April 19, 1775 – Battles of Lexington and Concord Kick Off the American Revolution & Review of “The British Are Coming” by Rick Atkinson

The poem “Concord Hymn” by Ralph Waldo Emerson paid tribute to the famous Battles of Lexington and Concord, the first official military engagements between Britain and the colonies in the American Revolutionary War (1775-83). Tensions had been building for many years between residents of the thirteen American colonies and the British authorities, particularly in Massachusetts. Emerson’s poem describes “the shot heard round the world” fired by Patriots at the North Bridge in what is now Charlestown, in northwestern Boston, Massachusetts.

Rick Atkinson, in his first magisterial volume of the planned “Revolution” trilogy, The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777, describes just how those tensions developed and the early years of the war. In his Prologue, while summarizing the events that led to the Revolution, Atkinson writes:

“The odds were heavily stacked against the Americans: no colonial rebellion had ever succeeded in casting off imperial shackles. But, as Voltaire had observed, history is filled with the sound of silken slippers going downstairs and wooden shoes coming up.”

The results of the 3,059 days of the American Revolution were “tectonic,” Atkinson avers. The first was the reduction of the British Empire by about one-third. [Ironically, one rationale for the British wanting to suppress the American rebellion was preservation of the empire, fearing it would encourage insurrections in other British colonies.] The second was “epochal and enduring: the creation of the American republic.” Unlike the creation myths about America, the war, Atkinson argues, was “both grander and more nuanced, a tale of heroes and knaves, of sacrifice and blunder, of redemption and profound suffering.”

He then goes into a great deal of detail about the early years of the Revolution, especially about the personalities involved in the conflict.

He describes the patriots as “disputatious and litigious, given to violence on the frontier and in the street: a gentle people they were not.” Furthermore, they were accustomed to tending to their own affairs, and resented the arrival of the British in Massachusetts who intended, per orders of the king, to enforce obedience to the laws. As Atkinson notes however, all the talk of freedom by whites in America and outrage over what they viewed as an encroachment on freedom was accompanied by a robust slave trade in blacks and Native Americans.

Much like current times, Americans in the 1770s were anxious about the future, nostalgic for the past, and angry about the present. The leadership in Britain had many misconceptions about these colonists. Most portentously, Britain was convinced resistance was largely confined to Boston, with the American colonies too scattered and diverse for effective collaboration. Therefore, it was assumed, the Regulars would make short work of the problem, and respect for British authority would be reestablished.

Britain’s military commander in chief in America, Lieutenant General Thomas Gage, sent warnings to London about the “wild and ungovernable” Americans, and pleaded for conciliatory measures, but he was derided as an “old woman.” The Americans, meanwhile, knew nothing of Gage’s attempts to improve their situation. On the contrary, he was seen as the face of Britain, and Gage effigies were burned in bonfires, while effigies of British soldiers were hung by nooses from roadside trees.

Portrait of Thomas Gage by John Singleton Copley, c. 1768

Although some of the British army and navy regulars were eager to wreak “chastisement” on the “villainous” Americans, most were bored, apt to be continually drunk on the cheap and plentiful rum, and inclined to desertion. In fact, the navy desertion rate was so high, particularly in Boston, that ships started to remain at anchor rather than risk mass defections on land.

There was also a good deal of friction between Patriots and Loyalists, or Tories. (Recent scholarship has estimated that roughly 20 percent of the 2 million white Americans in the Colonies during the Revolution remained loyal to the Crown.) The antagonism became so intense that the Tories felt need for protection, for good reason. The Patriots terrorized the Loyalists, with Anglican churches and clergymen singled out for even more abuse, because they prayed for the British king. Churches were smashed and priests tarred and feathered or covered with excrement. Extralegal Patriot “committees of safety” policed members of their own towns, encouraging neighbor to turn against neighbor, and not discouraging vigilante and/or mob violence.

Separate colonial governments made preparations for a possible war, even as the authorities did back in London. The Provincial Congress also took measures in anticipation of armed conflict, including the establishment of a courier system.

When the fighting finally began, Atkinson describes it poetically:

“Now the Lexington bell began to clang in the wooden tower, hard by the meetinghouse. More gallopers rode off to rouse half a hundred villages. Warning gunshots echoed from farm to farm. Bonfires flared. Drums beat. Across the colony, in an image that would endure for centuries, solemn men grabbed their firelocks and stalked off in search of danger, leaving the plow in the furrow, the hoe in the garden, the hammer on the anvil, the bucket at the well sweep. This day would be famous before it dawned.”

