Engagement at Osborne’s Landing, VA

During the Revolutionary War, the individual states formed their own navies for local defense and military operations.  These state navies existed simultaneously with the Continental Navy. Like many state navies, Virginia’s began when the war started and there was a need to defend the state’s coastline and waterways, just as troops were organized to defend its land. The Virginia State Navy patrolled the Chesapeake Bay, provided security on its rivers, and even went to Europe and the Caribbean to bring back supplies.

After several years of inactivity, by 1781 the war had returned to Virginia. British troops occupied Portsmouth and used it as a base for raids. Governor Thomas Jefferson scrambled to get the state’s defenses ready.

British forces under General Benedict Arnold capture the fledging capital of Richmond, where he dispersed local militia and destroyed supplies. Arnold withdrew to the British base at Portsmouth, but the redcoats would soon be back in the area.

Marching south with reinforcements from New Jersey was General Lafayette. By late April he reached Hanover Court House, and continued on towards Richmond. 

On April 8 General Phillips from Portsmouth up the James River to City Point. From there they moved on to Petersburg. The town was an important crossroads, port, and supply base for the Continental army. Generals Friedrich Von Steuben and Peter Muhlenberg had been gathering militia here, and they made a stand just south of the town on April 25. The British drove the defenders back, and the Americans retreated to Richmond. Phillips followed, intending to again capture the state capital.

As part of the British advance, General Arnold with the 76th, 80th, and some Jaegers (German riflemen) and Queen’s Rangers moved towards Osborn’s Landing on the James River. They arrived on April 27 and incredibly, won a naval battle without a navy!

Osborn’s Landing was a wharf about a dozen miles south of Richmond on the west bank of the James River. Assembled here were several merchant ships and the entire Virginia State Navy- nine warships with severely understrength crews. Across the river on the eastern bank were local militia from Henrico County.

This sketch of the engagement was drawn by British officer John Simcoe

Arnold sent a message to the American commander (whose identity is not recorded), “offering one half the contents of their cargoes in case they did not destroy any part.” The nameless American commander sent word, in answer, “We are determined and ready to defend our ships, and will sink them rather than surrender.” With that Arnold took them up on their offer.

The Queen’s Rangers and Hessian Jaegers charged down to the wharf, while the two British infantry regiments provided covering fire. Arnold also deployed two 3-pound and two 6-pound guns, which opened fire on the American ships “with great effect.” The Tempest became a primary target, and the Jaegers advanced, “by a route partly covered with ditches, within thirty yards of her stern.” The rifle fire prevented the crews from properly manning their guns on deck.

British artillery fire severed the rigging of the Tempest, and she began to drift, so the crew abandoned the ship. The other warships were also taking fire, and their crews abandoned them as well. Along with the Tempest, the other large warships lost were the Renown and the Jefferson.

The British destroyed the entire Virginia State Navy, and captured twelve private ships with 2,000 hogsheads of tobacco, flour, rope, and other supplies- all without a single ship of their own in the fight.

Phillips arrived at the town of Manchester, opposite Richmond, and Arnold’s forces joined them after moving up from Osborn’s. The British prepared to cross the shallow river and take the capital for the second time in three months. Yet the arrival of Lafayette on the high ground above the river convinced the British to turn back.   

There are few reminders of the Revolution in the Richmond-Petersburg area. Today the site of Osborn’s Landing is inaccessible. Across the river, on the eastern shore, is a county boat landing and picnic area, with historic markers about the engagement. Ironically, Governor Thomas Jefferson’s grandfather, also named Thomas Jefferson, was born at Osborne’s Landing in 1677.

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“Rev War Revelry” Light Horse Harry Lee Discussion

On January 29, 1756, Henry Lee III is born at Leesylvania Plantation in Prince William County, Virginia. Part of the prestigious Lee family of Virginia, his father was a cousin of Richard Henry and Francis Lightfoot Lee, two brothers who signed the Declaration of Independence.

Henry Lee would blossom into one of the better cavalry commanders in the American Revolution, earning the nickname, “Light Horse Harry” Lee because of his accomplishments. With January being his birth month, Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes historian and author Mike Cecere, who will discuss his book, “Wedded to my Sword, The Revolutionary War Service of Light Horse Harry Lee.”

Cecere, former high school and community college history teacher is the author of thirteen books on the American Revolution, most focused on aspects of the colony of Virginia and/or her native sons.

This Sunday we hope you spend some time joining us on the next installment of “Rev War Revelry’ as we discuss the Lee that was born in January and became a military hero of the American Revolution. This historian happy hour will be live on our Facebook page at 7 pm EST.

(Yes, we do know there is another Lee that is born in January and plays a prominent role in history).

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Life Lessons from the Battle of Cowpens

Two hundred and forty years ago, January 17, 1781, Brigadier General Daniel Morgan strategically manuevered his Colonial forces to defeat the British, led by Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton, at the Battle of Cowpens.

