2021 Symposium Highlight: John U. Rees

Over the next few months, we will be highlighting the speakers and topics for our 2021 Symposium, Hindsight is 2020: Revisiting Misconceptions of the Revolution, taking place on May 22nd. Due to the COVID 19 pandemic, the Symposium will be virtual. Today we highlight historian and author John U. Rees who will be covering a much overlooked and misunderstood part of the Revolution, the role of African American Continental soldiers during the war.

John Rees is an independent writer and researcher specializing in the common soldiers’ experience during the War for American Independence, and North American soldiers’ food, 1755 to the modern era. Since 1986 he has produced almost 200 monographs on these and associated subjects. His work has been published in a number of journals and books, including Military Collector & Historian, the Oxford Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink, and the Thomson Gale edition of Boatner’s Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. His first book, “They Were Good Soldiers”: African Americans Serving in the Continental Army, 1775-1783 was published by Helion Books in 2019. 

A list of his publications, plus a number of complete works, may be viewed online at https://tinyurl.com/JohnURees-articles . He will be presenting his talk  “They Were Good Soldiers”: An Overview of African Americans in the Continental Army at the May symposium.


Do you believe the study of African American soldiers in the American Revolution has been overlooked and why?

To my mind the core cause for this lack of knowledge is American willingness to gloss over history, in this case American history. Add to that, many of our fellow citizens, past and present, through wilfulness, mis-education, or lack of caring, think of the American Revolution as a white man’s conflict, with little to no contribution by Americans of African descent. Artwork and films portraying the period have done little to disabuse us of that notion. 

I think, in the 1960s and 70s, many Americans knew of Crispus Attucks’ participation and death in the 1770 Boston Massacre; I know I learned of him as a child in the early 60s. Others may have seen the U.S. Postal Service stamp in the mid-70s featuring Massachusetts African American soldier Salem Poor, but other than those instances most people didn’t (and don’t) really consider black participation on either side of the American Revolution. It also seems that when Americans do become aware of their role as soldiers, they learn about the “black” 1st Rhode Island Regiment (which only existed for two and half years of an eight-year war), when the greatest number of African Americans fighting for the cause of American independence were in integrated units. And then, there were the black women and children, among the hundreds of women and children who accompanied the troops and contributed to their welfare, who no one is aware of.

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

My parents, especially my mother, were avid readers, and I followed suit very early on. I read many of the Landmark history and biography books, and those likely guided my interest in stories of individual people in extraordinary circumstances. I loved military history early on, and in my pre-teens focused on the Second World War; I then moved on to the Napoleonic era and the American Civil War, all the while reading a great deal of fiction. In 1984 I got involved with Revolutionary War living history, and the fact I had a hard time getting answers about the unit we portrayed led me to begin researching that regiment.

I had the good fortune to live very close to the David Library of the American Revolution, and in 1986 I produced my first (never published) manuscript. As I pored through books and microfilmed manuscript collections, I came across tidbits of interesting information I then had no need of; I copied it and put it aside for possible future use. It was not until 1990 that my first article was published; since that year until now I’ve published almost 200 articles, mostly on the Revolutionary War, but a substantial number on military food and other miscellaneous subjects. At some point in the 1990s I realized that the Revolutionary period was a relatively wide-open field for anyone who wished to study and write about it.

What keeps you involved in the study of this history?

There remain so many stories to tell, too many “small things forgotten,” I still want to write about, I feel the era is still wide open for anyone who wishes to focus on it.

What is the biggest myth about African American soldiers in the Continental Army, and how did it come about?

Likely that the segregated 1st Rhode Island Regiment is the best example of African American soldiers’ participation in the war, when, in fact, the largest proportion of African Americans served in integrated units, in the Continental Army and state militias. Add to that, there were two other segregated regiments during the war, one in the French Army that served for four to five years, and one Loyalist regiment, that existed for only a year.

Do you think there are common misconceptions of the era of the American Revolution among the American people? If so, what are they and have they ever affected your work?