Battle of Lexington and Concord 1775

Atkinson brought me to tears with that passage. Not only is it one of many beautifully written and evocative descriptions of the founding of the country, but it reminds the reader of all that was at stake, with the fight to establish a democracy rather than an autocracy, a fight that may yet be lost some 240 years later.

The rest of the story proceeds in a similar vein. Atkinson has done meticulous research, and he is a consummate storyteller. I sat on the edge of my chair during many of the battle descriptions, even though I knew their outcomes quite well.

And as for that “shot heard round the world”? Atkinson tells us that scholars have calculated that at least seventy-five thousand American rounds were fired in the opening battles, but only one bullet in almost three hundred found its mark. As he wryly notes: “The shot heard round the world likely missed.”

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Henry Holt and Company, 2019

November 9, 1733 – Birth of Philip Schuyler, American General in the Revolutionary War

Philip John Schuyler, born on this day in history (according to the old style calendar) into a prosperous family was an American general in the Revolutionary War and a US Senator from New York.

Schuyler fought in the French and Indian War. He won election to the New York General Assembly in 1768 and to the Continental Congress in 1775. He planned the Continental Army’s 1775 invasion of Quebec, but poor health forced him to delegate command of the invasion to Richard Montgomery. He prepared the Continental Army’s defense of the 1777 Saratoga campaign, but was replaced by General Horatio Gates as the commander of Continental forces in the theater. Schuyler resigned from the Continental Army in 1779.

Philip John Schuyler

After the war, Schuyler expanded his Saratoga estate (he also had a mansion in Albany) to tens of thousands of acres, adding slaves, tenant farmers, a store, mills for flour, flax, and lumber. According to the Schuyler Mansion Historic Society, there were around 40 slaves between the Albany and Saratoga estates. The Historic Society also notes:

A life-long slaveholder who had just left the NY senate to resume his seat in the US senate, Philip Schuyler had little interest in abolition outside of the political capital to be gained as more and more politicians embraced the idea (in theory if not in their daily lives). Schuyler’s concern was to ensure that the slaveholding families of the state be as little discomfited as possible by the process. Even at the time of his death in November of 1804, at least seven people, including three children, still labored in slavery at his estate in Albany. 

While these individuals were freed shortly after his death, this was entirely at the discretion of the executors of the estate, as no provision was made for their manumission in Philip’s will. As of December 18th, 1804, the last people to be enslaved at the Schuylers mansion in Albany were free or had been transferred to the estates of other family members, possibly including that of the youngest son of the Schuyler family, Rensselaer.”

Schuyler served in the New York State Senate for most of the 1780s and supported the ratification of the United States Constitution. He represented New York in the 1st United States Congress but lost his state’s 1791 Senate election to Aaron Burr. After a period in the state senate, he won election to the United States Senate again in 1797, affiliating with the Federalist Party. He resigned due to poor health the following year.

In recent times, he has gained renown as the father of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton and the father-in-law of Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton.

January 16, 1781 – Significant American Revolution Victory at Cowpens in South Carolina

Cowpens has been called one of the most significant victories in American military history.

As historian Jim Stempel writes:

That morning British Lt. Colonel Banastre Tarleton, hand-picked by General Charles Cornwallis, was opposed by American Daniel Morgan, a rough and tumble son of the frontier. On ground in South Carolina known as the Cowpens, Morgan employed a psychological ploy and tactical scheme so brilliantly conceived and masterfully executed that within an hour the British found themselves overwhelmed, enveloped, and routed from the field. It was an engagement that had significant repercussions. Morgan’s stunning victory ended a two year Revolutionary impasse, rekindled hope throughout the colonies, and put Cornwallis on a reckless path that would end with his surrender at Yorktown, thus catapulting the infant United States to independence.”

The morning of the battle, Morgan was trying to elude a British trap. Scouts informed him that Banastre Tarleton had crossed the Pacolet River, six miles south, and was coming up fast. This put Morgan in a precarious position. If he crossed the Broad River six miles away, most of his militia would probably desert him. If Tarleton caught the Americans on the road or astride the river, they could all be cut down. Morgan chose to stand and fight, and the terrain at the Cowpens, on the road to a ford across the Broad River, offered him some advantages.

