Elegant Dining with the Lees.

Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes this guest submission by historian Werther Young, aka Elmer Woodard

Not THAT Lee. And not at Stratford Hall,  Leesylvani, nor Shirley plantations. No rustle of silk, silver platters from the kitchen, obsequious servants bowing and scraping, no twitter of conversation, nor the tinkling of crystal.  Our repast was much less spectacular. In his Memoirs, Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee told of a dining experience during the Race to the Dan on or about February 11, 1781. We tried to recreate that meal.

Lee’s Legion had been assigned By Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene to Col. Otho William’s Light Division, which had in turn been tasked with luring the British away from Greene’s main army on its retreat to Boyd’s Ferry (now South Boston, Virginia). Williams apparently roused his men at 3 a.m. at Guilford Courthouse (modern Greensboro, N.C.), drew rations, and marched north to collect his Delaware company at an outpost near Brice’s Crossroads (now Summerfield, North Carolina). He then marched northeast on the road to Dix’s Ferry (now US Rt. 158 towards Reidsville, North Carolina and Danville, Virginia) as far as Rodes’ House, six miles almost due north of Guilford Courthouse, and four miles northeast of Brice’s Crossroads.  With Lee’s cavalry rearguard at Rodes’ House, Williams’ infantry was probably spread out along the present Scalesville Road northeast towards Troublesome Iron Works and modern Reidsville. A Lt. Harrington commanded cavalry patrols southeast towards Salem, North Carolina on the Scalesville Road, the direction of the last reported location of the British. In the cool and drizzly morning, everything was quiet, so quiet that Williams’ men had started the slow process of cooking their rations. 

The latest intelligence put the British somewhere towards Salem (present Winston-Salem, North Carolina), some twenty-four miles away. Unfortunately, that information was stale. The British had marched early, passing through Dobson’s Crossroads (present day Kernersville, North Carolina) and by early morning were near present Oak Ridge, North Carolina just nine miles away from Rodes’ House and coming on hard, while Williams and his men were enjoying a “comfortable meal.”  

On paper, Revolutionary War infantry regiments were made up of companies of fifty men each. Generally, cavalrymen counted each horse as a man, so their “company” was only about twenty-five men, and was called a “troop.”  For ration purposes, each company/troop was further divided into subgroups of five or six men each, called a “mess.” In practice, a company could be anywhere from fifteen to seventy men, but let us stay with a typical size of fifty.  By 1781 in North Carolina, with many, many exceptions, army rations were essentially a pound of protein and a pound of carbohydrate per day, roughly four Quarter Pounder hamburgers per day.

“Protein” in the 1781 south was meat, usually pork, fresh or salted. Carbohydrate was usually ground corn, and was packaged from the mill in barrels of about 200 pounds.  Rations were usually issued in three day lots to the company, although six day lots were not unheard of. Indeed, the British 1768 warrant specified that the men’s haversacks were to be large enough for six days’ rations.   Williams’ “Light” Division was ‘Light’ because it did not contain wagons, so the men had to carry everything, including rations, themselves. Stopping to distribute rations would certainly lose the Race to the Dan, so the men were probably issued six days rations (two pounds per man per day, or twelve pounds per man) beforehand.[1]  Our theoretical fifty-man company would receive about 600 pounds of food for six days; the horsemen about the same because they had to feed the horse.  One whole (500 man) regiment would receive about 3,000 pounds of food.  Williams had about a regiment and a half, so his six days’ ration weight would approach 5,000 pounds. 

Rations were issued raw, and it was the messes’ responsibility to cook them.  One of the most essential pieces of equipment was therefore something to cook them in.  This item was so important that four iron kettles were among of the few items specifically mentioned by the Williamsburg Public Store on the very day it opened, October 12, 1775.[2] Kettles were sometimes cast iron, like a witch’s cauldron, but most often were sheet iron with soldered joints, holding about four gallons. Many were made in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Each mess received one kettle, which someone in the mess had to carry where ever they went.[3]

Read more: Elegant Dining with the Lees.

By 11 a.m. or so, somewhat delayed by the difficulties of igniting wet wood, Williams’ Light Division was happily cooking their rations. Lee described the fare as “the meat was on the coals and the corn cakes in the ashes.”[4] Apparently, it also was pretty far along in the process, as Lee referred to having had (past tense) a “comfortable meal” at that time.  For one five-man infantry mess with six days’ rations, this meant that they were boiling thirty pounds of meat and making thirty pounds of corn cakes per man.  

Earlier this year my son Patrick and I decided to try some applied archaeology and figure out just how the corn and pork ration system in the 1781 south worked.  We had found a first-person account from an Overmountain man who went through the Smoky Mountains from Sycamore Shoals (now Elizabethton, Tennessee) to King’s Mountain, North Carolina in ten days on twenty pounds of “parched corn,” about two pounds per day. While we had heard of parched corn, no one really knew what it was, because no one eats it anymore. Additional research showed that it’s just corn meal that has been browned over heat. It was usually mixed half and half with a sweetener of some sort. So, we browned some corn and mixed it with table sugar.  It tastes like sweet cornmeal-flavored sand.  We tried to make parched corn molasses bars, but this degenerated into a sticky mess, and we were … requested … to absent ourselves from the kitchen, permanently ending that part of that experiment.

