Author: lukeh77

Children's book author, storyteller, dreamer.

Without a Murmur

fife and drum

On April 11, 1783, news arrived of the official end of hostilities with Britain. The Treaty of Paris in which “His Britannic Majesty acknowledges the said United States . . . to be free Sovereign and independent States,” was signed September 3. Envoys John Adams, John Jay, and Benjamin Franklin had wrung for America terms better than most had dared hope for.

It was time for the troops to go home. Many felt the pangs of parting from friends with whom they had shared so much, whom they had come to love. “We were young men and had warm hearts,” one of them later remembered. They knew their lives would never again be illuminated by such a noble cause, nor would their minds crackle with such intensity.

General von Steuben planned a final, triumphant ceremony to precede the soldiers’ dismissal. It was not to be. The troops, as part of the agreement that ended the Newburgh Conspiracy, had been promised three months’ wages, a down payment on the back pay owed them. Congress could not find the money. Not for three months’, not even for one month’s pay. Only IOUs, and those of scant value.

There would be no parade. The high command judged it imprudent to dismiss the men as a body–they might join together and pillage the country. Instead, most regiments were marched to their home states, then released under the fiction of a furlough so as to keep them under military discipline.

The men who had “suffered and bled without a murmur,” Washington wrote, were dismissed “without a settlement of their accounts or a farthing of money in their pockets.”

Destitute Maryland Continentals, having distinguished themselves again and again during the war, had to make their own way home from the deep South. Many resorted to begging. Joseph Plumb Martin, who had fought in the ranks since the beginning of the conflict and would leave behind one of the most vivid memoirs of the war, had to take a job on a farm in New York in order to earn traveling money to reach his home in Connecticut. He said of his fellow soldiers, “When the country had drained the last drop of service it could screw out of the poor soldiers, they were turned adrift like old worn-out horses, and nothing said about land to pasture them upon.”

Washington, Steuben, and Knox all pleaded with Congress to maintain a small army. Knox preached the need for an academy, perhaps near the still- important base at West Point, to train officers, engineers, and artillerymen in the science of war. Congress would not hear of it. “Standing army” was a dirty word. The Continental Army would immediately shrink to seven hundred men stationed at a few scattered posts on the frontier.

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CONSPIRACY AT NEWBURGH

washington
While the British wolf’s teeth had flashed nearby, the states had neglected to adequately support their men in the field. With the threat rapidly abating, they were even less inclined to open their coffers. During the two years that followed Yorktown, the army continued to suffer for want of basic necessities. General Greene begged Congress and the states for supplies. His men suffered from lack of clothing and food. Many still went barefoot.

With peace now casting its warm light across the nation, many civilians became convinced that it was republican virtue that had won the war. The Continental Army soldier, a hireling who had submitted to military discipline, was not a model of a free man. “Civilians could portray themselves,” historian Charles Royster has observed, “as the rescuers of the army at Valley Forge rather than the main cause of the army’s hardship.” In 1782 a Virginia official noted that “some how there is a general disgust taken place for” Continental soldiers.

Now the distinction between summer soldiers and actual soldiers faded. Sunshine patriots emerged from the shadows. “There are too many of our Citizens,” Anthony Wayne had noted in the spring of 1781, “that would not hesitate, to wipe off the large debt due to the army, with a Sponge.”

As early as 1777, Daniel Morgan, in his usual blunt language, had given his opinion “that the War should not end until the Soldiery were provided out the Estates made by it and of such as had too much Property to their Share.” The reluctance of the people and the states to honor their debt to the fighting men had reached a crisis with the mutinies of 1781, when soldiers had felt they were “starving in detail for an ungrateful people who did not care what became of us.”

The officers, as Washington knew, had also spent “the flower of their days” fighting for a cause that often seemed hopeless. Like their men they had seen little pay. They nursed similar grievances. During the desperate months of 1780, with American hopes hanging by a thread, Congress had voted to give the officers half pay for life, the standard pension in the British army. In early 1783, as peace negotiations moved toward conclusion, the army’s leaders realized that the time to make Congress live up to this promise would soon pass. They changed the demand to five years’ full pay. They insisted that Congress amend the Articles of Confederation to allow the money to be raised through taxes.

Events came to a head in March 1783. By this time, Horatio Gates was serving as second in command, overseeing the bulk of the troops outside Newburgh in New York’s Hudson Valley. One of Gates’s aides passed among the officers two anonymous circulars. They suggested that if Congress failed to agree to the officers’ just demands, the men should pursue one of two alternatives. If the war continued, they should refuse to fight and should lead the army westward, leaving Congress and the major cities to the mercy of the British. If peace was concluded, they should keep the troops under arms and march to Philadelphia to obtain what they deserved by force.

The issue became part of a vitriolic debate. Opponents felt the war had been fought to get rid of just such special privileges, which would perpetuate an idle class of ex-officers at the expense of the yeomanry. Those who favored the officers’ position saw that these men had sacrificed eight years of their lives while others had tended their farms or made money in trade. They deserved recompense. What was at stake this time was no sergeants’ mutiny, but a full-blown military coup that could snuff out the infant republic. Conversely, any officer who even tolerated talk of mutiny could be court-martialed and hanged.

The disgruntled officers called a meeting for March 15, 1783, in the spacious central meeting hall of the camp. Washington had been alerted to the gathering in advance. He remained the moral keel of the army. The soldiers, one officer told him, “universally think and speak of you with love, pleasure, gratitude and applause.”

He carefully planned his strategy, enlisting the help of Henry Knox. Like Washington, Knox sympathized with the officers’ plight but abhorred their attempt to bully the civil authority.

