Secret Agent 711

Some Background

In August 1775, following hostilities between the colonists and British troops in Massachusetts, King George III declared the American colonies in rebellion.  The declaration prompted Congress to assemble a Continental Army under General George Washington.  Ten months later, in June 1776, Richard Henry Lee proposed a Congressional resolution calling for independence from Great Britain.

As the independence movement gained momentum, Congress convened a five-member committee to write a formal public statement to justify its declaration of independence.  Committee members included John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston, Roger Sherman, and Thomas Jefferson.  Jefferson authored the first draft, and after making a few suggested changes, a second draft was submitted to Congress on 28 June 1776.[1]  Congress debated the proposed resolution on 1 July.  Two states opposed the resolution, two more signaled indecision, and New York abstained.  Delaware broke the tie vote the next day, and the two states that opposed the resolution shifted to favor it.  The final vote on 2 July was 12 to 0 in favor.

After the vote, a few members of Congress wanted yet another look at the resolution, which resulted in further modifications.  Congress approved the final draft on 4 July 1776.  The Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America went to press on 5 July.  Congress ordered 200 copies.  On 8 July, the declaration was read aloud in front of the statehouse in Philadelphia.  New York agreed to support the statement on 9 July.  The official “original” was signed on 19 July, except that some members were absent, so the signing continued as the remaining members became available until 2 August.

No one in Congress celebrated the Declaration of Independence.  The mood was subdued; everyone understood that they had performed an act of high treason, and everyone realized the punishment for high treason was death.  Benjamin Rush later recalled that as congressional representatives signed the document, everyone believed they were signing their own death warrant. 

We celebrate our Independence Day on 4 July.  One day prior, British General Sir William Howe led the British Army ashore on Staten Island, New York; the hostilities that had begun in Massachusetts continued as part of the New York and New Jersey Campaign (July 1776-March 1777).  Howe drove Washington’s Continentals out of New York but erred by over-extending his reach into New Jersey.  General Howe could not exert complete control over both.  The best he could do and did do was maintain control of New York harbor.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

General Washington

General Washington was unable to hold New York, but neither was he finished with Howe.  Throughout his failed campaign, Washington received unsolicited intelligence reports from individual patriots.  After evacuating the Continental Army from Brooklyn Heights, General Washington asked William Heath and George Clinton to set up “a channel of information” on Long Island. 

Heath and Clinton began looking for volunteers for clandestine operations.  One of these volunteers was Captain Nathan Hale.[2]  Soon after signing on for secret service, the somewhat full of himself Hale traveled to New York City under an assumed name.  Unfortunately, not everyone is well-suited for espionage; Nathan Hale was one of these.  The British quickly unmasked Hale and almost as speedily executed him for high treason.

General Washington learned a valuable lesson from Hale’s execution, not the least of which was that for a secret mission to succeed — well, it must remain secret.  He also learned that volunteer spies simply wouldn’t do.  What he needed was a well-organized, discreet, professionally managed “secret service.”

After Hale’s execution, which historians claim deeply affected Washington, he decided that civilian spies would be less likely to attract attention than military officers.  Washington turned to William Duer to recommend someone to lead this effort in New York City.  Duer recommended Nathaniel Sackett.  However, Sackett was hesitant to take risks, and his intelligence (though worthy in some instances) took too long to produce.  Washington soon replaced Sackett with Captain Benjamin Tallmadge, Hale’s classmate at Yale.

In early 1777, Colonel Elias Dayton of the New Jersey Militia established a spy network on Staten Island.[3]  Colonel Dayton’s system eventually tied in with another, known as the Mersereau Ring.[4]

Following their victory at the Battle of Brandywine on 11 September 1777, the British occupied the city of Philadelphia on 26th September.  General Washington thereafter focused much of his espionage efforts within the city of Philadelphia.  Washington recruited Major John Clark, a wounded/recovering veteran of the Battle of Brandywine, to accomplish this.

In August 1778, Lieutenant Caleb Brewster of Norwalk, Connecticut, volunteered to provide General Washington with intelligence.  Washington found Brewster’s initial report quite helpful, so to expand Brewster’s usefulness, Washington appointed General Charles Scott as Brewster’s handler and tasked him to find additional spies, if possible.  Captain Tallmadge became General Scott’s principal assistant.  As it happened, both Tallmadge and Brewster were acquainted with Abraham Woodhull of Setauket (Long Island); Tallmadge suggested that Brewster recruit Woodhull to help channel information through the network.

Abe Woodhull was probably an ideal spy because he was a convicted smuggler.  Tallmadge may have reasoned that if the British suspected Woodhull of smuggling, it was unlikely that they would also suspect him of espionage.  Woodhull was in prison when Tallmadge made him the offer: his freedom in exchange for working for Tallmadge.  Once Woodhull agreed to the arrangement, Washington arranged his release from prison with Governor Jonathan Trumbull.  To protect Woodhull’s identity, Tallmadge gave him an alias: Samuel Culper, Sr.

Tallmadge and Scott had differing views about the best way to run an espionage ring.  Scott preferred single-mission agents — men he could send out on a mission, afterward returning to Scott with a full report, and whom he could then assign to subsequent missions.  Captain Tallmadge had a different idea: he wanted stabilized agents to collect information and pass it along (via courier) to Scott’s headquarters.  Both methods were effective, and both ways were hazardous.

After Scott lost sixty percent of his “single mission” agents, whom the British captured and executed, General Washington reasoned that since Tallmadge had not lost a single agent, his method of collecting and transmitting secret information was “best.”  When General Scott resigned his post, Washington replaced him with Tallmadge.

Woodhull/Culper proved his ability in October 1778 by providing Washington with valuable information about British activities in Philadelphia.  To assist him, Woodhull recruited his brother-in-law, Amos Underhill.  Underhill and his wife Mary (Woodhull’s sister) ran a boarding house and pub catering to British soldiers.  British soldiers do two things very well: they drink a lot, and they talk a lot.  Underhill’s initial problem was that Washington thought his initial reports were too vague.  It wasn’t enough to listen to what the British soldiers had to say; Washington expected Underhill to validate what they said, as well.

The process of conveying information to Brewster was dangerous, complex, and time-consuming.  When Brewster had information for Tallmadge, it was hand-carried from Staten Island to Setauket and then from Setauket to Tallmadge’s headquarters at Fairfield, Connecticut — a distance of 188 miles, 30 of it across Long Island Sound.  To accomplish this feat, Woodhull recruited two couriers: Jonas Hawkins and Austin Roe.  Their task was to carry messages between Woodhull and Brewster.  It was up to Brewster to deliver messages to Tallmadge.  Crossing the Long Island Sound in a small boat was no easy task.  Brewster had six “drop” sites.

Mary Underhill (who some claim was actually Anna Strong) assisted her husband by posting pre-arranged signals to indicate which spies had information to submit.  For example, if Mary hung a black petticoat on her wash line, Brewster had arrived in town.  If she hung up some quantity of handkerchiefs on her clothesline, it told the courier which of Brewster’s six drops the information was to go.  Is this true?  We aren’t sure, but it does indicate how intricate the spy network was (and had to be).

The British were many things, but stupid wasn’t one of them.  The British knew about Washington’s spying campaign.  They suspected Abraham Woodhull, Amos, and Mary Underhill, and they were keen to capture General Scott.  The British knew; the Americans knew that the British knew, and this made American spycraft all the more difficult because the British didn’t need indisputable proof of high treason.  Reasonable suspicion would be enough to send a spy to the gallows.

Everyone in Setauket with a role in Washington’s spy network became nervous when the British arrested John Wolsey, a known smuggler, and a master of self-preservation.  Sure enough, John Wolsey made a deal with the British.  In exchange for his liberty, he agreed to tell what he knew about Abraham Woodhull.  As it turned out, however, all Wolsey knew about Woodhull was something he’d overheard a lobsterback say … which was that Woodhull was suspected of being involved in a spying ring.

John Graves Simcoe

Wisely, Abe Woodhull was a cautious man who realized that he was operating on borrowed time.  With men like Wolsey running his gob, Woodhull was prudent to worry about his safety.  British Colonel John Graves Simcoe led his Queen’s Rangers to Setauket to look for Woodhull, who at the time was in New York.[5]  In the process of looking for Woodhull, Simcoe arrested his father, Judge Richard Woodhull, and had him tortured, inflicting him with grievous injuries to obtain information about his son.  A loyalist militia officer, Benjamin Floyd, who was married to a member of the Woodhull family, vouched for Abraham, which gave Simcoe pause in his investigation.  Subsequently, Woodhull conveyed to Tallmadge that he was not able to continue operating as a Continental spy.

In a letter to Tallmadge in late June, General Washington suggested considering Mr. George Higday as a possible replacement for Woodhull.  Unhappily for Higday, the British intercepted Washington’s letter, which prompted Colonel Banastre Tarleton’s raid into Tallmadge’s camp.[6]  Tarleton captured several documents, all confirming what the British already knew: Washington had spies.   Mr. Higday’s espionage career was over before it began.

Tarleton’s raid also convinced Abraham Woodhull that his early decision to retire was a wise and prudent course of action.  However, before his retirement, Woodhull did manage to recruit a new spy, a man named Robert Townsend.  Mr. Townsend’s alias was Samuel Culper, Jr.

Robert Townsend had several reasons for joining Washington’s spy network.  He was first of all motivated by Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense.[7]  He was also put off by British harassment of his family (because of their religious affiliation) — and because Abraham Woodhull was an excellent salesman.  As a devoted Quaker, Townsend could not participate as a soldier. Ordinarily, this belief system might have also prevented him from joining the spy network. Still, a schism between religious and political Quakers (aided by Paine) pushed Townsend into the “political camp.”[8]  There was one more provocation: Colonel Simcoe of the Queen’s Rangers seized the Townsend home and converted it into his headquarters.

Mr. Townsend was a businessman.  He owned a trade goods store and a coffee shop in partnership with Mr. James Rivington.  Mr. Rivington was the publisher of a loyalist newspaper, and Mr. Townsend was one of his regular journalists.  As a merchant, coffee shop owner, and reporter, Townsend had access to numerous British officers and NCOs and their places of patronage.  As a contributor to a loyalist newspaper, Townsend had credibility within loyalist society — such that British loyalists were happy to talk to him.  Both Townsend and Rivington formed the core elements of the Culper Ring in New York City.

Despite the stress of espionage, which produced strained relations within the Culper Ring, the effort produced more information than any other American or British intelligence network during the war.  American espionage focused on British troop movements, fortifications, and operational plans.  For example, the Culper Ring foiled British plans to ambush the French in Rhode Island.  Arguably, this information saved the Franco-American alliance.  Culper also uncovered the correspondence between Benedict Arnold and British Major John Andre, General Clinton’s chief intelligence officer.

To clarify what General Washington wanted from the Culper Ring, he provided them with specific instructions (see a special note below).

Townsend wasted little time energizing his spy activity.  Nine days after accepting Woodhull’s “offer of employment,” Townsend reported that two divisions of British infantry were preparing for an expedition to Connecticut.  In 1780, Townsend discovered a plot by British officials to ruin the American economy by circulating counterfeit currency.  He reported that the British hierarchy was optimistic about an imminent end to the war.  Townsend’s timely reporting permitted Congress to recall all of its money then in circulation.

Throughout his employment, Townsend remained suspicious of everyone and every circumstance.  To safeguard the identity of his spies, Tallmadge utilized several protective measures.  In addition to pseudonyms, Tallmadge also developed a system consisting of seven-hundred sixty-three numbers.  The number 745 represented England; 727 for New York; Robert Townsend was 723, and so forth.

Robert Townsend’s conduct of spycraft was both astute and sensible.  How sensible?  How good was Townsend at keeping secrets?  Townsend died on 7 March 1838.  He was 84 years old.  When he died, he took everything he knew about the Culper Ring with him.  What we know of Robert Townsend was only revealed in 1930 by American historian Morton Pennypacker.  Not even General Washington knew the identities of his spies.

And none of his spies knew that General Washington was Agent 711.

Sources:

  1. Rose, A.  Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring.  Penguin Books/Random House, 2014.

Special Note:

General Washington’s Instructions:

  1. Culper Junior, to remain in the City, to collect all the useful information he can — to do this, he should mix as much as possible among the officers and refugees, visit the coffee houses, and all public places. He is to pay particular attention to the movements by land and water in and about the city especially.  How their transports are secured against an attempt to destroy them — whether by armed vessels upon the flanks, or by chains, booms, or any contrivances to keep off fire rafts.
  2. The number of men destined for the defense of the City and environs, endeavoring to designate the particular corps, and where each is posted.
  3. To be particular in describing the place where the works cross the island in the rear of the City-and how many redoubts are upon the line from the river to river, how many Cannon in each, and of what weight and whether the redoubts are closed or open next the city.
  4. Whether there are any works upon the Island of New York between those near the City and the works at Fort Knyphausen or Washington, and if any, whereabouts and of what kind.
  5. To be very particular to find out whether any works are thrown up on Harlem River, near Harlem Town, and whether Horn’s Hook is fortified. If so, how many men are kept at each place, and what number and what sized cannon are in those works.
  6. To enquire whether they have dug pits within and in front of the lines and works in general, three or four feet deep, in which sharp pointed stakes are pointed. These are intended to receive and wound men who attempt a surprise at night.
  7. The state of the provisions, forage and fuel to be attended to, as also the health and spirits of the Army, Navy and City.
  8. These are the principal matters to be observed within the Island and about the City of New York. Many more may occur to a person of C. Junr’s penetration which he will note and communicate.
  9. Culper Senior’s station to be upon Long Island to receive and transmit the intelligence of Culper Junior …
  10. There can be scarcely any need of recommending the greatest caution and secrecy in a business so critical and dangerous. The following seem to be the best general rules: To entrust none but the persons fixed upon to transmit the business. To deliver the dispatches to none upon our side but those who shall be pitched upon for the purpose of receiving them and to transmit them and any intelligence that may be obtained to no one but the Commander-in-Chief.

Endnotes:

[1] The declaration took the form of a grand jury indictment — allegations not proven, and many that history proves were not even true.  In modern times, one popular axiom is that it’s possible to indict a ham sandwich and such was the case of America’s “indictment” of King George II.  The colonist’s real problem, aside from King George insisting on his prerogatives as Great Britain’s king, was the British Parliament, but since a government legislative body cannot be indicted, Jefferson and other members of Congress decided to make their point by indicting the King.

[2] Hale came from a prominent Connecticut family.  He began his education at Yale at the age of 14, attended classes with Benjamin Tallmadge, and figured rather prominently in the college’s debating society.  He graduated with honors in 1773 at the age of 18 years.  When the British executed Hale, he was 21 years old.

[3] Later, Revolutionary War brigadier general, mayor of Elizabethtown, and member of the New Jersey General Assembly.  He was the father of Jonathan, a signer of the U.S. Constitution.

[4] Started in December 1776, this operation focused on intelligence gathering in New Brunswick and New York.  John Mersereau was the primary supervisor of this effort.

[5] Simcoe, from Cornwall, was the only child in his family to survive into adulthood.  He entered British military service in 1770, participating in the Siege of Boston, New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia campaigns.  Tradition holds that Simcoe, in ordering his men not to fire on three withdrawing Continental officers, saved George Washington’s life.  He later served as Upper Canada’s first lieutenant governor and was responsible for founding Toronto and for establishing Canada’s judicial system (1791-96).

[6] Contrary to how Mel Gibson portrayed him in the fictional film The Patriot, Tarleton was not so much of a scoundrel as he was a fighter.  He never burned down a South Carolina church filled with parishioners, but he did threaten to torch the home of General Charles Lee of New Jersey unless he surrendered to Tarleton’s authority.  At the Battle of Waxhaw, the 22-year-old captain, commanding provincial cavalry, assaulted a superior force of Continentals under Colonel Abraham Buford.  Buford refused to surrender despite the fact that Tarleton gave him that opportunity on two occasions.  With Buford’s refusal, Tarleton’s force of 149 troops attacked Buford incessantly, killing 113 Americans, wounding 203, and taking prisoners of those left alive when Buford finally agreed to surrender.  The Americans called it a massacre; it was no such thing.  It was war.  Tarleton was not the butcher revisionists have claimed.

[7] Paine argued that any Quaker who believed in pacifism at any price was not a true Quaker.

[8] Religious Quakers were among the strongest supporters of the British during the revolutionary war period. 


Edward Marcus Despard

Colonel, British Army, Executed

Edward Despard (1751-1803) was an Anglo-Irish British officer — the brother of General John Despard.  He was an “acquired” gentleman and soldier through his service as a squire in the household of Lord Hertford.  Edward entered the British Army as an Ensign with subsequent service with the 50th Regiment of Foot in Jamaica.  He initially served as an engineer; his construction duties required that he supervise the so-called motley crews, including free blacks and mixed-race “Miskitos.”  He employed these people and worked them hard, but he also sympathized with them.

Colonel Despard

Despard served with distinction in operations against Spanish Guatemala during the American Revolution.  He fought under Admiral Horatio Nelson during the San Juan expedition (1780), and in 1782, while serving as a captain, Despard commanded the British force at the Battle of Black River.  In recognition of Despard’s courage in the heat of battle, the Army promoted him to Colonel. He continued to lead reconnaissance missions, relying on people of color to help him defeat his Spanish foe; it was through this experience that he developed an affinity for those whom, he felt, lived together in “perfect equality.”

After the Treaty of Paris in 1783, Colonel Despard supervised the British logwood concession in the Bay of Honduras, then known as British Honduras (now as Belize).  Working under the British Foreign Ministry, Colonel Despard sought to accommodate displaced British subjects along the Miskito Coast. Despard’s problem was that in attempting to distribute land equally without regard for color, he ran afoul of British slave traders and landowners. His lottery system afforded people of color equal opportunity for land acquisition, which placed them in competition with white landowners seeking to make their fortune in the harvesting of mahogany timber.

Unfortunately, the British Home Secretary found agreement with white landowners that it was impolitic to afford people of color an equal footing with wealthy businessmen, who also happened to be white. Colonel Despard replied to Lord Sydney[1] that the laws of England made no such distinction.  In 1790, Lord Grenville,[2] who replaced Thomas Townshend, recalled Despard to London to answer questions relative to certain “irregularities” in his governorship.

When Colonel Despard arrived in London, he traveled with his wife Catherine and son James.  Catherine, a black woman, was the daughter of a protestant minister.  Since mixed marriages were almost unheard of in England, the union created a stir, but mainstream society never challenged it.

After Colonel Despard’s arrest, Catherine worked to bring attention to the unfair (malicious) manner of the government’s accusations of alleged irregularities.  Seeking to discredit her, the British government referred to her efforts as the “fair sex” intercession, with no mention of her race.  In the minds of Despard’s enemies, it was enough to suggest that this weak-minded woman was being used to further the goals of political subversives.  As it happened, Despard’s descendants later repudiated Edward and Catherine’s marriage by referring to Catherine as Edward’s black housekeeper and “the poor woman who called herself his wife.”  Despard’s son James was described as the offspring of a previous lover, and both Catherine and James were quietly removed from the family tree.

While the government investigated Colonel Despard’s irregularities, he was confined in debtor’s prison for two years on trumped-up charges.  While confined to his dank cell, Despard read Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man.  Paine’s argument vindicated Despard’s view of universal equality, which is how he conducted himself as governor of British Honduras.  At the time the British released Despard from prison in 1794, Thomas Paine was living in France and Paine’s writings were popular among people who shared Despard’s view, particularly the Irish.

Between 1792 and 1797, the United Kingdom was a member of a loosely constructed European coalition against the French First Republic — known as the Wars of the First Coalition.  In 1791, European monarchies viewed developments in the French Revolution with considerable concern for the welfare of Louis XVI and his family and other matters.  Although the coalition was uncoordinated, the first act of violence occurred when France declared war on Austria in April 1792, Prussia declared war on France in June 1792, and both Austria and Prussia invaded France in September 1792.  It did not help matters when the French executed Louis XVI on 21 January 1793.  The British kept their distance from the mainland battles but did manage to irritate the French by supporting French loyalists against the Republic.

At the time of its war with France, high-ranking members of Parliament made a connection between Thomas Paine, Edward Despard, other Irish malcontents, and certain seditious efforts to undermine the authority of King George III.  Indeed, some among these men were voicing suggestions of armed rebellion.  Unrelated to this movement, one fellow attempted to assassinate King George.  He was acquitted based on insanity but institutionalized, nevertheless.  Earlier, in 1793, authorities arrested three prominent citizens, members of “corresponding” societies, charged them with sedition and sentenced them to fourteen years of penal transportation.[3]

In the summer of 1795, crowds shouting “No War, No Pitt, Cheap Bread” attacked the residence of British Prime Minister William Pitt (The Younger)[4] and consequently surrounded King George III in procession to Parliament.  There was also a riot at Charing Cross, at which location authorities detained Edward Despard and questioned him about his involvement in those riots if any.  A magistrate later suggested to Despard that he may have brought the matter upon himself by his flippant answers to initial questions.  In October 1795, Parliament passed the Seditious Meetings Act, which made it a crime to attend meetings that were even remotely suggestive of treasonous activity.