What can we learn from the Battle of Cowpens? Military strategy, yes. Historical knowledge, absolutely. But as we near the 250th commemoration of the American Revolutionary War, how do we turn the battle into relevancy for today’s modern society?

As historians, we can find meaning and connection to places and events at their face value. It’s a natural ability we have ingrained in our knowledge-seeking souls. What about those that can’t and don’t? How do we make them relevant to them so that our history is not forgotten?

The answers lie in the stories we tell and how we tell them. Instead of rehashing the specific details of the Battle of Cowpens, I’m going to try something a little different: think of a time when you were able to not only prove that someone’s opinion of you was wrong, you used it to your advantage to achieve a goal. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Now recall that a key element of Morgan’s strategy was his use of the British underestimation of the Colonial militia forces. Before the Battle of Cowpens, Tarleton, like many British commanders, believed that the militia were mostly untrained or inexperienced civilians that would flee in face of a real battlefield. To be fair, this was witnessed at several battles (Battle of Camden on August 16, 1780 immediately comes to mind) so it’s a fair assessment.

Using this knowledge to his advantage, Morgan set a trap. Putting his militia front and center of his second battle line, he ordered them to fire off two volleys at the oncoming British before falling back. The perspective fueled the British assumption that the militia were fleeing the battlefield, and Tarleton drove his men forward… and right into Morgan’s trap.

Fighting between soldiers from Tarleton’s Legion (British) and Morgan’s Army (American Continental)
by Don Troiani. NPS Commissed Artwork.

Perhaps if Tarleton had not underestimated the militia, he would not have found himself in the only successful double envelopment in the American Revolution. But more to the point, Morgan took strategic advantage of the British perception of the militia’s capabilities.

While this battle’s lessons learned are easily applied to modern military education, how can we apply them to our everyday civilian life, particularly the lesson that comes from Tarlton’s mistake and Morgan’s strategy relating to the militia? The motto “never assume” comes to mind first. At the very least, it compels the message “Don’t let what other people may or may not think of you prevent you from achieving what matters most to you.” I personally like the potential of “If someone doesn’t see value in your abilities, prove them wrong.”

What life lesson do you pull from the battle’s story?

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“they have totally destroyed it…” The Chickahominy Shipyard

Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes back guest author Drew Gruber.

Since Arnold’s raid in January the situation for Virginians in the Spring of 1781 was deplorable and growing worse. Keeping soldiers shod and fed (besides properly armed and equipped) proved difficult. For example, Gen. Baron von Steuben noted that despite receiving 100,000 cartridges the Virginians simply lacked cartridge boxes to store them or even an adequate number of muskets to fire them. In Virginia, a colony defined by its deep waterways finding vessels to move men and supplies was also a major piece of the puzzle. 

The Chesapeake Bay and navigable rivers provided quick access into the interior of Virginia and both sides vied to control them. Previous campaigns in Virginia and along the Bay highlighted why towns like Portsmouth, near the confluence of the James River, and the Chesapeake Bay could help armies control large swaths of the largest and most prosperous colony. Of course, access to vessels of a variety of sizes was necessary to ensure the control of not only Virginia but Coastal North Carolina and Maryland. 

Gloucester Point 1755, inset from original owned by the Mariners Museum.

Thankfully by March 1781 Virginians had an upper hand over their adversaries not only in the number of boats but the means to outfit, repair, and support an ad-hoc navy. It was the culmination of years of effort and ingenuity which began just after Virginia declared its independence. 

Alongside Virginia’s establishment of a system of public stores and the creation of a standing army a shipyard was on the short-list of priorities for the fledgling independent state. In June 1776 the Virginia Committee of Safety empowered shipbuilder John Herbert to “examine all such places upon the James River or its branches…proper and convenient for erecting ship-yards…”1 Herbert selected a bend in the Chickahominy River just a dozen miles west of Williamsburg. 

The Virginia State Navy appears to have been amorphous and inconsistently armed between June 1776 and the spring of 1781. At various points it consisted of about a dozen ships, although the term ‘ship’ may be generous descriptions for some of these vessels.2 According to Charles Paulin’s Navy of the American Revolution despite Virginia leadership’s zeal to fund additional ships, marines, and infrastructure to support coastal defense, the vessels were largely undermanned and poorly armed. To our modern sensibilities and perhaps to the men and women of the Revolutionary era the names of the “armed boats” which comprised Virginia’s navy are less than inspiring. For instance, the ships Experiment and the Dolphin don’t give off an air of martial prowess but still sound better when compared to my personal favorite, the Fly

Still, the Virginia General Assembly pushed to create and maintain a more effective naval system and in 1777 appointed James Maxwell as Superintendent. He apparently oversaw the operation at the various shipyards, rope works, foundries and all the materials and men needed to create and maintain an effective navy. Maxwell’s base of operations at the Chickahominy yard included over 150 acres of stores, barracks, and other infrastructure essential to the maintenance and creation of a vast flotilla. 