On the day set, the grumbling officers filed into the great room. Gates opened the meeting. At the appropriate moment, Washington strode in, “visibly agitated,” to address his officers. He appealed to their sense of dignity and self-sacrifice. Their behavior, he hoped, would allow posterity to say of them, “Had this day been wanting, the world had never seen the last stage of perfection to which human nature is capable of attaining.”

Washington’s rhetoric did not appear to sway the angry men. But he was not done. He had received a letter, he told them, from a member of Congress. It appeared to indicate that the officers’ demands were likely to be met. He begged their permission to read it. He began, then fell silent. He pulled from his pocket a pair of spectacles that he had recently begun wearing. Only a few close aides had seen them perched on his nose. As he slipped them on, he asked the officers’ forgiveness, “observing at the same time,” a witness recorded, “that he had grown gray in their service and now felt himself going blind.”

It was a consummate performance by a skilled actor. Many of the men, who had lived through all the horrors of war, now wept. By the time Washington had finished reading and left the hall, the mood had changed completely. After a half hour of debate, Knox offered a proposal condemning the threats contained in the anonymous circulars that had touched off the affair and affirming the officers’ loyalty. It passed unanimously. The so-called “Newburgh Conspiracy” was over.

The affair had served its purpose. Members of Congress were sufficiently spooked to comply with most of the officers’ demands. Urged on by Washington, they issued interest-bearing certificates for the five years’ pay and amended the Articles to allow for a modest tax.

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Portraits in Revolution

band of giants cover 1

Amateur Soldiers, Giant Legacy

I was recently alerted to a book about the battles of the American Revolution — and it just came out. At 288 pages, I thought it a little slim to do justice to the eight years of the Revolutionary War, which is a big, complicated topic. The last full treatment, John Ferling’s excellent Almost a Miracle (2007), has nearly two and a half times as many pages.

But Jack Kelly’s Band of Giants is almost a miracle itself. It is fleet and at times reads like an historical novel. It tells stories, reveals character, swoops close to give details of a battle, then swoops up to move the story forward. It is necessarily impressionistic in places but it repeatedly brings to focus a telling detail that makes us care about and fulfill the promise of its subtitle: “The Amateur Soldiers Who Won America’s Independence.”

Of course not all were amateurs. George Washington, who almost single-handedly started the French and Indian War, was battle-tested previously — as were Horatio Gates, Daniel Morgan and Charles Lee. They had all participated in the disastrous “Braddock’s March” to Fort Duquesne in 1755 and survived. (In fact Washington had wanted a commission in the British Army; when he realized he’d never get it he quit the militia in 1758, well before the War was over.) Others had had military experience in Europe, including Baron von Steuben.

By and large, however, almost everyone on the American side had never seen combat or even soldiered. Two of Washington’s most capable generals, Nathanael Greene and Henry Knox, learned everything they knew about military science from books. Henry (“Light-Horse Harry”) Lee, father of Robert E. Lee, was pursuing a legal career when the American Revolution broke out. Lord Stirling, a New York colonist who styled himself a nobleman, was a wealthy socialite. “Mad Anthony” Wayne was a surveyor from Pennsylvania.

And then there were the common soldiers — militia who joined the cause to protect their homes, or as the Continental Army developed and relied on long-term enlistees, young men without prospects who had no where else to go. These men had no ties to communities, but joined the Army for the promise of money and land, forgiveness of debt, or release from prison. Ironically, few of them were ever paid what they were owed. Americans distrusted a standing army, and after victory against the British, they simply wanted the Army to disappear.

In particulars, Kelly reveals much. Two telling details from his account of the Second Battle of Saratoga:

Daniel Morgan recognized that [British General Simon] Fraser was stiffening the resistance in front of his riflemen. According to an often repeated story, he ordered an illiterate young Pennsylvania sergeant named Timothy Murphy to kill the scarlet-clad general. … He fired a ball into Fraser’s stomach. As the general slumped, the British position began to crumble. The loss of Fraser “helped to turn the fate of the day,” a British officer later admitted.

And —
American artillery captain John Henry, the twenty-year-old son of Virginia governor Patrick Henry, had distinguished himself in battle. After the cataclysm died down, he wandered the field, staring at the faces, the blue lips, dead staring eyes and glistening teeth, of men he had known. The sight unhinged him. He broke his sword in half and went “raving mad.” He disappeared for months and never fought again.

Kelly is especially fine on the southern theater battles from late 1778 to 1781. Whereas the northern war can be told as an orderly progression of battles with British Generals Howe and Clinton against Washington — and with Horatio Gates dramatically winning the key Battles of Saratoga in 1777 — the war in the South was much more like a civil war, with Patriots against Loyalists, neighbor against neighbor, militia, Continental Army, and British Regulars all combusting together.

Deftly told; exciting.

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Lafayette

Marquis de Lafayettelafayette street

Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette, was the greatest and most appealing. of the European volunteers who fought in the American Revolution. Lafayette was only 19 when he came to America in 1777. His rank of major general was supposed to be honorary, but he was soon leading troops in battle with surprising effectiveness.

Lafayette charmed everyone, none more than George Washington. Washington had no children – Lafayette’s parents were dead. The French youth became the “adopted son” to the 45-year-old American general. It was Lafayette who trapped the army of British General Cornwallis at Yorktown, leading to the victory that ended the war.

“His was not the influence of genius, nor even of talents,” John Stuart Mill wrote of Lafayette, “it was the influence of a heroic character.” When American troops arrived in France during World War I, they acknowledged their country’s debt by declaring, “Lafayette, we are here!”