Notwithstanding the Gag Act, Colonel Despard joined the London Corresponding Society and was quickly elevated to its central committee.  When the Irish movement turned toward the prospect of a French-assisted insurrection, Despard took the “United Irish” pledge to obtain complete and adequate representation for all the people of Ireland.  In the summer of 1797, a Catholic priest named James Coigly traveled to Manchester where he demanded Englishmen to join Ireland in removing the king, to “…exalt him that is low and abuse him that is high.”  In furtherance of this goal, Coigly met in London with groups calling themselves United Bretons, and with Irish leaders of the London Corresponding Society, which in addition to Alexander Galloway, included Despard, and Benjamin and John Binns, members who “committed themselves” to overthrowing the present government and joining the French as soon as they made a landing in Ireland.  Only poor weather prevented a French landing from taking place.

Historians believe Despard held a liaison position between British republicans and the French Republic at this junction.  In June 1797, a government informer reported that a United Irish delegation intending to travel to France via London applied to the British government for their departure clearance.  In March 1798, while attempting to cross the English Channel to France, British agents arrested Coigly and Arthur O’Connor.  O’Connor, highly placed and vouched for, was acquitted of the charge of sedition.  Coigly, on the other hand, with French documents in his possession, was charged and convicted of treason and then hanged.  There may not have been a mass movement to overthrow King George III, but there was undoubtedly an attempt to invite and encourage a French invasion of Ireland.

Soon after, British authorities arrested Despard and thirty others and confined them to the Clerkenwell prison.  Despard was retained for three years while British agents infiltrated committees of correspondence and began a system of suppression of those and workman’s unions, which the government outlawed.

Although retained for three years behind bars, government prosecutors never charged Despard with an offense.  Despard was set free in 1802, and he returned to Ireland, where he rejoined the anti-British movement in his home county.  Whether Despard realized it or not, British informers riddled the county.  Meanwhile, in England, a large influx of unhappy Irish refugees restarted a republican movement.

Despard c. 1803

On 16 November 1802, British agents arrested Colonel Despard for attending and meeting with forty or so workers.  The next day, the Privy Council officially charged him with High Treason.[5]  Admiral Lord Nelson appeared as a defense witness, but the fact that Nelson had not seen Despard for twenty years diminished his glowing report.  In the end, Despard was found guilty of only one overt act — his oath to Ireland republicanism.  Nevertheless, Colonel Despard, Private John Wood, Private John Francis, carpenter Thomas Boughton, shoemaker James Wratten, slater Arthur Graham, and laborer John McNamara were all sentenced to hang and be drawn and quartered.

British executioners carried out Colonel Despard’s sentence on 21 February 1803.  It is entirely possible that Colonel Despard, having great sympathy for the Miskito people and the common man, may have become a useful idiot to Irish and British republicans.  Nevertheless, 20,000 British citizens attended his final farewell, the largest ever gathering in London until the death of Lord Nelson.

Catherine and James Despard vanished into history.  Three months later, the United Kingdom went to war with France, remembered in history as the Napoleonic Wars (1803 – 1815).

Sources:

  1. Carroll, D.  The Usual Suspects: Twelve Radical Clergy.  Columbia Press, 1998.
  2. Conner, Clifford D.  Colonel Despard: The Life and Times of an Anglo-Irish Rebel.  Combined Publishing, 2000.
  3. Madden, R. R.  The United Irishmen: Their lives and times.  Madden & Company Press, 1846.

Endnotes:

[1] Thomas Townshend, 1st Viscount Sydney served in British politics from 1754-1783 and as Home Secretary from 1783-1789.  He was a cousin of Charles Townshend, the man responsible for the Townshend Acts, which were one cause of the American War of Independence.

[2] William Grenville later served as British Prime Minister (1806-1807).

[3] The forced relocation of persons convicted of crimes, or judged undesirable, to distant places (penal colonies).  Most of such persons did not have the money to return to their homes once released from confinement.

[4] Pitt The Younger was the son of William Pitt, 1st Earl Chatham, who also served as Prime Minister (1766-1768).  Fort Pitt was named in honor of William the Elder, present-day Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

[5] In the United Kingdom, high treason equates to disloyalty to the Crown, which includes plotting the murder of the sovereign, or sexual dalliances with members of the royal family, levying war against the sovereign, consorting with the sovereign’s enemies, giving aid and comfort to the enemy, and attempting to undermine lawful authority.



Roger’s Lost Glory

Introduction

One significance of Methuen, Massachusetts (settled in 1642) is that it served as one of the first American portals for Scots-Irish immigrants.  Today, approximately nine million Americans claim Scots-Irish descendancy.  One of these American-born Scots-Irishmen was the son of James and Mary Rogers, whom they named Robert, born on 8 November 1731.  Eight years later, in 1739, the Rogers family relocated to the Great Meadows district of New Hampshire.  Robert was fifteen years old when he joined the New Hampshire militia during King George’s War (1744-1748).

Background

What made European wars so very complex during the early modern period (1453-1789) was that (a) they were mired in complex rules of noble succession, (b) several of the major royal houses were related to one another through marriage, and (c) the continual (and often confusing) secret alliances that existed between them.  So, before continuing, let’s sort out the War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748).

The War of the Austrian Succession was a conglomeration of several conflicts, two of which developed after the death of Charles VI, head of the Austrian Hapsburgs and Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.  Upon his death in 1740, Charles VI had no male heirs.  Since there were proscriptions against a woman becoming heir to specific European thrones (notably, the Holy Roman Empire), Charles VI’s daughter Maria Theresa was determined to defend her right of inheritance.  A separate issue was that the Hapsburgs had retained the Crown of Holy Roman Emperor since 1437.  This was an elective position, not subject to the right of inheritance.  The European ruling houses decided that it was time to end Hapsburg’s Holy Roman dynasty.

The participants in the War of Austrian Succession included Austria, Bavaria-Saxony, the Dutch Republic, France, Hanover, Prussia, Savoy, Spain, Poland, Italy, Sardinia, and Great Britain.  Its significance was that it reshaped the balance of power in Europe, established a precedent for subsequent wars of succession, and because it obligated the involvement of alliance partners into affairs that ordinarily would be none of their concern.  British involvement came from its alliance with Austria, which opened the door to additional conflicts with France and Spain, who were allied against Austria and needed minimal prompting to war against the British — their North American competitor.

The War of Austrian Succession, as it evolved in British America, became King George’s War (1744-1748), the third of four “French and Indian Wars” fought in North America.  King George’s War was also a continuation of the War of Jenkins’ Ear fought between Britain, Spain, and Spain’s ally, France.

Young Rogers

Following the tradition of the “common burden,” Robert Rogers enlisted as a private in Captain Daniel Ladd’s Scouting Company of the New Hampshire Militia in 1746.[1]  In the following year, he joined the Scouting Company of Captain Ebenezer Eastman.  In both assignments, Robert Rogers joined the effort of the local militia in guarding the New Hampshire frontier against French and Indian raids.  The strategy of these ranging companies was to “hit them before they could hit you.”

Young Washington

In 1753, Virginia’s lieutenant governor, Robert Dinwiddie, commissioned the half-brother of Lawrence Washington, the Adjutant-General of Virginia, a young man named George, as a Major of the Virginia militia and appointed him to command one of the colony’s four militia districts.  At the time, the British competed with France to control the Ohio Valley.  Initially, the effort involved the construction of British and French fortifications along the Ohio River.  Dinwiddie dispatched Major Washington on a three-mission expedition into the Ohio Valley.  Washington’s orders were to demand the withdrawal of French forces from Virginia land, establish peace with the Iroquois Confederacy, and gather intelligence about the disposition of French military forces.[2]

In November, Major Washington’s force reached the Ohio River but was soon intercepted by a French patrol and escorted to Fort Le Boeuf.  The officer commanding Fort Le Boeuf was Commandeur Jacques Legardeur de Saint-Pierre (1701-1755), who welcomed Major Washington by rendering him every courtesy of his rank and position.  Washington dutifully informed Saint-Pierre that it was his duty to insist that the French vacate Virginia colony land.  A few days later, after providing Washington and his men with food stores and extra winter clothing, Sant-Pierre handed his reply to Gov. Dinwiddie in a sealed envelope and sent George and his men on his way back to Williamsburg.

In February 1754, Dinwiddie advanced Washington to lieutenant colonel and appointed him as second-in-command of the Virginia Regiment of militia, a force of around 300 men.[3]  His new orders were to take half the regiment and confront French forces at the Forks of Ohio (the convergence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers).  Washington’s expedition set off in April, eventually learning that those French forces included around 1,000 men engaged in the construction of Fort Duquesne.  Washington established a defensive position at Great Meadows, seven miles from the French construction site.

With the understanding that the French force involved around 1,000 men, Washington enlisted the aid of Indian allies (presumably Iroquois) and moved to attack the French garrison, which consisted of around fifty men.  The confrontation became known as the Battle of Jumonville Glen, during which Washington’s force killed all French defenders, including its commandant, Joseph Coulon de Jumonville.  When French officials learned what had happened, they accused Washington of making an unprovoked attack, which would only be true if the French were not encamped on British territorial grounds.  The Battle of Jumonville ignited the (fourth) French and Indian War (1754-1763).

The French and Indian War (1754-1763)

War with France engulfed the British colonies in 1755, also spreading to Europe.  Initially, the British suffered several defeats, most notably the massacre of General Braddock’s force at the Battle of Monongahela.  Indians who were not already allies of the French were encouraged by these early French victories and joined with the French against British settlements.  A series of deadly Indian raids soon followed the entire length of British western settlements.

In 1754, Massachusetts governor William Shirley appointed John Winslow as major-general of the colonial militia.[4]  In 1756, General Winslow turned to the 25-year-old Robert Rogers to raise and command soldiers for service to the British Crown.  Recruitment wasn’t difficult because frontier citizens were badly frightened (not to mention angry) by the sudden increase in Indian depredations.[5]

Rogers raised an irregular (militia) company of rangers, one of several New England ranger companies with a tradition dating back to the 1670s.  The model for Roger’s ranging company was Gorham’s Rangers, initially formed in 1744.[6]  During the French and Indian War, Gorham’s Rangers was a contemporary company raised by Robert Rogers. Among Robert’s early recruits were his younger brothers James, Richard, and John.[7]

The only likeness of Rogers known to exist

Roger’s Ranger Company was an independent provisional force trained, equipped, paid, and commanded by Captain Rogers.  The mission of this rapidly deployable light infantry unit was reconnaissance and such special operations as conducting winter and night raids on French towns and military encampments.  The company operated primarily in the area of Lake George and Lake Champlain (New York).  It was particularly adept at moving rapidly but quietly over rugged mountain terrain and rain-swollen rivers.  Rogers’ ranging tactics proved so effective that the ranging company was eventually expanded into a corps of more than a dozen companies (around 1,400 men), which became the chief scouting arm of British land forces in North America.

The usefulness of Rogers’ company during 1756 and 1757 prompted the British to form a second ranger company in 1758.  Eventually, the fourteen companies of rangers would include three all-Indian units (two of Stockbridge Mahicans and one of Mohegan and Pequot composition).  Governor Shirly promoted Robert Rogers to Major and placed him in command of the Ranger Corps.

The Fighting

There were no Queensbury Rules of fighting a guerilla war during the French and Indian War.  As good as Rogers’ Rangers were, they didn’t always win the day.  In January 1757, Rogers led a 74-man company in an ambuscade near Fort Carillon (near the narrows along the southern region of Lake Champlain).[8]  After capturing seven prisoners, a force of around 120 French regulars, militia, and allied Indians attacked Rogers.  The strength of the attack forced Rogers to withdraw.  The French killed fourteen of Rogers’ men, took six as prisoners, and wounded six others.  It was only through his use of snowshoes that Rogers and his men escaped without further casualties.

Later that year, a company of rangers was stationed at Fort William Henry when the French placed the fort under siege.  When the British commander realized that his fight was over and surrendered, the French massacred every British regular and militia soldier, including Noah Johnson’s Ranger Company of sixty men.

In March 1758, another company of rangers attacked a French and Indian column, but once again, the rangers took heavy casualties, losing 125 soldiers killed, eight wounded, and 52 surviving through rapid withdrawal.

In May, four companies of rangers (around 500 men) went ashore at Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, during the siege of Louisbourg.  Three companies of Rogers’ Rangers and one company of Gorham’s Rangers.  While conducting search and destroy operations, the rangers encountered over a hundred French and Mi’kmaq warriors.  In the ensuing fight, Rangers killed fifty and took 70 more captives.

In July, Rogers’ Rangers took part in the Battle of Carillon.  Some two-hundred French Canadians and three-hundred Indians attacked a British convoy, killing 116 and capturing 60 men.  A month later, at Crown Point, a French force of 450 men attacked a smaller force of British light infantry and provincials.  Ranger Captain Israel Putnam was one of the men captured.  The British lost 49 killed in this battle but claimed 100 or more dead French and Indian allies.  Putnam was later saved from burning at the stake by the intervention of a French officer.[9]

The St. Francis Raid of 1759 was one of the more infamous engagements of the rangers.  In retribution for what General Amherst thought of as Abenaki treachery, he sent Rogers to destroy the Indian settlement at St. Francis, near the southern shore of the St. Lawrence River outside Quebec.  Major Rogers led a force of 140 men from Crown Point deep into French territory.  The raid was successful, which, according to Rogers, meant that he and his Rangers slaughtered 200 women, children, and elderly people.[10]  News of the attack reached Trois-Rivières around noon that day.  Captain Jean-Daniel Dumas organized a force of experienced fighters to pursue Rogers.

The Rangers, burdened by the weight of their supplies and the inconvenience of marching prisoners, made good progress, covering the 70 miles to Lake Memphremagog in about eight days, but at this point, their rations began to run out.  The wearied condition of his men and dwindling food stores forced Rogers to divide his men up into smaller units, which he sent out independently with orders to proceed to the abandoned Fort Wentworth.  Rogers suffered 21 of his men killed, six wounded, and five missing in action (later determined captured) during this operation.  But as to the number of casualties on both sides, British and French reports reveal significant discrepancies of the same incident.

In the spring of 1760, the Rogers’ Rangers joined the Montreal campaign under General Jeffrey Amherst, which included a raid on Fort Saint Therese, a French supply hub between Fort Saint-Jean and Ile Aux Noix.  After destroying the fort, the French and Indians assaulted the Rangers during their withdrawal but inflicted only minor casualties.

Afterward, Amherst ordered the Rangers to support the column of Brigadier General William Haviland.  General Haviland dispatched Rogers’ four ranger companies (augmented by a detachment of light infantry and Indian allies) with three cannons through the forest and swamps to take up a firing position to the rear of the French position.  It was a difficult task, taking several days, but Rogers did manage to set the artillery along a riverbank facing the French naval force.

Rogers’ order to fire completely surprised the French navy and caused some panic among them to move their ships out of harm’s way.  When one sloop cut her cable, wind and current carried her to shore and fell into the hands of the British.  The other ships managed to escape but went aground in a bend in the river, and these too were eventually captured by Rangers, who swam out to board the vessels.

With their line of communications severed, the French had little choice but to evacuate the island.  General Amherst moved quickly to capitalize on his successes by forcing a French withdrawal to Montreal, which surrendered without a fight in the following month.

After the French and Indian War

After the fall of Montreal, General Amherst assigned Rogers to Brigadier Robert Monckton, who ordered Rogers to capture Fort Detroit.  Once accomplished, there being no further need of Rangers, Amherst disbanded them and sent them home.  Following their standard practices of the day, the British retired Robert Rogers at half-pay.

Rogers’ income proved dire because the British did not reimburse him for the money he had spent out of his pocket paying and equipping his men, which rendered Rogers destitute.  He traveled to London, where, in an attempt to produce an income, he authored a book about his adventures and helped develop a stage play about Pontiac’s War.  Both the book and play were successful enough to earn him an audience with King George III.  The King rewarded Rogers for his service by appointing him as Governor of Mackinaw, a minor posting.

In America, General Thomas Gage replaced Amherst as Commander-in-Chief.  Unfortunately, Gage detested Rogers, and from every account, the feeling was mutual.  In 1767, General Gage charged Rogers with treason for having established a “too comfortable” relationship with French Canadians.  Having arrested Rogers, Gage ordered that he be taken to Detroit in chains to answer the charge.  General Gage’s evidence was insufficient to stand up in court, but despite his acquittal in 1768, Gage ordered Rogers deported to England.  To meet Rogers on the dock were London officials who promptly escorted him to debtor’s prison where he languished for three years.

In 1775, with a war on the horizon between Britain and the American colonies, the disenchanted Rogers returned to America and offered his services to the American military commander, George Washington.  Washington, however, suspected Rogers as a British spy and ordered his arrest.  However, the clever Rogers escaped and promptly offered his services once more to the Crown.

Based on Rogers’ previous success, the British commissioned him to command the Queen’s Rangers as regimental colonel.  As General Gage previously stated on more than one occasion, Colonel Rogers was no gentleman — a fact that Rogers seemed to prove when he appointed, as officers of the Queen’s Regiment, owners of taverns and brothels.

Worse than that, however, beyond the arrest of Nathan Hale (a somewhat naive young captain who was ill-suited for espionage), the Queen’s Rangers had no successes in battle.  In late October 1776, while General Washington withdrew his army toward White Plains, New York, General William Howe landed troops in Westchester intending to cut off Washington’s escape.

General Howe ordered Rogers to cover his eastern flank by seizing the village of Mamaroneck.  During the night of 22 October, patriot Colonel John Haslet attacked the Queen’s Rangers, achieving complete surprise and inflicting many casualties before withdrawing.  Even though the Rangers quickly recovered and attempted to pursue Haslet, General Howe sacked Colonel Rogers (and his officers) and appointed someone more “appropriate” to command the regiment.  Howe may have cited Rogers’ poor health as justification for his relief, but the fact is that Rogers was an alcoholic, and he soon after returned to London.

Rogers returned to America in 1779, again obtained a commission to command the King’s Rangers, but that appointment lasted only a few months before he was again sacked for drunken behavior.  Rogers returned to London, England, in 1780, where he remained until he died in 1793.  He was 63 years of age.

Conclusion

Robert Rogers was not the only military commander to succumb to alcoholism.  Famed patriot George Rogers Clark (the elder brother of William Rogers Clark) also died in the generally held disgraceful condition of alcoholism and self-pity, albeit several years later.

Robert Rogers did not invent unconventional warfare, nor even “ranging,” but he did display an affinity for special operations or “thinking outside the box.”  Benjamin Church of Massachusetts was the first to establish “ranging” units of frontiersmen and friendly Indians in 1675.  Those men would “range” between outposts looking for the sign of hostile Indians and French troublemakers.  Church’s memoirs, published in 1716, became the first de facto American military manual — and there were several ranging units in existence long before Rogers’ Rangers.

But British ranging units never gained the respect of the regular forces, particularly from among the British Army’s aristocratic leaders.  The stigma of commanding unconventional forces also attached itself to Colonel Sir Banastre Tarleton, and some degree to Colonel John Graves Simcoe, a fact carried forward in time to the Civil War when both Union and Confederate generals regarded partisan rangers as bushwhackers and murderers (which, in some cases, they were).

Still, the accomplishments of ranging units speak for themselves.  The Rangers were one of a few non-native forces able to operate in the inhospitable backcountry under harsh winter conditions and rugged mountain terrain.  By every account, the young Robert Rogers was an exceptional leader who mustered, paid, equipped, trained, and commanded his men.  His Twenty-eight Rules for Ranging and Roger’s Standing Orders form part of the U.S. Army’s introduction to training materials on ranging.  It wasn’t until much later in his life that Robert Rogers lost his glory and his honor.

Sources:

  1. Cuneo, J. R.  Robert Rogers of the Rangers.  Oxford University Press, 1959.
  2. Fryer, M. B., and Christopher Dracott.  John Graves Simcoe (1752-1806): A Biography.  Dundurn Press, 1998.
  3. Ross, J. F.  War on the run: the epic story of Robert Rogers and the conquest of America’s first frontier.  Bantam Books, 2009.
  4. Scotti, A. J.  Brutal Virtue: The Myth and Reality of Banastre Tarleton.  Heritage Books, 2002.
  5. Sheftick, G.  Rangers Among First Leaders of America’s Army.  U.S. Army Historical Center, 2016.
  6. Zaboly, G. S.  True Ranger: The Life and Many Wars of Major Robert Rogers.  Royal Blockhouse, 2004.

Endnotes:

[1] See also: Citizen Soldier and the American Militia.

[2] The name the Iroquois Confederacy gave to Major Washington was “Conotocaurius,” which we are told means the destroyer or devourer of villages. 

[3] In British America, the colonel of the regiment was a secondary assignment of the colonial governor.  Since most colonial governors never left their homes in England, the lieutenant governor served as de facto governor and also as lieutenant colonel of the colonial militia.  Dinwiddie served as lieutenant governor under Governor Willem van Keppel (1751-1756) and was reappointed under Governor John Campbell (1756-1758).  Subsequent to the Battle of Jumonville, Dinwiddie appointed Lieutenant Colonel Washington to command the Virginia Regiment.

[4] John Winslow was the grandson and great-grandson of two Massachusetts governors, the first of which, Edward, was born and raised in Droitwich, England, seven miles from the town of Worcester, where my wife was born. 

[5] While on his recruitment drive in Portsmouth, Robert met his future wife, Elizabeth Browne, the daughter of a local minister.

[6] In 1744, John Gorham raised an auxiliary unit of mixed native American rangers led by Anglo officers for participation in King George’s War.  Gorham was originally charged to reinforce regular British troops under siege at Fort Anne and was later employed in establishing British control over Nova Scotia fighting against Acadian and Mi’kmaq Indians. 

