First Continental Congress

The American revolution was a snowball rolling downhill, gathering mass and momentum as it went. Conspiracy theorists see a deep design behind each new event. Coincidence theorists argue that the revolution “just happened,” because of this or that decision or action.

Well, it didn’t “just happen,” but neither was it planned. We of a later age can see that many of the events were the unintended consequences of decisions made for other reasons, but on the other hand, those events had their own logic, rooted in a century and a half of de facto American self government. The way America was governed was going to change, but it didn’t have to change in just the way it did. The specifics were determined by chance, or divine providence, or destiny, however you choose to think the world’s events are determined. The one thing we may be sure of is that no one envisioned what happened.

Take, for example, the First Continental Congress. Who really brought it into being, the colonists, or Parliament? You could argue it either way. The delegates were meeting to coordinate a response to what were called the Intolerable Acts. Parliamentary spokesmen might have replied, accurately, that the acts were passed in response to the Boston Tea Party, which took place the previous December. Colonists might have replied that “the Tea Party only took place because…” You get the idea. You can always find a preceding cause for anything.

We’ll get to the Boston Tea Party in the next section. You know what happened anyway. To English eyes, it was an act of vandalism and defiance that had the complicity of the colonial government of Massachusetts. As all governments think themselves obliged to do, it took firm measures, and, as usually happens, those actions proved to have unexpected and undesired consequences.

The acts were:

The Boston Port Act, which closed the port until the East India Company should be repaid for the tea that was destroyed.

The Massachusetts Government Act, which suspended the legislative functions of the colonial government, and the Administration of Justice Act, which provided that royal officials accused of crimes could be tried in Great Britain rather than in Massachusetts.

The Quartering Act, which required private citizens to lodge British soldiers in their houses upon official request.

The Quebec Act, which expanded the boundaries of the province to the Ohio, and guaranteed freedom of religion to Catholics.

Taken together, these laws were a masterpiece of legislative stupidity. One can imagine the British MPs, rubbing their hands together and saying to each other, “this will teach those recalcitrant colonials.” It did. It taught them the need for unity amongst themselves.

It didn’t occur to the MPs, perhaps, that the major port cities of New York, Philadelphia, Norfolk and Charleston might look at Boston’s fate and consider that they might be next, and hence might better unite to defend Boston than wait their turn. Or that the other colonial governments might look at what happened to the Massachusetts government and draw analogies to their own situations. Nor that the Quartering Act went directly against a cherished English tradition that said that a man’s home was his castle. And as for the Quebec Act, there they managed to jangle two nerves with one measure: Regardless what the Crown wanted, the colonists were going to cross the Appalachians and settle. And (less creditably, but also in the English tradition of the previous 200 years) granting Catholics freedom of religion aroused all their fears of renewed domination by a Roman church. (To understand this fear, we need to recall American fears of Communist subversion that were rife in the 1950s.)

The acts presented a common threat. They required a common response. In Boston, the Sons of Liberty called for a boycott, but to succeed a boycott would require unanimity among the colonies, or at least widespread agreement, and enforcement provisions. That required coordination. Various colonial legislatures named delegates to attend a common assembly to argue it out. And so in September, 1774, in Philadelphia (which was not only centrally located but was the largest city in the colonies), 55 men met, calling themselves the Continental Congress, and representing every colony but Georgia. Among them were George Washington and John Adams.

The delegates weren’t radical. They still thought their position, if stated clearly enough, might obtain a fair hearing. They sent separate addresses to the people of Great Britain and to the North American colonies, explaining the colonial position, and added a similar address for the people of Quebec. They sent a “Declaration of Rights and Grievances” directly to the king. (Note, they didn’t send it to Parliament, which they saw as the source of the problem.)

But they didn’t just plead. They made it clear that they were serious.

For one thing, they agreed that the colonies boycott British goods beginning on December 1. Each colony was to form committees of observation and inspection to assure enforcement of the boycott. (And, in fact, in 1775, imports from Britain were down to three percent of the 1774 figures.) They also provided that if the Intolerable Acts were not repealed, exports to Britain would cease as of September 10, 1775, but by the time that date came around, matters had proceeded far beyond boycotts.

Then they agreed to reconvene in Philadelphia on May 10, 1775, and they went home.