The next project would be to figure out how Colonel Lee and his men prepared their February repast.  Having thirty years’ experience as a Civil War reenactor with the 44th Virginia and 5th New York Zouaves, I knew that cooking meat on coals in a hurry results most of the time in semi-raw, inedible meat, and corn cakes made in the ashes are just gritty yellow discs that taste like burned dirt.  Given that Lee’s Legion moved about sixty miles in five days, they weren’t eating raw meat and burned dirt.  

Happily, I have a four-gallon mess kettle, and so the experiment began. As it turned out, a friend had recently killed his wife’s pet hog, and he generously donated ten pounds of frozen pork.  In 1781,  pork was either on the hoof or salted, the only way of preserving it at the time.  Since Mr. Hogg was no longer on the hoof, our friend salted it. Finding a watertight oak barrel difficult to come by, he dry-salted it in a food safe plastic bucket, with a layer of pickling salt, then a layer of meat, and so on until the bucket was full, with the top layer being salt.  It then sat for several months, during which time we turned to the carbohydrate issue.

Corn meal is a much more complex article than one would imagine.  Back then in the South it was not just a staple, but THE staple. Farmers planted corn, which generated about twenty-six bushels (approximately 1500 pounds) per acre.  When harvested in the fall, the stalk was cut and then a dozen or so stalks tied together and set upright into a “shock” to dry.  Once dried, the ears went into the corn crib and the stalks fed the animals. Periodically the farmer removed the kernels from the cobs, placed them in a log bucket or a cloth bag, and took them to the mill to be ground.  The miller ground the corn, taking a percentage, and returned the rest to the farmer.  This would last a family of four for about two months before it became musty, at which time the farmer would shuck more corn and go back to the miller.  

The mill was water powered and contained two mill stones which ground the corn kernels into meal.  Nowadays, most “corn meal” is for baked corn bread, and is superfine, almost like powdered sugar.  Back then, this was almost unheard of.  The finer the grind, the higher the miller’s toll (grinding fee), so the grinds were usually much coarser.  Fine meal, meal, and grits were what humans generally ate.  One coarseness level below grits was “Indian grind,” which only Indians would buy, because it was the cheapest grind but still fit for humans, rather than animals.  Soldiers received it, too.  We managed to find a local mill that was happy to make us some Indian grind but we had to buy fifty pounds of it.  Ten bucks later, we had a about eight gallons of Indian grind.

We were not too thrilled about eating burned, dirt flavored disks, so we decided not to make ash cakes.  A bit of research revealed that non-ash corn cakes were often made on a flat rock, or even a shovel blade. We decided to use a spade blade with the edges bent up.  Spades these days are surprisingly expensive, but a case of beer delivered to a pal at the local machine shop soon had us a brand-new steel spade blade with turned up edges and an integral handle, just as shown in the Collectors Encyclopedia.[5]  

Rummaging through the pile of rarely-used reenacting gear produced a foot long “flesh” fork for manipulating the chunks of pork, a small kettle to mix in, a ladle, and a spatula for flipping, although these items could technically be considered cheating. Ten pounds of salt pork has its own unique needs, so we scrubbed out a cooler, put Mr. Hogg’s remains on ice, and set forth. 

As members of the re-created 7th Virginia Regiment, we attended their annual living history event at the Gloucester Museum of History in Gloucester Courthouse, Virginia, where the 7th was initially mustered in April 1776.  Since fires were not allowed, one of the members brought a charcoal brazier.  Not exactly wet wood from February 1781, but it would do. Once the coals were going, the first task was to put the pork on.  This was pretty simple, in that you put the pork in the kettle, fill it with water, and put it on the fire. The point of this is to remove the salt and cook the meat.  Ten pounds of salt pork half-filled the kettle. With the pork simmering, we reviewed the next phase of the plan.  When lard formed on the top of the water, we’d skim it off. When the pork was done, we’d use the salty pork water (the “liquor”) to make batter for the corn cakes, and then fry them in the lard on the spade.

Of course, the plan went awry almost from the beginning.  Despite a lot of boiling, there was not much lard, and nothing was going to get fried without any lard.  One of the kind folks at the museum had to run and errand and agreed to pick up a pound of lard for us.  Of course, as soon as she left, the kettle hit critical lard mass, and we were up to our smallclothes in it. We needed a way to get rid of the lard, so my son Patrick used the small kettle to go ahead and mix water with the Indian grind, and I greased up the shovel. In the meantime, we were fighting a lard tsunami that threatened to boil over into the fire.  We took turns using the spatula to skim, but had no place to put it, except my drinking cup. Hot lard is much like sand at the beach—it gets into everything. The cup was too hot to handle, so we had to use a rag.  Which was soon hot and slippery, because it was full of lard.  Soon our hands were covered with a layer of lard, which at least made everything else slippery.  