[7] Richard died of smallpox in 1757 at Fort William Henry.  Later, Indian enemies disinterred his body and, in retribution, mutilated it.  Whether these Indians came down with Richard’s disease is unknown, but if they did, they probably spread it around the tribe.

[8] Fort Carillon was later named Fort Ticonderoga.

[9] Native American tribes frequently used ghastly torture techniques to torment their captives, the specific technique dependent upon the folkways of a particular tribe and perhaps on the circumstances of the conflict and capture.  Burning captives at the stake was common among northeastern tribes. 

[10] The French insisted that Rogers “only murdered” 30 innocents.


Citizen Soldier and the American Militia

Background

Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus

The story of Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus, as with most of what we know about the ancient world, is wrapped in both fact and myth.  Historians believe this because ancient record-keepers were more storytellers than historians. It is also likely that what they didn’t know as an absolute fact, they made up.  That’s what storytellers do — and it usually does make for a good story. 

In any case, according to the story, Cincinnatus saved Rome on two occasions.  In 458 BC and 439 BC, the Senate of Rome summoned Cincinnatus, a modest farmer, and gave him dictatorial powers to raise an army to defend Rome — which he accomplished.  Then, when the fighting was over, Cincinnatus promptly relinquished his power and returned to his beets.

If the story is true, then the account of Cincinnatus could provide us with the earliest example of a citizen-soldier (also known as militia).  A militia is a military force raised from the civilian population during an emergency to serve in defense of the state (or community) or enforce the laws thereof.

Four hundred years later, during the Gallic Wars (a series of conflicts between 58-50 BC), Julius Caesar invaded Britannia because the Celts aided and assisted the enemies of Rome.[1]  Once Caesar had completed his punitive campaign, he returned to the continent — mission accomplished.

Rome’s formal occupation of Britain occurred between 43-410 AD.[2]  Roman government in Britain started well enough, but bribery, fraud, and treasonous behavior soon followed — presumably because corruption was part of Rome’s political landscape.  Apparently, this is something the United States inherited from the ancients, as well.  But life in Roman-Britain was further complicated by a more-or-less constant stream of invasions and assaults on Roman settlements by those who objected to Rome’s presence: the Picts, Irish/Scots, and later, the Anglo-Saxon hordes.  By the beginning of the fifth century, Rome’s military resources were stretched to the limit. A more pressing need for military manpower at home forced the Romans to withdraw their legions.[3]

During Britain’s Anglo-Saxon period (410-660), also known as the Migration Period, massive numbers of Germanic people escaped the chaos of their homeland and made their way to the Albion shore.  Upon arrival, they quickly learned that they were no safer in Britain because of the constant presence of marauders from northern Europe.  At best, these invaders helped create a sense of insecurity among the British people — at worst, the seeds of national paranoia.  Of course, when people are trying to kill you, then you aren’t paranoid.

During this period of great peril, Anglo-Saxons established a tradition called “the common burden.”  It was an obligation of community service toward the collective defense of towns and villages, and it was particularly noteworthy in the ancient settlements of Kent, Mercia, and Wessex.  It would be safe to say that thousands of able-bodied men were called upon to defend their boroughs from evil-doers over several hundred years.  By the 10th century, the common burden tradition had evolved, and it became the duty of landowners to assume the responsibility for organizing and maintaining armed militias.

Following the Norman invasion of England in 1066, William I saw the wisdom and prudence of local militias, and he incorporated the Anglo-Saxon tradition of the common burden.  William’s grandson, Henry I of England, mandated the following: “He will possess these arms and will bear allegiance to the Lord King Henry, namely the son of Empress Maud, and he will bear these arms in His service according to His order and in allegiance to the Lord King and his realm.” — The Assize of Arms, 1181.[4]

The Common Burden

The Assize of Arms established armed militias (on-call) by dividing the free populations into socio-economic categories.  Those who were wealthiest had the greater obligation to acquire and maintain various prescribed weapons.  In 1285, the Statute of Winchester expanded the Assize to include every able-bodied male person regardless of their status (free men or those bonded to the land), who were between 15 and 60.  Local gentry made the decision which of them served and under what circumstances.  The Statute stated, “Every man shall have in his house arms for keeping peace according to the ancient Assize.”[5]  When called upon, the duty of these men might include expeditions away from their shire, local guard duty, local defense, and occasionally escort duties.  Feudal military service ended during the reign of Edward III (1327-1377) — replaced by indentured service.[6]

Indentured soldiers incurred an obligation to serve their lord for a specified length of time.  It was the beginning of the profession of arms.  When the lord no longer needed professional soldiers or could no longer afford them, he might sell the contract to another, or the lord might have permitted the soldier to serve another as a mercenary.  In this way, soldiers began migrating from one conflict to another — mainly because the profession of arms is all they knew how to do.

A problem arose when there were no conflicts.  In these instances, it was common to find that soldiers turned to outlawry — marauders who preyed on defenseless hamlets, villages, or towns.  Circumstances like these caused town officials to return to the idea of local militias, and once more, locals served “on-call” of their community’s needs.

In 1581, British law stipulated, “If any [highborn] man being a Queen’s subject, and not having a reasonable cause or impediment, and being within the age of sixty years (except spiritual men, justices of the bench, or other justices of Assize, or barons of the Exchequer) have not a longbow and arrows ready in his house, or have not for every man child in his house between seven years and seventeen of age, a bow and two shafts, and every such being above seventeen years a bow and four shafts, or have not brought them up in shooting, if any man under the age of four and twenty years have not shot at standing targets (being above that age) have shot at any marks under eleven score yards with any pick shaft or flight,” shall be punished.

Colonial Militias

Translated, the Latin term Posse Comitatus means “force of the county.”  It refers to a citizens group assembled by officials to deal with an emergency.  The term also applied to any force or band called forth to confront hostiles. 

By the time the English fixed their sights on North America, France and Spain already claimed much of it, and neither kingdom was well-disposed to share it with Englishmen.  There was no regular English soldiery in the early formation of British colonies, so to protect themselves from assaults by Spanish coastal raiders and from hostile Indians sicced upon them by French colonial officials, English settlers created local militias modeled on those of the mother country.  These early American militias were crucial to the survival of the British colonies.

Colonial Militia

Naturally, the Englishmen who migrated to North America took with them their long-held British values and traditions.  Among these traditions was a general loathing for standing armies and the profession of arms.[7]  The reason for their profound contempt for the military was simple enough: British soldiers were instruments of government tyranny.  Even after more than 100 years, British-American colonists viewed the Redcoat as a clear and present danger to colonial autonomy and liberty.

Beyond the preceding, British-American settlements were bastions of Puritan values.  Outside instruments of a tyrannical parliament and king, American settlers were deeply offended by the uncouth Redcoat.  He was profane, bawdy, and addicted to Satan’s beverages.  Besides, the professional soldier was an outsider.  Militia, on the other hand, was part of the community.  They were family by blood or marriage, they were neighbors, and they were people who everyone could count on when needed — and so it was understandable that organized militia also viewed the Redcoats with suspicion.

The issue of suspicion and contempt was a two-way street because British regulars also had little regard for local militias.  In the view of professional soldiers, militias were undisciplined and unreliable mobs who tended to bolt once the sound of that first shot reverberated through their ranks.  This claim was, of course, valid.  Colonial militia were not soldiers; they were farmers.  They were undisciplined because they followed their own hook.  They decided for themselves whether they liked the odds on the battlefield.  More often than not, they made these decisions at the spur of the moment, prompted by others with similar fears, and usually, at the worst possible time.

The American militia was not an ideal defense mechanism, although some militias were more reliable than others.  Some militia refused to fight outside their county/colony — but there were also great successes, such as demonstrated at the Battle of Louisbourg in Nova Scotia.  But the militia was generally useful to colonial governments because once they activated the militia, officials could reposition the Redcoats elsewhere — where the need was greater.

Each British colony had a unique system for creating and maintaining its militia force.  In most cases, regulations specified “able-bodied white males between the ages of 18 to 45.”  Militias were formed under the auspices of the colonial charter, which required militia members to furnish their own armaments.

The first colonial militia was formed in Massachusetts in 1636.  Historians tell us that the early organization of the Massachusetts militia explains how the New England militias became part of the political framework.  More than one hundred years later, New England militia, having been thoroughly infiltrated by the Sons of Liberty, became the fuse that lit the American Revolution.[8]

From Colonial to American Militia

American militia became the foundation of the Continental Army and played an important role in General Washington’s strategies throughout the war of independence.  Militia carried out the siege of Boston, which gave Washington the time to organize his army and decide how best to prosecute the war.  It was the militia that later became part of Washington’s sophisticated spy network.

On April 19, 1775, American rebels and British regulars traded volleys at Concord Bridge. (North Wind Picture Archives/Alamy Stock Photo)

After the war, the colonist’s distrust of standing armies carried over to the new United States, and Congress disbanded the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps.  A small American Legion was restored, but the only seaborne force remaining was the Revenue Cutter Service.  Issues involving a state militia (and who should control it/pay for it) became hotly debated.

Despite the traditional distrust of standing armies, President Washington realized that the United States could not remain sovereign if it did not have the capacity of protecting its communities, ports, coastal regions, or its commerce — and so began the process of reconstituting the armed forces.  The timing of Washington’s initiatives could not have been better; the Quasi-War (with France) and the War of 1812 (in which the American militia played an important role) were just around the corner.

The militia is a long-held American tradition — part of our British heritage — and, one might argue, one that has maintained faith with its original purpose.  If modern Americans understood this history, they would realize that the strength of a community is that everyone belongs to it; everyone carries the burden of community obligation.  Community watch programs are one manifestation of this.  Community militias do not force membership — they are volunteer organizations.  Such militias offer no monetary benefit; there is only a sense of accomplishment by serving the community’s interests.  What are those interests?  Common cause, mutual security, and survival.

In early America, militia organizations combined military defense with community policing.  Militiamen served because their community needed them.  But as we all know, time changes all things.  In the past, American militia played a key role in the common burden even if it was not always professionally competent or efficient — but this is because they weren’t regular soldiers.  They were homeboys who did the best they could with what they had and, much like another militia unit that we’ve all learned to respect — the Texas Rangers — militiamen were often shoddy looking characters, undisciplined, and would only follow the orders of the officers they themselves respected and elected.  American militiaman decided whether and when to fight — and they chose when they’d had enough of it.

13th NY State Militia 1861

The American Civil War was a crossover period.  There were militia organizations back then, but they became fewer once the regular army assumed responsibility for protecting settlers from Indian hostilities.   They also became fewer in number when the law took hold.  County sheriffs could hire deputies and raise (volunteer) posses.  The United States had an army in 1861, but it wasn’t large enough to complete the task of preserving the Union.  It fell upon the states to raise a force of volunteers to augment the regular armies on both sides of the issue.  The people who volunteered to serve their state were the same kinds of people from an earlier period, albeit identifying more with their respective states than with their counties.  Even so, recruitment for state regiments came from one or more counties.  There were exceptions, of course.  The Kansas Red Legs and Missouri Bushwhackers are two — but it is difficult to say whether these were truly area militias or simply armed thugs with a mean streak.

Today there are state guard units and national guard organizations.  As one example, the Military Department of Texas includes the Texas State Guard and the Texas National Guard.  Together, these two organizations are regarded as the Texas State Militia.  The commander-in-chief of all state military forces is the governor, directed by the Adjutant General of Texas.  The governor of Texas commands the Texas Department of Public Safety similarly, including the Texas Rangers and other state troopers.  Unrelated to state government, there are also numerous volunteer militia groups throughout the United States.

Good vs. Bad, Right vs. Left

Texas State Militia on the border

Lately, almost every discussion about the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States — the right to bear arms, has become a political narrative.  There is nothing ambiguous about the Second Amendment, which states, “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”  Nevertheless, some continue to argue against this Constitutional right and regularly seek ways to limit or deny that right to citizens of the United States.  Nearly every state addresses “the right of the people to keep and bear arms,” which is every state’s right under our system of constitutional federalism.  Still, the debate continues.   Pro-gun groups (including almost every private militia group) insist that the Second Amendment means what it says.   Anti-gun groups insist that guns in the hands of private citizens pose a danger to public safety.  Still, to make that argument, they must also ignore the history of the American militia.  Criminals in Chicago have managed to elevate their city to a murder capital in the United States; yet, not one of these murdering thugs has ever belonged to a militia organization.

By claiming that anyone who supports the Second Amendment is a racist or a domestic terrorist, anti-gun arguments have become particularly nasty.  In response, pro-gun enthusiasts echo the Gonzalez Flag of 1835: Come and take it.

Today, in making word associations between “militia” and “white supremacy” and “Bible-thumping Christians,” anti-gun criminals (those acting in contravention of the law) have increased the intensity of the debate, even claiming that gun-carrying citizens are un-American.  It is an interesting argument given the entire history of militias and the people’s right and responsibility to bear arms dating back to 500 AD.

The English Bill of Rights of 1689 allowed citizens to “have Arms for their Defence suitable to their Conditions and as allowed by the Law.”  In modern arguments, particularly among those with a pro-gun point of view, and given Sir William Blackstone’s ageless opinion,[9] we may argue that U.S. gun rights indeed are a primary example of American exceptionalism.  Moreover, gun-rights advocates strenuously argue that the Second Amendment is an American’s only protection from federal totalitarianism.[10]  When one considers the numerous instances where the federal government has violated the constitutional rights of the American people, it is impossible to find fault with that reasoning.

Among those who argue that militias of an earlier time were ‘white supremacists,’ it is only accurate in the sense that many American communities (north, south, southwest, midwest, and northwest) were mired in the filth of Democratic Party politics and remained in that morass through the early 1970s.  In the post-Civil War period, when radical Republicans placed the Freedman’s Bureau in charge of state governments, racial hatred increased — which serves as another example that too much government benefits no one.

Modern militias see themselves as a check against the totalitarian government — and while this would not have been possible in 1776, it certainly was the case a few years later during Shay’s Rebellion (Massachusetts) and the Whiskey Rebellion (western Pennsylvania).  Oddly, some militias supported the rebellion, and other militias joining President Washington’s ranks.  But returning to today, modern militias (generally) are not part of state mechanisms; they are privately organized, loosely connected groups of men and women who, for some reason, scare the hell out of the Democratic/Progressive Party apparatus.

Less than a year ago, federal authorities charged thirteen so-called Wolverine Watchmen (a Michigan-based militia) with terrorism, conspiracy, and weapons charges.  Six men faced additional charges, which included conspiracy to commit the kidnapping of Governor Gretchen Whitmer.  Lately, however, there is information that the entire episode was an FBI entrapment operation.  Among those who have no trust or confidence in the federal government, they will argue that this isn’t the first time the FBI has created a crime in order to make an arrest.  The ploy, so the argument goes, is first to outline a criminal act, plan it, participate in it, arrest the “perpetrators,” lay on them every possible criminal charge, and then let the event play out for years until no one even remembers what happened.  Meanwhile, if none of these fellows are convicted, the federal government has destroyed them financially.  There must be a lesson in all this, somewhere.

We should know that there are “bad actors” everywhere in our society, but if we hope to restore civil society, then we have to let the facts lead us to proper conclusions.  There may be some off-center militias in America today, but they are few in number, and we serve no good purpose by applying a too-broad brush stroke to militias that see themselves as serving their communities.

Sources:

  1. AL Schuler, A.  Sir William Blackstone and the Shaping of American Law.  New Law Journal, 1994.
  2. Beckett, I. F. W.  Britain’s Part-Time Soldiers: The Amateur Military Tradition, 1558-1945.  Barnsley: Pen & Sword Publishing, 2011.
  3. Barnett, R. E., and Heather Gerken.  Article I, Section 8: Federalism and the Overall Scope of Federal Power.  National Constitution Center online.
  4. Chermak, S. M.  Searching for a Demon: The Media Construction of the Militia Movement.  Dartmouth, 2002.
  5. Tucker, S. G.  Blackstone’s Commentaries: With Notes of Reference to the Constitution and Laws of the Federal Government of the United States and of the Commonwealth of Virginia, Volumes 5.  Philadelphia, 1803; Reprint 1969.
  6. United States Constitution, Amendment II, 1792.

Endnotes:

[1] Britannia is a personification of the ancient Roman Province, of the isles Britain and the British people; she is a helmeted female warrior, armed with a trident and a shield.  In earlier times, the Roman name for Britain was Albion.

[2] Occupation rather than conquest because it is doubtful that any historian can make the argument that the Romans ever conquered the British people. 

[3] By this time, of course, there was already a substantial Roman civilian presence in Britain.  It was a Roman custom to award large land grants to legionnaires once they had served 25-30 years under Rome’s standard.  These people and their descendants, became British farmers, blacksmiths, shopkeepers, and teamsters.

[4] Henry II of England, (also Henry Plantagenet) (1133-1189) (Reign 1150-1189) laid the foundation of English Common Law and influenced the development of societies in Brittany, Wales, and Scotland.  Henry’s creation of armed militia to serve on call of the lord king was a reaction no to the so-called Great Revolt (1173-75). 

[5] A court that convened at various intervals in each county of England and Wales to administer civil and criminal law.  These courts existed until 1972 when the civil jurisdiction of Assizes was transferred to the High Court, and criminal jurisdiction was assigned to the Crown Court.

[6] Military indenture was a legal contract between a soldier and the man he served.  The contract was written out twice on one sheet of paper and then cut into two in such a way that the jagged edges would fit together (hence the name indenture).  The soldier retained one part, his captain the other.  Any subsequent dispute would require that both parties fit the copies together to resolve the problem.

[7] Later reflected in the US Constitution: Article I, Section 8, Clause 12: [The Congress shall have the power …] “To raise and support armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer term than two years.”

[8] Initially formed as a secret society/separatist group to advance the rights of citizens and oppose the arbitrary imposition of taxes.  The group disbanded after repeal of the Stamp Act, but the name was  taken up by other local groups prior to the outbreak of hostilities between the British government and the colonies.  Some might argue that secret societies and clandestine raids is a mark of cowards, bolstered by the fact that during the so-called Tea Party, they dressed themselves as Indians. 

[9] “This may be the true palladium of liberty … The right of self-defence is the first law of nature.  In most governments it has been the study of rulers to confine this right within the narrowest limits possible.  Whenever standing armies are kept up, and the right of the people to keep and bear arms is, under any colour or pretext whatsoever, prohibited, liberty, if not already annihilated, is on the brink of destruction.”  Sir William Blackstone, 1803.

[10] In an article by R. E. Barnett, Georgetown University Law Center and Heather Gerken, Professor of Law at Yale, the authors provided an overview of Article 1, Section 8: Federalism and the Overall Scope of Federal Power.  Historically, federal-state relations have always contested, with federalism undergoing four distinct phases: Enumerated Powers Federalism (1787), Fundamental Rights Federalism (1865), New Deal Federalism (1933), and State Sovereignty Federalism (1986-).  The authors credit the Rehnquist Court with the revival of Enumerated Powers Federalism, and the Roberts Court, which continues the work of Rehnquist favoring state sovereignty over federal authoritarianism. 


At Penobscot

The first colonial resolution for creating a naval force came from Rhode Island on 12 June 1775.  One old saying is that “necessity is the mother of invention.”  Not that a navy was a new idea, but rather the realization that if the colonies intended to make good on their declaration of independence, they would need freedom of navigation and stout defense of the colony’s long coastline to do it.  Rhode Island took this initiative because the Royal Navy’s harassment costs to that colony’s shipping were high.  Two months later, Rhode Island proposed a single Continental Fleet (funded by all thirteen colonies, of course).

In October 1775, Congress passed a resolution creating the Continental Navy.  It would take something more than a piece of paper to build an adequate navy, of course, and the fact is that the Continental Navy had a somewhat rough beginning.  But by the early part of 1779, America’s naval effort against British shipping had a favorable impact.  Privateers, particularly those working the Atlantic between New York and Nova Scotia, had become exceptionally proficient in intercepting and assaulting British cargo vessels — so well, in fact, that by the spring, the Royal Navy began escorting convoys of cargo ships to North America.

The downside of the British convoy system was that it siphoned off Royal Navy ships from other tasks.  Moreover, the activities of American privateers forced the British to develop the strategy of taking shelter in protected anchorages near active sea lanes — places from which they could dispatch patrols against American raiders.  The coast of Maine was especially useful in this regard because of its many estuaries, because the region contained a large number of British loyalists, and because the forested areas in Maine were a primary source of timber for American shipbuilding.[1]

General Sir Henry Clinton, Commander-in-Chief of British forces in the colonies, instructed the commander of British forces in Nova Scotia, Brigadier General Francis McLean, to establish a fortification on the Penobscot River — one capable of housing 400-500 men, with a magazine.  Beyond the construction of a fortification, Clinton also instructed McLean to offer land grants to local inhabitants in exchange for their oath of loyalty to the British Crown.  McLean’s regiment would consist of 400 men from the 74th Regiment of Foot (Argyle Highlanders) and another 100 men from the King’s Orange Rangers (a loyalist regiment in New Jersey).[2]

In May 1779, General McLean decided to enlarge his force to 640 men.  Four-hundred forty of these would come from the 74th Regiment under the command of Lieutenant Colonel John Campbell, and, since the King’s Orange Rangers could not provide an additional 100 men, McLean decided to excuse the rangers from service and replace them with 200 men from his own regiment, the 82nd.

