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. (more…)

Published in: on November 13, 2019 at 5:30 am  Leave a Comment  
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September 23, 1779: John Paul Jones Begins to Fight

 

The future naval officers, who live within these walls, will find in the career of the man whose life we this day celebrate, not merely a subject for admiration and respect, but an object lesson to be taken into their innermost hearts. . . . Every officer . . . should feel in each fiber of his being an eager desire to emulate the energy, the professional capacity, the indomitable determination and dauntless scorn of death which marked John Paul Jones above all his fellows.

Theodore Roosevelt on John Paul Jones, Speech at Annapolis- April 24, 1906

 

 

 

The traditions of daring, courage and professional skill that have ever been the hallmark of our Navy were first established in the lopsided fight our seamen waged during the Revolution. No single engagement more typifies this than the battle in which Captain John Paul Jones, sailing in a manifestly inferior ship, USS BonHomme Richard, defeated HMS Serapis on September 23, 1779.  Here is the report of Jones on this memorable sea fight: (more…)

Published in: on September 23, 2019 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on September 23, 1779: John Paul Jones Begins to Fight  
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September 22, 1776: Nathan Hale’s Only Regret

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How beautiful is death, when earn’d by virtue!
Who would not be that youth? What pity is it
That we can die but once to serve our country.

Joseph Addison, Cato (1712)

 

Death at 21 is always a tragedy, but Nathan Hale’s heroic death 243 years ago today ensured him Earthly immortality.  A schoolmaster before the Revolution, he was a Captain in the 7th Connecticut when he volunteered to take on the immensely dangerous task of being a spy, at the request of General Washington, behind enemy lines in New York City.  He was soon captured by the British, perhaps betrayed by his Tory cousin Samuel Hale.  Interviewed by General Howe, his fate was a foregone conclusion:  spies were always to be executed.

The night before he died he requested a Bible and a member of the clergy.  Both requests were denied.  According to British officer Frederick MacKensie, who was present, Hale met his death with great fortitude:

He behaved with great composure and resolution, saying he thought it the duty of every good Officer, to obey any orders given him by his Commander-in-Chief; and desired the Spectators to be at all times prepared to meet death in whatever shape it might appear.

At the foot of the gallows, before he entered eternity, he uttered the comment that has ensured that his memory will be cherished as long as there is a United States of America.  British Captain John Montresor, who was present, told under a flag of truce to American Captain William Hull the next day:

“On the morning of his execution, my station was near the fatal spot, and I requested the Provost Marshal to permit the prisoner to sit in my marquee, while he was making the necessary preparations. Captain Hale entered: he was calm, and bore himself with gentle dignity, in the consciousness of rectitude and high intentions. He asked for writing materials, which I furnished him: he wrote two letters, one to his mother and one to a brother officer. He was shortly after summoned to the gallows. But a few persons were around him, yet his characteristic dying words were remembered. He said, “I only regret, that I have but one life to lose for my country.””

Then the light of the rising sun vanished before the eyes of Nathan Hale, but not, I trust, either  the light of the Grace of God or the light of the American Revolution.

Published in: on September 22, 2019 at 5:30 am  Comments (2)  
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The Swamp Fox

“[a]s for this damned old fox, the Devil himself could not catch him.”

British Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton after fruitlessly pursuing Marion twenty-five miles through swamps.

Something for the weekend.  The Swamp Fox theme song from the Disney television series, 1959-1961. very loosely based on the exploits of Francis Marion in the American Revolution.  The most successful partisan in American history, Francis Marion and his colleagues Thomas Sumter and Andrew Pickens, led bands of irregulars in South Carolina after the British took Charleston in 1780.  The diminutive Marion kept his men under tight control, and launched constant raids on the British. When regular Continental forces re-appeared in South Carolina, Marion gave invaluable assistance in the liberation of his home state.   Marion and General Nathaniel Greene, commander of the Continental troops in South Carolina frequently clashed as two strong willed men have a tendency to do, but he paid Marion this handsome tribute in a letter on April 24, 1781:

 

When I consider how much you have done and suffered, and under what disadvantage you have maintained your ground, I am at a loss which to admire most, your courage and fortitude, or your address and management…History affords no instance wherein an officer has kept possession of a Country under so many disadvantages as you have; surrounded on every side with a superior force…To fight the enemy bravely with a prospect of victory is nothing; but to fight with intrepidty under the constant impression of a defeat, and inspire irregular troops to do it, is a talent peculiar to yourself.

