American Revolution

April 26, 1777: Sybil Ludington’s Ride

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The eldest of twelve children, Sybil Ludington grew up in a household of ardent patriots, her father being the commander of the local militia in Duchess County New York.  On April 26, 1777 she became, at age 16, a heroine of the Revolution when she rode forty miles to her father’s militia encampment at night on her horse Star to spread the alarm that the British were moving on Danbury Connecticut.  During her ride she successfully defended herself against a highwayman using a long stick.  She used the same stick to bang on the door of houses along the way to let the occupants know that the British were on the march,  Thanks to her, her father Colonel Henry Ludington chased after the British with 400 of his militia.  They were unable to intercept the British before their attack on Danbury, but they, along with other militia units, harassed the British as they retreated to New York.  The campaign is considered a turning point that helped ensure firm patriot control in Connecticut.  Sybil received the personal thanks of George Washington. Continue reading

April 19, 1775: The Shot Heard Round the World

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.

The foe long since in silence slept;
Alike the conqueror silent sleeps;
And Time the ruined bridge has swept
Down the dark stream which seaward creeps.

On this green bank, by this soft stream,
We set to-day a votive stone;
That memory may their deed redeem,
When, like our sires, our sons are gone.

Spirit, that made those heroes dare,
To die, and leave their children free,
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
The shaft we raise to them and thee.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1837) Continue reading

James Otis: Forgotten Founding Father

 

“The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the crown. It may be frail – its roof may shake – the wind may blow through it – the storm may enter – the rain may enter – but the King of England cannot enter.”

William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, March 1763, in his speech against warrantless searches allowed under the proposed Excise Bill before the British Parliament.

James Otis had a glittering career ahead of him.  At the age of 35 in 1760 he was Advocate General for the Admiralty Court in Boston.  His wife Ruth was heiress to a fortune worth ten thousand pounds.  He threw it all away and resigned his post to represent pro bono, he refused the fee they wished to pay him saying that in such a great cause he despised all fees, colonial merchants subject to writs of assistance.  A writ of assistance was a court order that allowed British officials to search at whim houses and businesses of those suspected of smuggling without obtaining a search warrant.  These writs were in effect for the lifetime of the King during whose reign the writ was issued.  Bearers of writs of assistance were not responsible for any damage caused by their searches.  Otis viewed the writs to be a violation of Magna Carta, English case law and the traditional English legal doctrine that an Englishman’s home was his castle.

In a  five hour address that captivated listeners at the Boston State House on February 24, 1761, James Otis denounced the writs of assistance:

Your Honors will find in the old books concerning the office of a justice of the peace precedents of general warrants to search suspected houses. But in more modern books you will find only special warrants to search such and such houses, specially named, in which the complainant has before sworn that he suspects his goods are concealed; and will find it adjudged that special warrants only are legal. In the same manner I rely on it, that the writ prayed for in this petition, being general, is illegal. It is a power that places the liberty of every man in the hands of every petty officer. I say I admit that special Writs of Assistance, to search special places, may be granted to certain persons on oath; but I deny that the writ now prayed for can be granted, for I beg leave to make some observations on the writ itself, before I proceed to other Acts of Parliament.

In the first place, the writ is universal, being directed “to all and singular justices, sheriffs, constables, and all other officers and subjects”; so that, in short, it is directed to every subject in the King’s dominions. Every one with this writ may be a tyrant; if this commission be legal, a tyrant in a legal manner, also, may control, imprison, or murder any one within the realm. In the next place, it is perpetual; there is no return. A man is accountable to no person for his doings. Every man may reign secure in his petty tyranny, and spread terror and desolation around him, until the trump of the Archangel shall excite different emotions in his soul. In the third place, a person with this writ, in the daytime, may enter all houses, shops, etc., at will, and command all to assist him. Fourthly, by this writ not only deputies, etc., but even their menial servants, are allowed to lord it over us. What is this but to have the curse of Canaan with a witness on us: to be the servants of servants, the most despicable of God’s creation?