So what had they accomplished? More than they knew, perhaps. For the first time representatives from New England, southern and middle colonies had met in a common assembly and had learned to work together and understand each other. They had come to common understanding, had agreed on measures, and – more important than anyone could guess – they had arranged to meet again, the following year, never dreaming that in calling for that meeting they had provided the nucleus around which a government and a nation would eventually coalesce.

Bunker Hill

Neither the Battle of Bunker Hill nor the siege that preceded and followed it will make much sense if you don’t understand the geography of Boston as it was in the 1770s. In those years, prior to decades of land-filling, Boston was little more than an island, with only the narrowest connection overland, an ideal place for a naval power to defend.

In June, 1775, Washington had not yet arrived. The Continental Army did not yet exist. It was only two months after Lexington and Concord. The colonial militia – 15,000 strong — surrounded the town and cut off the Roxbury Neck to the south, the only land access. But of course the British navy dominated the waters of the harbor, which meant that British troops in the city could be resupplied and reinforced indefinitely. In the absence of a navy, the only way to force the British out of Boston would be to mount artillery somewhere capable of bombarding the city.

We think of Bunker Hill as being in Boston, but actually it was across the Charles River, and the battle was fought less on Bunker Hill (which commands the Charlestown Neck, the only way off the peninsula) than on Breed’s Hill, farther east. Why the British didn’t land west of Breed’s Hill, flanking it and rendering it irrelevant, says a lot about the causes and progress of the revolution. The British got a shock that day they never forgot.

The only reason the colonials were able to occupy and fortify Bunker and Breed’s Hill in the first place is that commanding officer General Thomas Gage had withdrawn the British troops to Boston after their long retreat from Concord in April. Yet if he had left a garrison on the Charlestown Peninsula, they would have had to defend against the pursuing colonial militia, so perhaps we would have seen a Bunker Hill in reverse. Hard to imagine the colonials attacking a fortified British position, though. At any rate, that isn’t what happened.

Throughout May, Gage received reinforcements, and by June he had about 6,000 men. On May 25, three generals arrived on the same ship. We know them all: William Howe (Lord When?), Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne, and Henry Clinton. If a camel is a horse designed by a committee, the assault on Breed’s Hill was strategy designed by a committee of four able generals. Gage’s plan was to take Dorchester Neck, fortifying the heights, then march on Roxbury, then take the Charlestown heights and scatter the forces in Cambridge. General Clinton wanted to attack from the Charlestown Neck, sensibly enough, but he was outvoted. Howe thought that the hill would be easy to take, and Burgoyne agreed, thinking that the “untrained rabble” would be no match for trained troops.

By the 13th the colonials knew all about the British plans. By the 15th, the Massachusetts Committee of Safety ordered defenses set up on the Charlestown Peninsula, specifically on Bunker Hill. (Bunker, not Breed’s.) On the night of the 16th, Colonel William Prescott led 1,200 men to the peninsula. They started to fortify Bunker Hill, decided that Breed’s hill was a better choice, and built their main fortification there, six-foot-high earthen walls with ditches outside them. In the morning, Prescott had breastworks built from the hill to the water on the east side, to protect from being flanked.

No point in discussing the battle in any detail. Suffice it to say that the British made three frontal assaults before they took Breed’s Hill when the colonials ran out of ammunition. In those attacks, they took terrific casualties. Of 3,000 men engaged, they lost 226 killed (including a lieutenant colonel, two majors, seven captains and nine lieutenants) and 828 wounded. In all, a third of the force went down. With respect to casualties, this was the worst single day of the war for the British; they never again lost so many men in one encounter.

American casualties came to 450, which included 115 killed. The death chiefly noted was that of Dr. Joseph Warren, the President of Massachusetts’ Provincial Congress. He had been appointed a Major General three days earlier, but since his commission had not yet taken effect he was serving as a volunteer private. Warren was killed during the retreat from Breed’s Hill on the third British charge.

It is hard to adequately estimate the effect of Bunker Hill, on either side (not to mention the large population uncommitted to either side). A faint analogy would be if a party of home-grown self-styled patriots took on a unit of the United States Army and inflicted heavy damage on it, with the obvious sympathy of a good part of the people. Regardless who held the field at the end of the day, such a battle would change everything.