My short list contains two things, one pertaining to Revolutionary ideals, the other to the military side. First is the contention by many people that it was a conservative Revolution, when in actuality the core concepts were quite radical, and significant portion of Revolutionaries retained that radical view, during and after the Revolutionary period.

Regarding the military aspects, I think the idea is still common that American militia forces won the War of the Revolution, which was not the case, and (okay a third item) that the American troops fought using innovative tactics (you know, fighting from behind walls and trees), and the Crown forces were militarily conservative. The facts are too long to go into, but on the last point I highly recommend Matthew Springs book With Zeal and With Bayonets Only.

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

At this point in our country’s history, it seems we, as a society, need go back and look at our beginning, to see how both leaders and other participants comported themselves and sacrificed attempting to gain not only independence from Britain, but in support of the high ideals of the 1776 Declaration.

On a lesser, but to me still important, note, we need to study the lives of ordinary people of every side – civilian and military; men, women, and children of all creeds and colors – in order to gain a truer understanding of our founding era, and, perhaps, ourselves.

Join us for our SECOND annual Emerging Revolutionary War Symposium, co-hosted by Gadsby’s Tavern Museum, speakers and topics include:


Michael Harris on Misconceptions of Battle of Brandywine
Vanessa Smiley on Myths of the Southern Campaigns
Travis Shaw on American Loyalists
John U Rees on African American Continental Soldiers
Mark Maloy on myths of the Battle of Trenton

Our registration fee is now only $40 per person and $20 for students. This will allow us to broaden our audience with the virtual program. We hope that 2022 will allow us to come together again in Alexandria for our third annual symposium. To register, visit: https://shop.alexandriava.gov/Events.aspx

Stay tuned as we highlight our speakers and their topics in future blog posts.

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Emerging Rev War Bus Tour: Victory or Death!

“I remember all the accounts there given of the battle fields and struggles for the liberties of the country, and none fixed themselves upon my imagination so deeply as the struggle here at Trenton, New Jersey. The crossing of the river; the contest with the Hessians; the great hardships endured at that time, all fixed themselves on my memory more than any single revolutionary event.”
– Abraham Lincoln, Trenton, NJ, February 21, 1861

The Civil War generation of Americans knew the story of George Washington and the Revolutionary War very well. Their letters and writings often harkened back to the days of 1776. However, now almost 250 years, the stories and battlegrounds of that war are often overlooked or forgotten.

Here is your opportunity to visit some of the most important and overlooked battlefields in the United States. Emerging Civil War’s sister site, Emerging Revolutionary War, is offering a special two-day tour of the Trenton and Princeton battlefields.

In ten days, George Washington orchestrated an ingenious military campaign that shocked the British empire and saved the Patriot cause in the American Revolution. Frederick the Great remarked that the campaign was “the most brilliant of any recorded in the annals of military achievement.”

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“I gave my parole once…”

On the morning of August 27, 1780 there was a knock on the door of the Charleston, South Carolina residence of Christopher Gadsden, lieutenant governor of South Carolina. He had stayed when the city capitulated to British forces in May. Gadsden had represented the civil government and handed the city over to the British commander, Sir Henry Clinton. He was released on parole.

Christopher Gadsden

Now, approximately three months later, Clinton was back in New York, and the new British commander Lord Charles Cornwallis had reneged on the parole agreement. Along with another 20 civil officers, Gadsden was led through the town to the docks to a waiting ship, set to sail for St. Augustine in British East Florida.

Upon arrival in the oldest city in European North America, Gadsden was given the opportunity by Governor Tonyn to avoid incarceration in Florida. This is when the 56-year old patriot probably uttered the phrase below.

“I gave my parole once, and it has been shamefully violated by the British Government: I shall not give another to people on whom no faith can be reposed.”

With that decision, Gadsden landed himself in Castillo de San Marcos the large coquina stone fortress that stood guard over St. Augustine. Not only was the South Carolinian kept in a cell, he was kept in solitary confinement for the next 42 weeks!