We must have gotten the triple expansion Indian grind, because soon we had half a gallon of batter and a hot shovel, so we started frying. The soupy batter just ran all over the shovel and over and out the sides in a giant boondoggle, but over time the water soaked into the grind, stiffening it up.  A three-inch portion, one-half inch thick, was enough to fry in place and we soon learned to flip it just as the visible top side began to tan, not brown, about five minutes for the first side, and four for the second. 

We soon had it going like gangbusters, cranking out five shovelcakes every ten minutes.  Surprisingly, the only thing that Indian grind likes to absorb more than water is – lard.  All of the lard we had skimmed was soon gone, but we avoided disaster by fishing nice fatty chunks of pork out of the kettle and greasing the shovel with that. In no time, we had gone through two pounds of Indian grind and had a plate of thirty to forty shovel cakes to go with our salt pork. The moment of truth had arrived.  Someone had to try it.  This whole thing being my idea, this duty fell to me. 

Honestly, it was pretty good.  The boiled salt pork tasted exactly like boiled pork, now known as “pork loin.”  We had accidentally used water in the Indian Grind instead of the kettle liquor from the pork, so the shovel cakes needed salt, but they were still really good, being essentially a crunchy corn pancake. Everyone was eating them like potato chips.  We purloined some honey from the surgeon, and the shovelcakes became REALLY good. Shovelcakes differ from potato chips in that the former, like the parched corn, are immensely filling.  After three or four each, everyone was stuffed, and we still had plenty of them, so we tossed them in a haversack, and turned to stopping car traffic to interrogate the drivers as to whether they were a friend of American Liberty or vile traitors in league with the pernicious Lord Dunmore.  Most of the drivers had clearly never heard of Lord Dunmore, but they got it when we used somc…historical license… and changed the vile traitor to the pernicious Benedict Arnold.  To our great surprise, the shovelcakes survived the trip home largely without crumbling, and we munched on shovelcakes while scrubbing out the kettles. We rustproofed the inside with lard.  We cleaned the guns and oiled them with lard. And we still have a great deal of lard.  

In summation, we had duplicated how Lee and his men fed themselves on the Race to the Dan.  Each mess had cooked its six days ration of thirty pounds of meat and made dozens of ash/shovelcakes out of their thirty pounds of Indian grind for their “comfortable meal” on that cold drizzly day in February.  What they didn’t eat hot went into their haversacks, and though we haven’t quite yet confirmed this, probably turned that item into a lard-soaked corny gritty pork mess.  Since it was already fully cooked, they could reach in and munch at any time, and all they needed to do for the next meal was to reheat it over the fire.

Recipe for stovetop Gateaux de la Pelle (shovel cakes):

1 cup water

½ cup Indian grind

¾ teaspoon salt

4 tablespoons butter

Boil water and add salt.  When hot, add butter.  Once the butter has melted, combine this mixture with the Indian grind, adding small amounts of grind until the batter is stiff.  Spoon onto well lard/bacon greased griddle/frying pan. Turn when the top side is just tan, just about to brown.  Condiments include honey, butter, molasses, more butter, powdered sugar, and/or more butter.

Regular store-bought corn meal probably won’t work, as it is too fine.  Uncooked yellow or white grits might work, but we haven’t tried that.  Yet.   

Returning to 1781, while “the meat was on the coals and the corn cakes in the ashes,” a citizen galloped into Williams’ camp at Rodes’ House.  The man had found one of Lt. Harrington’s patrols and had been rushed to headquarters in the emergency.  The British had evaded detection and were now only four miles away, approaching Brice’s Crossroads.  It was all mess kettles and elbows.  No doubt shocked that he had been so badly surprised, Williams ordered his men to stop cooking, fall in, and escape northeast.  Lee and his men rode south to fight – and delay – Banastre Tarleton and his Legion.


[1] The British accounts reveal that they had to forage during the Race, and were nevertheless starving.  In contrast, the American account mention extreme fatigue, but little hunger.

[2] Gregory B. Sandor, Journal of the Public Store at Williamsburg (privately published, 2015), 1.  See also 9, 10.

[3] Linen Bags for Camp Kettles (revwar75.com)

[4] Henry Lee, Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States (Miami, FL: Hardpress, 2017), ebook location 4523-4542.  No mention is made of any campfire grates, fire irons, dining flies, etc.

[5] Spade converted into a frying pan by soldiers, from the collections of Morristown National Historical Park. Pictured in George C. Neumann and Frank J. Kravic, Collector’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of the American Revolution, (Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 1975), 94.

