Before the Revolution

When studying history we tend to divide time periods up and compartmentalize them for our own ease of study and understanding. Yet when we step back and look, it becomes obvious how events flow one into another. There is a great deal of overlap and often events occurred concurrently.

April 19 will bring the anniversary of the opening of the Revolution at Lexington and Concord. While the conflict with Great Britain was growing and festering, other events were taking place in various colonies. The ending of the French and Indian War is seen as the close of an era and a neat stopping point before the coming of the Revolution. Yet on the heels of the war’s ending, Britain began implementing the taxes and regulations that would anger American colonists.

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Prelude to Guilford Courthouse: Weitzel’s Mill

This March brings the 241st Anniversary of the pivotal battle of Guilford Courthouse, NC. While this battle is of immense importance to the Southern Campaign, several smaller battles leading up to it have been largely overlooked. Through February and early March of 1781, detachments of the American and British armies maneuvered across the modern-day counties of Alamance, Guilford, Orange, Chatham, and Caswell. The is the third in a series of three articles.  

            The last of the skirmishes occurred at Weitzel’s Mill, also spelled as Wetzel’s, and Wiley’s. Cornwallis was becoming more determined to strike at the Americans to either force a general battle, which he felt his veteran army could win, or destroy the isolated detachments operating near him. 

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Prelude to Guilford Courthouse: Clapp’s Mill

This March brings the 241st Anniversary of the pivotal battle of Guilford Courthouse, NC. While this battle is of immense importance to the Southern Campaign, several smaller battles leading up to it have been largely overlooked. Through February and early March of 1781, detachments of the American and British armies maneuvered across the modern-day counties of Alamance, Guilford, Orange, Chatham, and Caswell. The is the second in a series of three articles.  

            Pyle’s Defeat on February 25, 1781 was a public relations disaster for the British. The next skirmish fought between the opposing forces was at Clapp’s Mill on March 2nd and has also been called the Battle of Alamance. On February 27th, Cornwallis’ army moved from Hillsborough to the Haw River, camping on the south side of Alamance Creek at an important crossroads.

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Prelude to Guilford Courthouse: Pyle’s Defeat

This March brings the 241st Anniversary of the pivotal battle of Guilford Courthouse, NC. While this battle is of immense importance to the Southern Campaign, several smaller battles leading up to it have been largely overlooked. Through February and early March of 1781, detachments of the American and British armies maneuvered across the modern-day counties of Alamance, Guilford, Orange, Chatham, and Caswell. This is the first of a series of three articles.

Having unsuccessfully chased General Nathaniel Greene’s small, ragged army across North Carolina, British forces under Lord Charles Cornwallis moved to the state capital at Hillsborough to announce their liberation of the state and call Loyalists to come forward and support them. Greene’s army retreated across the Dan River into Virginia, where he awaited supplies and reinforcements.

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“The Unhappy Condition of Our Poor Fellows”

On the edge of the historic town of Litiz, Pennsylvania in Lancaster County stands an impressive, unique, and solemn, historic site. Two stone monuments and a plaque comprise the complex, marking the final burial of Continental soldiers from the hospital that stood nearby.

The historic marker says that wounded from the battles of Brandywine (September 11, 1777) and Germantown (October 4, 1777) were received here. Yet that does not match what I uncovered in researching this. The dates of the Lititz hospital seem to coincide more with the Valley Forge (winter 1777-78) timeframe. 

In late summer, 1777, British General William Howe and his army left New Jersey and invaded Pennsylvania with the object of capturing Philadelphia. General George Washington’s army tried to stop the British at Brandywine but met defeat. The British occupied Philadelphia, and Washington struck back at Germantown, but again came up short. There were many smaller battles across southeastern Pennsylvania like Paoli, Fort Mifflin, and Whitemarsh. 

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George Washington’s July 4th

As July 4th approaches, many of us turn our thoughts to the Declaration of Independence and the early years of the Revolution. I do too, but I also recall another July 4th, the one in 1754 when a Virginia militia officer named George Washington surrendered the crudely built Fort Necessity to the French. The battle touched off the French and Indian War.