General McLean’s convoy departed Halifax on 30 May escorted by HMS Blonde, HMS North, HMS Nautilus, HMS Albany, and HMS Hope.  Pathfinders reconnoitered the banks of the Penobscot River in mid-June to find a suitable site for the fort.  McLean decided on a peninsula that extends into the bay from the eastern shore known as Bagaduce.  At the time of McLean’s arrival at Bagaduce, the land was covered by an evergreen forest of fir and pine.  A protected bay opened to the South.  For his building site, the General chose an elevated plateau near the middle of the peninsula.  From that position, McLean’s cannon could command access to the bay.  A thick forest obscured the river (western side) of the arm.

Once General McLean’s force and supplies had been off-loaded, he anticipated that Captain Andrew Barkley, commanding the flotilla, would leave several ships at anchor in the bay.  Barkley, however, intended to withdraw all his ships except HMS Albany (under Captain Henry Mowat).  An argument ensued between Barkley and McLean, which was only resolved when Barkley became aware that several American frigates operated off the coast of Halifax.  Without Barkley’s flotilla, Halifax was virtually at the mercy of the American navy.  Eventually, Captain Barkley permitted HMS Albany, HMS North, and HMS Nautilus to remain behind at Bagaduce along with McLean’s transport ships.

American rebels quickly learned of McLean’s landing.  One rumor warned that General McLean commanded 1,500 men.  Brigadier General Charles Cushing of the Massachusetts militia suggested that several county militias might be required to disengage McLean.  Rebel spies kept the Council of Massachusetts regularly informed of McLean’s activities.[3]  With so much reliance upon the sea for its economic welfare, it would only be a matter of time before the Americans challenged the British in Nova Scotia.

The alarmed Council of Massachusetts wasted no time in making an appeal to the Congressional Navy Board for their assistance in removing the British threat.  The Navy Board advised its Marine Committee of these circumstances and tendered its recommendation that Congress order its ships to address this new British threat.

Money was tight in 1779.  Even before the Marine Committee could formulate its reply, the Navy Board sent a letter back to the Massachusetts Council informing them that the Navy Board concurred with any “proper measures” Massachusetts may undertake to dislodge the enemy from Penobscot.  Apparently, without saying as much, the Continental Congress thought it would be great if Massachusetts paid for the operation.  Congress did offer them the services of Captain Dudley Saltonstall and four Continental Navy ships to achieve the ouster of the British garrison at Penobscot, however.

As a senior Continental Navy officer, Saltonstall would serve as commodore of Continental and Massachusetts ships.[4]   Preparation for the sea began aboard the sloops Warren, Providence, and Brige.  Taking a ship to sea in 1779 was difficult because recruiting experienced crews was nearly impossible.  Experienced sailors preferred to serve aboard privateers where the pay was better and sea passages much safer.

On 29 June 1779, the Council of Massachusetts formed a small committee whose task was to direct the province of New Hampshire to raise a militia.  The Council of New Hampshire agreed to send a 20-gun privateer, the HampdenHampden was armed with six and 9-pound cannon and carried a complement of 130 men.  In addition to Hampden and the four Continental ships, the American flotilla would include three vessels of the Massachusetts Navy, twelve privateers paid for by Massachusetts, and several merchant ships hired to carry supplies from Boston and militia from York Lincoln, and Cumberland counties.

In addition to Continental Marines serving aboard Captain Saltonstall’s ships, the plan for the Penobscot Expedition included 1,500 militia recruited from Maine’s three southern-most counties.  Unfortunately, it was no easier to recruit soldiers than it was sailors and Maine recruiters fell short of their quota by around six hundred men.

The solution to Maine’s shortage of volunteers was conscription, which netted mostly young boys, invalids, and elderly men.  Without waiting for a second draft effort, Maine’s Adjutant General marched his 433 men to a rendezvous at Townsend (present-day Boothbay Harbor).  The number of men drafted from York and Lincoln was also disappointing.  At Townsend, militia Brigadier General Solomon Lovell, the designated commander of land forces, could only muster 873 men.

There was no time to train these men.  The Council of Massachusetts wanted to assault Bagaduce before the British could complete the construction of their fort.  General Lovell opted to take his small force ahead to Bagaduce while a call for more men went out to adjacent colonies.  If mustered, these additional men would proceed to Bagaduce as soon as possible; if not, then Lovell would have to make do with what he had.

Small groups of transport ships and privateers rendezvoused in Nantasket Roads during mid-July.  Given the primitive communications of the day, one wonders how long a ship’s captain would wait around for something to happen before losing interest. Still, by 23 July, all naval units were anchored off Townsend, and militia began boarding their transports.

Captain Saltonstall’s flotilla set sail on 24 July.  He had earlier sent Tyrannicide and Hazard ahead to scout for British ships.  A short distance into the Bay, Captain Williams of the Hazard dispatched Marine Second Lieutenant William Cunningham ashore to find local inhabitants who might provide valuable intelligence about enemy activities.  We do not know the details of Cunningham’s scouting party; we only know that he returned with three men.

After Saltonstall arrived in Penobscot Bay on 25 July, Captain Williams dispatched Cunningham and his men to the flagship Warren to brief Commodore Saltonstall on what they’d learned.  Meanwhile, through other sources, Saltonstall learned of the presence in nearby Camden of Mr. James Mills Mitchell, a man reputedly familiar with the area where the British fort was under construction.  We know Saltonstall conferred with Mitchell; we simply do not know what they discussed.

After that, Captain Saltonstall ordered Lieutenant Brown, commanding Diligent, to reconnoiter the riverbank near Bagaduce.  While performing this mission, Brown observed three men waving from shore to gain his attention.  One of the three men reported that he had observed British activities and estimated the number of soldiers between 450-500.  He said that the fort was not quite half-completed.  Brown sent these men along to Warren, where they made their report to Captain Saltonstall.  Lieutenant Brown had no personal knowledge of McLean’s dispositions or activities, but that didn’t prevent him from advising Saltonstall to prepare for an immediate attack.  In Brown’s opinion, the fort could be “easily taken.”

Commodore Saltonstall was not easily persuaded.  He remarked to Brown, “Only a madman would go in before they had reconnoitered, and it would be the height of madness even to attempt it.”  Saltonstall was wisely prudent because nothing of what had been reported to him had any basis in fact.  Saltonstall, for example, was told that the fort’s walls were barely three feet high when the fortification was much further along.

General McLean had either co-opted local inhabitants or pressed them into labor parties to strengthen the fort. He had mounted his cannon to support his infantry, the defensive lines had been closed, and his construction included chevaux-de-frise defensive works.[5]  His shore battery firing positions had been raised to allow for firing in barbette. McLean had also stripped the cannon from the starboard side of British vessels (they were arranged in line with the port side outward), placing these cannons at various sites ashore.

In preparation for the American assault, General Lovell directed Marines and militia to probe the British line. Undercover of naval artillery from Hazard, Tyrannicide, and Sally, Lovell ordered the landing force ashore on Sunday, 25 July (the first day of hostilities).  Seven American boats were able to approach the shore, but strong winds produced a severe chop in bay waters, preventing most boats from reaching shore.  Seven boats did approach the beach, but intense British fire turned them back. Irregular cannonades were exchanged with minor damage to either side. Lovell canceled the attack.

The sporadic naval fire was again exchanged throughout the day on 26 July, with minor damage to either side. Still, the action did cause the British to re-position their ships further up into the harbor to tighten their defensive line.

At 18:00 on Monday, Captain Saltonstall dispatched Marine Captain John Walsh to Banks Island, where the British had established several cannon positions.  Walsh secured his objective, but with no further orders, he set up defensive positions on the island and ordered his Marines to begin constructing field cannon positions from which the Americans might fire on British ships and land positions.  Walsh’s landing forced the British ships to once again re-position themselves.

While Walsh led his Marines to Banks Island, Major Daniel Littlefield, commanding militia, led an assault force to seize a British position near the entrance to the Bagaduce River.  While approaching the shore, a shot from British cannon landed in Littlefield’s boat, killing him and three others.  General Lovell detailed a third force of men to go ashore and begin constructing a siege position.  The Americans were under constant British fire throughout their effort to develop a foothold.

On Tuesday evening, a substantial disagreement developed between General Lovell, his deputy, Brigadier General Peleg Wadsworth,[6] Captain Saltonstall, and a few more senior naval commanders.  Militia officers favored a vigorous naval assault against the British vessels in the harbor.  If these ships could be destroyed, they argued, the land campaign would be more easily started and more likely of success on the harbor side of the peninsula.  Navy officers, including Saltonstall, argued that the army and Marines should first land and overrun the fort; this would allow the American fleet to “safely destroy the British vessels.”  Overrunning the fort would be easier said than done given the precipitous cliffs fronting the fort.  Further complicating the discord between the naval and land commanders, several privateer captains grew impatient and circulated a petition urging Saltonstall to proceed with this operation without further delay.[7]

At this council of war, which was held aboard Warren, the Americans decided to proceed with their assault on Bagaduce.  The landing force consisted of around 850 militia and 227 Marines.  Eighty cannoneers served under Lieutenant Colonel Paul Revere.

Saltonstall directed that preparations for the assault begin at midnight, which achieved little more than deprive the men of sleep.  His plan divided the landing force into three sections.  As the senior Marine officer, Captain John Walsh would lead his men ashore on the American right.  Colonel McCobb’s Lincoln County militia and LtCol Revere’s artillerists would serve in reserve.  Colonel Jonathon Mitchell’s Cumberland County militia would go ashore on the American left.  Once ashore, Brigadier General Wadsworth would exercise overall command of the land forces.

Loading flat bottomed boats with so many armed men was a time-consuming effort, and the men were left standing in the boats for most of the night.  American naval fire began at 03:00.  At first light, the landing boats began their movement to shore under the cover of a dense fog, which made the movement to shore dangerously confusing.  Marines and militia began their landing at around 05:00; they were met by heavy British musket fire.  Moving in small groups, the men started their climb up the precipice essentially one-handed while holding their weapons on their non-dominant hand.

Mitchell’s force encountered McLean’s 82nd Regiment.  For the most part, the 82nd was composed of inexperienced soldiers, which allowed the militia to overrun them without much difficulty.  On the right, Walsh confronted McLean’s more experienced men, then serving under Lieutenant John Moore.[8]  While the Marines advanced with deadly resolve, Lieutenant Moore, with only twenty soldiers remaining alive, was equally tenacious in holding the line.  Captain Walsh was killed, his second in command, First Lieutenant William Hamilton was severely wounded, yet the Marines continued their assault.  Moore, in danger of being encircled, finally withdrew to the fort.

As the Marines regrouped, they counted their losses of 34 men, including Welsh and Hamilton.  Marine First Lieutenant William Downe assumed command on the right and continued his assault.  According to Downe, it looked as if General McLean was ready to concede the fort — and might have done so were it not for the fact that the Marines did not receive the naval artillery support they expected from Saltonstall.  Saltonstall’s failure to support the Marines and murderous fire from the British forced Downe to assume defensive positions.

By the end of the day, the Americans had established a 180° defense and proceeded to move their artillery ashore.  McLean, however, was firmly in control of Fort George.  Concentrated artillery fire forced the Americans to entrench.  Sleep-deprived, the militia were becoming unruly and not simply a little displeased with the navy’s lack of artillery support.

Sometime during the morning of 29 July, Commodore Saltonstall decided that it might be a good idea to construct a fortification facing the British.  Captain Salter of Hampden and Captain Thomas of Vengeance would supervise the work of sixteen engineers to build the American fort.  Now, if Saltonstall believed the militiamen were rowdy on 29th July, the attitude of the troops on 5 August was positively murderous.  They were tired of “dicking around.”

General Lovell, commanding ground forces, sent a note to Saltonstall asking whether his ships would enter the harbor to support the land force.  Everyone ashore wanted to know the answer, but Saltonstall felt it necessary to convene another series of war councils before answering.  Saltonstall decided, finally, that Lovell would receive no naval support until after he had taken Fort George.  At a subsequent meeting of militia officers, it was unanimously decided that if those were Saltonstall’s terms, he could bloody well take the fort himself.

For his part, General Lovell was steadfast in keeping the Massachusetts Council apprised of the progress of the Penobscot Expedition; the Council had heard nothing at all from Saltonstall.  When the Council finally understood how dire the situation was at Penobscot, they requested immediate reinforcements from General Horatio Gates, who was then at Providence.  Gates had no opportunity to respond to this emergency — it would have taken him far too long to recruit adequate reinforcements.  In any case, by that time, the Penobscot Expedition had already fallen apart.

By 13 August, General McLean had nearly completed his fort and a British fleet, having heard of the assault on 28 July, was en route to Penobscot under the command of Admiral Sir George Collier.  Lovell and his officers, no longer participating in expedition planning with the naval force, developed their own plan for assaulting the British fort.  Before the operation could be implemented, however, a heavy fog set in.  When it lifted, Collier’s flotilla was observed entering the lower bay with ten warships.  Although fewer in number than the Americans, the British fleet was experienced, proven in warfare, and more heavily armed.  Saltonstall was lucky that a rain squall appeared, followed by more fog and then darkness — but the American’s luck didn’t hold.

At first light, the British began their approach.  The American ships broke and ran from the fight and headed upstream, hoping to find small inlets where they could hide.  By nightfall, most American ships, including transports, had either been captured by the British or destroyed by their own crews.  Most of the landing force fled through the Maine wilderness, leaving behind them on the shores of the Penobscot River the smoldering remains of the American fleet.  The expedition’s survivors began filtering into Boston during the first week in September.

News of the Penobscot disaster shocked and demoralized the colony of Massachusetts.   Except for the three Continental ships and one ship from New Hampshire, the Massachusetts colony agreed to indemnify the owners of its ships for any damages or losses.  Including the cost of the expedition, Massachusetts added more than £4-million to its debt.  Worse, Massachusetts had lost its entire navy.  Someone would have to account.

Courts-martial exonerated Generals Lovell and Wadsworth of ineptitude.  Commodore Saltonstall, on the other hand, was tried and found guilty of gross incompetence.  A navy board determined that Saltonstall was wholly unfit to command a navy ship and stripped him of his commission.

As for the Continental Marines, their numbers being relatively small, they were never able to influence the events of the Penobscot River Expedition.  They performed admirably when called upon, as evidenced by the seizure of Banks Island, and seizing the heights at Bagaduce. Still, this valor was insufficient to compensate for the navy’s failed leadership.

There are as many lessons in failure as there are from success.  Despite achieving a near-victory, the Americans guaranteed their own defeat — first by failing to maintain unity of command, second by failing to develop a communications plan, third by poor operational planning, the employment of an untrained militia, and worst of all, timid senior commanders.

The cost of Penobscot was high.  From a strength of around 700 soldiers and ten warships, McLean held off an American force of 3,000 (navy and militia), 19 warships, and 25 support vessels.  McLean lost 86 men, killed, wounded, captured, or missing.  The Americans gave up 474 killed, wounded, captured, or missing, 19 warships destroyed, and 25 support ships sunk, destroyed, or captured.  General McLean retained his small settlement in Maine until the British force was withdrawn of their own accord.[9]  General McLean passed away from an illness in 1781. 

The United States did not seriously consider another large-scale amphibious operation until the Mexican-American War (1846-48).

Sources:

  1. Bicheno, H.  Redcoats, and Rebels: The American Revolutionary War.  London: Harper Collins, 2003.
  2. Buker, G. E.  The Penobscot Expedition: Commodore Saltonstall and the Massachusetts Conspiracy of 1779.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2002.
  3. Smith, C. R.  Marines in the Revolution: A History of the Continental Marines in the American Revolution, 1775-1783.  Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1975.

Endnotes:

[1] Maine was then known as the Eastern Provinces of Massachusetts Bay.  Some historians believe that Maine might have been looked upon as a location for a new British colony — one set aside for British loyalists in American.  It would be called New Ireland, and it would be located between the Penobscot and St. Croix rivers.

[2] Roughly one-third of the residents of New Jersey remained loyal to the British crown.

[3] Boston had become a center for privateering activities; McLean’s presence in Maine threatened the privateers, who were heavily invested in ships and crews. 

[4] Saltonstall (1738-1796) was a descendant of Sir Richard Saltonstall and John Winthrop, who governed the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 17th Century.  Politically well-connected in the colonies, Dudley received his commission in the Continental Navy upon the recommendations of his brother-in-law, Silas Deane, who served  on Connecticut’s Naval Committee.  He first commanded the flag ship of Commodore Esek Hopkins, Alfred and was responsible for hiring John Paul Jones as First Lieutenant.  In 1779, Saltonstall was the senior Continental Navy officer based in Boston.

[5] The chevaux-de-frise was an anti-cavalry defense work consisting of a portable frame covered with several to many long-iron projections, spikes, or spears.

[6] Brigadier General Peleg Wadsworth (1748-1829) served as a general officer in the Massachusetts militia, district of Maine, as Adjutant General of Massachusetts, and as second in command to Brigadier Solomon Lovell during the Penobscot Expedition.  He later served as a congressman from Massachusetts.  He was the grandfather of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

[7] Thirty-two naval officers from 11 ships signed the petition.

[8] Later, Lieutenant-General Sir John Moore (1761-1809), also known as Moore of Corunna, was known for his tenacity in combat.  During the Peninsular War, Moore repulsed the army of Marshal Soult at Corunna, giving up his life in a valiant contest of martial will.

[9] A fictionalized account of the Penobscot Expedition was the subject of Bernard Cornwall’s book entitled The Fort (published 2010).


At the Heart of the Corps

On Land and Sea

An Overview

Before the American Revolution, the thirteen British Colonies experienced few difficulties in matters of commercial navigation because all commercial shipping was protected by the Royal Navy, at the time the strongest navy in the world.  This invaluable protection came to an end when the colonies rebelled.  After the Revolution, the United States (having achieved its independence), would have to fend for itself.  That, of course, was easier said than done.  It would take the newly created country several decades to sort it all out.

The revolution threw the United States deeply into debt.  Complicating those matters was the fact that the United States was operating under the Articles of Confederation.[1]  In 1783, the cash-strapped congress disbanded the Continental Army, Navy, and Marine Corps.

Three hundred years before the United States won its independence, the Barbary Coast states (Tripoli, Algiers, Morocco, and Tunis) began preying upon European ships.  The method used by the Mohammedan pirates was simple enough.  Cruising the Mediterranean in small but fast ships, pirates overtook merchant ships, boarded them, overpowered the crew, captured crew and passengers, and held them as prisoners until either their home country paid a ransom demand, or until the captives were sold into slavery.  To avoid these difficulties, most European states reasoned that in the long-term, it would be cheaper to pay the Barbary states an annual tribute, guaranteeing free passage through the Mediterranean Sea.

Barbary pirates seized their first American-flagged ship, the merchantman Betsey, in 1785.  The crew of that ship languished in irons for eight years.  The Maria, home ported in Boston, was taken a few months later.  Dauphin, from Philadelphia was next.  Ship owners complained, of course, but there being no money for a naval force, there was nothing congress or the states could do about the Barbary Pirates.  Between 1785 and 1793, 13 American ships were lost to the Mediterranean pirates.  In 1793 alone, the Mohammedans seized eleven ships.  To America’s shame, Congress agreed to pay the pirates tribute, and, at that point, the camel’s nose was under the tent.  The amount of tribute increased with each passing year.  In 1792, the United States paid ransoms totaling $40,000.00, and paid a tribute of $25,000.

Historians estimate that between the early-to-mid 1500s through 1800, Moslem pirates captured over one million white Christians from France, Italy, Spain, Holland, Great Britain, Iceland, and the Americas.  Released crew and passengers recounted horrifying tales of their inhumane treatment, but even if some of these stories were exaggerated, they weren’t very far off the mark.  The Berbers made no distinction between passengers or crew, or whether they were male or female.  All captives were stripped of their clothing, robbed of all their possessions, and imprisoned awaiting ransom or enslavement.  Women were repeatedly raped — which under Islamic law, was permitted and encouraged.  Most captives languished in prison filth for years; many died in captivity.  The only possible respite available to those luckless captives was to convert to Islam.  Many of the converted sailors joined the corsairs as raiders.

In modern parlance, Barbary pirates carried out state-sponsored terrorism.  It was an extortion racket, pure and simple, and every North African state was complicit.  How the extortionists made their living was not entirely unusual and European heads of state well-understood the game.  British, French, and Spanish privateers pursued a similar (albeit, more civilized) course of action.  Insofar as the Europeans were concerned, paying tribute was merely the cost of doing business in the Mediterranean.  Tribute costs increased as a matter of course whenever a new ruler assumed power.  What made this a complication is that the voyage from Philadelphia to Tripoli took around six weeks.  An increase in tribute between the time a ship left the United States and its arrival in North Africa would involve an additional twelve (or more) weeks sailing time.

Global Conflict and American Diplomacy

Barbary Pirates were not the United States’ only concern.  The outbreak of war between France and Great Britain (and other countries) in 1793 ended the ten years of peace that enabled the United States to develop a system of national finance and trade.  Ship building and commercial shipping were America’s largest industries in 1793.

From the British perspective, improved relations with the United States was most desirable, particularly in terms of the UK’s attempt to deny France access to American goods.  From the American point of view, it would be most beneficial to normalize relations with the British because in doing so, the US would be in a better position to resolve unsettled issues from the 1783 Treaty of Paris.  This is not how things worked out, however.