The colonials abandoned the field, but they merely retreated to Cambridge and regrouped. Gage was dismissed from command as soon as London received his report, and Howe was named to succeed him. Like Clinton and Burgoyne, Howe was influenced by the slaughter he had witnessed. Perhaps this contributed to the indecisive and unaggressive style that he subsequently displayed.

As we know, within a year, cannon from Fort Ticonderoga would be installed on Dorchester Heights (at the bottom right of the map below), and the British would have to leave. The British never assaulted Dorchester Heights: After Bunker Hill, no British officer ever again had an appetite for attacking Americans in entrenched positions.


Lexington and Concord

Was the revolution inevitable? Maybe, maybe not. As Thomas Paine pointed out the following year, it is merely common sense to see that an island is not going to rule a continent indefinitely. But even if separation was inevitable, did it have to come when and how it did? Did a series of Parliamentary bungles have to lead to warfare? Who knows? Let’s ask an easier question: What price conspiracy theories?

The American Revolution may be seen as an case-study in how to create what you fear. The British feared loss of political control over the North American colonies. Americans feared a conspiracy to take away their rights as Englishmen and British citizens. Both sides acted on their fears; each validated the fears of the other, and together they brought about a result that nobody planned and perhaps nobody really wanted.

As an illustrative example, look at the first armed clash between the colonists and the empire.

Here’s how the British saw it: After the Boston Tea Party, a series of events deprived the legitimate government of effective control of most of the colony of Massachusetts. (The only sizeable British armed force in Massachusetts – in all 13 colonies, actually – was stationed in the city of Boston.) The crown’s response had been to shut down the colonial government. The rebels had formed an insurgent government, and had established a militia specifically for the purpose of resisting the legitimate government and the army. Could the authorities, in all conscience, allow the insurgents to gather arms and ammunition, including cannon and shot, and wait for an inevitable assault? Would it not be better policy to gather information on where the arms were being stored, and act to confiscate them?

Americans saw it differently: To them, the Boston Tea Party and in fact all the political disturbances of the past dozen years were the result of a series of unprecedented usurpations by the British government, regardless whether the prime mover was Parliament as a whole, or the Tory majority, or the king. Quartering British troops on the people, imposing new taxes, closing the port of Boston – it was evident that they were being coerced, and could either resist or surrender the freedom they had enjoyed for more than a century and a half. The colonists were accustomed to forming and serving in militias. Militias had been their first line of defense against Indians, and then against the French. After Gage dissolved the government, the militia, rather than continuing to be used  under the leadership of the colonial governor, instead were headed by the Massachusetts provincial Congress. In effect, the militia was the armed force of the de facto government.

In February, 1775, with the colony of Massachusetts officially declared to be in a state of rebellion, General Thomas Gage became both military governor and commander-in-chief of 3,000 troops that had been garrisoned in Boston. On April 14, 1775, he received orders from home: disarm the rebels and imprison their leaders. At the top of the list were Samuel Adams and John Hancock. (Note, this was 15 months before Hancock, as President of the Continental Congress, signed in large letters, so that the King could read his name without needing eyeglasses.) On the 18th, Gage ordered Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith to take 700 men and proceed from Boston to Concord, seizing any military stores.

But the Americans knew of Gage’s instructions from London literally before he did, and Paul Revere had already ridden to Concord with a warning ten days before Smith set out. The stores were removed and distributed among surrounding towns.

What’s more – incredibly – the Americans knew the details of the secret mission of April 19 even though neither the officers nor the rank and file did. On the night of April 18, 1775, Joseph Warren (who had two months to live) sent William Dawes and Paul Revere to warn Lexington that British regulars were coming their way. In Lexington, they met Hancock and Adams and decided that Concord was the main target. Revere, Dawes, and Samuel Prescott set out to warn Concord. Revere and Dawes were captured, but Prescott made it, and his warning triggered a recently developed system of “alarm and muster” that alerted neighboring villages to know to muster their militias because regulars in numbers greater than 500 were leaving Boston. This system used express riders, bells, drums, alarm guns, bonfires, lots of things. So effective was it that people in towns 25 miles from Boston were aware of the British army’s movements while they were still unloading boats in Cambridge!