Now, one of the most essential branches of English liberty is the freedom of one’s house. A man’s house is his castle; and whilst he is quiet, he is as well guarded as a prince in his castle. This writ, if it should be declared legal, would totally annihilate this privilege. Custom-house officers may enter our houses when they please; we are commanded to permit their entry. Their menial servants may enter, may break locks, bars, and everything in their way; and whether they break through malice or revenge, no man, no court can inquire. Bare suspicion without oath is sufficient.

Otis lost the case, but his bold stand was considered the start of the American independence movement.  John Adams was present during the speech and later wrote:

“The child independence was then and there born,[for] every man of an immense crowded audience appeared to me to go away as I did, ready to take arms against writs of assistance.”

In the years to come he helped popularize the phrase, “No taxation without representation.”  Mental illness cut short his services to the American cause, illness exacerbated by his receiving a blow to his head from a British customs inspector in 1769.  In years to come he would have alternating periods of madness and lucidity.  His wife Ruth, although her personal political sympathies were Tory, loyally stood by her husband and cared for him.

Otis did not let his madness stop him from bearing arms.  Hearing the artillery bombardment preparatory to the battle of Bunker Hill, he snuck out of his house, got a rifle, and joined the American troops on Breed’s Hill.  After the battle he walked home. Continue reading

April 7, 1776: Lexington Takes Edward

On March 14, 1776, that sea going Catholic son of Ireland John Barry, received his commission as a Captain in the Continental Navy from the Continental Congress.  It was signed by John Hancock, President of the Congress.  Barry wasted no time making his mark.

Barry was placed in command of the USS Lexington, 14 guns, on December 7, 1775.  Captain Barry took the Lexington on its maiden voyage on March 26, 1776.  On April 7, 1776, Barry had his initial victory of the war, taking H.M.S. sloop Edward after a short but fierce engagement.  This was the first naval victory of the new Continental Navy and the first British warship captured by the Americans. Barry had begun his victorious military career and started to earn the proud title of Father of the American Navy.

April 3, 1776: Continental Congress Authorizes Privateers

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Congress on April 3, 1776 formally authorized American privateers to raid British merchant ships.  In this Congress was merely recognizing what was already well under way, the patriot governments of the various colonies having issued letters of marque and reprisal since the beginning of hostilities.   The British parliament would authorize privateers against American merchant ships in December 1776.

Privateers were a traditional part of European naval war which fitted in well with the American national character.  Private operations, a common seamen on board a privateer after a successful cruise of capturing several British ships, could come back home with a small fortune in his pocket, often enough to purchase a small farm, or an inn, or set himself up in trade.  Privateers led by more daring commanders would even make prizes of several smaller ships of the Royal Navy.  Of course the risks were commensurate with the rewards, with death by sinking, or the slow death of rotting away in a British prison hulk if a crew was captured, ever a possibility.  Most American sailors were eager to take the risk, so many that the Continental Navy often found it difficult to man its ships. Continue reading

The Old Line’s Bugle, Fife, and Drum

Something for the weekend.  Maryland, my Maryland.  Written by James Ryder Randall  in white heat in 1861 after he learned that his friend Francis X. Ward had been killed by soldiers of the 6th Massachusetts in the Baltimore riot of 1861.  A heart felt plea for his native state to join the Confederacy, set to the tune of O’Tannenbaum  it became one of the more popular songs in the Confederacy.  Tuberculosis prevented Randall from serving in the Confederate Army, so he joined the Confederate Navy.  After the War he was commonly referred to as the poet laureate of the lost cause.  A Catholic, his later in life poems were usually religious in nature.

Although the Civil War brought forth Maryland my Maryland, there are many references to Maryland’s proud Revolutionary history:


 Thou wilt not cower in the dust,
Maryland!
Thy beaming sword shall never rust,
Maryland!
Remember Carroll’s sacred trust,
Remember Howard’s warlike thrust,-
And all thy slumberers with the just,
Maryland! My Maryland! Continue reading

March 4, 1776: Washington Occupies Dorchester Heights

“The rebels have done more in one night than my whole army would have done in a month.”