Daniel Morgan

As Stempel describes the battle, Morgan decided to deploy his troops in three lines: first a skirmish line, second a strong line of militia partially obscured by a swale, and third a line of Continentals and veteran Virginians:

He asked the skirmishers to fire two or three shots then retire to the militia line behind them. Likewise, the militia was asked to do the same then withdraw to the line of Continentals, where the entire force would make a final stand, the militia now shielded by the Continentals’ bayonets.”

Tarleton fell right into Morgan’s trap. Both the skirmish and militia lines were able to wreak havoc on the British assault. Next, the entire American line withdrew, but at the last moment, turned around and unleashed a murderous volley into the faces of the pursuing Redcoats. Then, with the command of “Charge bayonets!,” the Americans surged out and over the stunned British. In short order, Stempel observes, “the Redcoats were enveloped, surrounded, and utterly defeated.”

Daniel Morgan, then 45, was already legendary for bravery. The National Park Service (NPS) reported that in 1756, while serving as a teamster in the British Army, he struck a British officer and was sentenced to 500 lashes with a cat-o’-nine tails. He not only survived, but later claimed that the British still owed him one lash.

When the Revolutionary War began, Morgan led a unit of Virginia sharpshooters to Boston where they joined the Continental Army. He was captured and exchanged and came back into service with another unit of Virginia sharpshooters. He took a brief leave of absence for illness, but rejoined the army yet again in September 1780. Promoted to brigadier general, he was sent by Major General Nathanael Greene into western South Carolina to operate as a “flying army” harassing the British left flank and rear.

Major General Charles Cornwallis sent Banastre Tarleton to remove the threat that Morgan created. Tarleton, 26, who had purchased his commission in the British Army, had a reputation for being ruthless, and was widely hated in South Carolina for his butchery of Continentals, even those who had surrendered.

“Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton” by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Morgan knew he would be outnumbered by Tarleton’s forces, so good strategy was of paramount importance. He did not disappoint. The battle was over in a hour. British losses were staggering: 190 dead, more than 200 wounded, and nearly 600 captured. Morgan’s losses, by comparison, were 24 killed and 104 wounded. Morgan later told a friend he had given Tarleton and the British a “devil of a whipping.”

Sir Henry Clinton later wrote that Morgan’s victory was “the first link of a chain of events that followed each other in regular succession until they at last ended in the total loss of America.”

Statue of General Morgan erected in 1881 in Spartanburg, South Carolina

A number of counties in America were named in Morgan’s honor, and The Daniel Morgan Graduate School of National Security in Washington, D.C., established in 2014, was named after Morgan because of his brilliant use of strategy and intelligence during the American Revolution.

September 24, 1780 – American General Benedict Arnold Defected to the British Army during the American Revolution

Benedict Arnold was a valued member of the Continental Army during the American Revolution. Because of his successful leadership in the American victories at the Battles of Fort Ticonderoga and Saratoga, he was given command of West Point, New York, a fort that became the site of the future United States Military Academy.

Nathaniel Philbrick, in Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution writes that Arnold was “an immensely charismatic presence on the battlefield.” He also observes that “there were few officers in either the American or the British Army who possessed his talent of almost instantly assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the enemy.”

Nevertheless, Arnold was also, as Philbrick asserts, prickly, vain, overly sensitive to a slight, difficult to work with, and did not suffer fools well. As it happened, the Revolutionary Army was full of such fools, especially because Congress awarded military responsibility on the basis of political considerations rather than merit.

Benedict Arnold in 1776.  Brown University/Wikimedia Commons

Benedict Arnold in 1776. Brown University/Wikimedia Commons

Thus a coterie of jealous and mediocre rivals were promoted over Arnold’s head. Philbrick emphasizes that Arnold was not the only one to receive this ill treatment at the hands of Congress and rivals, but Arnold’s case stood out for the contrast between his obvious worth, the vehemence of the insults delivered to him and his status, and perhaps Arnold’s lack of ability to let these insults roll off his back (although it’s hard to imagine anyone having such an ability). Arnold’s enemies attacked Arnold’s honesty and character, and attributed his battlefield successes to others (such as the rather pusillanimous but popular Horatio Gates).  As Philbrick tells the story, it’s a wonder even more soldiers did not defect.