You know the bare bones of the story from here. The army got to Lexington, a few shots were fired at sunrise, the outnumbered militia saved themselves by falling back (rightly) and the army proceeded to Concord. They didn’t find any supplies to confiscate, but at the old North Bridge three companies found themselves outnumbered and outfought by 500 militiamen. Then, the army had to fight its way all the way back to Boston, as more militia continued to arrive. Reinforcements from Boston saved the expedition, but the militia followed them all the way. All told, of the 700 men sent out, they had lost 73 killed and 174 wounded, with 53 men missing. The Americans had lost 49 killed and 39 wounded. (And 5 missing. One wonders about that.)

The next day, the British were faced with militia numbering 15,000 men, blocking what was then the only land access to the peninsular city. (The back bay would not be filled in for many decades.) The siege of Boston had begun. Bunker Hill would follow, and then Washington would arrive to take command of the Continental army, demonstrating that Boston was not going to be left to face the British alone.

Second Continental Congress

They never dreamed what they would end up doing. They had to make it up as they went along.

The First Continental Congress, which met in Philadelphia during September and October of 1774, had been selected in various ways, all outside the law (necessarily, since there could be no legal basis for such a gathering). Probably the delegates thought of themselves as an extension of the committees of correspondence – in other words, a mechanism for coordinating the opinions and the efforts of the colonies. They wound up petitioning the king for repeal of the Coercive Acts, and coordinating a boycott of British goods, and they agreed to meet again in May.

But when the second congress convened on May 10, 1775, Lexington and Concord were already three weeks in the past, and a long, long step had been taken. Events had a logic of their own, and over time circumstances turned this second congress into a de facto government. As the man said about the dog walking on its hind legs, the wonder wasn’t that he did it so badly, but that he could do it at all.

Granted, the congress had plenty of talent to draw on. Besides holdovers from the previous year, it had newcomers Benjamin Franklin and John Hancock and Thomas Jefferson. In addition, July saw the arrival of representatives of the state of Georgia, which had not participated in 1774, thus completing the roster of colonies..

But the problem to be solved was unprecedented, in a way that we, who are the heirs to their solution, have to work to realize.

It wasn’t just that these men had no legal authority to become the government. All rebels have that problem.

Nor was it that they had to overcome staggering disproportions between the means at hand and the work to be done.

Nor that their former protector, now to be their enemy, was the world’s greatest naval power and one of the top two economic powers.

Nor that the colonists themselves were by no means united in their perceptions and goals. (It would take this congress 14 months to achieve unanimity on the need for independence.)

It wasn’t even the problem of converting the colonies into states with a republican form of government: John Adams, out of his vast scholarship and industrious scribbling, would show them how to do that.

No, the problem was greater than any of these, and more intangible. It was this: Although the colonies spoke the same language and shared the same traditions and (more or less) the same grievances, they were thirteen governments, not one. The British Empire had never governed them as one unit. Each was as separate at Bermuda, say, or East and West Florida, or Upper and Lower Canada. None of the colonies was prepared to give up sovereignty, not to another colony and certainly not to a faceless entity that would purport to represent them all.

The key to all the financial and logistical problems of the revolution, and many of the military ones, is to be found right here in e pluribus unum. What history had made plural, imagination and skill would have to find a way to make one. If the colonies continued to act in isolation, Britain would divide them and break them one by one: It wasn’t just the men in the forefront of action who were going to hang together or hang separately; it was the cause of American self-government.

Throughout the war, Congress would be hampered by its inability to assess the new state governments for money or supplies or soldiers. It could determine each state’s assessment; it could plead undoubted necessity; it could beg. But the fact of the matter was, it had no means of compelling them to do so, and no recognized moral authority to act as a general government.

The delegates didn’t yet know it, but time, and the pressure of events, would demonstrate the need for another layer of government above state government, a layer that would concern itself with matters that would affect them all, and matters such as foreign affairs that required them to speak with a single voice, but would nonetheless leave them sovereign within their areas of competence.

The Second Continental Congress was an expedient that kept growing under the pressure of events. It never had the resources or authority it needed, and it often lacked vision. Still, it functioned. In June, it renamed the militia units in the field as the Continental Army and named George Washington to command it. In July, it approved a Declaration of Causes, justifying their resort to arms, and at the same time voted to send what was called the Olive Branch petition to King George. The following May, it would pass a resolution recommending that every colony form a revolutionary government.