Wether Young  is a graduate of Norfolk Academy, Washington and Lee University, and Campbell University School of Law.  He has practiced law in Virginia for 35 years.  . Beginning in 1987, he has been a member or the 44th Virginia, Coppens’ Zouaves, Brian Pohanka’s 5the New York Duryees’ Zouaves (First Sergeant), the Life Guard, King Charles I, 151er Regiment de l’Armee de France, His Majesty’s Marines, and the 7th Virginia Regiment.  Publications include “Evolutions of the Color Guard in the Cam Chase Gazette,” and  “Johnson & Dow Waterproof and Combustible Cartridges” in the magazine of the Company of Military Historians. He is also the author of “A Bloody Day at Gaines’ Mill “  (McFarland, 2019). 

Americana Corner

Emerging Revolutionary War checks in with Tom Hand and Americana Corner. Here is what has has been published on that blog for the month of September.

Heading to Kentucky on the Wilderness Road
September 6, 2022

The Wilderness Road, running from northeast Tennessee through the Cumberland Gap, was the main thoroughfare for Americans heading west into the new promised land of Kentucky from 1775 to about 1820. The pathway, blazed by Daniel Boone, was our nation’s first migration highway, but the trip was not for the faint of heart. Read More

The Early Life of Daniel Boone
September 13, 2022

One of the greatest American explorers from our founding era was Daniel Boone. A legendary woodsman, Boone helped to make America’s dream of westward expansion in the late 1700s a reality. Read More

The Legacy of Daniel Boone
September 20, 2022

Soon after the American Revolution began in 1775, Daniel Boone joined the Virginia militia of Kentucky County (later Fayette County) and was named a captain due to his leadership ability and knowledge of the area. Over the next several years, Boone would participate in numerous engagements. Read More

The Continental Army’s Largely Forgotten Invasion of Quebec
September 27, 2022

The first significant offensive operation of the American Revolution was the largely forgotten invasion of the Province of Quebec by American troops in 1775. It was the opening act of the greater Northern Campaign of 1775-1776 in which the American colonies tried to wrest control of Canada from England. Although it did not end well, there were moments of incredible bravery and perseverance that demonstrated the resolve of our founding generation. Read More

Furthermore, Tom Hand and Americana Corner are providing t-shirts to participants on the Second Annual Emerging Revolutionary War Bus Tour, this November 11-13, 2022. A few tickets remain, so click the link above titled “2022 Bus Tour” to secure your ticket and one of these shirts! Thank you Tom for you support.

2022 Symposium Speaker Spotlight: Norman Desmarais

We are happy to welcome Norman Desmarais to our Third Annual Symposium on the American Revolution, co-hosted with Gadsby’s Tavern Museum, The Lyceum and Emerging Revolutionary War. This year’s theme is “The World Turned Upside: The American Revolution’s Impact on a Global Scale. We asked Norm to answer a few questions about their talk and their passion for history.

Mr. Desmarais is the author of The Guide to the American Revolutionary War series (six volumes about the war on land and seven volumes about the war at sea and overseas), as well as America’s First Ally: France in the American Revolutionary War and Washington’s Engineer: Louis Duportail and the Creation of an Army Corps. He is the former editor-in-chief of The Brigade Dispatch, the Journal of the Brigade of the American Revolution.

Norm translated the Gazette Françoise, the French newspaper published in Newport, Rhode Island by the French fleet that brought the Comte de Rochambeau and 5,800 French troops to America in July 1780. He also translated and annotated Louis-François-Bertrand du Pont d’Aubevoye, comte de Lauberdière’s journal, published as The Road to Yorktown: The French Campaigns in the American Revolution, 1780-1783 (Savas Beatie 2021). He has also completed the translation and annotation of Journal of a French Quartermaster on the March to Yorktown June 16—October 6, 1781 which hopefully will find a publisher before the conference.

Norm was inducted into the American French Genealogical Society French-Canadian Hall of Fame in 2015 and received the Albert Nelson Marquis Lifetime Achievement Award in 2019 and 2020.

What first attracted you to the study of early American history?

Watching the Walt Disney television miniseries The Swamp Fox and Davy Crockett with Fess Parker and Buddy Ebsen as a youngster captured my interest. Later, during the nation’s bicentennial, I attended some reenactments and my interest blossomed in a different direction.

When I was going through a period of writer’s block and looking for a project for my first sabbatical, I was speaking with one of my friends who suggested I consider following one of my interests and that brought me into the Revolutionary Era.

What keeps you involved in the study of this history?

Continually learning about our nation’s history. The best way to learn is by doing, so I’m involved with reenacting which feeds my research and gives me opportunities to share my knowledge with the public and other historians. It’s an educational experience like no other.

Do you find these things are the same or different?  

I think they’re different, but they are related.  They use the same sources in different ways for different objectives—sort of a repurposing of information.

Why do you think it is important for us to study the Revolutionary Era? 

People today go to great effort to do their family genealogy to discover their roots.  Going back to the Revolutionary Era is sort of like doing our national genealogy and going back to our national roots. If we don’t know where we come from, we can’t understand where we’re going as family members or as a nation.

What do you think was the most significant foreign impact on the American Revolution? 