Upon his release in September 1781, Gadsden and the rest of the civil prisoners were sent by merchant vessel to Philadelphia. Gadsden wasted no time in hurrying southward to South Carolina and a return to the state House of Representatives. He served in various political roles, although he had to decline the governorship because of the affects of his imprisonment. He died in 1805. A grandson, James Gadsden would give his name to the Gadsden Purchase.

Gadsden was held in the cell to the right
(author photo)

Today one can visit Castillo de San Marcos, a national park unit within the National Park Service. When touring the Castillo you can view the cell where Gadsden spent his solitary confinement and read the accompanying exhibits.

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The First American Civil War

Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes guest historian Sean Chick

On October 7, 1780, Britain’s attempt to regain at least part of the rebellious North American colonies was dealt a major blow at King’s Mountain. The rebels rejoiced, since it was their first major victory since 1777 and it came after the twin disasters at Charleston and Camden. Thomas Jefferson, then governor of Virginia, considered it the decisive battle of the war. Years later, Theodore Roosevelt echoed that sentiment. In 1930, when the site was set to become a national park, Herbert Hoover gave a speech. For the embattled president, it was an attempt to shore up his falling support and vindicate his strategy to peel southern states away from the Democratic Party. Hoover said “This is a place of inspiring memories. Here less than a thousand men, inspired by the urge of freedom, defeated a superior force entrenched in this strategic position. This small band of Patriots turned back a dangerous invasion well designed to separate and dismember the united Colonies.”

Hoover, understandably, never mentioned the atrocities committed. Many were executed after the battle. Nor did he mention that King’s Mountain was not a contest between redcoats and rebels, but brother against brother. The only British man present was Major Patrick Ferguson. His command was made up entirely of Loyalists. His second in command, Captain Abraham de Peyster, was from New York City.

Joseph Galloway
(courtesy of NYPL)

Few groups in American history are as forgotten as the Loyalists and few were as complex. They were a varied lot, often making up the highest in colonial society, including wealthy merchants and colonial officials. They often included the very lowest in the society, such as recent immigrants, slaves, indigenous, and subsistence farmers. Their ideology was in many ways not radically different from those who rebelled. They were generally not in favor of absolute monarchy or the supremacy of Parliament but simply favored union with Britain and slow reform. A few, such as Joseph Galloway, were part of early protests against British colonial policy, but were unwilling to jump into the chasm of revolution. Some, such as South Carolina merchant David Fanning, were merely aggrieved and sought to settle scores. Others were on the margins of society and saw the colonists, or at least the revolutionary colonial elite, as their real oppressors.

The Loyalists were at first spurned by the British high command. Major General William had over 30,000 men under his command in 1776 and Loyalists would have added to the logistical strain. He also thought a soft war policy that he hoped would induce the colonies to return, and therefore it was reasonable to avoid civil war. Yet, by 1777 the British were using some Loyalist regiments. They would fight in John Burgoyne’s ill-fated drive on Albany and served as rangers at Brandywine.

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Review: Anatomy of a Massacre: The Destruction of Gnadenhutten, 1782, by Eric Sterner

Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes back guest historian Gabe Neville.

In his first book, Anatomy of a Massacre: The Destruction of Gnadenhutten, 1782, Eric Sterner has taken on a difficult subject. Racial violence is something many writers would shy away from while others might delight in the chance to condemn the perpetrators. Mr. Sterner, laudably, does neither. Instead, he seeks to understand what happened.

It is worth noting that the first known massacre of Indians by white men in what is now the United States occurred long before the events in the book. It happened near Jamestown, Virginia in 1610 when Virginia’s governor, Thomas West, 3rd Baron de la Warr, ordered an attack on the Paspahegh Band of Powhatans. Seventy men attacked the village, killing between 65 and 75 Paspaheghs and kidnapping the village leader’s wife and children. Rowing away, the colonists decided to kill the children, “w[hi]ch was effected by Throweinge them overboard and shoteinge owtt their Braynes in the water.” Three centuries of violence ensued.[1]

Lord de la Warr’s name appears frequently in Mr. Sterner’s story. His name was given to the Delaware River, which in turn lent its name to the Lenape people who have long been known to English speakers as the Delaware Tribe. Mr. Sterner has provided the definitive account of the worst atrocity of the Revolutionary War. In 1782 more than eighty white settlers clubbed, killed, and scalped ninety-six peaceful, Christian Indians as they prayed and sang hymns. The attack on the Moravian mission town of Gnadenhutten (Ohio) was intended as both a punitive and preemptive strike, conducted by settlers whose families and farms had been targeted by other Indians acting as proxies of the British. It is a horrific story that has defied understanding until now.