President Washington

In mid-1793, Britain announced its intention to seize any ships trading with the French, including those flying the American flag.  In protest, widespread civil disorder erupted in several American cities and by the end of the following year, tensions with Britain were so high that President Washington ordered the suspension of trade to European ports.  But, at the same time, Washington sent an envoy to England in an attempt to reconcile differences with the United Kingdom.  Britain’s behavior, meanwhile, particularly given its earlier preference for good relations with the United States, was perplexing.  The British began the construction of a fortress in Ohio, sold guns and ammunition to the Indians, and urged them to attack American western settlements.

President Washington’s strongest inclination, as a response to British provocations, was to seek a diplomatic solution.  Unhappily, Washington’s envoy to England, John Jay, negotiated a weak treaty that undermined America’s preference for free trade on the high seas and, moreover, the treaty failed to compensate American shippers for loss of cargo seized by the Royal Navy during the revolution.  Worse than that, however, the Jay Treaty did not address the British practice of impressment.  Given the fact that there were several favorable aspects to the Jay Treaty, the US Senate approved it with one caveat: trade barriers imposed by the UK must be rescinded.

Mr. Washington, while dissatisfied with the Jay Treaty, nevertheless signed it.  Doing so brought the President his first public criticism and helped set into motion political partisanship within the Congress, toward the administration, and popularly directed at both.[2]  It was also in 1794 that the President and Congress had finally reached the limits of their patience with the Islamic barbarians.

President Washington asked Congress to reestablish a naval force and for authorization to construct six new warships.  Clearly, there was no reason to build six warships if the United States didn’t intend to use them.  Mr. Washington’s message to Congress was unambiguous: “If we desire to avoid insult, we must be able to repel it.  If we desire to secure peace, it must be known that we are at all times ready for war.”

The Naval Act of 1794 authorized the construction of six warships at a total cost of just under $700,000.  It was not a unanimous decision; some members of Congress believed that the money could be better spent elsewhere — such as in westward expansion.  The navy hawks won that argument.  Along with six new ships, the navy began to appoint offers to command those ships and recruit the men who would crew them.  And one more thing — the Navy would require United States Marines as well.

It took time to build the ships, reform the naval service, and hire the right men as captains.  Meanwhile, in 1796, the United States concluded a peace treaty with Algiers.  The United States paid $642,500 cash, up front, and agreed to a healthy annual tribute and assorted naval stores.  The total cost to the United States for this one treaty was $992,463.  In modern value, this would amount of well over $14-million.  By way of comparison, the entire federal budget for 1796 was $5.7 million.

The Jay Treaty was not well received in France because in 1778, the United States signed an agreement with King Louis XVI of France — termed the Franco-American treaty of Alliance — where, in exchange for French support for the American Revolution, the United States agreed to protect French colonial interests in the Caribbean.  The Alliance had no expiry date.

The French Revolution began in 1789.  By 1791, the crowned heads of Europe watched developments in France with deep concerns.  Several crowned heads proposed military intervention as a means of putting an end to the chaos and the terror.  The War of the First Coalition (1792-1797) involved several European powers against the Constitutional Kingdom of France (later the French Republic) — a loose coalition, to be sure, and a conflict fought without much coordination or agreement.  The one commonality in the coalition was that everyone had an eye on a different part of France should they eventually divide the country among them.

France looked upon the United States as its ally, pursuant to the Alliance of 1778, but there were several contentious issues:

  • First, the Americans strenuously objected to the execution of King Louis XVI in 1793.
  • Second, the Senate ratified the Jay Treaty (Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation).
  • Third, the United States passed the Neutrality Act of 1794.  The Act forbid any American to engage in war with any nation at peace with the United States.  Hence, no American could side with France against the British.
  • Fourth, the Neutrality Act cancelled the United States’ war debt to France.  Members of Congress reasoned that since America’s debt agreement existed between the United States and the King of France, the king’s execution cancelled America’s debt  Adding insult to injury, the Act also ended the Alliance of 1778.
  • Fifth, in retribution for reneging on the Alliance of 1778, the French Navy began seizing American ships engaged in trade with the UK — both as part of its war with the First Coalition, and as a means of collecting America’s revolutionary war debt.
  • Sixth, there was the so-called XYZ affair.[3]  With Diplomatic relations already at an all-time low between these two countries and owing to the fact that the United States had no naval defense, the French expanded their aggressive policy of attacking US commercial ships in American waters.

Re-birth of the United States Navy and Marine Corps

Without an American Navy, there could be no American response to French or Barbary depredations on the high seas.  Driven by Thomas Jefferson’s objections to federal institutions, Congress sold the last Continental warship in 1785.  All the United States had remaining afloat was a small flotilla belonging to the US Revenue Cutter Service; its only coastal defense was a few small and much neglected forts.  As a result, French privateers roamed American coastal waters virtually unchecked.  Between 1796-97, French privateers captured 316 American ships — roughly 6% of the entire US merchant fleet.  The cost to the United States was between $12-15 million.

USS Constitution

What the French accomplished through their program of retribution was to convince Federalists that the United States needed a Navy.  In total, Congress authorized the construction of eight ships, including USS United States, USS Constellation, USS Constitution, USS Congress, USS Chesapeake, USS President, USS General Greene, and USS Adams.  Congress additionally authorized “subscription ships.”  These were ships supported (paid for) by American cities.  The ships included five frigates[4] and four sloops[5], which were converted from commercial ships. Two noteworthy of these was USS Philadelphia and USS Boston.

In finally realizing that national honor demanded action, Congress re-established the U. S. Navy and along with it, the United States Marine Corps — as before, during the Revolutionary War, providing seagoing detachments became the Corps’ primary mission.  Serving aboard ship as naval infantry is the Marine Corps’ oldest duty.[6]  Americans didn’t invent this duty; it’s been around for about 2,500 years — all the way back to when the Greeks placed archers aboard ship to raise hell with the crews of enemy ships. 

The Marines had several missions while at sea.  During the 18th and 19th centuries, ship’s crews were often surly and undisciplined, and mutiny was always a possibility.  With armed Marines aboard, the chance of mutiny dropped to near zero.  Marines not only enforced navy regulations and the captain’s orders, but they also meted out punishments awarded to the crew when required.  In those days, there were no close-knit feelings between sailors and Marines — which has become an abiding naval tradition.

Marines led naval boarding parties … a tactic employed to invade and overrun enemy officers and crews in order to capture, sabotage, or destroy the enemy ship.  They were also used to perform cutting out operations, which involved boarding anchored enemy ships from small boats, often executed as ship-to-ship boarding operations after nightfall.  Marine detachments provided expert riflemen to serve aloft in their ship’s rigging, their duty was targeting enemy officers, helms men, and gunners.  When the ship’s captain ordered landing operations or raiding parties, Marines were always “first to fight.”  Marines also served as gunners aboard ship.  Naval artillery was always a Marine Corps skill set, one that later transitioned to field artillery operations — as noted during the Battle of Bladensburg, Maryland.

The Quasi-War with France

Ships of the Royal Navy blockaded most of France’s capital ships in their home ports.  The U. S. Navy’s mission was twofold: first, to locate and seize or destroy smaller French ships operating along the US seacoast and in the Caribbean, and to protect convoys of cargo ships across the Atlantic.  There was no formal agreement between the US and UK — it simply worked out as an informal cooperative arrangements between British and American sea captains.

The largest threat to American shipping came from small, but well-armed French privateers.  These ships were constructed with shallow drafts, which enabled them to operate close to shore and within shallow estuaries.  French privateers used French and Spanish ports to launch surprise attacks on passing ships before running back to port.  To counter this tactic, the US Navy employed similarly sized vessels from the Revenue Cutter Service.

The first US victory over the French was capture of La Croyable, a privateer, by USS DelawareLa Croyable was captured after a lengthy pursuit along the southern New Jersey coast.  After the ship’s capture, she was renamed USS Retribution.  There were several other sea battles, but it may be sufficient to say that the U. S. Navy shined in its confrontation with a major European naval power.

U. S. Navy Captain Silas Talbot previously served during the Revolutionary War as an officer in the Continental Army.  On 28th June 1777, Talbot received a commission to serve as a captain of the 2nd Rhode Island Regiment.  After the siege of Boston, Talbot marched with his regiment to New York.  En route, the regiment rested at New London, Connecticut where he learned of Navy Captain Esek Hopkins’ request for 200 volunteers to assist in operations in the Bahamas.  Silas Talbot was one of Hopkins’ volunteers, but he retained his status as an officer of the Continental Army.

After having been recognized for his exceptional performance of duty and promotion to lieutenant colonel in the Continental Army (while serving at sea), the Congress commissioned Silas Talbot to captain, U. S. Navy, and gave him command of the American privateer General Washington on 17th September 1779.  In his final Revolutionary War engagement, the feisty Talbot tangled with the British fleet off the coast of New York.  He attempted to withdraw but was forced to strike his colors to HMS Culloden.  Talbot remained a prisoner of war until December 1781.

Following the Revolutionary War, Talbot served in the New York state assembly and as a member of the U. S. House of Representatives.  In early June 1794, President Washington selected Talbot to become the third of six newly commissioned captains of the United States Navy.  His first assignment was supervision of the USS President then under construction in New York.  On 20th April 1796, Congress suspended work on President  and Talbot was discharged.  Two years later, with the outbreak of the Quasi War, Talbot was recommissioned and assigned command of USS Constitution.

Captain Talbot’s mission was to protect American commercial ships, and to seek out and capture or destroy French Privateers.  In addition to commanding Constitution, Talbot was assigned overall command of the Santo Domingo Station.  In early May 1800, Constitution noted the presence of an armed French vessel anchored in Puerto Plata.  Talbot planned a “cutting out” expedition to either capture this vessel or fire it.  The ship’s identification was Sandwich, formerly a Royal Navy ship that had been captured by the French and operated as a privateer.

Sandwich, in addition to being well-armed, was anchored under the protection of heavy guns of Fortaleza San Felipe.  Talbot’s problem was that Constitution was too large to enter the harbor at Puerto Plata.  On 9th May, Talbot detained a small American sloop christened Sally, a 58-ton ship based out of Providence, Rhode Island, under the command of Thomas Sanford.  Since Sally frequented the waters off Puerto Plata, her presence was not likely to raise the alarm of French and Spanish forces protecting Sandwich.

Commodore Talbot’s plan called for the detachment of one-hundred sailors and Marines from Constitution to serve under the command of Lieutenant Isaac Hull, USN with Marines under the command of Captain Daniel Carmick, USMC.[7]  The American sailors and Marines would hide inside Sally as the ship sailed into the harbor and then execute the capture of Sandwich.  Overall command of the cutting out operation would fall to Captain Carmick.  According to Carmick’s journal, “By this means it was easy to take the vessel by surprise [sic]; it put me in mind of the wooden horse at Troy.”

As Sally made her way into port, she was fired on by a British frigate and subsequently boarded.  The British officer commanding found not a small vessel engaged in trade, but one filled below decks with US sailors and Marines.  Lieutenant Hull provided the British officer with an overview of the intended operation.  As it happened, the British were also watching Sandwich with interest.  After some discussion, the Americans were allowed to continue their mission with the Royal Navy’s best wishes for success.

On 11th May, with Sally maintaining her cover, the ship sailed into Puerto Plata.  Hull ordered the sailors and Marines to remain below decks until his order to board Sandwich.  Sally laid alongside the French privateer and, when Hull ordered it, Carmick led his Marines over the side of Sandwich in “handsome style, carrying all before them and taking possession” of the enemy ship without any loss to themselves.  Following Captain Talbot’s plan, Captain Carmick and First Lieutenant Amory led their Marines toward the fort.  Their assault was stealthy and quick.  Before the Spanish Army commander had time to react, the Marines were already in control of the fort, had spiked its guns, and withdrew to board Sandwich, which they promptly attempted to sail out of the harbor.  Unfavorable winds delayed their departure until the middle of the night.

The action at Puerto Plata was significant because it marked the first time United States Marines conducted combat operations on foreign soil.  The operation was boldly executed and lauded by Commodore Talbot.  He wrote, “Perhaps no enterprize [sic] of the same moment has ever better executed and I feel myself under great obligation to Lieutenant Hull, Captain Carmick, and Lieutenant Armory, for their avidity in taking the scheme that I had planned, and for the handsome manner and great address with which they performed this dashing adventure.”

Commodore Talbot was criticized, however, because it was the decision of the admiralty court that seizure of Sandwich whilst anchored in a neutral port, was an illegal act.[8]  Not only was Sandwich returned to France, the officers and crew forfeited their bounty.  Not even the official history of the Marine Corps remembers this FIRST action on foreign shore.  Rather, the official history of the Corps skips over the Quasi-War and addresses the Barbary Wars as if the former never happened.[9]

The United States Navy and Royal Navy reduced the activities of French privateers and capital warships.  The Convention of 1800, signed on 30 September 1800, which ended the Quasi-War, affirmed the rights of Americans as neutrals upon the sea and reiterated the abrogation of the Alliance of 1778.  It did not compensate the United States for its claims against France.

Addressing the Barbary Menace to Navigation

Lt. Presley O’Bannon USMC

For a summary account of how the United States responded to the Barbary pirates, see At Tripoli (Part I) and At Tripoli (Part II ).

The courage and intrepidity of the naval force at Tripoli was without peer in the age of sail, heralded at the time by British Admiral Horatio Nelson as “The most-bold and daring act of the age.”  Pope Pius VII added, “The United States, though in their infancy, have done more to humble the anti-Christian barbarians on the African coast than all the European states have done.”  But politically, all we can say is that the United States government is consistent in its perfidy.

While Thomas Jefferson proclaimed victory, his ambassadors were working behind the scenes cutting deals with barbarian pirates.  Consul-General Tobias Lear negotiated a less-than-honorable peace treaty with Tripoli.  Jefferson agreed to pay $60,000 for all American prisoners, agreed to withdraw all naval forces, granted a secret stipulation allowing the Pasha to retain Ahmad’s family as hostages, and without a single blink, betrayed Ahmad Qaramanli.  The Senate ratified this treaty in 1806 over the objection of Federalists and it did not seem to matter, to either Jefferson or James Madison, that they lost the respect of the American people.  Of course, Madison added to this in 1812 by starting a war with the United Kingdom that ultimately ended up with the destruction of the nation’s capital — except for the US Marine Barracks and Eighth and I Streets.

Nor did the Barbary pirates end their misdeeds; the United States simply decided to ignore them (even at the expense to American-flagged merchant ships).  After the end of the War of 1812, it was again necessary to address Mohammedan piracy.  On 2nd March 1815, Madison asked Congress for a declaration of war against the pirates.  Madison dispatched two naval squadrons to deal with the miscreant Moslems.  Commodore William Bainbridge commanded one of these, Commodore Stephen Decatur commanded the other.

Decatur reached the Barbary Coast first, quickly defeated the blighters, and forced a new arrangement favorable to the United States.  Decatur would not negotiate, but he didn’t mind dictating terms and in doing so, marked the first time in over 300 years that any nation had successfully stood up to the barbarian horde.  Commodore Decatur’s success ignited the imaginations of the European powers to — finally — stand up for themselves.  In late August 1816, a combined British and Dutch fleet under Lord Exmouth visited hell upon Algiers, which ended piracy against almost everyone except France.  Mohammedan depredations against France continued until 1830 when France invaded the city of Algiers — remaining there until 1962.

Sources:

  1. Abbot, W. J.  The Naval History of the United States.  Collier Press, 1896.
  2. Bradford, J. C.  Quarterdeck and Bridge: Two centuries of American Naval Leaders.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1955.
  3. McKee, C.  A Gentlemanly and Honorable Profession: The Creation of the U. S. Naval Officer Corps, 1794-1815.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1991
  4. Rak, M. J., Captain, USN.  The Quasi-War and the Origins of the Modern Navy and Marine Corps.  Newport: US Naval War College, 2020

Endnotes:

[1] The Articles served as a letter of instruction to the central government, giving it only those powers which the former colonies recognized as those belonging to king and parliament.  Although referred to as the Congress of the Confederation, the organization of Congress remained unchanged from that of the Continental Congress.  Congress looked to the Articles for guidance in directing all business … including the war effort, statesmanship, territorial issues, and relations with native Indians.  Since each state retained its independence and sovereignty, all congressional decisions required state approval.  Congress lacked enforcement power, the power to raise revenues, or the power to regulate trade.  Under the Confederation, government had no chief executive beyond “president of the congress assembled,” nor were there any federal courts.

[2] There was a single casualty from all this.  Washington’s advisers presented him with evidence that Edmund Randolph, Jefferson’s successor as secretary of state, had allegedly solicited a bribe from a French envoy to oppose the treaty with England.  Although Randolph denied the charges, an angry Washington forced his old friend to resign.  With this action, another important precedent was set.  The Constitution empowers the President to nominate his principal officers with the advice and consent of the Senate; it says nothing, however, about the chief executive’s authority to dismiss appointees.  With Washington’s dismissal of Randolph, the administrative system of the federal government was firmly tied to the President.  In total, Washington dismissed three foreign ministers, two consuls, eight collectors, and four surveyors of internal revenue — all without seeking the advice or approval of Congress.

[3] An American diplomatic mission was sent to France in July 1797 to negotiate a solution to problems that were threatening to escalate into war.  American diplomats included Charles Pinckney, John Marshall, and Elbridge Gerry.  These diplomats were approached through informal channels by agents of French foreign minister Charles Talleyrand, who demanded bribes and a loan before formal negotiations could begin.  Talleyrand had made similar demands of other nation’s diplomats and collected from them.  The Americans, however, were offended by these demands and returned to the US without engaging in any diplomatic resolution to the problems.

[4] A frigate was any warship built for speed and maneuverability.  They could be warships carrying their principal batteries of carriage-mounted guns on a single deck (with smaller carriage-mounted guns on the fo’c’sle and quarterdeck.  Frigates were too small to stand in the line of battle, but they were full rigged vessels (square rigged on all three masts).

[5] A sloop of war had a single gun deck that carried up to 18 guns, an un-rated ship, a sloop could be a gun brig or a cutter, a bomb vessel or a fireship.

[6] See also: Marine Detachments

[7] In 1800 (as today) a navy lieutenant was equivalent in rank to Marine Corps captain.  In the navy, however, there were but three ranks: lieutenant, master commandant, and captain.  In the Marine Corps, there were five ranks: lieutenant colonel commandant, major, captain, first lieutenant, and second lieutenant.  Navy command has always taken precedence for seaborne operations, including of the landing force until the Marines first set foot ashore.  At that time, if a Marine officer is present, he would assume command of land operations.  Daniel Carmick also served with distinction in the Mediterranean and commanded US Marines in the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812 (See also: At Chalmette, 1815).  He passed away in 1816 from wounds sustained in December 1814.

[8] Captain Silas Talbot resigned from the Navy following the Quasi War.  He passed away at the age of 67-years in New York on 30th June 1813.  In two wars, Captain Talbot was wounded in action thirteen times.  He carried with him to the grave the fragments of five bullets. 

[9] Captain H. A. Ellsworth published this history in 1934 (reprints in 1964, 1974) in a work titled One Hundred Eighty Landings of United States Marines, 1800-1934.  Captain Ellsworth stated, “Every United States Marine should have indelibly impressed upon his mind a picture of the island which now contains the Dominican Republic, because the city of Puerta Plata (Port Au Platte), in this republic is the birthplace of the history of the landings, other than in time of war, of his Corps.”


The British Army in North America

Some Background

What most Americans know about the British Army in North America is this: they were the most powerful Army in the world, partnered with the most powerful navy in the world, and that the American colonists in rebellion never stood a chance.  This, of course, is only true in the context of a refined, well trained army sent to confront farmers, shopkeepers, barmen, and boat builders who were drafted into the colonial militia. 

In 1754, the British Army had about 4,000 regulars serving in the North America [Note 1].  To understand what this means, in terms of manpower strength, the average size of an infantry regiment was between 700-800 men.  Given these numbers, then there were five regiments assigned to the colonies, each consisting of ten companies, the entirety being a brigade.  The brigade commander may have formed battalions of five companies each.  It is likely that British Army units were placed where they were most needed; given the size in area of the thirteen colonies, they were hardly an effective fighting force.  The soldiers in residence had been long neglected by the home government; they had become complacent in their duties and posed no threat to anyone, much less the French or their Indian surrogates.

Regimental Colonels were honorary positions of well-placed gentlemen.  The colonel’s frequent absences from the regiment made the lieutenant colonel the officer commanding, and he was assisted by a major.  Aiding the officer commanding was a small staff of five men (excluding personal batmen).  If the lieutenant colonel and major were absent from the regiment, then the senior captain stepped in as officer commanding.  In such conditions, with captains commanding the regiment, then it fell upon the lieutenants to command the companies.

The British infantry company was composed of 3 officers, 2-4 musicians, 6 noncommissioned officers, and 56 privates.  Sickness, desertion, and battle losses meant that British companies/battalions/regiments/brigades seldom — if ever — went into combat at full strength.

Young men of the eighteenth century often joined the British Army for economic reasons.  The onset of the Industrial Revolution and land closure brought enormous social changes in Great Britain.  Common laborers, textile workers, and displaced artisans joined the army to escape poverty.  The British private received eight pence per day before taxes — about £1.00 per month.   It was’t much, but it was better than the soldier could make “back home” as a laborer — £1.00 being somewhere in the neighborhood of $25.00/month in 2021 currency.