Although the Chickahominy yard was ably led and with copious old growth timber at their disposal the lack of manpower persisted. Maxwell reported to Virginia’s Gov. Jefferson that in outfitting two vessels they relied on volunteers.3 In the same letter to the governor, Maxwell noted that the term of service for the crew of the Jefferson expired and he was “detaining them Against their will.” Despite setbacks and the shortage of able bodies the shipyard kept Virginia float. 

The information available in the papers of Williamsburg Public Store and the Calendar of State Papers provides a snapshot into the day-to-day operations in the naval yard.4 However, a letter written in February 1781 provides the best insight into the effectiveness of the operation. Capt. Beesly Edgar Joel wrote Gov. Jefferson from Williamsburg commenting that the Dragon (a much better name) was under water rendering it, obviously, unfit for service. Within five days it was floating and on day six was sailing down the James River.5 In an era obviously devoid of pneumatic lifts this quick turnaround speaks volumes as to the facility’s capabilities despite its handicaps. 

Early American Shipyard, image from Abbot’s 1908, “American Merchant Ships and Sailors.”

Maxwell’s operation at the Navy Yard grew slightly by March 1781 as the state prepared for what was certain to be an intense spring campaign. Maxwell reported that he had 96 guns with the majority being four pounders but lamented that his full compliment of sailors should be 590 whereas he had 78 men to staff 7 ships. Two additional ships were ready but had no crew to speak of while 4 of his operable boats had less than 10 men serving on them.6 This would have to suffice. 

That same month, reports flooded into Richmond from various points near the Chesapeake Bay that British reinforcements had arrived in Portsmouth to support Arnold. Within a few short days various Virginia arsenals, warehouses, and even shipyards were being instructed to police up their men and materials and move them west out of the possible path of destruction. Virginia could not afford another disastrous raid like the one they experienced in January. 

As predicted, British Gen. Phillips left Portsmouth on April 18th, with over two dozen boats and approximately 2,000 men. It happened quickly. Virginian Rodham Kenner recalled their retreat as Phillips combined force sailed west up the James River. 

“the whole of our little fleet which was in this part of the Bay was driven up James River a much Superior British force, and into the Chickahominy River to what was called the Ship Yard: whilst our little fleet composed of the following Vessels to wit the Ship Dragon, the Brigg Jefferson and the Thetis a 36 gun Ship”7

The following morning, on April 19, British Col. John Simcoe landed at Burwell’s Ferry with a force of Jagers, light infantry and the Queen’s Rangers. The Ferry, located at the confluence of the James and Chickahominy rivers sat scarcely a few miles from Maxwell’s shipyard. Phillips ordered Simcoe to “beat up any party who might be in ambuscade there.”8 Finding no ambush this elite force quickly marched across the Virginia Peninsula towards Williamsburg. 

Burwell’s Ferry Landing, photo from “The Post Script” published in April 2020 by Kate Gruber

A small force of Virginians, apparently under the command of Maj. Armistead briefly skirmished with Simcoe’s men as they pushed east towards Williamsburg.9 Simcoe’s men continued east along the old Yorktown road as various Virginia militia units melted away before them eventually arriving in Yorktown itself. As this was unfolding British Lt. Col. Robert Abercromby (Ambercombie) with his light infantry paddled up the Chickahominy towards the shipyard. Over a dozen flat boats, supported by perhaps as many as a dozen additional vessels turned into the mouth of the Chickahominy River from the James River – a few miles of the shipyard. 

Although few primary source accounts describe the British attack on the shipyard Virginia pensioner Joseph Saunders provided the best description so far. Although he was recalling the event almost fifty years after the fact, his deposition has a surprising amount of detail. 

“They sent a number of gun boats up to our shipyard to destroy what was there. I had filled my galley with naval stores to take up the River to conceal them but wind and tide being against me could not go on, came to, put a spring on my cable, and awaited their arrival. It was not long before they came in sight and as soon as near enough I discharged my cannon at them, sunk my vessel, and made my escape to shore…”10

Arnold’s report to Henry Clinton is rather vague as was Virginia’s Lt. Governor David Jameson when he wrote James Madison seven days later on April 28. “When they went into Wbg some of their Vessels with the flat Bottomed Boats moved up to Chickahominy—while there they destroyed the Ship Yard, the Thetis, the Stores &c. &c.”11 Besides untold stores, and raw and finished materials, at least two large vessels were destroyed, either at the hands of their own crew or Ambercromby’s amphibious infantrymen. Besides the limited contemporary reports from soldiers, sailors, and Virginia legislators, myriad archaeological reports highlight the effectiveness of the British raid.