Histories of conflict between Native and European Americans have often served us poorly, reducing one or both sides to caricatures. Earlier histories, written by white men, put a finger on the scale of historical interpretation such that Indian atrocities were called “massacres” while white atrocities were called “battles” or “raids.” In the last half of the 20th century, the finger moved to the other side of the scale. Territorial expansion, the introduction of Old World diseases, missionary activity, the presumption of Manifest Destiny, and acts of violence large and small were braided together into a narrative of premeditated genocide.

These approaches reveal the eras and ideologies of their writers. More problematic is both schools tendency to gloss over of the complexity of frontier culture. The Gnadenhutten Massacre is not a cowboys-and-Indians story of “white” and “red” men exchanging bullets and arrows. It is far more complicated than that, with many of its actors desiring little more than their own survival. Though never stated, Mr. Sterner’s approach seems inspired by the axiom: “Don’t judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes.” The original expression, appropriately enough, referred to walking “a mile in his moccasins.”

The people in Mr. Sterner’s story can certainly be categorized as “whites” and “Indians,” and for narrative purposes two of the book’s chapters align with these groupings. Still, though racism is an important element of the story, there is plenty to suggest that skin color was not the only matter at issue. The two most prominent white characters –John Heckewelder and David Zeisberger—were Moravian missionaries who lived for decades among the Indians and were wholly dedicated to their welfare. Other whites, British agents, were Indian allies. The killers at Gnadenhutten were white, but acted independently and in defiance of government authority. On the Native American side, the Delaware, Shawnee, Wyandot, and Iroquois tribes were distinct political entities with different alliances, histories, and leaders. Even within these tribes, individual bands (what the author calls “phratries”) disagreed with each other, sometimes sharply, on military and political questions. Some were allied with the British and some with the Americans. The victims at Gnadenhutten were—though Indians—also pious, hymn-singing Christians. The white perpetrators behaved in a decidedly un-Christian manner despite their heritage. History, it turns out, was just as full of contradictions as the present is.

European-American settlers could indeed be brutal, as the events at Gnadenhutten show. Indians could also be ruthless. The first known massacre perpetrated by North American Indians was committed long before Europeans arrived on the continent. The tactic later employed by American armies of destroying villages and burning crops was first used by Indians against the colonists around Jamestown in 1622. Further complexity is found in the fact that even the line between “whites” and “Indians” was sometimes blurred. The Indian victims of the Gnadenhutten Massacre were Christians who dressed and lived much as Europeans did. Conversely, Indian armies—notably at the 1774 Battle of Point Pleasant—sometimes had white warriors among them. These were typically men who had been kidnapped as children and adopted into Indian society.

Mr. Sterner takes a dispassionate, investigatory approach to his work. It is refreshingly free of grand economic or social theories. He seeks to comprehend the events as those involved comprehended them and shows little interest in passing judgment. Instead, he seeks to “walk” a mile in their shoes and moccasins. In doing so, he respectfully refers to Natives by the Indian names, uncynically takes the faith of the Moravians at face value, and justly illustrates the terrors experienced by settlers on the frontier. Each of these groups is examined in its own chapter. Then, in his fourth and final chapter, Mr. Sterner tells us what happened at Gnadenhutten. By then the reader is left struggling to reconcile his or her outrage with the realization that what happened was likely inevitable.