Where the British Soldiers Came From

The common soldier enlisted in the British Army under widely varied circumstances.  The unemployed textile worker may have sought out the recruiter and accepted the King’s shilling for his service “at the pleasure of the King.”  In other words, this recruit may have been recruited for life.  But the British Army also hired mercenaries; men who fought for money, and only when the money was right.  Most recruitments in the British Isles came from poverty stricken sections of the larger cities.  Each regiment recruited for itself and regimental colonels would often lead recruiting parties into towns and villages.  Some people were, with the permission of the Crown and local courts, pressed into service.  They were vagrants, homeless people, drunkards, and some were prisoners who thought it would be a better life in the Army than eating rat meat in a dark, dank prison in the midlands.   

British military officers purchased their commissions (and sold them).  The purchase price of a military officer’s commission was high enough that it precluded men of moderate means from becoming British officers, or ascending higher in rank.  Most officers up to the rank of major were of the middle class.  Only sons of nobility could afford high command; they had to be well-born, and   as such, they served concurrently as politicians and general officers.

The Braddock Expedition    

On 20 February 1755, Major General Edward Braddock arrived in the colonies with two regiments and assumed command of all British land forces as Commander-in-Chief of the British North American Army.  He met with several of the colonial governors in Alexandria on 14 April.  They persuaded him to undertake vigorous actions against the French, who had instigated native populations against British settlements.  With colonial militia reinforcing British regulars, Braddock planned his punitive expedition against the French around the following: a militia officer from Massachusetts would lead an attack against Fort Niagara; General Sir William Johnson from New York would lead an assault against the French at Crown Point; Colonel Monckton would lead an attack on the Bay of Fundy, and Braddock would himself march an expedition against Fort Duquesne (Pittsburg) on the Ohio River.

The main thrust of the British attack was Fort Duquesne.  General Braddock commanded the 44th and 48th Regiments of Foot (1,350 men), an additional force of 500 regular and colonial militia, field artillery, and other support troops, for a total of around 2,100 men [Note 2].  A twenty-three year old lieutenant colonel of militia accompanied Braddock — a surveyor, who knew the landscape, and a man capable of serving as Braddock’s aide-de-camp.  His name was George Washington.  Major General Braddock fell mortally wounded at the Battle of Monongahela on 9 July 1755, carried from the field by Colonel Washington and Colonel Meriwether.  Although Washington had no official position within the chain of command, he nevertheless brought order to the regiments and commanded a rearguard for the evacuation of the British expedition from the field.  Of Braddock’s regular force, 456 were killed, 422 wounded.  Of his officers numbering 86, 26 were killed, 37 were wounded.  There were 50 women in the Braddock expedition, all but four were killed.  Subsequent defeats along the frontier prompted London to expand the British Army in North America.  It was  easier said than done.

The average Englishman had little interest in serving in the British Army; it was a challenging lifestyle at the best of times.  Between 1755-57, only 4,500 Englishmen enlisted for service in the colonies.  At the same time, 7,500 British colonists enlisted in the British Army of North America.  After Grat Britain formerly declared war against France in 1756, recruiting efforts on the Homefront were more successful.  Some 11,000 regulars were sent from Britain to America in 1757.  Simultaneously, the flow of colonial recruits diminished to a mere trickle of what it had been.

In early 1758, the British government appointed General James Abercromby to serve as Commander-in-Chief in North America.  Abercromby brought reform and improvement in an army that grew to twenty-three battalions (about 8,000 men).  That year marked the turning point of the war and the British Army reclaimed its prestige.  After the Treaty of Paris of 1763, the regular British Army serving in North America was raised to 10,000 men.  Americans living on the frontier welcomed these men; the British regular represented colonial security.  On the other hand, while Americans enjoyed the peace of mind and safety provided by the British Army, no one wanted to pay for them in the form of taxes.  This made no sense to any thinking person, but it is difficult to argue that most American colonists in 1770 were skilled in that regard.

The American Revolution

In terms of the sentiments of American colonists, there were only two sorts where the British soldier was concerned: those who loved them, and those who hated them.  There was no middle group.  The rabble-rousers in Boston fell into the latter category and sought to create confrontations with the symbol of British authority at every opportunity [Note 3].  By 1775, the British North American soldier was a highly proficient, extremely professional soldier — one could not look upon the colonial militiamen with anything but contempt.  British soldiers didn’t run away from a fight.

The colonist’s fuss about paying their “fair share” of taxes to support the British Army in the colonies brought disdain from the British regular.  He didn’t respect the colonist, and he didn’t respect the leaders of the emerging American government or its militia.  A few years earlier, no one wanted to serve as a British regular officer more than George Washington, but the British establishment responded to his every effort with scorn.  After 1770, colonial farmers, shopkeepers, and militia came to realize that despite all they did for England, the British would always regard them as second-class citizens.

France’s entry into the colonial revolution on the side of the Americans changed Great Britain’s strategic calculus.  The British were no longer masters of the sea along America’s sea coast.  While the British Army was widely distributed from Canada to Florida and the West Indies, the French could deliver fresh troops to any place along the East Coast at a time of their own choosing — unchallenged by either the British Army or the Royal Navy.  Because the West Indies was more valuable to the British than the rebellious colonies, a large number of British Army and Royal Navy resources were diverted to protect British interest there.

The government in London soon realized that the colonies in New England were probably beyond saving.  British loyalists living in New England were few in number.  The southern colonies, on the other hand, had large populations of loyalists; there was hope that these colonies might be saved, and so the British Army and Royal Navy turned its attention to the Carolinas and West Florida.  Britain’s effort toward saving the southern colonies was the match that lit the kindling in the southern colonies; capturing Charleston added logs to the fire.  

General Cornwallis surrendered to General George Washington at Yorktown (Oct 1781).  One key feature in the southern campaign was the number of British Loyalists who fought the British fight.  The Battle of King’s Mountain in 1780 was an exclusively American engagement.  The outcome of King’s Mountain prompted the Loyalists to reconsider; after all, there was never a guarantee that the British would win the war — and if they didn’t, then what would happen to the loyalists?  Loyalists would have been suicidal to throw their lot behind the British if there was any chance at all that the patriots would end up as the victors — which, of course, they were.

British regular soldiers continued to fight well and the colonial militia always maintained their fear of British regular formations.  The problem was that the British Army was getting smaller with each battle.  Cornwallis did not have a regular pipeline for troop replacements, which meant that each British victory came at a high price.  The British soldier was poorly fed, poorly cared for, and quite often poorly led … but they steadfastly performed courageously in battle after battle — at the beginning of the conflict and at the end of it.

The Age of Sail

It was never easy to support the British Army 3,000 miles away on the North American continent.  To feed these soldiers a daily ration, the British government contracted with food producing companies who transported the rations in bulk across the Atlantic.  By the time they arrived and found their way into the Red Coat’s mess kit, the rations were inedible.  Biscuits were full of weevils, the bread was moldy, the butter rancid, the flour spoiled, insects infested peas, and then came the maggoty beef.  It is no surprise to learn that the British soldier was seriously malnourished and toothless by the time he reached 30 years of age.  Senior officers did register complaints, but they fell on deaf ears.

Adding to the difficult task of crushing rebellion was the corruption of British bureaucrats, contractors, ship’s captains, and commissary officers in the supply chain.  Corruption didn’t begin with the British war ministry, and it certainly didn’t end there.  One may wonder how well the family of Lyndon Baines Johnson profited from the Vietnam War. 

Thirty Years Later

Many historians will argue that the American Revolution ended in 1783 with the Treaty of Paris of that year.  I disagree.  Oh, there may have been a treaty with Great Britain, but the behavior of the officers commanding British Army forces in North America never changed toward the Americans, nor — for that matter — did the behavior of the Royal Navy toward American flagged ships.  Among more than a few senior British  Army and Navy officers, an American Revolution “re-do” was a worthwhile undertaking.  Officers commanding British forts in Canada never once stopped instigating Indian attacks against American western settlements or westward migrations — even to the extent of paying Indians for American scalps.

Renewed conflict with Great Britain in 1812 favored the Americans because, at the time, the British were up to their nickers in a fight with Napoleon Bonaparte.  Because the priority for army forces was given to Europe, the British manned their North American forts with cadre staffs.  Sadly, by 1812, America no longer had a George Washington to lead them.  They had to rely on much older revolutionary era generals who, truth be known, weren’t all that good as generals when they were much younger.

While it was true that the early conflict favored the Americans, we should recall that America was once more at war with a powerful nation — and one that had one hand tied behind its back.  It would have been advantageous to the Americans to win its War of 1812 early on — but no.  Incompetent generals and one disaster after another denied the Americans a clear victory, even while confronting a much-diminished British army.  It may have been too much for the Americans to covet Canada.

In 1814, Napoleon was soundly defeated, and when this occurred, the British were then able to turn their full attention to the United States.  In that year, the British mauled the American army at Bladensburg, Maryland (See also: At Bladensburg, 1814), burned the city of Washington, and reasserted the Royal Navy’s control over the Eastern Seaboard (See also: Joshua Barney).  It wasn’t until after the Treaty of Ghent, which officially ended the War of 1812, that General Jackson destroyed the British Army in New Orleans — (See also: At Chalmette, 1815) an American victory at last, but it was a superficial victory.  The Americans did kill a lot of British soldiers — but to no good purpose.

Sources:

  1. Anderson, F.  The War that Made America: New York: Penguin Books, 2005.
  2. Brumwell, S.  Redcoats: The British Soldier and War in the Americas, 1755-1763.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  3. Curtis, E. E.  The Organization of the British Army in the American Revolution.  New York: AMS Press, 1969.
  4. Ellis, J. J.  His Excellency, George Washington.  New York: Knopf, 2004.
  5. Fortescue, J. W.  A History of the British Army (Thirteen volumes).  New York: AMS Press, 1976.
  6. Schenawolf, H.  British Army Command and Structure in the American Revolution; Grenadier & Light Infantry Battalions.  Revolutionary War Journal Online.

Endnotes:

[1] North America included the thirteen British Colonies and after 1763, Canada.

[2] General Braddock’s overwhelming defeat was partly due to his lack of understanding about French activities and their shenanigans with native tribes.  He also didn’t understand the Indians and had no interest in recruiting them for service with the British Army, which may have been a product of his aristocratic arrogance.  Several additional issues plagued the operation from the beginning, including the difficulty in procuring the necessary supplies that would sustain his force while in the field.  One the expedition began, he found the roadway was too narrow and in constant need of widening to move artillery and cargo wagons, it was rutted and painfully slow.  His frustration in the lack of speed caused him to split his force.  With 1,300 men in his “flying column,” he crossed the Monongahela River on 9 July, ten miles away from Fort Duquesne … but it was difficult terrain.  The collision of both British and French/Indian forces surprised both groups.  Braddock’s advance guard was under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Gage.  The Indians immediately assumed their usual practice of independent action; most of the French fled back to the Fort.  Gage’s line of soldiers, wearing red coats, were difficult for the Indians to miss.  As the soldiers began taking casualties, somewhat shaken by the war whoops of the Indians, Gage’s line became a shamble.  Several of the British, in their confusion, fired on other British formations.  Thereafter, the battle became a rout.  Though Braddock exhibited personal courage and tenacity, the advantage went to the Indians, who were able to fire at the red coats from behind trees.  It was the first time in North America where a British force was destroyed by an inferior number of enemy.  

[3] In a manner similar to the way the modern-day BLMOs seek confrontations with police officers and random members of white society.

The West Florida Expedition

American history is quite fascinating —I would say even more so than the revisionist accounts offered in our public schools and universities over the past sixty years.  Two of my interests are the colonial and early founding periods of the United States.  History isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, of course, but there is so much we can learn from it —lessons that would positively contribute to modern society.  Ut est rerum omnium magister usus[1], and if true, if experience is the teacher of all things, then our learning from past mistakes can only aid us in the future.

One of the things I find interesting about the American Revolutionary War is how little attention historians have paid to the British loyalists.  After all, they too were part of that story.

1763 was a banner year for the British because, in that year, England finally triumphed over France after fighting one another to a standstill since 1689.  In the Treaty of Paris of 1763, England acquired Spanish Florida and French Canada.  British divided Florida into two provinces: West and East Florida.  West Florida included the southern half of present-day Mississippi, a rectangular region straddling the Gulf of Mexico from Lake Pontchartrain and Maurepas and the Mississippi River in the west, to the Chattahoochee and Apalachicola rivers on the east.  It extended northward to an imaginary line running east from the confluence of the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers, including the old Spanish port of Pensacola and the former French settlements of Mobile, Biloxi, and Natchez.

In the late 1760s, West Florida was sparsely settled because, except for a narrow strip of land along the eastern bank of the Mississippi River, the soil was unsuitable for agriculture, which led settlers to rely on raising livestock.  The British anticipated settling West Florida effortlessly and for reasons of security, they reserved the area west of the Appalachian Mountains for Indians.  British policy at that time intended to avoid confrontations with the Indians by channeling white settlers either to Canada or to one of the two Florida settlements.  The British also decided to offer land to members of the British court as a reward for faithful military service.  As an example, 40,000 acres were set aside for the Earl of Eglinton near the Natchez and Pensacola settlements.  An untended consequence of land grants to noblemen was that they almost immediately began selling these lands, and by every measure, they were quite successful in doing so.

The British accorded settlers of lesser rank, 100 acres to the head of household and 50 acres for each member of his family, including slaves.  The head of a family could also purchase an additional 1,000 acres for a reasonable price —but clear title to this land was withheld until the settlers had cultivated their land for three to five years.  The settlement of West Florida increased steadily, especially in the Natchez area, until in 1773 when the foreign office inexplicably canceled the governor’s authority to grant land.

In 1775, with the outbreak of the American Revolution, the situation in West Florida changed rapidly.  Both Florida provinces were converted into sanctuaries for British loyalists escaping from colonial terrorists.  After 1775, West Florida enjoyed its greatest period of growth, an attraction among sturdy pioneers of Englishmen and Scotsmen.

Who were the loyalists, and why weren’t they interested in freedom from Great Britain?  They were generally older people, conservative by nature, well-established in the colonies with long-standing business interests in England.  Older people tend to resist change and the Revolutionary War period was nothing at all if not an era of momentous changes.  In the minds of British loyalists, a rebellion was not only morally wrong but also unwarranted.

Taxation without representation was a key issue at the outset of the American Revolution.  Parliamentary taxation affected everyone, including loyalists.  There was no overwhelming repudiation of taxes among the loyalists because, in the first instance, Parliament had the right to tax colonists.  Second, the colonists had long benefitted from the security provided by the British Army.  Among loyalists, it was entirely reasonable that Parliament expected colonists to help pay for the costs of maintaining these forces.  The loyalists also had no objection to “quartering soldiers in private homes.”  These were young men from back home who had come to America to protect British citizens from the ravages of the French and Indian attacks, why not give them a nice place to sleep?  Besides, which would be cheaper (tax-wise)?  Quartering soldiers in the homes of citizens, or constructing barracks for the same purpose?  Since everyone benefitted from these tax levies, why object to them? Of course, the British Parliament could have addressed this issue with greater sophistication, but the British people (especially those living in England) were used to an authoritarian legislature.

When the so-called “American patriots” resorted to violence against the Crown and those who remained loyal to Great Britain, the older, conservative, well-settled colonists felt alienated —and with good reason.  The patriots burned down their homes, torched their businesses, and physically and verbally assaulted them.  In many ways, patriot behavior was more like that of  hooligans and domestic terrorists than of good neighbors with interesting ideas about government and society[2].

Many loyalists, at least initially, were fence-sitters.  Among those, optimists who believed that if there was to be a separation from the mother country, it should take place naturally and amicably, under circumstances mutually beneficial to both sides of the Atlantic.  Some pessimists believed that the only possible result of revolutionary thought and action would be chaos, corruption, and mob rule[3].  In either case, when patriots began terrorizing them, they either became apathetic to the cause, or they moved even further to the right.  Some returned to England, others decided to stay in the colonies and fight for their King.  In New York, many loyalists were part of influential families, some of these with unmistakable ties to the French Huguenot-Dutch De Lancey[4] faction supporting the British Crown.  There were also “black” loyalists —slaves who had been promised freedom from slavery by the British government.  Colonial patriots made no such promises, from any quarter —north or south.

There were many prominent families among American patriots[5].  One of these was the family of a man named James Willing … a wealthy Philadelphia family.  His father Charles twice served as Philadelphia’s mayor; his mother was Anne Shippen, the granddaughter of Philadelphia’s second mayor.  James’ older brother was a merchant, a business partner with Robert Morris[6], and a delegate to the Continental Congress from Pennsylvania.  In his younger years, James sought his fortune in British West Florida operating a general store within the Natchez settlement.  The folks of Natchez were happy to live in America, but they were loyalists —and intensely so.  Willing, not being able to share those sentiments, and being rudely vocal about it, soon decided to return to Philadelphia[7].

In 1777, serving as a congressional spokesman, Willing returned to Natchez to convince the residents there to join the American independence movement.  His proposals rebuffed, he returned to Philadelphia with greatly exaggerated claims that the people of West Florida posed a serious threat to the cause of American independence, although he was probably right in thinking that loyalists would interrupt trade on the Mississippi River, a major source of colonial resupply.

Oliver Pollock, meanwhile (an Irish-born colonist with many years devoted to trading with the Spaniards in the West Indies), established a close working relationship with Alejandro O’Reilly[8] and other Spanish-Louisiana officials.  Granted the privilege of free trade with New Orleans, Pollock became a successful businessman, married, and raised his family there.  In 1777, Pollock was appointed Commercial Agent of the United States in New Orleans.  He used his influence and wealth to help finance American operations in the west, including the campaign by Major General (militia) George Rogers Clark[9].  In September 1778, Pollock introduced Colonel David Rogers and Captain Robert Benham to Louisiana Governor Bernardo de Gálvez.  Rogers delivered a letter to Governor Gálvez from Virginia patriot Patrick Henry —a letter that led to Spain to join the war against England.  In the British view, there could be no better example of treason than that.

In 1778, James Willing was calling himself a naval captain[10] in the service of the United Independent States of America[11]  Pollock received a letter from Robert Morris stating that Willing would be leading an expedition against loyalist settlements above New Orleans.  In his capacity as a naval captain, Willing led 29 men of the 13th Virginia Regiment from Fort Pitt and sailed down the Ohio River[12].  Willing’s mission may have been more on the order of moving supplies from New Orleans to Fort Pitt than it was conquering West Florida, but the correspondence Willing carried with him to Florida could be construed as authorization to punish British loyalists.  With his desire for adventure and a somewhat reckless nature, Willing boarded the gunboat Rattletrap[13] with his Virginians, now dubbed “marines.”

Willing and his marines departed Fort Pitt early on the night of 10 January.  A short distance from where the Wabash empties into the Ohio River, the Willing Expedition seized the large bateau[14] belonging to the Becquet Brothers, which was laden with pelts.  They also arrested a man named  La Chance and impounded his cargo of brandy —which Willing and his crew subjected to extensive tests for impurities.  Willing’s notoriety thus established, off they went into the Ohio River and southward.  The commander at Fort Kaskaskia, a Frenchman named Rocheblave, suspected that the Willing Expedition was moving toward Illinois and believed that the sort of insults offered to Becquet and La Chance was the sort of thing frontier settlers could expect from colonial hoodlums should they ever achieve a foothold into the western (French) colonies.

Painting by Charles Waterhouse

By the time the expedition reached the Mississippi River, Willing had added two canoes and ten recruits to his entourage.  One of these was a youngster named George Girty, whom Willing commissioned a second lieutenant.  George was the youngest of four brothers, a family whose only claim to history was that they all became British loyalists.  Historians know that Willing stopped at a Spanish post at the mouth of the Arkansas River, where, having warned the few American settlers living there that their lives were in peril from British loyalists, proceeded on his journey.  The then-petrified settlers ended up petitioning Spanish officials for their protection.

Willing arrived at the Natchez plantation of Colonel Anthony Hutchins[15], a loyalist, on 19 February, promptly arrested him and seized his property —including his slaves.  Willing then divided his force by sending two canoes on a scouting mission further south to the Natchez settlement —a farming community populated by American, English, and French settlers (all of whom lived together in harmony) —and until recent times, the home of James Willing.  The scouting party, well-armed and dressed as hunters, arrested all settlement inhabitants and secured their property.

Willing and his main body arrived the following morning.  According to later testimony, captive townspeople sent a delegation of four citizens to parlay with Willing.  They agreed to surrender and promised their neutrality if Willing restored their property.  Willing agreed, adding these stipulations: (a) that the settlers must agree to re-provision his expeditionary force, (b) that single men join the expedition, and (c) that all married persons relocate to Spanish territory within fifteen days.  From among the single men who joined the expedition, Willing appointed Richard Harrison a lieutenant of marines.

South of Natchez, Willing carried out a campaign of destruction to crops, livestock, and the homes of Loyalist settlers and carried off their slaves (likely sold in New Orleans).  William Dunbar and Frederick Spell, who witnessed Willing’s behavior, suggested in their later testimony that Willing was more interested in enriching himself than he was in any patriotic endeavor (which, by every account, seems to have been the case).  Willing, however, did not molest any “patriotic” Americans.

By this time, the British were aware of Willing’s marauders —which given the expanse of the territory and poor communications back then, is quite amazing.  In any case, the British dispatched their sloop Rebecca (well-armed with sixteen 4-pound and six swivel guns) up the Mississippi to interdict Willing’s campaign.  On 23 February, 18 marines under lieutenants McIntyre and Harrison captured Rebecca, which for a time ended Great Britain’s control of the Mississippi River.  McIntyre and Harrison sailed the vessel to New Orleans as a prize of war.  The ship would be renamed, Morris.