The entry of France in the war. France began providing covert aid to support the war effort right from the beginning. However, once she officially entered the war, she could provide military assistance along with a lot of materiel the Continental Army needed so badly.  French artillery helped win the battle of Saratoga which was key to France joining the war.  Without French involvement, we could not have won at Yorktown. Three quarters of the allied force at Yorktown was French (army and navy).

What are some of the important lessons of the American Revolution do you think are still relevant today?

Logistics: Supplying and maintaining an army across an ocean is extremely difficult. Consider our experience in Vietnam, Syria and Afghanistan among others.

Morale: An army that has a will to fight for its independence, homeland or whatever can sometimes defeat a better supplied and trained army that has a lesser will to fight.

National support: Think of this as morale on the home front.  If the populace of a nation doesn’t support the war effort, it’s going to be very difficult to win.  Consider our experience in Vietnam and what Russia is experiencing in the Ukraine.

What was it about the American Revolution that elicited such global interest? 

First of all, it was inspired by the ideological principles of the Enlightenment which introduced some novel ideas and ways of thinking that inspired Europeans.

Second, there was great resentment about the increasing expansion of the British empire and its dominance in world politics and economy.

Third, Britain pretty much controlled the trade routes between Europe and the West and East Indies, in other words, the lucrative sugar trade and the tea and spice trade. The rest of Europe wanted to minimize Britain’s power and to obtain a share of that trade. Then there were the lucrative fishing rights off the coast of North America.

Fourth, People began to realize that the power of the monarchy resided in the willingness of the people to be governed by the monarchy. As they realized this and acted upon it, there arose a series of revolutions for independence and changes of government.

Join us for our Third annual Emerging Revolutionary War Symposium on September 24, 2022. Emerging Revolutionary War is excited to continue our partnership with Gadsby’s Tavern Museum and The Lyceum of Alexandria, VA to bring to you a day-long Symposium focusing on the American Revolution.

Registration fee is now only $60 per person and $50 for OHA members and students. If you feel more comfortable attending virtually, the fee is $30. To register visit: https://shop.alexandriava.gov/EventPurchase.aspx

Emerging Revolutionary War checks in with Tom Hand and Americana Corner. Here is what has has been published on that blog for the month of August.

America Looks Westward
August 30, 2022

Americans have always had a yearning to move west and discover new lands. Along the way, our ancestors had to overcome many daunting natural barriers, the first of which was the Appalachian Mountains. The Wilderness Road through the Cumberland Gap was our nation’s first pathway through this formidable range.
Read More

The Legacy of Ben Franklin
August 23, 2022

The Constitutional Convention adjourned on September 17, 1787, and would be Benjamin Franklin’s last moment in the spotlight of American history. It was a fitting finale for this man who had done so much to shape the nation in which he lived. Franklin was 81 years old, in poor health, and hoped for a well-deserved rest.
Read More

Ben Franklin’s Sage Advice Influences Constitutional Convention
August 16, 2022

In 1785, Franklin, his work done in France, was recalled to America by Congress. He arrived in Philadelphia that September, revered as one of our nation’s greatest patriots. Despite his need for a well-deserved rest, he was kept continually busy receiving dignitaries, wrapping up loose ends from his eight-year diplomatic mission, and with what would prove to be one final opportunity to help his country.
Read More

Ben Franklin Becomes America’s Top Diplomat
August 9, 2022

Congress declared America’s independence from England on July 4, 1776, but the most crucial step still lay ahead and that was to secure what we had declared. Delegates knew that to have a real chance at success, the United States needed the assistance of one or more European powers.
Read More

Ben Franklin Works Toward Independence
August 2, 2022

Partly due to Benjamin Franklin’s testimony before the House of Commons, the Stamp Act, which taxed items such as newspapers and legal documents, was repealed by Parliament on March 18, 1766. Unfortunately, this conciliatory measure was immediately undone when Parliament enacted the Declaratory Act which reasserted that all laws passed by that legislative body were binding on the colonies, including those related to taxes.
Read More

2022 Symposium Speaker Spotlight: Eric Sterner

We are happy to welcome Eric Sterner to our Third Annual Symposium on the American Revolution, co-hosted with Gadsby’s Tavern Museum, The Lyceum and Emerging Revolutionary War. This year’s theme is “The World Turned Upside: The American Revolution’s Impact on a Global Scale. We asked Eric to answer a few questions about their talk and their passion for history.

Eric Sterner is a writer focusing on American history, particularly the Revolutionary War and Civil War.  He writes frequently for the Journal of the American Revolution (http://allthingsliberty.com)  and blogs regularly at the Emerging Revolutionary War Era (http://emergingrevolutionarywar.org) in addition to contributing to other publications over the years.  Westholme Publishing released his book: Anatomy of a Massacre: The Destruction of Gnadenhutten, 1782 in 2020.  He is currently working on a micro history of the Crawford Campaign (1782) and a survey of George Rogers Clark’s Illinois Campaign (1778-1779).