The inferno of the burning yard, ships, stores, and supplies was so large that it could be seen several miles away later that evening. James Innes, commanding Virginia militia who were fleeing west towards New Kent County, recalled in his letter to Thomas Jefferson that, “They possessed themselves of the Ship Yard about 4 o’Clocke yesterday, and I am apprehensive from the fire discoverd in that Quarter last night they have totally destroyed it.”12 

According to William Lowrie, the Dragon was “burnt by the British at Chickahominy Ship yard.”13 Both Lowrie and Saunders have ties to the Dragon and it must have been difficult to watch the ship which had served the cause of liberty for almost five years slip beneath the surface. In fact, The Dragon was approximately 81 feet long and roughly matches the size of a one of the two vessels still sitting in the bottom of the bottom of the Chickahominy River today.14 The second vessel which has also been surveyed in myriad cultural resource reports is substantially shorter and has been hypothesized to be either the Lewis or Safeguard.15 In fact, on March 20th 1781 Saunders was placed in command of the Lewis which he scuttled almost a month later a few yards from the wharf at the shipyard.16 



Artist interpretation of vessel Remains, “Historical and Arcehaological Investigation of the Chickahmoiny Shipyard Site,” a thesis by Jeffrey D. Morris, C. 2000., Pg. 109

Today the site of the shipyard is on private property and the underwater resources are protected by the Code of Virginia § 10.1-2214 which empowers the Virginia Marine Resources Commission with the authority to permit underwater archaeological investigations and makes recovery of underwater archaeological materials illegal without a permit. Trespassing on both land and water is unlawful which helps protect the known and unknown archaeological resources. Without stronger primary source materials like pensions, maps, and letters from soldiers and citizens artifacts become the key to understanding many Revolutionary War events like this one. Every button, nail, and cannonball when professionally recovered and systemically documented will provide us with the best chance to fully understanding how this shipyard contributed to the war for American independence.17

Maxwell’s shipyard never recovered however the Virginia State Navy has escaped wholesale destruction and would live to fight another day. As Phillip’s soldiers and sailors moved west up the James River, with the smoke from the Shipyard bellowing another naval showdown was brewing closer to Richmond.

Sources:


  1. Naval Document of the American Revolution, Page 342
  2.  Paullin, Charles O., Navy of the American Revolution. (1906). Page 413
  3. “Capt: Jas: Maxwell to the Governor, January 1, State Ship Yard.” Calendar of Virginia State Papers. Vol. 1., Page 409. 
  4. Williamsburg Public Store records, transcribed by Katherine Egner Gruber. Unpublished. 
  5. “B. Edgar Joel to the Governor, February 9, Williamsburg.” Calendar of Virginia State Papers, Vol. 1., Page 501. A day later, after hiring a pilot the Dragon ran aground and sat on the bar for three days and returned to the ship yard. 
  6. “To Thomas Jefferson from James Maxwell, 26 April 1781,” Founders Online, national Archives, last modified November 26, 2017
  7. Rodham Kenner S1228 transcribed by Will Graves http://revwarapps.org/s1228.pdf
  8. “Simcoe’s Military Journal…By John Graves Simcoe.” Bartlett and Welford, NY, 1844. Page 191
  9. This may refer to William Armistead. 
  10. Joseph Saunders 217073 Transcribed by Will Graves. http://revwarapps.org/s17073.pdf
  11. “To James Madison from David Jameson, 28 April 1781,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/01-03-02-0044
  12. To Thomas Jefferson from James Innes, 22 April 1781,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-05-02-0658
  13. William Lowrie VAS986 transcribed by Will Graves. http://revwarapps.org/VAS986.pdf
  14. American War of Independence At Sea. Accessed on April, 5, 2020. https://awiatsea.com/sn/va/Dragon%20Virginia%20Navy%20Ship-Galley%20%5bCallender%20Markham%20Singleton%20Travis%20Chandler%20Joel%5d.html
  15. National Register of Historic Places. Nomination. 6/28/79. https://www.dhr.virginia.gov/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/047-0078_Chickahominy_Shipyard_AE_Site_1979_Final_Nomination_REDACTED.pdf
  16. A letter from Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Harrison on April 22nd notes the two ships in the Chickahominy as the Lewis and Safeguard
  17. To find out more about underwater archaeology check out the Maritime Heritage Chapter of the Archaeological Society of Virginia.  https://maritimeheritageva.org/


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“Rev War Revelry” A Cigar Chat with John Adams

Join Emerging Revolutionary War historians this Sunday, at 7 p.m. EST on our Facebook page for the next historian happy hour. This week we will be joined by John Adams…no that is not a mistype.

John Adams is the founder and owner of Liberty Cigars, which “was founded to reacquaint men and women with the simple pleasure of respite and leisure. Lasting bonds, whether among one or many, are more easily formed when wrought in a relaxed and convivial atmosphere.”

Liberty Cigars

That “convivial atmosphere” will be recreated during the next installment of “Rev War Revelry” as ERW historians will discuss tobacco, cigars, and the founding generation of the United States.