In particular, Arnold was defamed by Joseph Reed, who was perhaps the Joseph McCarthy of his day. Elected in 1779 to be President of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania, Reed was known in particular for his hatred of Pennsylvania’s Loyalist residents, and he instigated a number of trials of suspected Loyalists. To make matters worse, Arnold was named the military governor of Philadelphia by George Washington (a huge slight in Reed’s opinion). Reed yearned to be accepted by Philadelphia society, and now Arnold had a great deal of cachet.

Joseph Reed, Governor of Pennsylvania, 1778-1781. Credit: Courtesy of Capitol Preservation Committee, http://cpc.state.pa.us and John Rudy Photography

Joseph Reed, Governor of Pennsylvania, 1778-1781. Credit: Courtesy of Capitol Preservation Committee, http://cpc.state.pa.us and John Rudy Photography

But Arnold snubbed Reed, after which Reed instituted a smear campaign against Arnold based mostly on rumors. Historian James Kirby Martin, author of Benedict Arnold, Revolutionary Hero: An American Warrior Reconsidered notes that “determined to get Benedict Arnold, Reed trumped up several charges against him that attacked Arnold’s honesty, character, and reputation.” 

Arnold was eventually court-martialed for the charges brought by Reed. He was acquitted of all charges except two very minor ones: allowing a vessel to clear port in Philadelphia when the port was closed (Arnold had an investment in the vessel and the trade goods it was carrying), and using public wagons to move trade goods belonging to him.  (Arnold had paid for their use.)

Meanwhile, Congress had cast a medal to Horatio Gates as the alleged “hero of Saratoga” when Arnold had actually provided the field leadership in both battles leading the Americans to victory.  Arnold was furious.

Unhappy with his treatment, Arnold began coded communication with British leaders to hand over West Point. When this plot was uncovered, Arnold fled to safety behind enemy lines, narrowly escaping American troops led by General George Washington.

Dr. Martin writes:

‘Treason of the blackest dye’ was the message spread far and wide by George Washington and other leaders in the Continental Army.  Benedict Arnold would be denounced at every turn, mostly as a money grubbing agent of Satan himself.  There would be parades in some communities, such as Philadelphia, devoted to renouncing any value in or contributions to the cause by Arnold (this did take some active rewriting of the actual historical record).”

Eventually, Arnold and his wife sailed for England.

Today, the name “Benedict Arnold” is often used as a synonym for “traitor” or “treason.”
 

September 5, 1781 – Battle of the Chesapeake & Review of “In the Hurricane’s Eye” by Nathaniel Philbrick

Nathaniel Philbrick delivers yet another different perspective on the American Revolution in a very entertaining and readable manner.

When most Americans think of the Revolutionary War, they think of George Washington and his troops slogging through the snow or over the frozen Hudson River to defeat the British in land battles. Philbrick argues that it was a naval battle in which Washington was not even involved that enabled the Americans to prevail against Cornwallis at Yorktown.

By 1781, Philbrick informs us, the Revolutionary Army was on the verge of collapse. The soldiers were starving, underfunded, and mutinous. Washington wrote his former aide-de-camp, “We are at the end of our tether and … now or never our deliverance must come.” Thus, Philbrick claims, the Battle of the Chesapeake between the British and the French navies (the French acting on the side of the Americans) was one of the most important naval engagements in the history of the world. The reason is that the defeat of a British fleet by a French fleet enabled the Revolutionary Army to prevail on land. The French in turn were aided by the Spanish in Cuba, thanks to a Spanish government envoy and “fixer” in Cuba named Francisco Saavedra de Sangrois, who obtained money both to sustain the French fleet and to pay Washington’s mutinous soldiers. Philbrick writes:

“…it cannot be denied that the Spanish residents of Cuba provided what one commentator has called, ‘the bottom dollars upon which the edifice of American independence was raised.’”

But it might have been the weather that played the largest role. Three large hurricanes in 1780 ripped through the Caribbean, sending the French fleet up north at the Chesapeake to ride out the 1781 hurricane season. This move proved pivotal for both sides in the war.

George Washington

As Philbrick observes, France joined the War not so much out of a desire to aid America but to strike a blow against Great Britain. But France could have easily chosen to challenge Great Britain in Europe by sending warships into the Channel between the two countries, and Britain would have had to divert military resources from its fight in America. However, it was the islands of the Caribbean that attracted the fleets of both France and England. The “sugar islands” of the Caribbean accounted for more than a third of France’s overseas trade. Britain too saw these islands as a priority. Philbrick writes:

“…when the war for American independence broke out, Britain’s possessions in the Caribbean were worth much more to her than all thirteen of her colonies in North America.”