In his prior life, Eric worked in the fields of national security and aerospace, holding senior staff positions for two different Congressional committees and serving at the Department of Defense and NASA.  In the private sector, he worked in the fields of national security policy analysis and telecommunications and then held fellowships at the George C. Marshall Institute and the American Foreign Policy Council.  At both places, his work focused on national security, cyber-power, and space policy and appeared in the academic, trade, and popular media.  He also taught graduate courses in cyber power at Missouri State University, Georgetown, and George Washington University.  He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Soviet and International Studies and

What first attracted you to the study of early American history? What keeps you involved in the study of this history? Do you find these things are the same or different?  

I was born in the Land of Lincoln, but as a kid, we often visited our grandparents outside Philadelphia, touring the local sites.  My great-grandfather sometimes took us on walks through Valley Forge and the memories stuck.  History became a hobby after that, but stories about real people and events always held more fascination than fiction.  So, when the opportunity came later in life to pursue that interest with intensity, it was only natural to take it.  

Why do you think it is important for us to study the Revolutionary Era?  

We still wrestle with many of the same questions as the founding generation: what conditions warrant rebellion, how to prevent the abuse of power, how to secure individual liberty, how to determine and enact the majority’s will, etc.  Despite their limitations, that generation’s answers to those questions are still relevant and illuminating.  

What do you think was the most significant foreign impact on the American Revolution? 

France’s declaration of war and alliance with the United States, followed by Spain’s declaration of War on Great Britain, transformed the Revolution into a global struggle.  The stakes grew exponentially from an imperial and philosophical perspective and Britain immediately had to change its strategy.  

What are some of the important lessons of the American Revolution do you think are still relevant today?

Warfare always exacerbates a tendency towards extremism, dehumanization, and excess, often reducing people to the most base instincts.  Somehow, the Revolutionary War generation managed to overcome—in the main—the disastrous effects of these tendencies.  While they failed to adhere to their ideals in many ways, principally by in leaving the institution of slavery in tact, the the fact that they managed to bridge differences, compromise, and create a republic in the aftermath of a war with so many facets is remarkable.  Understanding how they did that and what it might require of us would serve the United States well 250 years later.

What was it about the American Revolution that elicited such global interest? 

It is easy to focus on the effects of a colonial rebellion on European states with colonies all over the world.  Clearly, a successful rebellion had implications for those colonies.  But, Enlightenment ideas also popular in Europe ranged from the rationalization and efficiency of government institutions to more well-known and celebrated concepts of human individuality and the sources of sovereign authority.  In many ways, the American Revolutionary Era was the first real-world test of those ideas.  Thus, whether one opposed the Revolution for imperial reasons or supported it for philosophical ones, it could not help but fascinate the world.  

Join us for our Third annual Emerging Revolutionary War Symposium on September 24, 2022. Emerging Revolutionary War is excited to continue our partnership with Gadsby’s Tavern Museum and The Lyceum of Alexandria, VA to bring to you a day-long Symposium focusing on the American Revolution.

Registration fee is now only $60 per person and $50 for OHA members and students. If you feel more comfortable attending virtually, the fee is $30. To register visit: https://shop.alexandriava.gov/EventPurchase.aspx

Honoring Baron de Kalb and Baseball

On August 19, 1780 the United States lost one of the most influential foreign officers that fought for the new nation during the American Revolution. Johann von Robais, Baron de Kalb migrated to the United States along with the Marquis de La Fayette in 1777. A Prussian born solider who fought in the Seven Years War, de Kalb quickly became a respected leader. In the summer of 1780, de Kalb was commanding the Maryland and Delaware Continental Line in Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates’ southern army. One of the best trained and disciplined units in the Continental Army, de Kalb commanded the left of Gates’ line at the Battle of Camden on August 16, 1780. The battle was more of a rout, as the British rolled up the Virginia and North Carolina militia on the field, leaving the Continentals in a desperate fight for survival. After being shot three times and bayoneted several times, de Kalb was taken from the battlefield to Camden. His wounds were mortal and he died three days later.

Baron de Kalb monument in Annapolis, MD

The reaction to his death was immediate and the respect everyone had for him was evident. Cornwallis and other British officers showed great respect for de Kalb and gave him a proper military burial.  Washington, Gates and other Continental officers mourned the loss of the Prussian officer. Soon after the war a movement began to move de Kalb’s remains to another place in Camden with a larger monument. In 1825, Lafayette laid the cornerstone for a new monument above his new interment in front of the Bethesda Presbyterian Church. This memorial was designed by Robert Mills, a noted architect of the time.

De Kalb grave site in Camden, SC

Maryland especially took an interest in remembering de Kalb. His command of the Maryland Line and his bravery leading the men at Camden were important to Marylanders after the war. In 1780, Congress authorized a monument to be built in Annapolis to honor de Kalb, but it was not until 1886 that it was finally constructed on the grounds of the Maryland state house. In the early 20th century, the Daughters of the American Revolution placed a memorial stone on the Camden battlefield marking de Kalb’s death (supposedly marking the spot but this is still debated today). Recently in 2021, Camden unveiled a new statue to de Kalb at the new Revolutionary War Visitor Center.

