow” South.
Other Black Loyalists fled the country with the help of British forces, with most ending up in Nova Scotia (Canada) and London, and some later migrating to Sierra Leone. In the near term, the brutal economics of cotton compromised the higher ideals of the Revolution, as slavery grew in importance in the 19th century. Keep in mind, though, that the British had promised freedom to loyal slaves. If they had won and actually followed through on that promise (another big if), then a failed Revolution would have abolished slavery in all of British America. British abolitionism in the war was mainly strategic, though, so we shouldn’t assume that they would’ve actually freed slaves if they won. Slavery, after all, was legal in the British Empire until 1833.
Would republicanism at least take root among Whites? Washington’s army wasn’t much in 1781, but neither was Congress and Washington probably could have declared himself king and no one would have complained. What could they have done? But, at the nation’s first capitol in Baltimore (today’s Maryland State House), he literally and figuratively laid down his arms (sword) before Continental Congress, establishing a precedent that is easy for modern Americans to take for granted but doesn’t usually follow from revolutions: the military being subsumed under civilian, political control. Though only property-holding white males could vote in eleven of the states, the same as under the British, the Founders stayed committed to republicanism. We’ll examine their struggle to forge a new nation from the loosely knit alliance of states in the next chapter.
Loss of Forts Mercer and Mifflin
The British army under Major General William Howe occupied Philadelphia in late September 1777. Despite their success with occupying the American capital city, the British were in dire need of supplies — munitions, food and clothing. A huge fleet of ships laden with those necessities waited in the upper Delaware Bay, but was dissuaded from rendering aid because of two American forts on the Delaware River below Philadelphia. Fort Mifflin was located near the mouth of the Schuylkill River on Mud Island. Fort Mercer occupied a position somewhat farther up the river on the New Jersey side. The American defenses included the deployment of cheveaux-de-frise (iron horses), which usually were constructed by driving 5-foot-long sharpened spikes through large timbers. These devices were towed into the river channel at strategic points and weighted down below the water level, where they served as impediments to enemy ship movements. On October 22, American defenders at Fort Mercer under the command of Colonel Christopher Greene (cousin of Nathanael) withstood a fierce assault by Hessian mercenaries led by Colonel Carl Emil Kurt von Donop. Patriot sharpshooters took a heavy toll among the German officers and men. Donop had erred badly by attacking without a preparatory artillery barrage and was mortally wounded. The British took at different approach at Fort Mifflin. Beginning in late October, they began a protracted bombardment of the American position. Some of the British ships had managed to get by the submerged iron horses with the aid of a spy within the American ranks. Efforts were made each night to repair the damage inflicted by the day’s shelling, but the American garrison was slowly being reduced. Following a major bombardment on November 10, Washington accepted his lieutenants' advice and sent word to evacuate the fort. That withdrawal took place on November 17. The following day, Lord Charles Cornwallis landed 2,000 British troops on the New Jersey shore near Fort Mercer. The American commanders quickly decided to evacuate the garrison, torching the structures and all the supplies they could not carry away. The fall of Forts Mifflin and Mercer assured that Howe and his officers could enjoy a warm winter in Philadelphia. Washington and his troops, however, were not so blessed and proceeded to winter quarters at Valley Forge.
The Hessians and the other German auxiliaries of Great Britain in the revolutionary war/6 The Battle of Long Island, August, 1776
The first division of Hessians, some eight thousand strong, passed Sandy Hook on August 15, 1776, and landed at Staten Island amid salvoes of artillery and musketry. The division was under the command of Lieutenant-general Philip von Heister, a tough old soldier of the Seven Years' War. It is related that when Landgrave Frederick II. called him to command the Hessian expeditionary force, he did so in these terms: “Heister, you must go along to America.” “Very well, your Most Serene Highness, but I take the liberty of making a few requests.” “And what may they be?” “First, my debts must be paid, my wife and children must be taken care of until I come back, and if I should fall, my wife must have a pension.” When the Landgrave had smilingly assented, Heister cried out: “Now your Serene Highness shall see what this old head and these bones can do.”
The army collected on Staten Island under the command of Sir William Howe numbered, after the arrival of the Hessians, between twenty-five and thirty thousand soldiers. It was supported by a fleet under Sir William's brother, Lord Howe. The opposing army of Washington was composed of some thirteen or fourteen thousand men, not more than six thousand of whom had any military experience, and whose officers were taken from civil life.