Thus both countries were concentrating on the Caribbean; Britain had 33 percent of her total navy in that area compared to just 9 percent in the coastal waters of North America.

By the fall of 1780, Philbrick writes, “it seemed as if France’s preoccupation wit the Caribbean might prevent a significant-sized fleet from ever making its way to the shores of the United States to aid the Continental army.”

Then, amazingly enough, not one, but three huge hurricanes hit the Caribbean. These were some of the deadliest hurricanes in recorded history, with one estimate putting the total death count at 22,000 just from the second hurricane alone. (The hurricanes hit on October 3, October 10, and October 18.) Both the English and French took their surviving ships and fled the area, heading north.

Estimated Tracks of October 1780 Hurricanes
(After David M. Ludlum, Early American Hurricanes 1492-1870, 1963)

They had a fateful meeting in the Chesapeake Bay on September 5, 1781, in an exciting battle that changed everything for the combatants on land. Philbrick shows how the defeat of the British navy in the Chesapeake led inexorably to the surrender of British General Charles Cornwallis to George Washington in Yorktown, Virginia on October 19, 1781.

Discussion: Philbrick is great at describing the intricacies of battles both on sea and land without being ponderous; on the contrary, he is consistently interesting, and explains every aspect of what occurred in a way not only to educate the reader but in a manner highlighting the most fascinating aspects of the battles. For example:

  • Benjamin Franklin wrote about the significance of the Gulf Stream and where to find it, but the British refused to pay attention to “simple American fishermen” and ignored what he had to say. Thus their trips back and forth across the Atlantic took longer than necessary;
  • Just a single typical battleship at that time, called “the 74” (because the ship had 74 cannons arranged on two decks), took 2,000 oak trees to make, or fifty-seven acres of forest;
  • The best way to destroy those wooden ships? “Hotshot” – or cannonballs heated in a furnace until they were red-hot and could start fires;
  • British ships had bottoms sheathed in plates of copper, which gave them a significant speed advantage;
  • The British fired low, to inflict more casualties, but the French fired high to disable the ships, which proved to be a more efficacious tactic;
  • Washington, who knew much of his mail was being intercepted and the contents reported to Britain, regularly wrote misinformation, as we might say today, to keep his actual plans a secret;
  • England also received misinformation about the course of the war from its own people, because the British generals over in America wanted to make themselves look better than they were;
  • Benedict Arnold’s treason and bad behavior continued to motivate the Patriot Army throughout the War to avenge those he had betrayed;
  • During the Siege of Yorktown, there were more than 6,000 British and German soldiers, along with thousands of escaped slaves, cooped up in a space just 500 yards wide and 1200 yards long;
  • No portion of the U.S. suffered more deaths in the War of Independence than New York.

Storming of a redoubt at Yorktown, via U. S. Army Center of Mlitary History

Philbrick also describes the power struggles between the French and the Americans, and how deftly Washington tried to assuage the sensibilities of the French, even while he was often furious at them. Power struggles within each army affected the fate of the armies as well, as did weaknesses for luxury and gambling, and even health issues, which came to play a major role.

The book ends with an Epilogue that reminded me of the end of the movie “American Graffiti.” Philbrick devotes a few paragraphs to each of the major players in this history, telling what happened to them after the American Revolution was over.

Evaluation: Philbrick does an excellent job of making history exciting. He also provides welcome explanations of necessary nautical details that add to the color and atmosphere of the story, such as the ways in which naval battles are fought, and how ships were constructed at the time. So much of military history is devoted to armies on land; this engrossing book helps balance that coverage.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2018

July 4, 1776 – The Declaration of Independence is Adopted by the American Colonies

The Fourth of July commemoriates the 1776 adoption by the American colonies of the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain.

uc06330

Although many students learn that this is the great document that proclaimed the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all, the reality is more complicated.

Thomas Jefferson, who penned the document, meant this right to apply to white property-holding men. It was a document understood by all at the time to exclude women, children, slaves, blacks, and other “inferior” groups.