“In the time to come we will share the incredible stories of our great republics’ illustrious history with the hope that through you, it will long endure. Our premium cigars are named for a seminal person, event or entity in history so that we may honor them, as we should, across the ages” according to Adams.

Liberty Cigars is part of the American History Guild, founded over a decade ago to “rekindle and stoke the sacred fire of liberty.”

We hope you can set aside an hour of your weekend to join us in “the simple pleasure of respite and leisure” with John Adams. If weather permits, there may be another twist to the “Revelry” on Sunday evening.

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The Traitor Returns

Westover Plantation, the beautiful Georgian-style colonial home once owned by Virginia’s Byrd family, sits atop a high bank, overlooking the James River. Located in Charles City County, Westover is a mere 25 miles from the Virginia state capital of Richmond. It was here, on January 4, 1781, that a visitor would arrive who ultimately would set Richmond “on its ear”; he was the infamous traitor, Benedict Arnold.

Westover Plantation

Throughout January 2021, Richmond National Battlefield Park, in partnership with Historic St. John’s Church Foundation, will commemorate what has come to be remembered as Arnold’s Raid through a series of three virtual presentations that will premiere on the Facebook channels of both organizations as well as on YouTube. The presentations will air on January 5, 10, and 17, all at 1:00PM. 

In his first assignment as a general officer in His Majesty’s service, the newly minted Brigadier General, Benedict Arnold, sailed south from New York in late December 1780, heading to the Chesapeake Bay. The force he commanded numbered around 1,600 and was quite impressive, being comprised of both regular and loyalist troops. Upon reaching the Chesapeake, Arnold seized smaller craft that would take his strike force up the James River. Ultimately, his target would be Richmond, the new state capital of Virginia. Thus far in the Revolution, Virginia had played a critical role in the war effort in terms of supplying men and material. Knocking Virginia out of the war, therefore, could greatly aid Britain in ending the conflict. The destruction of its capital city could hasten that end. On January 4, 1781, Arnold would land his troops at Westover Plantation and begin the 25-mile march to Richmond.

Back in the 21st Century, Rangers of Richmond National Battlefield Park came to the site of beautiful Westover Plantation on the frigidly cold morning of December 26 to begin filming the presentation called “The Raid”, which will air on January 10.  This video will center on Arnold’s activities before, during, and after his visit to Richmond and feature several sites around the city that figured prominently in the story. Joining the Rangers at Westover, in the icy wind from off the river, was professional living historian, Beau Robbins, who would be portraying an officer of the 60th Regiment, Royal American Legion. As Robbins, joined by his wife, walked through the main gate of Westover, his scarlet cape fluttered about him in the wind like a comic book superhero. A few visitors roamed the site as well, at a distance; the sight of an officer in scarlet certainly turned a few heads.

Living Historian, Beau Robbins

Other sites involved in “The Raid” include Chimborazo Park, where around 200 or so local militia fired a volley and fled before Arnold’s troops on January 5, 1781, St. John’s Church, where a good portion of Arnold’s command bedded down that evening in the churchyard, and the corner of 19th and Main Streets, where once stood the prosperous City Tavern and where Arnold himself would quarter. Other living historians would likewise join us, representing the local militia, British infantry, and the German (Hessian) Jaeger Corps. Social distancing was certainly the order of the day for this specific filming.

It goes without saying that 2020 was an incredibly different and challenging year due to the appearance of the COVID-19 pandemic. Individuals and businesses alike have been hard-pressed to re-think how lives should be lived, and business conducted amid the ever-tightening restrictions on social gatherings and the importance of social distancing. The history/museum world is no different. What has changed, though, for many history-based organizations is a new dependence on virtual programming in order to meet the needs and interests of our audience. This comes as somewhat of a contrast with other years as, in the past, there seemed to be an aversion by some to utilizing virtual programs. For many, the idea persisted that visitors would choose to not visit a site in person if they had already seen that site virtually. “That’s hogwash.” Beau Robbins said as we discussed this topic at Westover. “Seeing a video of an historic site only whets my appetite to go there; to see that site for myself.” As a life-long student of American history, I tend to agree.  

Honestly speaking, nothing can replace the personal touch and connection with visitors that in-person history programs provide. For those who are able to visit a battlefield, an historic building or home, walking along with a guide and hearing the stories of that site is certainly a wonderful form of education and, hopefully, an experience to be remembered. But, what about those people on the other side of the country perhaps; people who may long to see those sites but who, realistically, will never be able to make the trip? There, I think, lies the true niche of the virtual program. It allows an historic site to share its storytelling with all who are interested. In some cases, as well, virtual programming may mean the difference between reaching hundreds vs. perhaps thousands. It’s certainly something to think about as we move forward into whatever our new “normal” will be.