And, finally, this congress would have to take it upon itself to declare the colonies independent of Great Britain, because no other authority existed to do it, and, if they were to have a hope of foreign assistance, it had to be done. (Nobody was going to intervene as long as it remained, or seemed to remain, an internecine struggle that might be patched up.)

Declaring independence led, in turn, to the Articles of Confederation, which would bind thirteen states into “a firm league” able to act together. The Confederation government came into effect in 1781, got them through the war and the immediate postwar period, and then gave way to the great federal experiment.

It all came out of this Second Continental Congress, one improvisation upon another. Perhaps it is no wonder that contemporaries saw the hand of divine providence in the events they had lived through.

Declaring for Independence


“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams

John Adams came to the Continental Congress convinced that it must vote for independence. But for a long, long time he was in the minority. Offering armed resistance to constituted authority, as had happened at Lexington and Concord a month before the Second Continental Congress convened, was a big step. But even with an army already in the field, an immeasurably greater step would be to state officially that there could be no settlement on any terms but complete rupture of political relations. The delegates hesitated.

Afterward, when everybody knew how it came out, the men who didn’t want to break with England were scorned as timid, or as insufficiently patriotic. But suppose it were today, and you were forced to decide, and to declare, whether your existing government still deserved your trust and support, or by its actions had forfeited your allegiance? A wrong choice might mean confiscation or banishment, conceivably execution. And in any case, how could you know whether what came next would be better or worse?

On the one hand, “a tide in the affairs of men.” On the other hand, “from the frying pan into the fire.” Independence was a big step. Too big? Impracticable? Not even necessary? Even, perhaps, inexcusable?

For that matter, who were they to decide? Chosen in various ways, all necessarily extra-legal, their only legitimacy was, and had to be, that they represented the people of their colony. But who knew what “the people” really wanted? In that day there were no opinion polls, no electronic mass-communications media endlessly reporting fluctuations in the public pulse. At most there were broadsides and newspapers and people meeting wherever people met. In the southern colonies, a tight aristocracy monopolized economic and political power, and so their representatives pretty much knew the opinions of the few whose opinions mattered. New England, the land of near-universal literacy, was also the land of those hottest for independence. But the middle colonies were practically a bedlam of competing voices.

And, no matter how many people a colony’s delegates represented, or how many delegates a colony sent, each colony had one vote. If its delegates divided evenly, the colony was recorded as not voting. If a majority voted one way, the colony’s one vote was recorded as if it were had been unanimous. The delegates had decided that any decision to strike for independence must be unanimous, or at least unopposed, lest one colony wind up fighting to suppress or assist rebellion against the government and wishes of another. Obtaining unanimity took time.

There really ought to be a statue somewhere celebrating the contributions of King George III to the cause of American independence. The colonists initially saw their grievances as stemming from Parliament. Had he concurred, he might have kept the American colonies within the Empire on what later became Dominion status – that is, united under the same king, but with separate governing structures. The difference that would have made is unimaginable. An America whose Tories stayed, rather than fleeing to Canada, would have produced an entirely different balance of power within the various colonial societies. But the king’s vision did not extend that far. In fact, late in 1775 he told Parliament that he was thinking of hiring Hessians to shoot enough recalcitrant colonists to bring them to heel, though he didn’t put it that bluntly.

Events kept pushing in one direction. In January 1776, Common Sense appeared, and began to stir up a huge public debate, leading to much greater support for separation from Great Britain. In February 1776, word arrived of the Prohibitory Act, blockading of American ports and labeling American ships enemy vessels. (Parliament should have a statue, as well.) As Adams pointed out, Parliament had declared America’s independence for it.

But the delegates could not vote for independence unless and until their colony’s governing body allowed them to. It took from April to July to accomplish this, with the middle colonies providing the greatest resistance. We won’t go into the ins and outs of the necessary maneuvering. Suffice it so say that when it came time to vote, only New York still had not provided its delegates revised instructions.