The chance to experience this tension between the world that was and the world that ought to have been is a gift to Mr. Sterner’s readers. Conceiving of a world as it ought to have been is easy. Understanding it as it actually was is much harder. Period accounts indicate that even the perpetrators of the massacre wrestled with this tension in real time. One of them, after executing a dozen Moravian Indians, “sat down and cried because he found in it no satisfaction for his murdered wife and children.” Another whose family had been killed by Indians sat down by the river bank and burst into tears, crying, “You know I couldn’t help it!”[2]

Anatomy of a Massacre could have had an epilogue. Shortly after the events at Gnadenhutten, Col. William Crawford was captured and cruelly tortured to death by Delaware tribesmen as payback for the massacre. Crawford had played no part in the earlier atrocity, but men under his command had. Mr. Sterner has written about Crawford’s death for Emerging Revolutionary War and no doubt made a considered decision to let the Gnadenhutten story stand on its own.

The last “massacre” of American Indians occurred in 1911 in Nevada, when state police killed eight members of Mike Daggett’s Band of Shoshones, whom they were pursuing for horse theft and murder. This “Battle of Kelly Creek” occurred three hundred and one years after the massacre of the Paspahegh Band of Powhatans near Jamestown and closed the book on three centuries of racial violence between Native and European Americans. It is a cringe-inducing history, to be sure.

Mr. Sterner’s book suggests two lessons. First is that we should not blame atrocities so much on the perpetrators’ culture and demographics but rather on the killers themselves and on human nature. Culture matters, but people in every culture will do terrible things in terrible circumstances. Second is that we cannot substitute a cartoonish caricature of history for the nuanced reality of what really happened. The consequence of dumbed-down history is not a partial understanding but rather a false understanding. The Moravian Indians and missionaries lived in villages that were both physically and figuratively between two cultures. Though neutral, family and social ties to the war’s combatants remained and neither side could accept or understand them as a unique group. That led the Wyandots and British-allied Delaware to forcibly relocate them, and it motivated the settlers led by David Williamson to kill them.

An analogous refusal to understand the past for what it really was does a different kind of “violence” to history. Mr. Sterner’s book provides hope that historians can in fact focus on real history, avoiding the polemics and theorizing that characterizes so much academic writing. Like Glenn Williams, author of Dunmore’s War, Mr. Sterner seeks to trace the course of events and to understand the subjects of his work as they understood themselves. It’s good history.


Sources:

[1] George Percy, “’A Trewe Relaycon:’ Virginia from 1609 to 1612,” Tyler’s Quarterly, 3 (1921-1922): 259-282, 272. “Weroance” was a title for a “sub-chief” or a village leader.

[2] Eric Sterner, Anatomy of a Massacre: The Destruction of Gnadenhutten, 1782 (Yardley, Pa: Westholme, 2020), 148.

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2021 Symposium Highlight: Vanessa Smiley

Over the next few months, we will be highlighting the speakers and topic for our 2021 Symposium, Hindsight is 2020: Revisiting Misconceptions of the Revolution, taking place on May 22nd .

Today we continue with historian Vanessa Smiley who will be covering the myths and misconceptions of the Southern Campaigns during the American Revolution.  

See Vanessa as she discusses an aspect of the Southern Campaign on March 7 at 7p.m. on Emerging Revolutionary War’s Facebook Live as part of the “Rev War Revelry” historian happy hour!

Vanessa Smiley is an historian and interpreter whose roots began at National Park Service Civil War and Rev War sites. Her Rev War park experience includes serving as the Chief of Interpretation at the Southern Campaign of the American Revolution Parks Group in South Carolina, an acting assignment as Superintendent at Guilford Courthouse NMP, and Chief of Interpretation at Morristown NHP. Vanessa is currently the Project Manager of Interpretive Media Development for the National Capital Area at Harpers Ferry Center. She received her undergraduate degree in Historic Preservation from the University of Mary Washington and her Master’s degree in Resource Interpretation from Stephen F. Austin State University.

Outside of her work with the NPS, Vanessa enjoys researching family histories, studying material and social culture of the 18th and 19th centuries, listening to podcasts, reading true crime, drinking craft beer, and attempting to make the perfect sangria. She and her husband live in Morgan County, West Virginia on their small farm where they run a nonprofit animal sanctuary.