As Stephen Douglas, when debating Abraham Lincoln, argued in 1858:

“When Thomas Jefferson wrote that document, he was the owner, and so continued until his death, of a large number of slaves. Did he intend to say in that Declaration that his negro slaves, which he held and treated as property, were created his equals by divine law, and that he was violating the law of God every day of his life by holding them as slaves? It must be borne in mind that when that Declaration was put forth, every one of the thirteen colonies were slaveholding colonies, and every man who signed that instrument represented a slaveholding constituency. Recollect, also, that no one of them emancipated his slaves, much less put them on an equality with himself, after he signed the Declaration. On the contrary, they all continued to hold their negroes as slaves during the Revolutionary War. Now, do you believe—are you willing to have it said—that every man who signed the Declaration of Independence declared the negro his equal, and then was hypocrite enough to continue to hold him as a slave in violation of what he believed to be the divine law?”

(Stephen Douglas, speaking at Galesburg, IL, October 7, 1858)

Abraham Lincoln, on the other hand, contended that the Founders “meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence. …” In other words, the purpose of law is to establish normative standards, and act as a bridge, from that which is, to that which ought to be. This philosophy was reified in the Declaration of Independence.

Lincoln’s brilliant co-optation of the words used by the Founders – his insistence that this country live up to the words that comprise the compact agreed to in 1787, was a stroke of lawyerly genius that could not be gainsaid by the South. Henry L. Gates, Jr., writing in Lincoln on Race and Slavery, opined that this re-interpretation was “the most radical thing that Abraham Lincoln did.”

Today, most Americans believe in the elevated meaning that Lincoln gave to the Declaration. As Lincoln said in Peoria in 1854, if we re-adopt the Declaration along with practices and policies that harmonize with the plain meaning of the words set forth in the document,. … “If we do this, we shall not only have saved the Union; but we shall have so saved it, as to make, and to keep it, forever worthy of the saving. We shall have so saved it, that the succeeding millions of free happy people, the world over, shall rise up, and call us blessed, to the latest generations.

lincoln_1860_large

Now on the Fourth of July, the document we celebrate is the one written by Jefferson, but translated by Lincoln, and thus is truly a document that guarantees life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all human beings in the United States. We still struggle with putting its fine intentions into practice, but the blueprint it outlines is one of which the country can be proud.

June 11, 1774 – Revolutionary Protest by Maryland Patriots at the Hungerford Tavern

Hungerford Tavern in Rockville, Maryland (just north of Washington, D.C.) was constructed in 1750 and named after one of the early owners, Charles Hungerford. The inn had a convenient location on the road between what at the time were two of Maryland’s main population centers: Georgetown and Frederick. The WETA history blog reports that a number of Founding Fathers came to stay and/or eat there, including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry. The Washington Post adds that the Marquis de Lafayette supposedly stayed there, as did President Andrew Jackson and Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Carol Stuart Watson ©

On June 11, 1774, this day in history, the tavern hosted a meeting of Marylanders to discuss Britain’s new taxes and Britain’s punitive actions against Boston, Massachusetts subsequent to the “Boston Tea Party,” such as closing the Boston Harbor.

The discussion resulted in five declarative statements known as the Hungerford Resolves, which were printed in the Maryland Gazette. They included a boycott of goods from Great Britain and the West Indies until Parliament repealed the closing of the harbor and “the right of taxation given upon permanent principles.”

You can read all of the Resolves here.

The Washington Post notes that the exact location of the Hungerford Tavern is not known today: “Most people think it stood at South Jefferson and Washington streets, but archaeological work there hasn’t provided the expected results: not enough broken wine bottles and clay pipes.” The structure that probably was the tavern — and that by the early 20th century was called Russell House — was demolished in 1913 to make way for a Baptist church and parsonage.

April 16, 1779 – Casimir Pulaski, “Father of the American Cavalry,” Arrived in Williamsburg, Virginia

Casimir Pulaski, born in Warsaw in 1745, was a Polish nobleman, soldier and military commander who has been called, together with his Hungarian friend Michael Kovats de Fabriczy, “the father of the American cavalry.”

Pulaski was one of the leading military commanders fighting against Russian domination of Poland; when the uprising failed, he was driven into exile. As the Polish American Center recounts:

. . . .he traveled to Paris where he met Benjamin Franklin, who induced him to support the colonies against England in the American Revolution. Pulaski, impressed with the ideals of a new nation struggling to be free, volunteered his services. Franklin wrote to George Washington describing the young Pole as ‘an officer renowned throughout Europe for the courage and bravery he displayed in defense of his country’s freedom.’”