General Howe, March 5, 1776
After Colonel Henry Knox brought the artillery from Ticonderoga to the siege lines around Boston in January 1776, Washington gathered together the powder and ammunition for the cannon.  By early March he was ready.  Occupying high points around Boston with artillery to divert British attention.  Beginning on the evening of March 2, he conducted nightly bombardments of Boston.  The bombardments continued on March 3 and March 4.  However, on March 4, he also had General John Thomas lead 2000 men to occupy Dorchester Heights to the south of Boston.  Hay bales were placed between the path taken by the Americans and Boston Harbor in order to muffle the sound of the movement.

Continue reading

Jefferson on the History of the American Revolution

On August 10, 1815, Thomas Jefferson set pen to paper to respond to John Adams’ letter to him of July 30, 1815.  Go here to read that letter.  Jefferson was no more optimistic than Adams that a true history of the American Revolution could be written:

On the subject of the history of the American revolution, you ask Who shall write it? who can write it? and who ever will be able to write it? nobody; except merely it’s external facts. all it’s councils, designs and discussions, having been conducted by Congress with closed doors, and no member, as far as I know, having even made notes of them. these, which are the life and soul of history must for ever be unknown. Botta, as you observe, has put his own speculations and reasonings into the mouths of persons whom he names, but who, you & I know, never made such speeches. in this he has followed the example of the antients, who made their great men deliver long speeches, all of them in the same style, and in that of the author himself. the work is nevertheless a good one, more judicious, more chaste, more classical, and more true than the party diatribe of Marshall. it’s greatest fault is in having taken too much from him. I possessed the work, and often recurred to considerable portions of it, altho’ I never read it through. but a very judicious and well informed neighbor of mine went thro’ it with great attention, and spoke very highly of it. I have said that no member of the old Congress, as far as I knew, made notes of the discussions. I did not know of the speeches you mention of Dickinson and Witherspoon. but on the questions of Independance and on the two articles of Confederation respecting taxes & voting I took minutes of the heads of the arguments. on the first I threw all into one mass, without ascribing to the speakers their respective arguments; pretty much in the manner of Hume’s summary digests of the reasonings in parliament for and against a measure. on the last I stated the heads of arguments used by each speaker. but the whole of my notes on the question of independance does not occupy more than 5. pages, such as of this letter: and on the other questions two such sheets. they have never been communicated to any one. do you know that there exists in MS. the ablest work of this kind ever yet executed, of the debates of the Constitutional convention of Philadelphia in 1788.? the whole of every thing said and done there was taken down by mr Madison, with a labor and exactness beyond comprehension. I presume that our correspondence has been observed at the post offices, and thus has attracted notice. would you believe that a printer has had the effrontery to propose to me the letting him publish it? these people think they have a right to every thing however secret or sacred. Continue reading

John Adams on the History of the American Revolution

John Adams often groused that the true history of the American Revolution would never be written.  Considering this, it is somewhat surprising that he did not undertake the task himself.  He had ample time after his Presidency, and his lively and copious correspondence indicates that age had not lessened his skill with a pen.  It is possible that he simply viewed it as an impossible task, as he indicated in a letter to Thomas Jefferson on July 30, 1815:

Dear Sir                                                                                                                                                                                  Quincy July 30th 1815

Who shall write the history of the American revolution? Who can write it? Who will ever be able to write it?

The most essential documents, the debates & deliberations in Congress from 1774 to 1783 were all in secret, and are now lost forever. Mr Dickinson printed a speech, which he said he made in Congress against the Declaration of Independence; but it appeared to me very different from that, which you, and I heard. Dr Witherspoon has published speeches which he wrote beforehand, and delivered Memoriter, as he did his Sermons. But these I believe, are the only speeches ever committed to writing. The Orators, while I was in Congress from 1774 to 1778 appeared to me very universally extemporaneous, & I have never heard of any committed to writing before or after delivery.

These questions have been suggested to me, by a Review, in the Analectic Magazine for May 1815, published in Philadelphia, page 385 of the Chevalier Botta’s “Storia della Guerra Americana.” The Reviewers inform us, that it is the best history of the revolution that ever has been written. This Italian Classick has followed the example, of the Greek and Roman Historians, by composing speeches, for his Generals and Orators. The Reviewers have translated, one of Mr R H Lee, in favour of the declaration of Independence. A splendid morcell of oratory it is; how faithful, you can judge.