The Hessians were much struck with the appearance of wealth and plenty which they found on Staten Island. The colonists lived in comfortable houses surrounded by gardens and orchards. Their light red wagons drawn by two small horses excited the wonder of the Germans. A colonist on Staten Island lived as comfortably as a German country gentleman, and it seemed extraordinary to the Hessians that people should revolt against a government under which they enjoyed so many blessings. Many of the Americans had fled from their homes on the approach of the Hessians, and those who remained were at first inclined to be surly when troops were quartered upon them but when they saw that strict discipline was enforced, and that only regular requisitions were made, the fugitives returned, and relations of tolerance, if not of cordiality, were soon established. The British government still hoped to reconcile the colonists to the rule of the mother country, and strict orders had been given to prevent all excesses.
No sooner did Sir William Howe find his army collected than he prepared to attack the Americans. The British advanced guard, under Sir Henry Clinton, with the Hessian chasseurs and grenadiers, commanded by Colonel von Donop, crossed the Narrows to Long Island on August 22, 1776. A diary, published in a magazine at Frankfort-on-the-Main in the following year, gives a graphic account of this operation and of those that followed:
“August 22.—We weighed anchor and lay close over against Long Island. The ships of war came within range of the shore and pointed their cannon at the beach. At eight in the morning the whole coast swarmed with boats. At half-past eight the admiral hoisted the red flag, and in a moment all the boats reached the shore. The English and Scotch, with the artillery, were first disembarked, and then the brigade of Colonel von Donop (the only Hessians there). Not a soul opposed our landing. This was the second blunder of the rebels since I have been in America. Their first mistake was when we disembarked on Staten Island, for they might then have destroyed a good many of our people with two six-pounders, and now they might have made it very nasty for us. We marched on, equally undisturbed, through Gravesend, and reached Flatbush towards evening. Three hundred riflemen had been there a little while before us. We sent a few cannon shots after them, set out our pickets, and slept quietly all night. I got two horses as booty, one of which I sent to the colonel and gave the other to my St. Martin for a pack-horse.
“August 23.—This morning early we were attacked on the right wing of the advanced guard. We brought up a cannon and drove them back. It rained bullets. Captain Congreve and one Constable were wounded by my side, and an Englishman was shot through. In the afternoon they attacked on the left side of the village and set fire to several houses, and we drew back into the village. Lieutenant von Donop, who stood on the left wing, was wounded in the breast the ball glanced from his rib. I advanced on the right wing, where I occupied a big garden, with one hundred and fifty men, chasseurs and light infantry. As the enemy had fallen back from here, I relieved Lieutenant von Donop. The rebels were placing cannon on the highway, and our Scotch Highlanders had to make a battery across the road, with embrasures for two cannon. I had to cover the work, and so came to the advanced posts, where, however, I was little disturbed.
“August 24.—A hot day. The rebels approached twice, fired howitzers and used grape and ball, so that all our artillery had to come up. At noon I slept a little while, and was waked by two cannon-balls which covered me with earth. The rebels have some very good marksmen, but some of them have wretched guns, and most of them shoot crooked. But they are clever at hunters' wiles. They climb trees, they crawl forward on their bellies for one hundred and fifty paces, shoot, and go as quickly back again. They make themselves shelters of boughs, etc. But to-day they are much put out by our green coats,  for we don't let our fellows fire unless they can get good aim at a man, so that they dare not undertake anything more against us.
“August 25.—We barricaded ourselves in the village and to-night our chasseurs were to take a good rest. About two o'clock the rebels roused us from our slumbers we quickly quieted them, however, with two cannon and a few rifle-shots. To-day we were attacked again, but after several of them had bitten the dust they drew off. Long Island is a beautiful island, an Arcadia a most delightful region, full of meadows, corn-fields, all kinds of fruit-trees and pleasantly built houses. There were still a great many cattle there, although the rebels had taken many away with them. Most of the inhabitants had fled from the houses.  The rebels advanced in force. General Cornwallis wanted Colonel Donop to retire, but the colonel stayed where he was and intrenched himself.
“August 26.—During this day we had much trouble, and at night were continually awakened by alarms from the outposts. This was not caused by attacks of the rebels, but mostly by deserters who wanted to come to us and when the English and the [Hessian] grenadiers heard them approach they at once fired by platoons, if they did not get an immediate answer. To-day General von Heister came over to us with six battalions. 