Casimir Pulaski

He proceeded to distinguish himself throughout the American Revolution, and became a general in the Continental Army. In 1778, through George Washington’s intervention, Congress approved the establishment of the Cavalry and put Pulaski at its head. Pulaski trained his men in the cavalry tactics he had learned fighting in Poland, often using his own finances for equipment.

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation reported that on this day in history, “Count Pulaski, with his retinue, etc.” arrived on their way south.

In December 1778, the British captured the City of Savannah. Washington sent Pulaski and his cavalry unit, known as the Pulaski Legion, to help liberate Savannah from British occupation. Joining the Continental Southern Army in 1779, the Pulaski Legion traveled with General Benjamin Lincoln to retake Savannah. During a cavalry charge on October 9, 1779, Pulaski, only 34, was mortally wounded by grapeshot.

(The grapeshot that killed Casimir Pulaski, mounted on silver candlestick, can be seen at the Georgia Historical Society. It is engraved “Grapeshot which mortally wounded Count Casimir Pulaski, Oct. 9, 1779, extracted from his body by Dr. James Lynah, ancestor of the present owner, James Lynah, Esq.”)

The United States has long commemorated Pulaski’s contributions to the American Revolutionary War. In 1929, Congress passed a resolution recognizing October 11 of each year as “General Pulaski Memorial Day,” with a large parade held annually on Fifth Avenue in New York City. Separately, a Casimir Pulaski Day is celebrated in Chicago and some other cities with large Polish populations on the first Monday of each March.

Congress passed a joint resolution conferring honorary U.S. citizenship on Pulaski in 2009, and President Obama signed it on November 6, 2009, making Pulaski the seventh person so honored. (One additional person was thusly honored in 2014, making the total eight. You can see who they are here.)

Note: New evidence from studies of Pulaski’s remains suggests the “father” of the American cavalry may in fact have been biologically female. You can read more about it here.

March 22, 1765 – British Parliament Passes the Stamp Act, Imposing a New Tax on American Colonies

In the late 1700’s, Britain made the unfortunate mistake of not only trying to police the American colonists against their worser angels, but also assessing them taxes for the effort. The fact was that Britain had a lot of expenses and irritations associated with her American colonies.

In order to secure the northern border of America, Britain, joined by colonials, had fought the French and Indian War (1756-63) and procured Canada from the French, but it was a costly campaign. Moreover, after the war, the British permitted the French “Papists” to retain their property, thus “cheating” the Americans of the rich plunder anticipated at war’s end.

Map showing British territorial gains following the Treaty of Paris in pink, and Spanish territorial gains after the Treaty of Fontainebleau in yellow

Afterwards, Britain attempted to enforce compliance with treaties made with Native Americans by stationing troops in North America, and they forbade colonists from moving west of the Appalachians. This latter policy in particular was anathema to the Americans, who, long before their policy was articulated by the phrase “manifest destiny,” decided that they, not the Indians, were the superior race and therefore deserved the riches that lay to the west.

To help pay for the troops, the Stamp Act was passed by the British Parliament on this day in history, March 22, 1765. The Stamp Act was the first internal tax levied directly on American colonists by the British government. The British Empire was deep in debt from the French and Indian War. Since the war benefited the American colonists as much as anyone else in the British Empire, the British government decided it was only fair for those colonists to shoulder part of the war’s cost.

Proof sheet of one-penny stamps submitted for approval to Commissioners of Stamps by engraver. 10 May 1765.

The British not only needed money to support the large force stationed in North America. In addition, as some historians have pointed out, demobilizing the army would have put 1,500 officers out of work, many of whom were well-connected in Parliament. This made it politically prudent to retain a large peacetime establishment, and preferably not at home. Or as John Adams complained later in a letter of June 17, 1768, Britain demands revenue from America, “appropriated to the maintenance of swarms of Officers and Pensioners in idleness and luxury, whose example has a tendency to corrupt our morals, and whose arbitrary dispositions will trample on our rights.”

The new tax was imposed on all American colonists and required them to pay a fee for every piece of printed paper they used. Ship’s papers, legal documents, licenses, newspapers, other publications, and even playing cards were taxed.

As the website of Colonial Williamsburg reports:

The actual cost of the Stamp Act was relatively small. What made the law so offensive to the colonists was not so much its immediate cost but the standard it seemed to set. In the past, taxes and duties on colonial trade had always been viewed as measures to regulate commerce, not to raise money. The Stamp Act, however, was viewed as a direct attempt by England to raise money in the colonies without the approval of the colonial legislatures. If this new tax were allowed to pass without resistance, the colonists reasoned, the door would be open for far more troublesome taxation in the future.”