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“Butchered him with the greatest Barbarity” – The tragic death of Bartholomew Yates

John Trumbull’s painting depicts the mortal wounding of General Hugh Mercer, but one of those Americans mortally wounded was Lt. Bartholomew Yates.

Perhaps one of the most tragic and brutal stories from the Ten Crucial Days is the death of young Lieutenant Bartholomew Yates. Yates was an 18 year old officer in the 1st Virginia Regiment. He was originally from Gloucester County, Virginia, where his father Reverend Robert Yates was a minister of Petsworth Parish. He fought with his regiment at the Battle of Harlem Heights and at Trenton and Assunpink Creek.

However, he met his gloomy end at Princeton. The fighting on the fields south of the New Jersey town was brief but bloody. The 1st Virginia Regiment was in General Hugh Mercer‘s brigade that was the first engage the British at Princeton. The British 17th Regiment of Foot and Mercer’s men slugged it out in musket volleys in the William Clarke orchard. Shortly after the opening of the battle, Mercer discovered his 350 man brigade was greatly outnumbered and out matched. He ordered his men to retreat as the British lowered their bayonets and charged at Mercer’s men. Mercer’s men broke and ran. The British fell upon those Americans who were wounded or left behind.

Major John Fleming, commanding the 1st Virginia Regiment, had just ordered his men to dress their ranks when he was shot and killed. Mercer, on foot as his horse had been wounded, drew his sword and prepared to fight to the death. The British soldiers clubbed him on the head and bayoneted him seven times, mortally wounding him.

Yates was among those killed in the William Clarke orchard in a most brutal manner that many witnesses remembered. Captain John Chilton of the 3rd Virginia wrote, “Lieut. Yates had got a slight wound in the thigh which threw him into the hands of the enemy who immediately butchered him with the greatest Barbarity.” Dr. Benjamin Rush, who would treat many of the wounded after the battle described Lt. Yates’s death in terrifying detail:

“he received a wound in his side, which brought him to the ground. Upon seeing the enemy advance toward him, he begged for quarters; a British soldier stopped, and after deliberately loading his musket, by his side, shot him through the breast. Finding that he was still alive, he stabbed him in thirteen places with his bayonet; the poor youth all the while crying for mercy. Upon the enemy being forced to retreat, either the same or another soldier, finding he was not dead, struck him with a butt of a musket on the side of his head. He languished a week in the greatest anguish, and then died (I declare it upon my honour, as a man and a physician) of the wounds he received after he fell and begged for quarter.”

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The third Artillery Engagement at the Battle of Trenton: December 26, 1776

Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes back guest historians Karl G. Elsea and William W. Welsch for the final installment of their three part series

1770 drawing of Hessian three-pounder gun and limber
(courtesy of Kriegskarten from Hessisches Staatsarchiv Marburg, Germany at
http://www.digam.net/?str=177)

The v. Lossberg Artillery detachment:

Bombardier Conrad Volprecht was about 44 years old with over 27 years of service. He led the v. Lossberg artillery detachment consisting of another bombardier, 13 gunners and 3 matrosses, with two three-pounder guns and associated horses, harness, and limber.[i]

Over two years after the battle and being a prisoner Bombardier Volprecht gave testimony that indicated the sequence of battle for his detachment was roughly as follows: First went to field, second fired north, third ordered south, and fourth got stuck in the mud till the end of the battle. There is a problem though, the sequence that better fits the data from the battle was as follows: first went to field, second ordered south, third fired west, and fourth got stuck in the mud.

 John Adams wrote “Facts are stubborn things. They cannot be altered by our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions.” In studying firsthand accounts of the battles in the Revolutionary War they are sometimes not correct or even true. For example, there is an enjoyable firsthand account (written many years later) by a patriot Sergeant White (The Good Soldier White) that is often quoted in accounts of the battle. Parts of his story are no doubt true. The problem is that when Sgt. White states he was with “Lieut. Munroe, our late President of the U. States” and “I was the first that reach them [cannons],” and “They had all left it, except one man tending vent,” those specific parts of the story cannot be true. Hessian Lt. Englehardt would not have time to do all that he did and then cross the Assunpink bridge before the Jagers if artillery men from Sullivan’s column were that far up King Street. Facts from the battle mean that part of that story does not work.

The most important place in all the 13 states fighting for independence on December 26, 1776 from 8:00 am to 9:00 am was the long, narrow bridge over the Assunpink creek. It was held by Hessian Sergeant Muller and 18 men. Sgt. Muller was about 50 years old with about 32 years of service. The importance of this place was not fully realized by the Hessians, but the Patriots knew it had to be closed, and General Washington had two full brigades, Sargent’s and Glover’s, tasked with taking, as quickly as possible, and then holding the bridge.