She will be presenting her talk From the Bottom Up: Myths and Misconceptions of the Southern Theater at the May symposium.

 Why do you believe the Southern Campaigns were so significant to the outcome of the American Revolution?

The simplest way to describe why I believe the Southern Campaigns were so significant to the War’s outcome is: it was a grassroots effort. What I mean is that while the Continental Army shouldered plenty, it was the combination of local efforts of the militia and determined civilians who turned the tide of the war when the British looked to the southern colonies, especially in the second half of the war. All one has to do is to look at two key battles, Kings Mountain and Cowpens, to see the impact of militia integrity, courage, and resolve.

Some point to the politics of Boston and New York as a driving force behind the start of the war. But the taverns and town halls of Charleston and Savannah were no less significant in adding fuel to the revolutionary fire. There is also the added dichotomy of our first true American civil war that played out in the backcountry of the Carolinas. Here were literal neighbors, brothers, cousins, and friends taking up arms to serve their respective causes and finding themselves on opposite sides. These dynamics were one driving force behind the militias that had such an impact during the Southern Campaigns.

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 give credit to my love of history to my high school history teacher, who embodied the archetype of the quintessential eccentric and genius history connoisseur striving to bring history alive. He immersed us in the history of the 18th and 19th century through first person accounts, visits to historical sites, and the dramatics of storytelling. He also armed me with the intellectual tool of piecing out the relevancy of events and people of the past, and that’s what has kept me interested in studying history for the past two decades.

While my work at historic sites for the National Park Service provided an easy outlet for my historian brain, I sought those historical connections and resources even outside of work because of that drive to understand the past. It’s a little bit different now than before though. I don’t get to be as immersed as I once was (no traipsing through cemeteries at night to feel the chill and terror of the Underground Railroad) and instead my mind goes to educating the public on the importance of our history. That’s why I’m so appreciative for Emerging Revolutionary War!

What is the biggest myth about the war in the South? How do you think it came about?

That the war was won in the north and not the south! I’ll go into more detail on this one during my presentation, but I’ll tease a little bit here. One part of the answer to the second question might lie with our public education system. In studying the state education curriculums of various states, I found that there is a stronger emphasis on the beginnings of the war than the war’s end. And so the Southern theater gets very little, if any, attention when kids study the war in school. The exception used to be in certain states like South Carolina, where the battles of Cowpens and Kings Mountain were directly referenced in the state standards. Since the standards updated in 2020, this no longer seems to be the case.

You’ll have to wait for my presentation to dive a little deeper into this myth with me!

Do you think there are common misconceptions of the era of the American Revolution among the American people? If so, what are they and have they ever affected your work?

There certainly are, and the ones that have affected my work the most center around that idea of the often-overlooked Southern Campaigns for most Americans. Ask any random person to name a Revolutionary War battle or event and the majority will name something from the northern colonies. Every now and then you get a Charleston, and if you consider Virginia part of the south, then a Yorktown for sure. But as I’m sure has become obvious already, I strive to educate about the rich history of the Rev War in the south.

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

No matter which political, social, or economic side you’re on nowadays, we can all agree we are living in our own revolutionary time. And we find ourselves looking back to our nation’s founding for understanding and guidance, namely things like our national ideals and governmental processes. But we are a different people and a different nation than what we were then. We should not take everything from 240 years ago at face value. By studying and investigating the past, we can understand how and why decisions were made at the time. And perhaps we can extract an element, or life lesson, that can be applied to our modern times.

I believe that while history does not repeat itself, it does rhyme. By understanding the past, we may know our future.

Join us for our SECOND annual Emerging Revolutionary War Symposium. Due to the COVID 19 pandemic, we postponed the 2020 Symposium to May 22, 2021 with the same topics and speakers. Co hosted by Gadsby’s Tavern Museum, speakers and topics include:


Michael Harris on Misconceptions of Battle of Brandywine
Vanessa Smiley on Myths of the Southern Campaigns
Travis Shaw on American Loyalists
John U Rees on African American Continental Soldiers
Mark Maloy on myths of the Battle of Trenton

Stay tuned as we highlight our speakers and their topics in future blog posts.