I wish to know your sentiments, and opinions of this publication.  Some future Miss Porter, may hereafter, make as shining a romance, of what passed in Congress, while in Conclave, as her Scottish Chiefs.

Your friend durante Vita2

John Adams

Continue reading

John Adams: Washington’s Ten Talents

“The History of our Revolution will be one continued lye [sic] from one end to the other. The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin’s electric rod smote the earth and out sprang General Washington. Then Franklin electrified him… and thence forward those two conducted all the Policy, Negotiations, Legislations, and War.” 

John Adams, letter to Benjamin Rush, 1790

John Adams was a very great man, but he could be somewhat petty at times.  This pettiness came to the fore when he considered that other men, particularly George Washington, would loom larger than him in the history of the American Revolution and its aftermath.  In a letter to Benjamin Rush on November 11, 1807, he remarked upon what he considered to be Washington’s ten great talents:

Self taught or Book learned in the Arts, our Hero was much indebted to his Talents for “his immense elevation above his Fellows.” Talents? you will say, what Talents? I answer.

1. An handsome Face. That this is a Talent, I can prove by the authority of a thousand Instances in all ages: and among the rest Madame Du Barry who said Le veritable Royaute est la Beaute.

2. A tall Stature, like the Hebrew Sovereign chosen because he was taller by the Head than the other Jews.

3 An elegant Form.

4. graceful Attitudes and Movement:

5. a large imposing Fortune consisting of a great landed Estate left him by his Father and Brother, besides a large Jointure with his Lady, and the Guardianship of the Heirs of the great Custis Estate, and in addition to all this, immense Tracts of Land of his own acquisition. There is nothing, except bloody Battles and Splendid Victories, to which Mankind bow down with more reverence than to great fortune. They think it impossible that rich Men especially immensely rich Men, Should Submit to the trouble of Serving them but from the most benevolent and disinterested Motives. . . . Such is their Love of the Marvellous, and Such their Admiration of uncommon Generosity that they will believe extraordinary pretensions to it and the Pope Says, Si bonus Populus vult decipi, decipiatur. Washington however did not deceive them. I know not that they gave him more credit for disinterestedness, than he deserved, though they have not given many others so much. Continue reading

Yankee Doodle and The World Turned Upside Down

Something for the weekend.  Yankee Doodle, seems appropriate in the weekend before Washington’s Birthday.  Originally sung by British officers to disparage American troops who fought beside them in the French and Indian War, it was seized upon by Patriots, given endless lyrics, and cheered the patriot troops and civilians during the eight long years of the Revolution.  After Lexington and Concord it was reported by Massachusetts newspapers that the British were suddenly not as fond of the song:

“Upon their return to Boston [pursued by the Minutemen], one [Briton] asked his brother officer how he liked the tune now, — ‘Dang them,’ returned he, ‘they made us dance it till we were tired’ — since which Yankee Doodle sounds less sweet to their ears.”

At Yorktown when the British troops marched out in surrender, they looked at the French troops, doing their best to pretend that the American troops did not exist.  The Marquis de Lafayette, commanding the Continental Light Infantry Division, was outraged and ordered his bands to strike up Yankee Doodle.  Startled by the outburst of music the British turned and faced the Americans who had outlasted and defeated them in a very long War.  It was appropriate that the British bands were playing a popular ditty, The World Turned Upside Down. Continue reading