Oliver Pollock established and maintained a close relationship with Governor Bernardo de Gálvez.  During a future Spanish campaign against the British, Pollock would serve as Gálvez’ aide-de-camp.  When Pollock received word that Willing was approaching New Orleans, he recruited an additional 40 men to join the expedition and assisted him in transporting “British” property to New Orleans.  Of these 40 men, 26 men took it upon themselves to float downriver to join McIntyre and Harrison.  McIntyre’s group soon came upon the British Brig Neptune and seized her.  Neptune was laden with lumber and a handful of passengers bound for Jamaica.  McIntyre off-loaded the passengers, retained the cargo, and sailed her to New Orleans —the expedition’s second prize.

News of Willing’s expedition quickly spread throughout British West Florida and caused some panic among the loyalists.  They abandoned their large plantations, loaded their slaves, livestock, and valuables on boats and barges, and headed toward New Orleans where they petitioned Spanish officials for protection.  For their part, at least initially, Spanish officials were intent on remaining neutral in the conflict between the British and Americans, so they graciously received these refugees and accorded them Spanish hospitality.  Governor Gálvez similarly welcomed James Willing, which in large measure as a result of Oliver Pollock’s efforts.

Willing and his men were granted freedom of the city, provided with housing, and they were allowed to auction the property taken from loyalists, including their slaves[16].  The precise amount of the profits gained by Willing’s auction is unknown, but some estimates ranged as high as £60,000.00.  While appreciative of the courtesy and hospitality accorded to their subjects, British officials strongly protested the fact that Gálvez extended those same courtesies to James Willing, who in their view was nothing more than a pirate.  Neither were the British pleased about Willing’s auctioning British property.

Gov. Gálvez ignored British protests, and the longer he did so, the louder their protests became.  Within a short time, British petitions for redress were filed almost every day.  Finally, Gálvez appointed a commission to consider the merits of British complaints.  Until mid-March, Gálvez remained unconcerned with British protests.  But then came the arrival of the British sloop Sylph under the command of Captain John Ferguson.  In addressing the problem, Ferguson was simple and direct:

Having the honor to command one of His Britannic Majesty’s ships in this river, and having information that your excellency has received into your government a body of armed men, enemies to my Sovereign and that you have suffered them from the Spanish Territory to commit depredations on this River by forcibly seizing upon the vessels, property, and persons of British subjects, in violation of the Treatise of Peace, the Law of Nations, and the Rights of Men.  I cannot help looking at such conduct on your part, as a tacit if not an open declaration of war against the King, my master.

Governor Gálvez answered Ferguson with equal fervor[17].  He had no obligation (he said) to protect British citizens residing on British soil but (pending the report by his commission), Gálvez offered to return British goods and property seized by Willing.  This decision came as a blow to the Willing/Pollock clique.  They offered a stout defense of their activities, particularly as it related to the capture of the two British ships.  Neptune, argued Willing, having been seized on open water in British territory, was a  lawful prize of war.  Gálvez remained inflexible; Neptune must be returned.  When it appeared that Morris (formerly Rebecca) seemed more secure, Oliver Pollock proceeded to refit and man her.  William Pickles was selected to serve as Morris’ Captain, and Robert Elliott was chosen to serve as Commanding Officer of Marines (Daniel Longstreet was appointed to serve as Marine First Lieutenant)[18].

In April, Captain Ferguson and Sylph was relieved by Captain Joseph Nunn, commanding HMS Hound.  Nunn continued to press Gálvez on the issues raised by Ferguson; Gálvez continued to resist all British suppositions and remained firm with the Americans.  Nevertheless, believing that the British would initiate military action, Governor Gálvez requested reinforcements from the Viceroy of New Spain and began working on New Orleans defenses.  He also demanded that every British/American person living in New Orleans take an oath of neutrality or leave the city.  A few British departed the city, but most remained.  Americans were unanimous in their acceptance.

Gov. Gálvez felt better once the American and British had offered their oaths respecting Spanish neutrality.  Captain Nunn, on the other hand, did not feel better.  In his view, Gálvez had openly demonstrated his support for the colonial rebellion, and this placed Spain in opposition to the British Crown.  It wasn’t enough to cause Captain Nunn to initiate war with Spain, of course, but Gálvez’s cozy relationship with the colonists did prompt the British into reasserting their authority on the Mississippi River.

Before dawn on 19 April, Nunn sent a force of fifty men to recapture Fort Bute at Manchac (115 miles north of New Orleans) which had been seized by Willing’s expedition.  British riflemen killed two men and a woman and wounded ten others.  Fourteen Americans were taken, prisoner.  Willing was, by this time, concerned about retaining control of Natchez, which led him to dispatch a force of marines under Lieutenant Harrison to observe whether Natchez loyalists were keeping their oaths of neutrality.

Meanwhile, Colonel Hutchins had violated his parole by returning to his plantation.  In Natchez, Hutchins agitated among the citizens and urged them to take up arms against American colonists.  We do not know what Hutchins told these people, but we do know that he alarmed them to the point of organizing a stout defense at a location known as White Cliffs.

En route to Natchez, Lieutenant Harrison was forewarned by a man named John Talley of Colonel Hutchins’ mischief.  Harrison sent Talley ahead to offer assurances that his intentions were peaceful.  Hutchins’ work was well done, however, and upon Harrison’s approach, loyalist gunfire inflicted a heavy toll on the marines.  Harrison lost five men killed with several more wounded and captured; Harrison returned to New Orleans with only a few of his remaining force.

British West Florida Governor Peter Chester (—1799), with service between 1770-81, encouraged British settlers to return to their homes and “restore yourselves to that full allegiance and fidelity which you owe to your sovereign and country.”  And, he added, that should these citizens not comply with Chester’s advice, then they would be judged guilty of criminal neglect of their solemn duty.  With a British army garrison of  110 men from Pensacola guarding Fort Bute at Manchac, a British ship with a crew of 150 men, and 200 British militia protecting Natchez, loyalist settlers finally felt secure.  Thus renewed, British presence also stopped the flow of goods between New Orleans and Fort Pitt.

The Willing Expedition had aroused British loyalists along the river to such extent that Willing could no longer return to Philadelphia via the Mississippi.  And, the longer Willing remained in New Orleans, the less Gálvez and Pollock wanted to deal with him.  Gálvez was highly incensed when Willing circumvented the governor’s prerogatives by issuing a proclamation to Americans living in New Orleans.  The proclamation not only violated Willing’s oath, a condition of his being allowed to remain in New Orleans, it was also a violation of Spanish sovereignty.  But if the rift between Willing and Gálvez was significant, the break with Pollock was even worse.  With some justification, Willing criticized Pollock for his poor administration and questionable financial accounting[19].  Willing’s unpaid marauders were displeased to the point of deserting in large numbers.  It was only the consistent discipline and fair treatment of Lieutenant Harrison and Lieutenant George that kept most (not all) marines on duty.  In any case, Pollock was anxious to be rid of Willing and did not hesitate to express his annoyance with Willing in his reports to Congress.

Hoping for James Willing’s departure from New Orleans was one thing; witnessing his departure was another.  Effectively, Captain Willing had become a prisoner in New Orleans, but he had no one to blame but himself.  It was his actions that caused the British to block the Mississippi.  Willing had but two options for returning to Philadelphia: an overland march, or by sea.  Willing had no interest in walking back to Pennsylvania.

By mid-June, Oliver Pollock decided he’d had enough of James Willing and formally petitioned Governor Gálvez to allow work to proceed on Morris so that it might carry Willing and his men back to Philadelphia.  Without much consideration, Gálvez consented and the ship’s refit was soon started.  Unhappily for both Gálvez and Willing, the refit project experienced several delays.

Fed up with life in New Orleans, Lieutenant George and Lieutenant Harrison requested the governor’s permission to leave New Orleans via the overland route.  Governor Gálvez gave his consent conditionally: George and Harrison had to give their oath not to cause further dismay to any British subject.  Having offered their oaths, the officers soon departed.  After a year of overland travel, the marines finally returned to Fort Pitt.  After the marine detachment was officially disbanded, George accepted an appointment as a captain of an artillery in the Continental Army.

Accompanied by Lieutenant McIntyre, James Willing finally departed New Orleans in mid-November carrying dispatches for the Continental Congress.  The ship, however, was captured by a British privateer off the coast of Delaware and Willing was taken as a prisoner to New York where he remained until exchanged for British Lieutenant Governor Henry Hamilton.  Some historians contend that Willing spent two years as a prisoner of war.  If this is true, when one considers his many depredations imposed on Mississippi River settlements, then a reasonable man might conclude that his internment was warranted.

James Willing died at his home in Haverford Township, Pennsylvania in 1801.  He was 51 years old.  For additional insight into the corruption of early-American officials, see also:  James Wilkinson, Image of Respectability.  The amount of dishonesty during the Revolutionary and early founding periods of the United States could lead one to conclude that as despicable as James Willing was, he had much in common with more than a few of our founding fathers.

Sources:

  1. DuVal, K. Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution.  Random House, 2016.
  2. Eron, R. Peter Chester, Third Governor of the Province of West Florida Under British Domination 1770-1781.  Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1925.
  3. Haynes, R. V. The Natchez District, and the American Revolution. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2011.
  4. James, A. J. Oliver Pollock, Financier of the Revolution in the West.  Mississippi Historical Review, 1929.
  5. Smith, C. R. Marines in the Revolution: A History of the Continental Marines in the American Revolution.  Washington: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1975. 

Endnotes:

[1] Attributed to Julius Caesar, De Bello Civille.

[2] The same thing is happening today within the so-called Progressive Movement; modern conservatives (the classic liberals of the colonial era) are being regularly attacked because of their values.  Progressivism, as it turns out, is not very enlightened.

[3] It is impossible to say the pessimists were completely wrong about the level of political corruption in America.

[4] Followers of Oliver and James De Lancey.  Oliver was a wealthy merchant, politician, and British Provincial soldier; James was his nephew.

[5] Modern leftists define “patriotism” as an anti-government “far right” movement.  In 1775, it was a far-left movement.

[6] Robert Morris, Jr., (1734-1806) was an English-born financier who served in the Pennsylvania legislature, the Second Continental Congress, and the United States Senate.  He was a signer to the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, and the U. S. Constitution.

[7] According to his “friends and neighbors” in Natchez, Mr. Willing drank too much, talked too much, and thought too little.  This may be a fair assessment.

[8] O’Reilly (1723-1794) was born in Ireland became the Inspector-General of Infantry in the Spanish Empire, served as Captain-General and the second Spanish governor of Louisiana, and the first official to exercise power in Louisiana after France ceded it to Spain.  He was later made a count of Spain but known to creoles as “Bloody O’Reilly.”

[9] The older brother of William Rogers Clark.  A surveyor and militia officer who became the highest-ranking officer of the Revolution in the western frontier.  Most of his accomplishments occurred before his 40th birthday; subsequently, his drinking and indebtedness destroyed his reputation.  When Virginia refused to pay him for his Revolutionary war  expenses, he turned his attention toward the Spanish as a source of income, but mostly through questionable land speculation schemes.  His is not one of the great American stories of our founding years.

[10] James Willing is not listed as a commissioned officer of the Continental Navy.

[11] The title claimed was something Willing made up.  There is an organization today with a similar title claiming to consist of ten states, five provinces of Canada, and Guam.  ISA announced its independence in 2007 where its officials all wear tin foil hats.

[12] What the Continental Congress did not want was a sizeable expedition to West Florida to attack Pensacola and Mobile, an ambitious plan that had the support of Benedict Arnold.  Congress decided instead on a more modest expedition and placed Willing in charge of it.

[13] I’m not sure how to respond to questions about the naming convention involve with this vessel, but Rattletrap was purchased from John Gibson for 300 pounds in Pennsylvania currency.  It was a galley-type vessel with ten oars, and she/it was armed with two ¾-pound swivel guns.

[14] A long, light, flat bottom boat with a sharply pointed bow and stern.

[15] Colonel Hutchins was a retired British Army officer whose grant of land for military  service was 250,000 acres.  His home was located at White Apple Acres, which he occupied in 1773.  He served as a representative representing the Natchez district in the provincial assembly in Pensacola in 1778.  At times during the Willing Expedition, Hutchins was the de facto governor of the Natchez district.  He remained active in political and military affairs in present-day Mississippi for many years.

[16] Despite Spanish law, which forbade commerce with foreigners.

[17] The British were hardly in a position of strength in West Florida.  Eventually, Gálvez would seize both Pensacola and Natchez (1779).

[18] Both Robert Elliott and Daniel Longstreet’s names appear in the lineal list of officers of the Continental Navy and Marine Corps.

[19] Pollock was, as previously stated, a businessman whose every action was motivated by profit.  He is not remembered as a man having an abundance of scruples.

Chinese Gordon – Part II

(Continued from last week)

In March 1880, a worn out and frustrated Colonel Gordon realized that his efforts had come to naught.  He resigned his position and returned to England.  He returned home a broken man and if not suffering from a nervous breakdown, he was close to it.  During his return trip to England, one fellow traveler remarked of Gordon, “The man is off his head.”

In May 1880, Sir Robert Hart, Inspector-General of Customs in China invited Gordon to return to China, as his services were urgently needed.  China and Russia were on the verge of open warfare and someone was needed who could help sort this problem out.  The British War Office learned that Gordon was contemplating a return to China and ordered him, instead, to return to England immediately.  Gordon ignored the War Office and sailed on the first ship to China.  The Duke of Cambridge was not at all pleased, but the fact of Gordon’s insubordination increased his prestige in China.

By this time, it was clear to his inner circle that Chinese Gordon had become a bit unhinged.  Sir Robert Hart noted that at best, Gordon was “very eccentric,” and wrote, “ … as much as I like and respect him, I must say that he is ‘not all there’.  Whether it is religion or vanity, or the softening of the brain—I don’t know, but he seems to be alternatively arrogant and slavish, vain and humble, in his senses, and out of them.  It is a great pity.”

The British Foreign Office soon ordered Gordon to return home.  London was not comfortable with a serving officer leading a Chinese Army against Russia (noting that the Czar of Russia and Queen Victoria were blood relatives).  In any case, the United Kingdom did not want an Anglo-Russian War.  In October 1880, Gordon returned to London and spent the winter of 1880-81 socializing with his family and close friends.

In April 1881, Brigadier Gordon assumed command of the Royal Engineers in Mauritius, remaining there until March 1882.  Gordon was bored and irritated with British policy he regarded as idiotic.  In his view, building forts to protect Mauritius from a Russian naval attack was pointless.  He was also opposed to the over-reliance on the Suez Canal.  The Russians, he argued, need only sink one ship in the canal to make it irrelevant.  Instead, he proposed that the British government devise a series of coaling stations in Africa and the Indian Ocean, which would improve the Cape route to India.

Gordon was promoted to Major General on 23 March 1882 and dispatched to resolve the Civil War in Basutoland, in South Africa.  The issues were satisfactorily resolved (in the long-term interests of the people —allowing them to avoid apartheid in the twentieth century), Gordon returned to England and was once more unemployed.  From 1882-83, General Gordon traveled to Palestine.  The deeply religious Gordon wrote a book titled Reflections in Palestine.  In it, he proposed that the site of Golgotha (the site of Christ’s crucifixion) was incorrect.  Today this area is known as the Garden Tomb and alternatively, Gordon’s Garden.

In Egypt, popular dissatisfaction with Ismai’il Pasha and Europe’s intrusion into Egyptian affairs led to the rise of a nationalist movement in 1879, with Ahmad Urabi a prominent figure [Note 1].  In 1882, Urabi became the leader of a nationalist-dominated ministry committed to democratic reforms, including parliamentary control of the budget.  With concerns about their loss of control over the affairs of Egypt, the United Kingdom and France intervened, bombarding Alexandria, and crushing the Egyptian Army at the Battle of Tel el-Kebir.  The British and French re-installed Ismai’il’s son Twefik as a figurehead of a de facto British protectorate, which lasted until 1953.

In late 1883, Gordon was contemplating the acceptance of an administrative post in the Congo Free State, working for King Leopold II of Belgium.  Aware of Leopold’s offer, the British War Office requested that Gordon accept a commission to Egypt instead; they needed him to resolve a rebellion in Sudan.

The revolt was led by a self-proclaimed Mahdi, Mohammed Ahmed.  According to Islamic tradition, the Mahdi is a messianic figure who appears at the dawn of every new (Islamic) century to strike down the enemies of Islam.  1881 was Islamic year 1298, and Ahmed announced that he was the Mahdi and promptly proclaimed jihad against the Egyptian State.  Ismai’il’s long exploitation of the Sudanese people led many to rally to the Mahdi’s black banner.  Ahmed promised to expel the Egyptians, whom he proclaimed apostate, and establish a fundamentalist Islamic State as practiced in the days of the Prophet Mohammed [Note 2].  

William Hicks PashaIn September 1883, an Egyptian army force under Colonel William Hicks [Note 3] set out to destroy the Mahdi.  Hicks’ command was mostly composed of conscripts who had no interest in serving as soldiers much less in the Sudanese desert.  Morale was poor, training was nil, and the only way that Hicks could keep these men from deserting was to chain them together.  Hicks was well aware that his force was inadequate to its stated purpose, and made that argument to his superiors.  However, the Egyptian ministry did not believe that the Mahdi was a force strong enough to defeat Hicks and sent him on his way on 9 September.  Hicks commanded 7,000 infantry, 1,000 cavalry, and 2,000 camp followers—including 13 European mercenaries.  On 5 November, the ragtag army, thirsting to death in the oppressive desert, was ambushed by forces loyal to the Mahdi.  All but 300 of the expedition were killed, including Hicks.  According to Hicks’ cook, who was spared, Colonel Hicks went down fighting with a pistol in one hand, and a sword in the other.  Hicks was decapitated and his head taken to the Mahdi.

In the United Kingdom, particularly in London, there were three political forces: the liberal party, the conservative party (imperialists), and public opinion.  Liberals had won the general election on a platform of imperial retrenchment, or withdrawal from overseas locations.  Prime Minister William Gladstone withdrew the British Army from the Transvaal and Afghanistan in 1881.  But the British War Office contained a few “ultra-imperialists” who continually argued against withdrawing from long-held British territories.  One of these was Field Marshal Garnet J. Wolseley, 1st Viscount Wolseley, who was a close friend and ally of Major General Gordon.

Initially following the massacre of the Hicks expedition, Gladstone opined that the Sudan was not worth the trouble of retaining it under Egyptian (British) control and he made the decision to abandon Sudan.  This decision was promptly communicated to Egypt, but the order failed to take into account that thousands of soldiers, civilians, and families would have to be evacuated.

At the beginning of 1884, General Gordon had no interest in the Sudan.  While staying with his sister in Southampton, Gordon received William Stead, the editor of Pall Mall Gazette, with whom Gordon reluctantly agreed to do an interview.  Gordon wanted to talk about the Congo, but Stead pressed him to discuss the situation in the Sudan.  Gordon finally unleashed his opinions, which attacked Gladstone’s policies, and instead advocated a military response designed to crush the Mahdi.  The prescient Gordon also cautioned that in allowing this Mahdi to succeed in rebellion, Gladstone would open the entire British Empire to religious or nationalist rebellion.  Stead published his interview with the heading CHINESE GORDON FOR THE SUDAN.  The interview caused a media sensation and led to popular demands that Gladstone send Gordon to crush the Mahdi. 

Garnet Wolseley
Lord Wolseley

The man behind the curtain was Lord Wolseley, whom history remembers as a skilled media manipulator.  In the face of public demands, Gladstone relented and ordered Gordon to the Sudan —albeit with a limited mandate.  He was to observe and report on the situation, and provide advice on the best means of evacuating military and civilian personnel.  Gladstone, who at the time was ill, retired to his estate for recuperation, leaving the matter of Gordon’s instructions the cabinet.  Gladstone believed that his plan was clever: public opinion would be satisfied by sending Gordon to the Sudan, and Gordon’s limited (hand-typing) mandate would allow Gladstone to achieve British withdrawal from Khartoum.  Britain’s foreign secretary, Lord Grenville, disagreed.  He believed that Gladstone had just opened the door to a folly of far-reaching consequences.

With Lieutenant Colonel J. D. H. Steward as his aide, Gordon started for Cairo in January 1884.  Upon Gordon’s arrival, he received additional instructions from Sir Evelyn Baring, which essentially reinforced the mandate issued to him in London —but he also received the Viceroy’s appointment as Governor-General (with executive powers), and an official edict ordering him to establish a provincial government in the Sudan.  The appointment as Governor-General caused Gordon to disregard everything Gladstone and Baring had told him [Note 4].

Although a very religious man, General Gordon was an intellectual.  Still, as a man, he was not immune to errors in judgment.  One of these was in revealing his secret instructions to tribal leaders.  He told them that his mission was to arrange for the withdrawal of British/Egyptian military and civilian administrators from Khartoum.  The effect of this revelation, realizing that the British/Egyptians intended to wash their hands of Khartoum, was that nearly every Arab tribe of Northern Sudan abandoned Egypt and declared their loyalty to the Mahdi.  Whether intentional or a mistake, Gordon had thus sealed his own fate.