The memory of de Kalb extended beyond memorials and monuments. In the late 18th century and early 19th century, states started to honor de Kalb naming counties and towns after him. A total of six counties in the United States are named after Baron de Kalb, located in Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and Tennessee. There are six towns/cities in the United States named for de Kalb located in Illinois, Mississippi, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Texas and West Virginia.

New statue to de Kalb at the Revolutionary War Visitor Center in Camden, SC

But one of the most recognizable memorials to de Kalb and his Maryland Continentals is one that most people don’t even know as a memorial. In southern Baltimore where the large railroad yards were located, many of the streets were named after battles and individuals in the Southern Campaign of the American Revolution. Streets such as Washington, Lee, Howard, Eutaw and Camden. The large rail yard in this area was known as Camden Yards. In 1992, the Baltimore Orioles opened their new baseball stadium in the area of the old railyards next to the old B and O Railroad warehouse. The name was hotly debated, but then Maryland Governor William Donald Schaefer wanted to keep “Camden Yards” in the stadium name and eventually won out. The stadium today is called Oriole Park at Camden Yards, but most people now refer to it as “Camden Yards.” Though de Kalb would not recognize the game being played, he would recognize the name of the stadium and the state that was the home of so many of the men that followed him into battle at Camden. So next time you watch a baseball game at Camden Yards, think of de Kalb and those men at the Battle of Camden.

Oriole Park at Camden Yards

2022 Symposium Speaker Spotlight: Kate Egner Gruber

We are happy to welcome Kate Egner Gruber to our Third Annual Symposium on the American Revolution, co-hosted with Gadsby’s Tavern Museum, The Lyceum and Emerging Revolutionary War. This year’s theme is “The World Turned Upside: The American Revolution’s Impact on a Global Scale. We asked Kate to answer a few questions about their talk and their passion for history.

Kate Egner Gruber is the acting director of curatorial services for the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, where she works with a team to grow the collection and broaden the interpretation of early American history at Jamestown Settlement and the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown. Kate is a graduate of the University of Mary Washington’s Historic Preservation program, where she focused on archaeology and material culture, and holds her masters degree in early American history from the College of William and Mary.

What first attracted you to the study of early American history? What keeps you involved in the study of this history? Do you find these things are the same or different?   

I never know how to answer this question. The past has always been a presence in my life—whether I was digging up holes in my mom’s backyard looking for buried treasure (sorry, Mom), enthralled with the stories behind the old things in my grandmother’s upstairs room, or lost in my imagination about the landscape I called home.

I like to say that history doesn’t change—but our relationship to it does. This is what keeps me involved in the study of history of today. There’s always something new to learn, new perspectives to consider, new lenses through which to view the past. This is what keeps me motivated and eager to keep diving in.

Why do you think it is important for us to study the Revolutionary Era?  

What we learn about the past helps us better understand our present and create a more perfect union for the future.

What do you think was the most significant foreign impact on the American Revolution? 

As someone who studies both 17th and 18th century history, my perspective on this question is flipped—I think the most significant impact on the American Revolution was the colonies’ shared 17th history in the growing English and (later) British empire.

What are some of the important lessons of the American Revolution do you think are still relevant today?

From England’s Glorious Revolution to America’s Glorious Cause, we’re still negotiating our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—or in the words of John Locke, life, liberty, and property!

What was it about the American Revolution that elicited such global interest

Some of the founders saw their American Revolution through the lens of the English Civil Wars and Glorious Revolution, all of which had global consequences. The American Revolution isn’t just American history—it’s world history! 

Join us for our Third annual Emerging Revolutionary War Symposium on September 24, 2022. Emerging Revolutionary War is excited to continue our partnership with Gadsby’s Tavern Museum and The Lyceum of Alexandria, VA to bring to you a day-long Symposium focusing on the American Revolution.

Registration fee is now only $60 per person and $50 for OHA members and students. If you feel more comfortable attending virtually, the fee is $30. To register visit: https://shop.alexandriava.gov/EventPurchase.aspx

“If General Howe attempts…”

On December 19, 1777 a bedraggled, underfed, undersupplied, and hemorrhaging manpower, the Continental army trudged into their permanent winter encampment at Valley Forge. Located approximately 20 miles from Philadelphia, General George Washington’s army would recuperate, revitalize, re-train, and march out six months later a different military force.

Meanwhile, the British army, victors of Brandywine and survivors of Germantown ensconced themselves in the colonial capital of the rebellious colonies after its peaceful fall on September 26, 1777. Commanded by Sir General William Howe the British were better fed, better equipped, and in theory better suited to continue conducting military operations to quell the rebellion.

Which begs the question, why did Howe not attack Valley Forge?