In sum, the American colonists, who paid less taxes overall than did citizens in the British homeland, objected mightily to the uses to which the taxes were put and to the precedent it set. Furthermore they thought they had found adequate philosophical support for their position from Enlightenment ideas then roiling the West.

Tensions increased on both sides. After months of protest, and an appeal by Benjamin Franklin before the British House of Commons, Parliament voted to repeal the Stamp Act in March, 1766. However, on the same day, Parliament passed the Declaratory Acts, asserting that the British government had free and total legislative power over the colonies. A year later, in a series of measures introduced into the English Parliament by Chancellor of the Exchequer Charles Townshend, the Townshend Acts imposed duties on glass, lead, paints, paper and tea imported into the colonies.

Charles Townshend- Chancellor of the Exchequer in the period following the repeal of the Stamp Act

Provocations and skirmishes marked the next three years, and once again Parliament repealed most of the taxes except the tea tax (for reasons having more to do with the needs of the colonies in India than in America). Again, the tax was low, and in fact, it made tea cheaper than before in America. But American smugglers resented the action, which would undercut their own profits. John Hancock organized a boycott of tea from the British East India Company, and its sales fell precipitously, while Hancock got wealthy smuggling in tea from elsewhere.

A rebel group, the Sons of Liberty, also interpreted the Tea Act (i.e., selling them cheaper goods!) as a hostile act by Britain. Thus the American rebels decided they must take action. On December 16, 1773, the Sons of Liberty, dressed as Native Americans, boarded three ships carrying East India Company tea and dumped 342 chests of it into Boston Harbor.

W.D. Cooper. “Boston Tea Party.”, The History of North America. London: E. Newberry, 1789 engraving

Britain’s retaliatory punitive measures galvanized other colonies to come to the aid of Massachusetts, and the American Revolution was on its way.

March 15, 1783 – George Washington Averts Mutiny

In March of 1783, General George Washington faced a serious threat in the form of a planned mutiny by the Continental Army, then based in Newburgh, New York.

The men were tired, and had not been paid. Washington himself was in a state of constant frustration over having to implore Congress repeatedly to pay his soldiers, but he was also totally committed to the cause of Revolution (and in any event had plenty of his own wealth to sustain him and his family).

On March 10, 1783, Washington learned that his officers planned a meeting on the following day at the Temple of Virtue, a large hall near his headquarters in Newburgh, New York. The purpose of the meeting was to consider an anonymous petition calling for the officers to mutiny if Congress failed to provide them back pay and pensions. As the Mount Vernon website characterizes their demands:

If the war continued, they would lead the army into ‘some unsettled country’ and let the American people fend for themselves against the British. If the war was over, they would march on Congress and demand their pay at gunpoint.”

Washington banned the March 11 meeting, and directed his men to meet instead at noon on March 15. He slipped into the crowded venue and stood before them, reading a nine-page speech to them, now known as the Newburgh Address, in which he sympathized with their demands but denounced the methods they contemplated to achieve them.

The reconstructed Temple [sic] of Virtue—now part of a New York historic site—where Washington unwound an officers’ rebellion.

Washington reminded them he suffered along with them, but thought their solution was irrational. Were they actually willing to leave their wives and children to defend themselves and their property? Or worse yet, how could they contemplate the other option advocated by the petition?

If Peace takes place, never sheath your swords, says he, until you have obtained full and ample justice. – This dreadful alternative, of either deserting our Country in the extremest hour of her distress, or turning our arms against it, (which is the apparent object, unless Congress can be compeled into instant compliance) has something so shocking in it, that humanity revolts at the idea. – My God! what can this writer have in view by recommending such measures? – can he be a friend to the army – can he be a friend to this Country?”

After finishing his speech, Washington then tried to read a letter from Congressman Joseph Jones of Virginia that clearly supported the officers’ demands but also reported on Congress’s desperate financial straits. Stumbling over the opening words, he put on a new pair of spectacles, saying, “Gentlemen, you must pardon me. I have grown gray in your service and now find myself growing blind.”

At this, many of his officers wept, remembering how much Washington had endured alongside them. The next day, they passed a unanimous resolution commending General Washington for his devotion to them. The mutiny of the officers was over.

You can read the full text of his speech here.