On June 11, Congress had appointed a geographically balanced committee to draft a declaration: Adams and Roger Sherman from New England, Jefferson from the South, Franklin and Robert Livingston from the middle colonies. They agreed roughly on what to say, assigned Jefferson to write the first draft, and on June 28 presented the draft to the full Congress, which spent two days going over it, shortening it by 25%, and, most notably, removing Jefferson’s assertion that Britain had forced slavery on the colonies. On Tuesday, July 2, 1776, acting as a committee of the whole, Congress voted 12-0 for independence, New York’s delegates abstaining rather than voting no. Two days later the Congress finalized the declaration’s wording, and ordered it published.

Don’t skim over the following words, but try to hear them as people in American and Great Britain heard them in 1776.

“We must, therefore … hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends. We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

It had taken more than a year (and the unwitting cooperation of king and parliament), but the other delegates had caught up to John Adams. The die was cast.

The French alliance

Actions have consequences, and representatives of nations and states have long memories. The British expelled France from the New World in 1763. Fifteen years later, France was more than ready to do what it could to even the score. Adhering to the usual code of ethics among states, it did so surreptitiously and more-or-less deniably, until Saratoga. Then the French court decided to roll the dice.

Among the consequences of that throw for the French were brief, sweet revenge; bankruptcy; the need to call the Estates General if the state were to levy any new taxes; the French Revolution; the Reign of Terror, Napoleon. In short, 20 years of exsanguination leading to defeat far more complete and irredeemable than it had inflicted on the British in 1783.

It worked out better for the Americans.

(It even worked out better for the British, in a backward sort of way. The defeat, including even temporary loss of command of the sea, was so shocking, and exposed deficiencies in so many aspects of military, naval, financial and general administrative procedures that, for once, sweeping reforms followed. It is argued by historians that without those reforms, England would likely have lost to France in the revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars that were soon to follow. Thus, the defeat in North America was a blessing in disguise. However, it is unlikely that in 1783 many Englishmen could see the blessing for the disguise.)

People often speak foolishly of friendship among nations. There is no such thing, and cannot be any such thing. Nations do not have friends; they have interests. Nations may have interests that run parallel for dozens, even occasionally for hundreds, of years, but when their interests change, their “traditional historic friendships” will change as well. And It’s worth remembering, in looking at the history of alliances and changes of alliances and accusations of betrayal.

It was in France’s interest to weaken England. Detaching a part of the British empire and helping it to become a powerful seafaring rival (even if it also spoke English and shared long political and cultural traditions) would serve that goal. The only question was, was it feasible? America sent lovable, plausible Ben Franklin to Paris to plead its case. The French adored Franklin. In modern parlance, they “got his act.” But no number of Ben Franklins – even if there had been more than one – would amount to a hill of beans without some evidence that the colonials could stand up to the English on the field of battle. Sniping at them from behind trees and rock walls was well and good, but for the French court to place its bet, it required stronger evidence of valor than Lexington or Concord, more persuasive evidence of America’s staying power  than Washington’s ability to keep his army in the field.

Then came Saratoga. An entire British army outfought, surrounded, and captured. Could there be more convincing evidence that the Americans had a chance?

The French court had already been providing arms and ammunition. (For example, a French private citizen acting at the request of King Louis XVI and his foreign minister set himself up as a Portuguese company, sent gunpowder and ammunition to the neutral Dutch port of Saint Eustatius in the West Indies, and somehow this material wound up being used by the American army. It is easy to imagine the protestations: “But how could that have happened? How regrettable, monsieur. I assure you, the government had no knowledge of any such transaction.” But it was that powder and shot that helped defeat Burgoyne.)

In any case, in the aftermath of Saratoga, the French conferred recognition (on February 6, 1778), signed a military alliance, declared war on Britain (and roped in Spain and the Netherlands as allies) and came across with money, arms and soldiers. They also sent their navy, which after a couple of years managed to be in the right place at the right time (September 5, 1781) to bring about Yorktown (October 19), and the consequent fall of the British Tories and the rise of the Whigs, who were anxious to make a generous peace with the former colonies.

Oh, and about friendship among nations? America and France, in making their alliance,  mutually pledged to make no separate peace. Naturally, each side immediately began worrying that the other side would do just that. The Americans, none of whom had fallen off the turnip truck, were well aware that they were in danger of being hung out to dry by a French court pursuing its own interests. Dr. Franklin and company stole a march on them and came to agreement with the English on their own.