The Nation Makers

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American artist Howard Pyle did a series of paintings on the American Revolution in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.  Pyle had a striking style, combining both romanticism and realism in his paintings.  My favorite of the series is the above painting that depicts an American line of infantry advancing at the battle of Brandywine.  Led by their officer, the common soldiers are dressed in rags, but clearly determined and ready to fight.  A ragged American flag gives a splash of color as it towers over the men below it.  The light of the sun seems to be breaking through a cloudy sky.  The painting is brilliantly entitled The Nation Makers, reminding us that this nation came into being largely through the courage of private soldiers.  Most of them, if they survived and did not die of illness or in battle, would end the War poorer financially then they began it, being paid in worthless currency.  They fought their War usually wearing the ragged remnants of uniforms, often barefoot and living off wretched rations.  Many of them were teenagers, no doubt homesick and frequently worried that no one outside of their fellow soldiers really cared about the sacrifices they were making for the nation they were desperately attempting to bring about.  If they were lucky they left the Army without their health being broken by wounds, illness, or the endless privations they endured daily through the long years of the War. Continue reading

January 27, 1776: Henry Knox Delivers the Noble Train of Artillery to Washington

One of the interesting aspects of wars and revolutions is the unexpected talents and abilities that come to the fore in the most unlikely of individuals.  As that remarkable year 1775 was drawing to a close, General Washington, if he was to force the British  to leave Boston, needed a substantial artillery force, which he entirely lacked.   Twenty-five year old Colonel Henry Knox, a fat Boston book seller prior to the War, came up with the idea of transporting the artillery from newly captured Fort Ticonderoga in northern New York to the siege lines around Boston.  This was accomplished by Knox from December 5, 1775 to January 27, 1776, transporting sixty tons of artillery and ammunition, 59 cannon, mortars and howitzers, through wilderness in the dead of winter, a truly astounding feat. On December 17, 1775 Knox wrote to Washington:

I return’d to this place on the 15 & brought with me the Cannon being nearly the time I conjectur’d it would take us to transport them to here, It is not easy [to] conceive the difficulties we have had in getting them over the Lake owing to the advanc’d Season of the Year & contrary winds, but the danger is now past & three days ago it was very uncertain whether we could have gotten them untill next spring, but now please God they must go – I have had made forty two exceeding Strong Sleds & have provided eighty Yoke of oxen to drag them as far as Springfield where I shall get fresh Cattle to Carry them to Camp – the rout will be from here to Kinderhook from thence into Great Barrington Massachusetts Bay & down to Springfield There will scarcely be possibility of conveying them from here to Albany or Kinderhook but on sleds the roads being very much gullied, at present the sledding is tolerable to Saratoga about 26 miles; beyond that there is none – I have sent for the Sleds & teams to come here & expect to begin [to] move them to Saratoga on Wednesday or Thursday next trusting that between this & then we shall have a fine fall of snow which will enable us to proceed further & make the carriage easy – if that should be the case I hope in 16 or 17 days time to be able to present to your Excellency a noble train of artillery. Continue reading

Finished Peace, Unfinished Peace Portrait

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The negotiations that led to the Treaty of Paris which ended the Revolutionary War, were long, contentious and complicated, involving not merely the peace treaty between Great Britain and the United States, but also separate treaties between Great Britain and France, Spain and the Netherlands.  Benjamin Franklin, who led the American team, and who deserves the title of greatest American diplomat, made it clear from the outset that the United States would not make any peace with Great Britain without its ally France also coming to terms with Great Britain.  He also demanded Canada.  By such wily ploys, Franklin outthought the British negotiators at every turn, and quickly got them to concede American Independence in hopes that the Americans could prevail upon France to be reasonable in its demands.  Continue reading

Defeat at Quebec

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The year 1775 ended on a note of defeat for the Americans. Since December 6, 1776 the city had been under siege by the combined forces of General Richard Montgomery and Colonel Benedict Arnold. Twelve hundred Americans confronted 1800 British regulars and French Canadian militia.  The Americans realized that the British would eventually strongly reinforce Quebec by sea, and that a prolonged siege in the teeth of a Canadian winter would probably do far more harm to the besiegers than the besieged.