UPDATE: The 2021 Symposium will now be virtual. Though conditions with the pandemic are improving, we do not believe we will be able to have the event in person by May, so we have decided to be virtual. Due to this shift, we are also dropping the price! Now the full day symposium is $40 per person and $20 for students. This allows for guests from all across the country to learn about African American soldiers, Loyalists, and Drunken Hessians. Buy your ticket today!

To register visit: https://shop.alexandriava.gov/Events.aspx

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The Battle of Moores Creek Bridge: How Three Minutes Affected Three Years of War Strategy

Did the Battle of Moores Creek Bridge help keep the British away from the southern colonies during the first half of the war?

Months before its colonies officially adopted their Declaration of Independence, the British army was reaching a critical juncture in its war strategy: with the colonies in rebellion, where should they focus their attentions? The war was picking up steam and the British were looking for a stronghold in the colonies that would gain them resources such as men and supplies. They turned their eyes south.

The general impression of the southern colonies was that they were poorer and weaker than their sister colonies in the north. They also had been receiving word of heavy Loyalist sympathies in both the backcountry of South Carolina and the coastal areas of North Carolina, where large populations of German and Scottish immigrants had settled. Indeed, by the fall of 1775, Loyalist recruitment seemed to be quite successful. One evidence of this was at the First Battle of Ninety Six in November 1775, when nearly 2,000 Loyalists met a paltry force of not quite 600 patriots. Though this first Revolutionary War battle south of New England ended in a truce, British confidence was high.

The Royal Governor of South Carolina, Lord William Campbell, had fled the colonies by September 1775, leaving the colony mostly in the hands of the Patriots. That made the ultimate goal at this point in the southern colonies to capture the wealthy and strategic port of Charleston, South Carolina. Meanwhile, the Royal Governor of North Carolina, Josiah Martin, convinced British commanders to target key points along their route through his colony as they advanced on their mission. And as 1775 turned into 1776, plans were set in motion.

On January 10, Martin issued a proclamation calling on all subjects loyal to the Crown to take up arms against the rebellion in the colony. Authority was given to Loyalist leaders throughout the colony to recruit militia and gather all necessary provisions to muster in Brunswick, NC.

A copy of Josiah Martin’s Proclamation from January 10, 1776.
Library of Congress.

By mid-February, a contingent of several thousand loyalists was gathered at Cross Creek, NC, preparing to march towards their goal. Among those recruited were the famed Scotch Highlanders. Though not all joined the Loyalist cause, the Highlanders’ reputations as fierce warriors preceded the impending war in the colonies. This reputation may have stemmed from the Jacobite rebellion in the 1740s as well as British assumptions at the time that the HIghlands were a lawless land due their clan-based culture.

Loyalists weren’t the only militias stirring along the Carolina coast. Patriot militias had begun forming at the first news of Loyalists gathering as early as August 1775. In fact, some of those militias formed in Wilmington, NC became the foundation of the 1st North Carolina Regiment of the Continental Army and in February 1776, they were led by Colonel James Moore. At that time, they were joined by additional militiamen from the surrounding area, led by Alexander Lillington and Richard Caswell. Their goal was two-fold: protect Wilmington and prevent the Loyalist forces from reaching the coast.

By February 20, 1776, a clash between the British and Patriot forces was inevitable. British commander Donald MacDonald began to move his 1,600 men from Cross Creek towards his rendezvous point at Brunswick, only to find his way impeded along the Black River by Caswell’s blockade. On February 25, MacDonald had managed to get across the river and Caswell moved his 1,000 Patriots back to Moores Creek Bridge. There they set up defensive earthworks, prepped their two artillery pieces, and prepared for battle.

A map of the Moores Creek campaign, February 1776.
NPS/Moores Creek National Battlefield.