 

Published in: on August 17, 2019 at 10:08 am  Comments Off on The Swamp Fox  
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Penobscot Debacle

 

One of the great fiascos in American military history, the Penobscot Expedition of 1779 has faded into almost complete obscurity.

The British had long wished to form a new colony for displaced loyalists.  What is now the State of Maine seemed perfect for the proposed colony of New Ireland.  The forests of the new colony would supply ample naval stores for the Royal Navy, and due to its location it could also serve as a base for raids on New England.

In June of 1779 the British constructed Fort George on a small peninsula jutting into Penobscot Bay.  The garrison consisted of 700 regulars: 50 men of the Royal Artillery and Engineers, 450 of the 74th Regiment of (Highland) Foot and 200 of the 82nd (Duke of Hamilton’s) Regiment, all under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Francis McLean.

Massachusetts reacted promptly to this invasion of territory the Bay State claimed.  An expedition of 44 ships and 1000 troops, Continental Marines and Massachusetts militia, was rapidly gathered.  Lieutenant Colonel Paul Revere commanded the artillery.  The expedition arrived at Penobscot Bay on July 25, 1779.

On July 28, 1779 an assault by land was made against Fort George.  The Americans incurred casualties of approximately one hundred men but took the heights near the Fort.  The high casualties of this day seemed to dampen the enthusiasm of the leaders of the expedition.  Brigadier General Solomon Lovell contented himself with besieging the fort, while Commodore Dudley Saltonstall, who would be cashiered from the Continental Navy for his performance during this expedition,  refused to close with and destroy the small British fleet off Fort George, despite frequent requests from Lovell that this be done and for Saltonstall to bombard Fort George. (more…)

Published in: on July 12, 2019 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Penobscot Debacle  
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Go Betsy!

 

A skilled seamstress, Elizabeth “Betsy” Ross was noted for her beauty and her patriotism.  Twenty-three at the start of the Revolution, she would lose two husbands during the War, the second a mariner who died in a British jail.  It is little wonder that she was an ardent patriot.  She sewed not only flags, but tents, uniforms and blankets for the American forces.  She was the mother of six daughters, one by her second husband, and the remainder with her third.  Her descendants kept alive the family tradition that she sewed the first American flag.  There is no contemporary evidence for that, although she did know General Washington, and if she did not sew the first flag, it is clear that she was among the first seamstresses to sew American flags.  She outlived her third husband by nineteen years, dying at age 84 in Philadelphia in a free America.

Published in: on July 11, 2019 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Go Betsy!  
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The British Are Coming

 

 

Each year as the Fourth of July approaches my thoughts turn to the American Revolution.  What a truly remarkable struggle it was, a turning point in the affairs of Man we are still too close to in time to truly fathom.  I just began reading Rick Atkinson’s The British Are Coming, the first volume in his trilogy on the Revolution and I am bowled over by it.   Atkinson achieved notoriety with his Liberation trilogy, looking at the US Army in North Africa and Europe in World War II and it was quite good.  However, I was unprepared for the level of historical insight I am finding in his latest work.  I have read over the years hundreds of books on the American Revolution and I thought that I had little to learn about that conflict, but Mr. Atkinson is showing me that I was in error.  An example is at the beginning where he skillfully, and concisely, lays forth the preparations that the British government was making for war in the winter of 1774-1775.  Now I knew these facts, but seeing them laid out as he does brings home how inevitable Lexington and Concord were.  The British government had decided that military force was going to be needed to bring the American colonies to heel, and once that decision was made war was inevitable.

In his majestic give me liberty or give me death speech of March 23, 1775 Patrick Henry made a statement that has seemed to future generations prophetic:

It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!

However, based upon the preparations of  the British Crown for war against its own subjects, Patrick Henry was merely stating what any intelligent observer in America in early 1775 would have realized: war was coming, and very, very soon.

And that is the great strength of Atkinson’s work.  He rescues the Revolution from antiquarian study, and makes the readers see it as contemporaries saw it who lived through those grand and awful days.