General George Washington looks back at us from marble statues or stiff paintings with a grim-faced and determined look. Known for his dignity, resolve, and sound leadership, he seems cold and reserved. Yet he was also quite sentimental. In the midst of a grueling campaign, with a massive British invasion force set to descend on him at New York City in July, 1776, Washington paused to pen these words: “I did not let the Anniversary of the 3rd or 9th of this Inst pas[s] of[f] without a grateful remembrance of the escape we had at the Meadows and on the Banks of the Monogahela. [T]he same Providence that protected us upon those occasions will, I hope, continue his Mercies, and make us happy instruments in restoring Peace & liberty to this once favour’d, but now distressed Country”.

Washington was writing to General Adam Stephens, his subordinate in the French and Indian War twenty years earlier, who now commanded a division in the Continental Army. These lines give us a unique insight into the mind of the Revolution’s commanding general.

The French and Indian War years were Washington’s formative years as a military officer. He learned the art of war on the Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland frontier: tackling supply and logistical challenges, dealing with recruitment and discipline, and working patiently-though not always successfully- with elected officials.

He lost his first major battle (Fort Necessity) to the French, fighting with the British. He won his last major battle (Yorktown) against the British, with the help of the French.   The irony is deeper, for the surrender at Fort Necessity (the only time Washington ever surrendered), was July 4, 1754. Twenty years later, when celebrating American independence, he no doubt reflected on the juxtaposition.

The two battles Washington reflected upon, Fort Necessity (the Meadows) and Braddock’s Defeat (the Monongahela) were both defeats- disasters, really. Yet the experiences were powerful for the young Virginian; Braddock’s Campaign especially.

British troops and colonial forces were attempting to remove the French from western Pennsylvania and the Ohio country. The first few campaigns ended in failure, but Washington was able to participate in the final victorious effort in 1758.

Washington saw good and poor leadership, good and poor discipline, and good and poor coordination. When making decisions on conducting the war and running the army twenty years later, his decisions were informed by his earlier experiences.

He wrote of these experiences again later, and their impact on him was clearly profound. Washington also kept the sash and pistols that Braddock had given him before he died. These treasures reside in the collection at Mount Vernon today.

So strong were the memories of his youth in the woods of the frontier, that he even purchased the very land on which the battle of Fort Necessity was fought (How many Generals in American history can claim that?). In 1784 he visited the area, bought lands, and tried to find Braddock’s Grave. Washington wrote that he was “desirous of erecting a monument over it.” Unable to find the grave, Washington satisfied himself with viewing places where he learned the art of war three decades earlier.

A swivel gun at Fort Necessity. Author photo.

Washington himself was one of the new nation’s first battlefield tourists. He enjoyed visiting battlefields and retracing the movements of the armies. During his Presidency, he visited many Revolutionary battle sites, including some where he commanded. One has to wonder what ran through his mind as he re-examined the ground as a seasoned veteran and commander, without the urgency and chaos of battle unfolding around him.

Most of us have had close calls: an accident, medical emergency, or in military service. These events are life- changing. Reading Washington’s reflections allows us to better know the person, and understand his complex personality.

Being sentimental as he was, we might also wonder, what might Washington have thought of those battle sites today. Many are preserved as historic sites, though a good many have been lost to development. Hopefully he would applaud our current efforts at preservation, scholarship, and interpretation.

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The First Re-enactment?

We often think of re-enacting as a modern phenomenon. Those of us familiar with the hobby can attest that re-enacting has evolved greatly since the 1960s and 70s. In those decades participants often made their own clothing and accoutrements, with varying degrees of accuracy. It was not uncommon to see jeans and modern military gear mixed in with poor copies of historic clothing.

Today there is a thriving reenactment community and an industry to support it. Various suppliers offer reproduction clothing, weapons, gear, camping supplies, food, and every imaginable item for nearly every time period.

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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.