At about 8:03 am Patriot General Sullivan was about one mile from Trenton center along the River road when he attacked the outlying Jager pickets. General Sullivan had the artillery fire several canister shots at the Jagers. This firing also served as a signal to General Washington so he would know his other wing was attacking. It was to be recalled that General Washington started his attack about 8:00 am on the Pennington road and he also was about a mile from Trenton center. This cannon firing was also a signal to General Ewing so he knew when to start his distraction. General Ewing heard the three cannon shots and he quickly followed with his guns and howitzers firing ten shots from across the Delaware River. General Ewing kept up his firing until he could make out that Patriots were approaching. The v. Knyphausen regiment was forming on Second Street and was the logical unit to resist any attack coming from the River Road.

Volprecht’s detachment with its two guns followed Lt. Fischer’s detachment east on Fourth Street from the Methodist church into the field north and east of the Quaker lane. Lt. Fischer’s detachment was falling back from its earlier engagement and picked up the v. Lossberg detachment as it passed by. It took longer for the v. Lossberg artillery detachment to prepare for the battle because the horses had to be collected, harnessed, hitched, and the guns limbered. Fischer testified that the “cannon were unhorsed, and the horses unharnessed and brought back again into the stable” from the cancelled early morning patrol.[ii] For the morning patrol the horses had been hitched and guns limbered at 4:00 am but the patrol was cancelled so the men/horses/limber/guns were brought back to the Methodist church and waited for sunrise to unhorse.  

The infantry of the v. Lossberg and Rall regiments followed Volprecht’s detachment into the field. It was in this field that these two regiments would form a line for battle. While waiting for the v. Lossberg regiment to form Volprecht was ordered by Lt. Weiderhold, “Artillery men, come here with the cannon” meaning they were to join the v. Knyphausen regiment.[iii]  The v. Knyphausen regiment was on Second Street heading to the open field just east of Trenton and away from the Assunpink bridge. Volprecht and his v. Lossberg artillery detachment moved south on Quaker lane, linked up with the v. Knyphausen regiment, and set up his gun position facing threats coming from Trenton. The following map presents Trenton as it was in 1776.[iv]

While this was happening on the Hessian side, the right wing of the Patriot forces was moving east on River Road. General Sullivan rushed two of his brigades toward the Assunpink bridge. Neil’s battery with Sargent’s brigade and Sargent’s battery with Glover’s brigade made it to the bridge and across. Glover’s brigade with Sargent’s battery continued along the Assunpink creek to cut off possible exits for the v. Knyphausen regiment. St Clair’s brigade was moving east on Second Street with Moulder’s (three four-pounders) and Hugg’s artillery (two three-pounders).

Hessian Bombardier Volprecht testified that he fired his gun five times and the other gun fired one time.[v] One of those six shots hit the fore horse of one of Hugg’s three-pounder guns as they advanced in support of Patriot St. Clair‘s brigade. John Greenwood, a fifer in the 15th Continental, recorded that one of Hugg’s guns had the fore horse shot by a Hessian three-pounder gun, ”the ball from which struck the fore horse that was dragging our only piece of artillery, a 3-pounder. The animal, which was near me … was struck in its belly and knocked over on its back. While it lay there kicking the cannon was stopped.”[vi]  That was the only hit scored by the Hessian artillery that day. St. Clair’s brigade with Col. Stark’s infantry in the lead applied great pressure causing the v. Knyphausen regiment to pull back farther east. Volprecht’s artillery detachment pulled back with the regiment.

As the Hessian artillery detachment pulled back east disaster struck both guns. Volprecht had been ordered into a valley without the ground being checked. Both guns got stuck in the mud. The rest of the battle the men of the artillery, with some aid from nearby infantry, was spent trying to extract the guns from the mud. One gun was extracted just before the surrender, the other gun was extracted after the battle was over.

Mud ended the third artillery engagement. The battle at Trenton was over. The Patriots had a great victory. What is shocking was the limited number of shots from the Hessian artillery. The Rall artillery detachment fired twelve solid shot and one grape, the v. Knyphausen artillery detachment fired “seven or eight shots,” and the v. Lossberg artillery detachment fired six shots.[vii] These few shots lend support for how quickly the Patriots won the Battle of Trenton.

Sources:

[i] William S. Stryker, The Battles of Trenton and Princeton (The Riverside Press, Cambridge, 1898), 388

[ii]Hessian Documents of the American Revolution, Morristown National Historical Park, ML, The Affair at Trenton Dec. 26, 1776, English Translation, ML 337

[iii] Hessian Documents of the American Revolution, Morristown National Historical Park, ML, The Affair at Trenton Dec. 26, 1776, English Translation, ML 277

[iv] Information taken from The Trenton Mapping Project located at www.trentonhistory.org/Documents/Trentonin1775.pdf  With the information available it is likely more buildings are shown rather than less.