Thus before dawn on December 31, 1775, in the midst of a blizzard, the Americans began a two pronged assault on the lower town of Quebec, the plan being that the forces led by Montgomery and Arnold would meet in the lower town, and then scale the walls of the upper town. Continue reading

Washington Refuses to be Beaten

 

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Each year, as Christmas is approaching, I think of a Christmas long ago in 1776.  The year in which we declared our independence from Great Britain was a year of military disaster for the United States.  Washington and his troops had been beaten time after time, and as the end of the year approached the Revolution seemed to be dying.  The British controlled New York, the largest city in the colonies and the major port.  New Jersey had been conquered.  The Continental Congress was in flight from Philadelphia, in expectation that the British would next move on that city.  Washington’s army had been reduced to around 5,000 ill-clad and ill-fed poorly trained troops, vastly outnumbered by their British adversaries and their Hessian mercenaries, all well-trained, well equipped, well clad and well fed.  Most of the enlistments of Washington’s troops would be up by the end of the year, and few of them seemed likely to re-enlist.  Defeat seemed all but inevitable to all but Washington.  In this hour of doom, he rallied his troops and launched the Trenton-Princeton campaign, which restored the morale of his Army, liberated much of New Jersey, and put new heart into American patriots everywhere.  Washington had worked a military miracle.

The feat is all the more impressive, in that privately Washington was well-aware of the odds against him, and feared that defeat was probably likely.  We see that in two letters he wrote on December 10 and 17, 1776, to his nephew Lund Washington, who ran Mount Vernon in his absence:

Dear Lund:

    * * * * *

    I wish to Heaven it was in my power to give you a more favorable account of our situation than it is. Our numbers, quite inadequate to the task of opposing that part of the army under the command of General Howe, being reduced by sickness desertion, and political deaths (on or before the first instant, and having no assistance from the militia), were obliged to retire before the enemy, who were perfectly well informed of our situation, till we came to this place, where I have no idea of being able to make a stand, as my numbers, till joined by the Philadelphia militia, did not exceed three thousand men fit for duty. Now we may be about five thousand to oppose Howe’s whole army, that part of it excepted which sailed under the command of Gen. Clinton. I tremble for Philadelphia. Nothing, in my opinion, but Gen. Lee’s speedy arrival, who has been long expected, though still at a distance (with about three thousand men), can save it. We have brought over and destroyed all the boats we could lay our hands on upon the Jersey shore for many miles above and below this place; but it is next to impossible to guard a shore for sixty miles, with less than half the enemy’s numbers; when by force or strategem they may suddenly attempt a passage in many different places. At present they are encamped or quartered along the other shore above and below us (rather this place, for we are obliged to keep a face towards them) for fifteen miles. *** Continue reading

November 13, 1775: Montgomery takes Montreal

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Of all the former British officers who fought on the patriot side in the American Revolution, the most militarily talented was Richard Montgomery.  Born near Swords in County Dublin in 1738, he was a member of an Ulster Scots family notable for supplying officers to the British Army.  After studying at Trinity College he joined the 17th Foot in 1756, his father purchasing an ensign’s commission for him.  During the siege of Louisburg in 1758 his courage and initiative earned him promotion to Lieutenant.  In 1759 he participated in the siege of Fort Carillon and in 1760 was made adjutant of the regiment, a singular honor for an officer so young.  During subsequent fighting in the West Indies he was promoted to Captain.  After participating in the suppression of Pontiac’s Rebellion, Montgomery returned to Britain to recover his health, exhausted and ill from years of campaigning.

In Britain he became friends with Whig members of the British Parliament, including Edmund Burke and began to question British policies in America.  He sold his commission in 1772 for 1500 pounds, intent on retiring to America and becoming a gentleman farmer.

In America he married Janet Livingston, sister of future Founding Father Robert Livingston in 1773.  It was a love match marred by a dream in which Janet saw Montgomery being killed in a duel with his brother.  Montgomery responded stoically,  I have always told you that my happiness is not lasting…Let us enjoy it as long as we may and leave the rest to God.

Associated with a strong New York patriot family, additionally politically powerful, Montgomery gradually became a firm patriot, convince that the British government was acting tyrannically against the Americans.  On June 22, 1775 he was appointed a Brigadier General in the newly formed Continental Army and made deputy to Major General Philip Schuyler who commander the Continental forces in the north, charged with the invasion of, or, as the Americans saw it, the liberation of Canada.  Schuyler’s health failing him, Montgomery took command of the invasion force. Continue reading

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