The siege of Khartoum began on 18 March 1884.  The British had made up their mind to abandon the Sudan, but Gordon had other plans [Note 5].  Back home in England, the British public demanded that Gladstone send an expedition to rescue Gordon.  Gladstone resisted.

For his part, Gordon could have safely withdrawn at any time between March and May 1884 —had he the inclination.  Some writers of the day, the armchair psychologists, suggested that Gordon wanted martyrdom more than life.  In any case, on 24 July, the British cabinet, over the objections of Gladstone, voted to send a relief expedition to Khartoum.  The House of Commons approved the force on 5 August.  The relief force commander was Field Marshal Wolseley, but the expedition would not be formed until November.  By this time, the garrison and population of Khartoum were starving to death; there were no horses, mules, donkeys, cats, or dogs inside the city —the people had eaten them all.  Gordon himself was in a state of mental exhaustion and incoherence.

Wolseley’s reconnaissance units arrived at Khartoum on 28 January 1885.  They found the city had been captured two days earlier and Gordon killed and decapitated.  With him, 10,000 civilians and members of the garrison had also been killed.  In London, William Gladstone was politically destroyed; Queen Victoria sent him a personal rebuke via telegram, the contents of which found its way into the press.  Gladstone’s liberal government was voted out of office in the elections of 1885.  Despite popular calls to avenge Gordon, no such undertaking was even considered by the new conservative government. 

Post Script

  1. Muhammad AhmadMuhammed Ahmad bin Abd Allah (1844-1885) was a Nubian religious leader of the Samaniyya order who combined orthodox Islam with mysticism.  His popularity came as the result of dissatisfaction with the policies of the Turco-Egyptian rulers.  While the “Mahdi” succeeded in capturing Khartoum and killing Gordon, he himself died within six months from typhus, a bacteriological disease caused by body lice, chiggers, and fleas.  Today, 40% of individuals contracting typhus will die from it.
  2. Despite the relatively recent pronouncements of American and British governments, there is no American or British “national interest” in the Middle East (or Africa) that in any way justifies squandering national resources (money, men, material) trying to sort out Islamic nations or societies.  We only need to look to history to see that western involvement in Islamic affairs has always been a lost cause, save one: defense.  If Islamic leaders understand that there will be horrific consequences to attacking or destroying Anglo-American personnel or property, and if these two nations will act on this principle, there will be no more assaults on Western civilizations from the Middle East.  The latest invasion of European countries by Islamic “refugees” and issues with homegrown extremists are a completely different issue.  

Sources:

  1. Cleveland, W. And Martin Bunton.  A History of the Middle East.  Boulder: Westview Press, 2009
  2. Karsh, E.  Empires of the Sand: The Struggle for Mastery in the Middle East, 1789-1923.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.
  3. Marlowe, J.  Mission to Khartoum: Apotheosis of General Gordon.  Littlehampton Press, 1968

Endnotes:

  1. Brigadier General Stone (1824-1887) was a career army officer, engineer, and a surveyor.  He fought with distinction in the Mexican-American War.  After the war, he resigned and surveyed for the Mexican government, but returned to the US Army to fight in the Civil War.  At the conclusion of the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, a Union defeat, Stone was placed under arrest and imprisoned for six months.  He never received a trial, which causes one to conclude that his arrest was for political reasons.  After the war, Stone served as a general officer in the Egyptian army.  He is also noted for his role in constructing the foundation upon which the Statue of Liberty now stands.
  2. Reinforcing the fact that proponents of Islam are stuck on stupid.
  3. Hicks (1830-1883) was an experienced British officer with years of experience in India, retiring in 1880 as a Colonel.  In 1880, Hicks accepted the position of Pasha (generally equivalent to general) within the Egyptian Army.  In 1883, Hicks served in Khartoum as chief of staff of the army there, serving Suliman Niazi Pasha.  Hicks duty was to recruit an army from the disbanded troops of Arabi, who were sent to him in chains.  After a month of training, Hicks led 5,000 of these men against an equal force of Dervishes, whom he defeated, and then undertook to clear the country of rebels.  Aware that Suliman Niazi Pasha was intriguing against him, Hick resigned in July 1883.  Alarmed, Twefik fired Suliman and appointed Hicks as commander-in-chief of an expeditionary force with orders to crush the Mahdi.
  4. In Baring’s report to London, he emphasized that it was a mistake sending Gordon to the Sudan: “A man who habitually consults with the Prophet Isaiah when he is in difficulty is not apt to obey the orders of anyone.”  Gordon confirmed Baring’s fears when he almost immediately began issuing press statements attacking the rebels, referring to them as “stinking Dervishes,” and demanding that he be allowed to “smash the Mahdi.”
  5. By his obstinance, Charles Gordon consigned to death ten-thousand men, women, and children who did not share his vision of the afterlife.

 

Chinese Gordon – Part I

Gordon 001
MajGen Charles G. Gordon

All the Gordon’s sons were army officers —descendants of military officers who devoted themselves to the idea that their children would inherit this tradition.  And so they did.  Major General and Mrs. Henry William Gordon were the parents of Charles George Gordon, Major General, British Army, Commander of the Bath (1833-1885).  Owing to his father’s duty stations, Charles grew up in England, Ireland, Scotland, and Ionia.  Charles’ education included the Fullande School in Taunton, the Taunton School, and the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich.

While still a young lad, Charles’ younger sister succumbed to consumption; her passing devastated him and for several months he withdrew from the family.  An older sister named Augusta, a particularly religious young woman, embraced Charles and she influenced him for the rest of his life.  It was because of Augusta, for example, that Charles grew up to become a staunchly religious person.  Despite his religious beliefs, Charles was a spirited and highly intelligent young man, one who developed the (then) deplorable habit of ignoring authority whenever he believed that its rules were foolish or unjust.  This was a trait that held him back for two years at the military academy,.  At the same time, Gordon had marvelous talents.  He developed into an accomplished cartographer and engineer.  He received his commission to Second Lieutenant of Royal Engineers in June 1852, completed his training at Chatham, and advanced to First Lieutenant in February 1854.  Although trained as a sapper [Note 1], he became adept at reconnaissance, leading storming parties, demolitions, and providing rearguard actions.

His inclination to question or disregard orders aside, Charles Gordon evolved into a fine military officer.  He had charisma, a superior leadership ability, and an unparalleled devotion to his assigned task or mission.  His only problem was that in refusing to obey what he considered an unlawful or poorly conceived orders, many senior officers regarded him as rogue.  Yet it was this very same trait that caused his men to love him.

Over time, Gordon became even more devoted to his religious principles.  He was no zealot by any measure, at least not initially, but someone who maintained the strength of his convictions —and was steadfast in living his life according to those beliefs.  In many ways, Gordon was a fatalist; believing in the after-life, he was not afraid of death and some say, in time, he began to pursue it.

During the Crimean War, Gordon performed his duties at the siege of Sevastopol, took part in the assault of the Redans as a sapper, and mapped the strongpoints of the city’s fortifications.  What made this a particularly dangerous duty was that it subjected him to direct enemy fire from the fortress and he was wounded during one such sortie.  During this war Gordon made several friends who remained so for the rest of his life; friends that would later defend him.

In 1855, the British and French initiated a final assault on Sevastopol.  Following a massive bombardment, sappers assaulted the fortress at Malakoff Hill.  The engagement was a massacre of British and French soldiers and none of the operation’s planned objectives were achieved.  As a participant, Gordon distinguished himself by his courage under fire and his tenacity as a combat leader.

Following the end of hostilities in the Crimea, Gordon served the international commission charged with marking a new border between the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire in Bessarabia.  He later performed similar services on the frontier between Ottoman Armenia and Russian Armenia.  It was during this time that Gordon became fascinated with a new American invention and took it up as a hobby: the camera.

Seeking adventure, Gordon volunteered to serve in China during the Second Opium War (1860).  By the time he arrived in Hong Kong, however, the fighting was over.  He had heard of the Taiping Rebellion [Note 2] but didn’t understand it.  En route to China, he read all he could about the Taiping and initially found sympathy for the movement.  Gordon was a young man, reading one individual’s opinion, and allowed himself to be influenced by it, but what made his empathy a bit odd was that the leader of the Taiping —a man named Hong Xiuquan— believed himself to be the younger brother of Jesus of Nazareth.

After disembarking in Shanghai, Gordon made a tour of the Chinese countryside.  The atrocities he witnessed committed by the Taiping against local peasants appalled him and he began to see the Taiping for what they were: cold-blooded killers.  

During the early period of his tour in China, Gordon served under General Charles William Dunbar Staveley [Note 3], who occupied northern China until April 1862.  During the war, Taiping armies came close enough to Shanghai to alarm European residents.  European and Asian legations raised a militia to defend Shanghai.  Legates detailed Frederick Townsend Ward [Note 4] to command this militia.  Apparently, the British arrived in the nick of time.  General Staveley decided to clear the rebels within 30 miles of Shanghai.  He planned these operations in cooperation with Ward and a small force of French soldiers.  At the time, Gordon served on Staveley’s staff as an engineer.

Henry Andres BurgevineAfter Ward’s death, command of his Asian army passed to another American, Henry A. Burgevine (shown right).  It was an unhappy choice because Burgevine was ill-suited to the task of commanding a multi-ethnic mercenary force: he was inexperienced in leading a large body of men, lacked the necessary self-confidence of command, and consumed copious amounts of alcohol, making him unreliable.  The Taiping rebellion was a civil war, of course, but unlike any other in the history of the world and Henry Burgevine was no Frederick Ward.  He was much detested by the Chinese —so much, in fact, that the governor of Jiang-su Province asked General Staveley to appoint a British officer to command this largely mercenary force.  The officer Staveley selected was Brevet Major Gordon.  The British government approved Gordon’s appointment in December 1862.  Gordon, it seems, was exactly the kind of man Governor Li Hong-Zhang was looking for: a man of good temper, clean of hands, and a steady economist.

Major Gordon, unlike many (if not most) Chinese officers, was honest and incorruptible.  He did not steal the money that was earmarked to pay his men, and he insisted on paying the men on time and in full.  Of course, the Chinese bureaucrats did not understand why Gordon insisted on paying his men.  In their view, he should have allowed his men to loot and plunder the countryside for their pay —this was the way of things in China.  Gordon would not have any of that sort behavior among his men.  To instill a sense of pride in his men, Gordon designed their uniforms.  He dressed his regulars in green, while designating blue uniforms for his personal guard.

Major Gordon assumed command of his army in March 1863 and led them at once to relieve the town of Chansu some forty miles northwest of Shanghai.  Gordon quickly accomplished this first test, which was securing the respect and loyalty of his troops.  As a means of encouraging the Taiping to either desert or surrender, he treated all prisoners of war with dignity and respect.

As an engineer, it occurred to Major Gordon that the network of canals and rivers that flowed through the Chinese countryside would be useful for moving his troops and establishing an expedient supply line.  In matters of training and rehearsing his army, Gordon’s ideas were innovative and efficient.  He was vocally critical of the methods Chinese generals used in war fighting.  In contrast, Gordon was sought to avoid unnecessary casualties or large battle losses.  By maneuvering his forces to deny enemy retreat, he found that enemy troops would quickly withdraw from the battlefield [Note 5].  Gordon believed that frontal assaults produced unacceptably high numbers of casualties (which is true).  As his subordinate commanders were Chinese, they did not object to unnecessary carnage, but Gordon insisted on attacking the enemy’s flank whenever possible.  Gordon’s innovative thinking, such as his creation of a riverine force, caused the Taiping army to avoid Gordon’s army on several occasions.  Of some value to Gordon, once the peasants realized that Gordon’s strategy had a telling effect on the Taiping, they were more disposed to coming to his aid, which did occur on several occasions.   The peasants, tired of Taiping terrorism, attacked the retreating Taiping and hacked them to death with simple farming implements.  Among Gordon’s peers, he was“thoughtful and fearless in the face of grave danger.”

Because Gordon’s force was mercenary, their only loyalty was to money and the men willing to pay them.  It was only Gordon’s stern disciplinary policies that kept his force from plundering the peasants, whom they were supposed to protect.  At one point, Gordon ordered the execution of one of his Chinese officers who conspired to take his unit over to the Taiping.  It was a distasteful duty and one that would never survive the modern evening news, but in China, it was a necessary and prudent step to avoid mass desertion.  The fact is that Gordon’s mercenary force consisted of some of the worst elements of Chinese, British, and American society.  Prior to Gordon’s assignment in command, it was commonplace for these mercenaries to enter a town or district, steal everything they could get their hands on, rape the women, and indiscriminately murder local citizens.  It was only Gordon’s harsh discipline that changed this behavior.  Any of his men who were accused of crimes against the people would very likely face a firing squad —from which there was no appeal.

When Gordon defeated Burgevine’s new mercenary force, which had aligned themselves with the Taiping, he had Burgevine arrested and deported.  Burgevine, however made his way back to China, was promptly arrested by the Qing secret service, and was “shot while trying to escape.”  Burgevine was many things but exceedingly bright wasn’t one of them.

Major Gordon was appalled by the poverty and suffering of the Chinese people.  It was this hardship that strengthened his faith because, as he would frequently argue, there had to be a just and loving God who would one day redeem humanity from wretchedness and misery [Note 6].  Nevertheless, it was Gordon’s humanity that brought him the respect and friendship of those who opposed him politically.  He led his mercenary army from the front, never personally armed with anything more than a rattan cane.  His coolness in battle led many Chinese to believe that he possessed supernatural powers; it was only that Gordon was a fatalist and predestinate.  

Imperial troops joined Gordon’s force in capturing Suzhou.  He had let it be known that any Taiping soldier who surrendered would be humanely treated.  After pacifying surrounding towns and villages, Gordon himself entered Suzhou but, given the tendency of his men to loot, he denied them entry into the confines of the city.  Only the Imperial forces [Note 7] would be allowed to enter the city, and when they did, much to Gordon’s anguish, they promptly executed every Taiping who had surrendered.  Angry, he wrote, “If faith had been kept, there would have been no more fighting, as every town in China would have given in.”  Of course, what Major Gordon did not understand was that while it is possible to take a Chinese man out of China; it is impossible to take China out of the Chinese man.  Even today, most Chinese are devoid of a sense of humanity.

As a measure of the man and his integrity, the Emperor of China, in recognition of Gordon’s achievements, subsequently awarded Gordon ten-thousand gold coins, laudatory flags, fine silk clothing, and a title equivalent to Field Marshal.  All of these things Gordon refused —and all because the Imperial troops, in executing the Taiping prisoners, had made Gordon out to be a liar.   Rebuffing the Chinese emperor did nothing to solidify their relationship, but it was consistent with Gordon’s sense of self.  It was after his service in China that the press and his peers began to refer to him as “Chinese Gordon”.  The nickname stayed with him to the end of his days.  Gordon’s father did not approve of his son working in the service of the Chinese government and it was an estrangement that had not been settled before his father’s death.  Charles, of course, felt guilty about his failure to reconcile with his father and deeply regretted it for the rest of his life.

After Gordon’s return to England, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and placed in command of the Royal Engineers near Gravesend, Kent, and tasked to prepare fortifications in defense of the River Thames.  By then, Chinese Gordon has become a press celebrity —except that Gordon wanted nothing to do with it.  He promptly informed the press to leave him alone.  In Gravesend, Gordon volunteered to teach at a local school, called the Ragged School [Note 8].

Tasked with constructing forts, Colonel Gordon disapproved of the notion that they were in any way necessary.  He regarded them as expensive and useless.  The Duke of Cambridge [Note 9], in his role as Commander in Chief of the Forces (head of the British Army) visited one of the construction sites and praised Gordon for his excellent work.  Gordon answered, “I had nothing to do with it, sir.  It was built regardless of my opinion, and, in fact, I entirely disapprove of its arrangement and position.”  Gordon didn’t mince his words, regardless of who he was talking to.  And, of course, Gordon was entirely correct.  It was a waste of limited resources.

Gordon was advanced to Colonel on 16 February 1872.  Afterward detailed to inspect British military cemeteries in the Crimea, and when transiting through Constantinople, he made his manners to the Prime Minister of Egypt, Raghib Pasha.  Pasha opened negotiations with Gordon to serve under the Khedive (Viceroy) Ismai’il Pasha.  French educated, Isma’il admired Europe as a model of excellence, but favored most France and Italy.  He was a devout Moslem who enjoyed Italian wine and French champaign.  The language of Ismai’il’s court was French and Turkish, not Arabic.  It was the Viceroy’s dream to make Turkey culturally part of Europe and he spent enormous sums of money in the modernization and Westernization of Egypt.  The doing of this sent Egypt deeply into debt —even after the American Civil War had transformed Egyptian cotton into “white gold,” Ismai’il’s spending increased Egyptian debt to more than 93-million pounds sterling.

Ismai’il’s love affair with western culture alienated the more conservative members of Egyptian Islamic society.  Ismai’il’s grandfather, Muhammad Ali (The Great) attempted to depose the ruling Ottoman family in favor of his own, but failed due to the interference of Russia and Britain.  With this knowledge, Ismai’il turned his attention south with the notion of building an Egyptian empire in Africa.  Toward this end, Ismai’il hired westerners to work in his government, including Colonel Gordon, both in Egypt and the Sudan.  His chief of general staff was the American brigadier general Charles P. Stone [Note 10].  He, and a number of other American Civil War veterans commanded Egyptian troops.  In the opinion of some, American officers in the employ of Egypt were mostly composed of misfits in their own land.  As harsh as this criticism sounds, it may be based on fact.  Valentine Baker was a British officer who was dishonorably discharged after his conviction of rape.  After Baker was released from prison, Ismai’il Pasha hired him to work in the Sudan.  In any case, Colonel Gordon, with the consent of the British government, began working for Ismai’il Pasha in 1873—his first assignment was as governor of Equatoria Province (present-day Southern Sudan and Northern Uganda).  His mission included extending Equatoria into Southern Uganda with the goal of absorbing the entire Great Lakes region of East Africa.

Gordon 002jpg
Gordon Pasha

While serving in Sudan, Colonel Gordon undertook efforts to suppress the slave trade, and doing this while struggling against a corrupt and inefficient Egyptian bureaucracy—and one with no interest in suppressing the slave trade.  Gordon was later distressed to learn that his immediate superior was heavily engaged in slaving and actively countermanded many of Gordon’s efforts.  Despite his lofty position in the Egyptian government, Gordon believed that the Egypt was inherently oppressive and cruel and he was soon in direct conflict with the system he was supposed to lead.  What Gordon did achieve was close rapport with the African people, who had long suffered from the activities of Arab slave traders.  These same people were being converted from animists to Christians by European and American missionaries, and this gave Gordon some encouragement.  What made the effort a struggle was the fact that the basis of Sudan’s economy was slavery.  Gordon did manage to shepherd a number of reforms that materially improved the lives of the common man, such as in abolishing torture and public floggings.

(Continued next week)

Sources:

  1. Cleveland, W. And Martin Bunton.  A History of the Middle East.  Boulder: Westview Press, 2009
  2. Karsh, E.  Empires of the Sand: The Struggle for Mastery in the Middle East, 1789-1923.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.
  3. Marlowe, J.  Mission to Khartoum: Apotheosis of General Gordon.  Littlehampton Press, 1968

Endnotes:

  1. A sapper is a soldier responsible for the construction of roads and bridges and laying and clearing mine fields.  They are combat engineers (sometimes called pioneers) who remove enemy obstacles in order to keep the attack in progress.
  2. The Taiping Rebellion was one of the bloodiest conflicts in world history.  It lasted from 1850 to 1864 with estimated dead numbering in excess of 40-million people.
  3. General Staveley’s sister was married to Gordon’s brother.
  4. Ward was born in Massachusetts in 1831.  Because of his rebellious nature, his father consigned him to work aboard a clipper ship commanded by a friend.  The ship made frequent voyages to China.  While in China, Ward became a filibuster.  He was killed while commanding the “Ever Victorious Army” at the Battle of Cixi on 21 September 1862.
  5. The problem with allowing the enemy to withdraw is that they live to fight another day, perhaps under conditions or on terrain of their choosing. 
  6. It is true that there was much wretchedness in the world in Gordon’s day; to find it, he might have looked closer to home —in London, for example.
  7. Gordon referred to the Imperial army as “Imps.”
  8. Prior to 1870, there was no universal school system in the United Kingdom.  The so-called Ragged Schools were a network of privately funded schools that offered free education to children whose parents were too poor to afford the fees associated with available schools.  Unhappily, as with a few other senior British officers, 21st Century writers have used such examples of humanity to suggest, in Gordon’s and William Slim’s cases, that their compassion was likely motivated by their attraction to young boys.  The claims are ludicrous, of course, but this is what revisionists do to in their attempt to destroy the reputations of men (after their death) who occupied prominent footnotes in history.
  9. George William Frederick Charles, also known as Prince George of the House of Hanover, was a professional army officer with the rank of field marshal.  He served as commander in chief for 39 years, a period of time when the British Army became a moribund and stagnant institution.   I am quite sure he had something to say in response to Gordon’s caustic remark.
  10. ‘Urabi was a serving Egyptian officer who participated in the 1879 mutiny that developed into a general revolt against the Anglo-French dominated administration of Khedive Tewfik.  He was promoted to a place in Twefik’s cabinet and began reforms of Egypt’s military and civil administrations, but demonstrations in Alexandria in 1882 prompted a British naval bombardment and invasion.  ‘Urabi was deposed and the British occupied Egypt.