Sir William Howe

Although historians have grappled with this, there are a number of reasons why Howe did not press the issue during the winter months, some range from personal to logistical to how warfare was conducted in the 18th century.

Was Howe frustrated at Washington for not taking the bait at White Marsh in early December 1777 to fight outside defensive works and envisioned the same reticence would be shown by the Virginian if the British attempted an offensive action toward Valley Forge?

Or was Howe simply a man of his time and war was not practiced in winter when there were so many variables one could not control, chiefly the unpredictability of Mother Nature?

Was Howe already worried about his reception and defense when he arrived back in England? Only willing to take a low risk-high reward gambit, which he attempted in May 1778 at Barren Hill?

One of his own soldiers, Captain Richard Fitzpatrick in a letter to Charles Fox penned the following;

               “If General Howe attempts anything but securing his army for the winter I shall
consider him, after what has happened in the north, a very rash man. But if he
lets himself be governed by General Grant I shall not be surprised if we get
into some cursed scrape.”[1]

Or does this one paragraph explain the main reason behind no winter campaigning, “what has happened in the north.” A clear implication to the disaster of the other field army operating in the northern American colonies, Burgoyne’s that capitulated at Saratoga in October 1777.

Although we will never know for certain, this is a question that has come up in conversations, at book talks, and around the national park at Valley Forge. This is a question Emerging Revolutionary War will grapple with on our second annual bus tour, which will include Valley Forge, this November. Check the link “Bus Tour 2022” on the black banner above to secure your ticket and partake in the ongoing debate on why Howe did not attack. Limited tickets remain.

[1] Urban, Mark. “Fusiliers: The Saga of a British Redcoat Regiment in the American Revolution (Walker & Company: Manhattan, 2007).

“That his northern laurels would be turned into southern willows” Major General Horatio Gates Arrives to take command in North Carolina, July 25, 1780

Opportunity knocked for Horatio Gates with the fall of Charleston, South Carlina in May 1780. A devastating loss for the Americans, with nearly 6,000 men of the Southern Army under Benjamin Lincoln surrendered to Sir Henry Clinton. Unless something wasn’t done soon, the entire southern colonies could fall and the revolution along with it. Congress needed someone who could inspire men to join the war effort and a trusted leader with a positive record. Washington put Nathaniel Greene’s name forward, but Congress in a rare move went against Washington’s wishes and appointed Horatio Gates as commander of the Southern Department on June 13th

Major General Horatio Gates, ca. 1794 by Gilbert Stuart

The road from his victory at Saratoga to the Southern Department wasn’t an easy one for Gates. He sought independent field command and many believe he wanted Washington’s position as commander in chief. His allies in Congress and the Continental Army lobbied heavily on Gates’ behalf and were able to have Gates appointed to the powerful Board of War (the defacto Department of Defense). Though an important role (and serving as Washington’s civilian superior), Gates believed he belonged in the field.  Though his role in the famous “Conway Cabal” is still debated today, he was implicated via letters in criticizing Washington’s leadership. Whether his involvement was real or not, the relationship between him and Washington (and Washington’s inner circle) was seriously damaged. Due to the situation, Gates resigned from the Board of War and accepted appointment as department commander of the Northern Department. In this role he was responsible to look after the New York Highlands and watch from British incursions from Canada or New York city. Gates was unhappy in this role and proposed another American invasion of Canada. Washington and Congress disagreed and rejected his plans. He disliked his task of dealing with enemy native tribes in the region and dragged his feet in following orders. Finally, that fall, Gates took command of American forces in New England with his headquarters in Boston. Though excited by this appointment, he quickly realized that this post was not where the action would be. The British left Boston in 1776 and since the city was peaceful and not a welcome place for a man seeking glory and military action. Finally, after much frustration, Gates asked to return to his farm in Virginia and arrived there by December 1779. Gates found himself a hero without an army and continued to brood over his situation.

Continue reading ““That his northern laurels would be turned into southern willows” Major General Horatio Gates Arrives to take command in North Carolina, July 25, 1780”

The French Cavalryman

   “Colonel Armand’s dragoons and militia displayed a good countenance, but were soon borne down by the rapid charge of the legion. The chase again commenced…” So wrote British Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton in his work, “A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781, in the Southern Provinces of North America” regarding his pursuit of retreating American militiamen from the disastrous battlefield at Camden, SC in August 1780, and the gallant effort of one Patriot cavalry commander, a foreign officer, who sought desperately to reform the panicked militia and make a stand. He was Lieutenant Colonel Charles Armand Tuffin, Marquis de la Rouerie.

Lieutenant Colonel Charles Armand

   French by birth, Armand was one of many European soldiers to come to America in the 1770’s with hopes of obtaining high ranking commissions in the fledgling Continental Army during the Revolution. Arriving in 1776, Armand’s service in the war would generally become overshadowed by that of his more famous countryman, the younger Marquis de Lafayette, who would arrive a year later.

Continue reading “The French Cavalryman”