Nations don’t have friends, they have interests.


Daniel Morgan

We tend to think of him in connection with Kentucky because of the riflemen, but Daniel Morgan was born in New Jersey and died in Virginia. Between those two events, he turned out to be pretty useful to the American cause. In the north, his riflemen arguably made the difference in defeating Burgoyne’s army at Saratoga. In the south, the slaughter they executed at Cowpens arguably set Cornwallis on the path to defeat at Yorktown. Not bad. Two armies, two surrenders. One the war’s turning point, the other the last straw for England. And before that, in 1775, he led one of the two simultaneous invasions of Canada that might have unrecognizably changed our history if it had succeeded.

So who was he? In 1775, he was 39 years old, and had been living for some time in the Winchester area. He had participated as a civilian in General Braddock’s disastrous campaign against the French at Fort Duquesne (the site that became Pittsburgh) during the French and Indian War, and had been lucky to survive – not because of the French or their Indian allies, but because he corrected a superior officer (that is, he punched him) and received 499 lashes on the back, which usually was enough to kill a man. Morgan survived, and, like young Andrew Jackson, and for more or less the same reason, intensely hated the British Army thereafter. When the Revolutionary War came around, he was not slow to offer his services.

In fact, he didn’t need to. When the Continental Congress asked for rifle companies, Virginia agreed to provide two, and asked Morgan to command one of them, due to his experience with the militia in the years after the French and Indian War. Captain Morgan recruited 96 men in 10 days, and marched them the 600 miles to Boston in three weeks, arriving at the siege on Aug. 6, 1775.

Morgan’s company was one of three that accompanied Colonel Benedict Arnold from Boston to Quebec City, accomplishing the grueling journey in six weeks. On New Year’s Eve, 1775, they attacked the city (jointly with the forces led by Montgomery that had previously captured Montreal), and after Arnold was felled by a bullet in his leg, Morgan took over command. The attack failed, and Morgan was among those captured, and was a prisoner of war until exchanged in January, 1777. How the British must have regretted that exchange, later!

Morgan returned to find himself now a colonel, and was assigned to raise a new regiment, which he did. In June, he was given command of the Provisional Rifle Corps of 500 men. In August Morgan was sent to join General Horatio Gates against Burgoyne in the two battles of Saratoga.

Morgan’s Riflemen were sharpshooters, using rifles that were worlds more accurate than the smoothbore muskets used by the British (and by most of the other Continentals and militia). Morgan took advantage of this accuracy, instructing his men to concentrate on killing British officers, thus leaving that army relatively leaderless, and thus nearly helpless.

At Freeman’s Farm, his regiment killed every officer in the British advance party coming at them, then charged (without orders) and were repulsed, reformed their lines and held the field for the rest of the day. At Bemis Heights, Morgan commanded the left flank against 1,500 advancing British soldiers. At Arnold’s direct order, one of Morgan’s sharpshooters killed British General Fraser while he was trying to rally his lines, and the British fell back. Between the battle of Bemis Heights and Burgoyne’s surrender, Morgan’s man destroyed any British patrols they saw, thus convincing Burgoyne that he couldn’t even retreat. One down.

The eternal and infernal politics of the Continental Congress prevented Morgan’s promotion from Colonel. Between this frustration and the physical results of his injuries sustained in Quebec, Morgan decided he had had enough, and resigned in June, 1779, returning home to Winchester. He was offered service under Gates when Gates was given the Southern Command, but declined. But after Gates took a pasting at Camden, Morgan reconsidered, and rejoined the army in North Carolina.

In October, 1789, he was promoted to brigadier general. In December, he met with Nathanael Greene, the new commander of the southern forces. As we said earlier, Greene split his forces in the face of superior numbers. Morgan was detailed to harass Banastre Tarleton, but not fight him. Morgan fought him anyway, and on January 17, 1781, executed a double envelopment that annihilated Tarleton’s army. Of nearly 1,100 men, Tarleton lost 110 killed and 830 captured (of whom 200 were wounded) and all his supplies and equipment.

The upshot was that Cornwallis lost much of his mobility, and we know what happened after that.