“August 27.—Our colonel had been promised that he should make the first attack, and he heard that the English were to attack to-day, but he had not received any orders either last evening or this morning. About ten o'clock we were all put under arms (the colonel having then spoken with General von Heister), and about eleven we were all in order of battle. On our left and right the English advanced on the flanks, and destroyed those that we drove back. On the left wing, where I commanded the advanced guards (thirty chasseurs and twenty grenadiers), stood Colonel Block, with his battalion. Behind me I had Captain Mallet with one company, as a reserve. In the centre Captain von Wrede attacked, and had the battalion von Minnigerode behind him. On the right Captain Lory pressed on, supported by the three remaining companies of Linsig's battalion” [Battalion von Linsingen]. In describing this arrangement of the troops, the writer refers only to the brigade in which he served. The Hessians, forming the centre of the British force, were posted on the Flatbush road. The right, under Clinton and Lord Percy, with Sir William Howe, had started early in the morning and succeeded in turning the left wing of the American position, near Bedford, and in getting in its rear. On hearing the cannon on his right, Heister ordered the Hessians to advance. The battle was substantially lost and won before the first shot was fired, the Americans having been outflanked. The latter saw themselves in danger of being cut off from their fortifications, and fled. A few of them were drowned in Gowanus Creek while trying to escape. Two whole regiments would probably have been captured but for the bravery of General Stirling, who selected five companies of Marylanders, with whom he covered the retreat of the rest. Of these five companies only eight men escaped death or capture. We return to our Hessian-officer and his narrative.
“My chasseurs were so eager that I had hardly got into the wood when I found myself alone with my command. I came into the middle of the rebel camp, where they still were, saw on my left their great camp, on my right a fortification, and fifty or sixty men were forming in column before me. But we left them no time and beat them completely. Many were shot and still more taken prisoners. I did not lose a single man, so much had the rebels come to be afraid of the chasseurs. Things went equally well on the other wing. We lost few men, and, except one chasseur, who was shot in the village, not a single one was killed. On the other hand, we made on the first day more than five hundred prisoners, among whom were General Stirling and one other general, and Colonel Johnson was shot. General Stirling is one of the most important rebels, who, sword in hand, forced the people to fight against their king. As long as we had no horses, the prisoners were harnessed in front of the cannon, and they were afterwards sent aboard the ships of war. In two days we had taken eleven hundred men. The rebels looked ragged, and had no shirts on. Our Hessians marched like Hessians they marched incorrigibly, and the English like the bravest and best of soldiers. They, therefore, lost more men than we. This was a lucky day for us. The rebels had a very advantageous position in the wood, and we had a very bad one in the village of Flatbush. At first they made good use of their position, burned down a house and set fire to the barns upon our outposts. But when we attacked them courageously in their hiding-places, they ran, as all mobs do.” 
The editor of the Frankfort magazine, who publishes the above, remarks that many letters from Hessian officers have appeared in the newspapers that these officers ascribe a great part of the credit of the victory to themselves, and that, in view of the well-known valor of the Hessian soldiery, they undoubtedly deserve it, but that some of them make too little of the resistance and military knowledge of the Americans, “so that the honor of having gained a victory over an enemy numbering only one third as many as themselves almost suffers.” The remark is certainly pertinent, and the odds do not appear to be overstated. Washington's army before the battle was occupying lines which extended from Kingsbridge to Flatbush. There were probably not more than eight thousand Americans on Long Island, while those actually engaged on the advanced lines numbered only four or five thousand, against twenty thousand Englishmen and Germans.
Sir William Howe, in his official report, sets the American loss in killed, wounded, prisoners and drowned, at three thousand three hundred men but Bancroft believes this to be a gross exaggeration, and, relying on Washington's report and a careful inquiry, says that the total American loss did not exceed one thousand, of whom three quarters were taken prisoners. The English loss, according to Howe, was seventeen officers and three hundred and one non-commissioned officers and privates the Hessians had two men killed, and two officers and twenty-three privates wounded.