[v] Hessian Documents of the American Revolution, Morristown National Historical Park, ML, The Affair at Trenton Dec. 26, 1776, English Translation, ML 277

[vi] John Greenwood, Revolutionary Services of John Greenwood of Boston and New York, 1775-1783, 40-41. “the first intimation I received of our going to fight was the firing of a 6- pound cannon at us, the ball from which struck the fore horse that was dragging our only piece of artillery a 3-pounder.” Retrieved from https://archive.org/details/revolutionaryser00gree/page/38/mode/2u

[vii] Hessian Documents of the American Revolution, Morristown National Historical Park, ML, The Affair at Trenton Dec. 26, 1776, English Translation, ML 341

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“The year is over, I am heartily glad of it and hope you nor America will ever be plagued with such another.”

After reading this title you may assume this is a quote about the year 2020, but this is actually a quote from financier of the Revolution Robert Morris in a letter to George Washington describing the year 1776. While the year 1776 started with much promise and hope with the capture of Boston and the passage of the Declaration of Independence, the second half of the year saw the Patriot cause nearly destroyed.

After losing New York City and a long string of battles, Washington’s Continental Army had shrunk from more than 23,000 men to just around 5,000 by December. Washington breathed life into the dying cause at Trenton on the day after Christmas, defeating a Hessian garrison.  This glimmer of hope was almost crushed by the fact that most of his army’s enlistments expired on January 1st, and his army was on the verge of dissolution. As General Cornwallis and a large British army marched towards Washington and his army at Trenton, Washington needed to convince his veterans to hold on. It led to one of the most dramatic moments of the Revolution, which occurred on New Year’s Eve, 1776.

Washington receiving a salute at Trenton.

While many of Washington’s brave men believed they had done their duty, at this moment, they were needed more than ever before. All day on December 31, 1776, Washington’s generals appealed to the soldiers through impassioned speeches to reenlist. Washington authorized an exorbitant $10 bounty to those men who agreed to remain. Despite all these exhortations, very few men were agreeing to stay on. Finally, in one of the most affecting scenes of his life, Washington himself personally appealed to the patriotism of the men who had campaigned by his side.

Washington paraded Gen. John Sullivan’s and Gen. Nathanael Greene’s divisions just outside Trenton. He entreated the men to stay on just a few weeks more. He asked those who wished to reenlist to move forward, but at that point no one moved. Sergeant Nathaniel Root of the 20th Continental Regiment (Connecticut) remembered that the men were “worn down with fatigue and privation” and had their “hearts fixed on home.” Washington, pleading with his brave soldiers wheeled his horse in front of the men and declared to them:

“My brave fellows, you have done all I asked you to do, and more than could be reasonably expected; but your country is at stake, your wives, your houses and all that you hold dear. You have worn yourselves out with fatigues and hardships, but we know not how to spare you. If you will consent to stay only one month longer, you will render that service to the cause of liberty and to your country which you probably never can do under any other circumstances. The present is emphatically the crisis which is to decide our destiny.”

Moved by their commander’s words, more than two hundred of these men stepped forward to stay on and fight. The combination of patriotic pleas and hard currency helped persuade many more to stay. Washington retained a force of about 3,000 men from his army. These veterans would prove invaluable in the coming days, and some of them would tragically pay the ultimate price in the coming days.

America has persevered through many terrible years, and we shall again. The men who persevered in the winter of 1776-1777 give us hope. Happy New Year, from all of us at Emerging Revolutionary War!

To learn more about the campaign that saved the Revolution, check out my book: Victory or Death: The Battles of Trenton and Princeton or consider joining us on a tour of the actual sites in November.

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The second Artillery Engagement at the Battle of Trenton: December 26, 1776

Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes back guest historians Karl G. Elsea and William W. Welsch

1778 sketch-map drawing of Battle of Trenton by Lt. Fischer
(courtesy of William S. Stryker, The Battles of Trenton and Princeton, Riverside Press, Cambridge, 1988, page128)

The v. Knyphausen artillery detachment:

Lieutenant Friedrich Fischer was about 37 years old and had about 20 years military experience. He was the senior artillery officer in Trenton. For administrative purposes he saw to the needs of the men, and horses, and equipment for the artillery in Trenton. However, for tactical considerations he was a detachment commander to two three-pounder field guns and crews and horses and equipment assigned to support the v. Knyphausen Regiment. He was to follow their orders unless overridden by the Brigade leader, Colonel Rall. Lt. Fischer never made it to his assigned regiment. The reason was the rapid advance by the Patriots on all fronts.

Each regiment of the Hessians as they came to Trenton in mid-December was assigned a significant building, usually a church, to form its “center of gravity.” The v. Knyphausen regiment was assigned the Presbyterian church, the Jagers were assigned the Old Stone Barracks, the v. Lossberg regiment the English church, the dragoons were assigned the Quaker meeting house, and the Rall regiment several taverns. The Artillery was assigned the Methodist church at the northeast corner of Queen Street and Fourth Street. Thus, the artillery horses, harness, and limbers were at the Methodist church for the three detachments. Three of the neighboring houses to the Methodist church each contained the men for an artillery detachment.

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