The writing is in the grand style, mercifully free from the cant of the contemporary academy that makes so many current historical works almost unreadable.  A sample:

“The second consequence was epochal and enduring:  the creation of the American Republic.  Surely among mankind’s most remarkable achievements, this majestic construct also inspired a creation myth that sometimes resembled a garish cartoon,  a melodramatic tale of doughty yeomen resisting moronic, brutal lobsterbacks.  The civil war that unspooled over those eight years would be both more grander and more nuanced, a tale of heroes and knaves, of sacrifice and blunder, of redemption and profound suffering.  Beyond the battlefield, then and forever, stood a shining city on a hill.”

That passage can stand in quality of expression on America’s founding with this passage by Stephen Vincent Benet in his The Devil and Daniel Webster:

And he began with the simple things that everybody’s known and felt–the freshness of a fine morning when you’re young, and the taste of food when you’re hungry, and the new day that’s every day when you’re a child. He took them up and he turned them in his hands. They were good things for any man. But without freedom, they sickened. And when he talked of those enslaved, and the sorrows of slavery, his voice got like a big bell. He talked of the early days of America and the men who had made those days. It wasn’t a spread-eagle speech, but he made you see it. He admitted all the wrong that had ever been done. But he showed how, out of the wrong and the right, the suffering and the starvations, something new had come. And everybody had played a part in it, even the traitors.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough.  Get it and read it cover to cover.  You will thank me.

Published in: on June 24, 2019 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on The British Are Coming  
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“Something Charming in the Sound”

 

“I heard the bullets whistle, and, believe me, there is something charming in the sound.”

George Washington, letter to his brother May 31, 1754, telling him about his victory at the battle of Jumonville.   What might have been mere bragging by virtually any other man, was not the case with the Father of our Country.  As far as we can judge from outward evidence, Washington was absolutely fearless.  Time after time in the French and Indian War and in the American Revolution,  he exposed himself to enemy fire.  At Braddock’s Defeat in 1755 Washington had two horses shot out from beneath him, and four enemy musket balls were lodged in his clothes by the end of the fight.  Washington believed that he could not be an effective leader unless he led from the front, and that is precisely what he did, often to the distress of his aides.  His only emotional reaction to being under enemy fire was apparently complete contempt for the fire of the enemy.  Men who observed him often wrote that they were amazed that anyone could be as fearless as he was. (more…)

Published in: on May 31, 2019 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on “Something Charming in the Sound”  
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May 8, 1815: Murder of David Ramsay

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Forgotten today, Ramsay was famous in his time as one of the first major historians of the American Revolution.  During the Revolution he served in the South Carolina legislature and as a field surgeon with the South Carolina militia, being imprisoned by the British for a year after the fall of Charleston.  In 1785 he published a two volume History of the Revolution in South Carolina, in 1789 a two volume History of the American Revolution, in 1807 a Life of Washington, and, posthumously, in 1816-1817 a three volume History of the United States.  All during his literary career, and I have noted only his major works, Ramsay maintained a large practice in Charleston as a physician.  Appointed by the court to examine the sanity of William Linnen, a tailor after Linnen attempted to kill his attorney.  Ramsay reported to the court that Linnen was mad.

After Linnen’s release he sought revenge and ambushed Ramsay, shooting him in the back and the hip.  Carried to his house, before he died Ramsay made the following statement:  ‘I know not if these wounds be mortal; I am not afraid to die; but should that be my fate, I call on all here present to bear witness, that I consider the unfortunate perpetrator of this deed a lunatic, and free from guilt.'”

Published in: on May 8, 2019 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on May 8, 1815: Murder of David Ramsay  
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George Washington Celebrates Saint Patrick’s Day

 

Throughout his life George Washington had a great deal of sympathy for the struggles of the Irish against their English rulers, seeing in those struggles a mirror for the American fight for independence.  Irish immigrants to America, Protestant and Catholic, were enthusiastic in their embrace of the American cause, and during the Revolutionary War many of the soldiers who served in the Continental Army were Irish or of Irish descent.  Therefore when General Washington heard in March 1780 that the Irish Parliament had passed free trade legislation, he issued the following general order to the Army on March 16, 1780:

The general congratulates the army on the very interesting proceedings of the parliament of Ireland and the inhabitants of that country which have been lately communicated;  not only as they appear calculated to remove those heavy and tyrannical oppressions on their trade but to restore to a brave and generous people their ancient rights and freedom and by their operations to promote the cause of America. (more…)

Published in: on March 17, 2019 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on George Washington Celebrates Saint Patrick’s Day  
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