“The enemy,” writes Colonel von Heeringen, commanding a Hessian regiment, “had almost impenetrable thickets, lines, abattis, and redoubts in front of them. The riflemen were mostly spitted to the trees with bayonets. These frightful people deserve pity rather than fear. It always takes them a quarter of an hour to load, and meanwhile they feel our balls and bayonets.” Among the prisoners taken by the Hessians were two generals—Sullivan and Stirling. Nothing can be more characteristic of the hatred and contempt felt at this time by the Hessian officers for the undisciplined troop of rebels to whom they were opposed, than Von Heeringen's account of these generals and of other officers of the American army. “John Sullivan was a lawyer, and previously a domestic servant, but a man of genius, whom the rebels will much regret. Among the prisoners are many so-called colonels, lieutenant-colonels, majors, and other officers, who, however, are nothing but mechanics, tailors, shoe-makers, wig-makers, barbers, etc. Some of them were soundly beaten by our people, who would by no means let such persons pass for officers. Sullivan was brought to me. I had him searched and found the original orders of General Washington on him from which it appears that he had the best troops under his command, that everything depended on his holding the wood, and that he was eight thousand men strong. The English have one hundred and fifty killed and wounded” [three hundred and eighteen, says Sir William Howe]. “This they owe more to their disorderly attack than to the valor of the enemy. It looked horrible in the wood, as at least two thousand killed and wounded lay there. Colonel John, of the rebels, is dead. A grenadier took him prisoner and generously gave him his life, only telling him to go back to the battalion which was following, for the grenadier was a skirmisher. The colonel wanted to murder him, slyly, from behind secretly drew out a pistol, but only hit the grenadier in the arm, whereupon the latter treated him to three or four bayonet strokes.”
“Among the officers taken I did not find a single one who had been in foreign service. They are nothing but rebels and citizens settled here. Tailor Graul would play a considerable part here.” Colonel von Heeringen clearly considers it far more honorable to fight in other people's quarrels than in one's own. A man who had once been a mercenary could be more readily forgiven for being a rebel. “My Lord Stirling himself is only an échappé de famille, and does not pass for a lord in England. He looks as much like my Lord Granby as one egg does like another. General Putnam is a butcher by profession. I imagine him to be like Butcher Fischer at Rinteln. The rebels desert in great numbers, and it is nothing to see colonels, lieutenant-colonels, and majors come in with whole troops of men. The captured flag, which is made of red damask, with the motto, ‘Liberty,’ appeared with sixty men before Rall's regiment. They had all shouldered their guns upside down, and had their hats under their arms. They fell on their knees and begged piteously for their lives. No regiment is properly uniformed or armed. Every man has a common gun, such as the citizens in Hesse march out with at Whitsuntide. Stirling's regiment, however, was uniformed in blue and red, three battalions strong, and mostly composed of Germans recruited in Pennsylvania. They were tall, fine-looking fellows, and had extremely good English guns, with bayonets. This regiment met the English, and as the latter took them for Hessians in the bushes, they did not fire but their error cost them Colonel Grant, several other officers, and eighty men. A volley was fired. The English gathered themselves together, attacked with the bayonet, knocked everybody head over heels, and those they did not massacre they took prisoners. In short, the whole regiment is ruined. The rebel artillery is miserable, mostly of iron, and mounted on ships' carriages.” 
It is said that many times in this battle the English and Hessians did not give quarter when it was asked. Colonel von Heeringen says: “The English did not give much quarter, and constantly urged our people to do the like.” The Americans are said also to have believed that the Hessians gave no quarter, and to have fought with peculiar desperation, after hope was lost, in consequence. The fact that neither side could understand the other may have tended to diminish the chance of surrender, and have contributed to swell the complaints that some of the Americans had treacherously attacked their captors after yielding. “They were,” says Lieutenant Rüffer in his diary,  “so timid that they preferred to be shot rather than to take quarter, because their generals and officers had told them that they would be hanged.” Surely the most curious proof of cowardice ever alleged against any soldiers whatsoever.
After the loss of so important a position, and of so many men in proportion to the numbers of his little army, Washington thought it inexpedient to try to hold the works at Brooklyn, and seeing that the English fleet was preparing to occupy the East River and cut off his retreat, he abandoned Long Island on the night of August 29th-30th, and crossed over to New York, bringing off all his stores and cannon, except a few heavy pieces which stuck in the mud. A myth was current among the Hessians, to the effect that an order of Washington had been found in the deserted camp, stating that, whereas it was impossible to resist such cruel and terrible enemies as the Hessians, one must make the best of one's way off. Thus had the German troops seen their first battle in the New World. It had added to the contempt they had already felt for a rebellious and undisciplined enemy, a contempt which it was to take long years of war and of disaster wholly to eradicate.