At 1:00 am on February 27, 1776, MacDonald’s second-in-command, Donald McLeod, led the British troops on their march towards the Patriot position. Arriving at an abandoned camp on the west side of the bridge around 5:00 am, a brief exchange of fire alerted the Loyalists to the Patriot sentries guarding the bridge, and ultimately, the Patriot forces lying in wait. 

McLeod with 50 men attempted to cross the bridge and attack the Patriot defensive position, but the attempt was futile and disastrous. Heavy musket fire coupled with a barrage of two artillery units killed 30 almost immediately, including McLeod. The remaining Loyalists quickly retreated and the battle was over almost as quickly as it had begun.

Bill Ballard’s drawing of the decisive moment during the Battle of Moores Creek Bridge.
NPS/Moores Creek National Battlefield.

So how important were these three approximate minutes of battle? This Patriot victory struck a huge blow to Loyalist recruitment in North Carolina – so much so that two months later, North Carolina’s delegates to Continental Congress were the first to vote for independence. And it created a rippling effect throughout the southern colonies, as one by one the royal governors were displaced and revolution took hold. 

No longer could the British see the Carolinas as easy targets. They abandoned this initial southern strategy to focus their resources on the war in the northern colonies. For the next three years, significant battles and events that we learn about today took place, thanks in part to the dominating Patriot showing at the Battle of Moores Creek Bridge.


If you’re interested in learning more about the Battle of Moores Creek Bridge, I strongly encourage you to visit Moores Creek National Battlefield’s website as well as their very active Facebook page. Both offer a wealth of information and additional resources for folks to explore.

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2021 ERW Symposium Update

Though the current health conditions are improving as they relate to the COVID-19 pandemic, we decided that our 2021 symposium will have to be virtual. We felt that by May, restrictions for groups will still be limited and we wanted to make a decision soon so that our speakers and registrants can plan accordingly. The date is still set for May 22, 2021 but time for some good news. Our registration fee is now only $40 per person and $20 for students. This will allow us to broaden our audience with the virtual program. We hope that 2022 will allow us to come together again in Alexandria for our third annual symposium.

More information on our speakers, topics and how to register is below!

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“Rev War Revelry” Author Interview: John Maass

In March 1781, General Charles Lord Cornwallis finally caught up with his antagonist, General Nathanael Greene and his joint Continental and militia forces in North Carolina. On March 15, 1781, the British scored a pyrrhic victory over the American forces, securing the field but losing approximately 25% of their field force in the process.

With the victory, Cornwallis was forced to retreat to the North Carolina coast, to Wilmington, where he could rest and refit. He then led his forces north and into Virginia, to his destiny at Yorktown.

Yet, the road to Guilford Court House, for both sides, started in South Carolina, across the entire breadth of North Carolina, and into the southern reaches of Virginia before returning to the Old North State. This road and the history of the campaign, along with the March 15th engagement, unfolds in a new history by Dr. John Maass, author and historian, currently at the U.S. Army Center of Military History in Washington D.C.

His book, The Battle of Guilford Court House, A Most Desperate Engagement will be the focus of this week’s “Rev War Revelry.” The book is now available from book retailers and online. We hope you can join us this Sunday, at 7 p.m. EST, for our next installment of a historian happy hour.

To access, just head to Emerging Revolutionary War’s Facebook page, go to the “Events” tab and follow the prompt at 7 p.m.

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Leveling, Pointing, and Elevating Field Guns

Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes back guest historian Karl G. Elsea

If you want to know the process of how field guns were fired in a battle such as Trenton or Monmouth, watching the National Park Service or re-enactors fire a cannon, you will only get part of the story. Important parts of the procedure are almost always missing. Here is a more complete presentation of the process; and, how leveling, pointing (aiming), and elevating a field gun were performed.

Major William Congreve said it best in his instructional training works at the Royal Military Repository in the late 1700’s: “It is of the utmost Consequence to the Service to fire so as to do Execution, for Shot flying over the Enemies head only hardens them and discourages your own Troops.” “Rounds must never be fired with-out pointing the Gun carefully each time and paying great attention to the Elevation.”[i]

After the commands, unlimber piece (un-attach the gun from the limber), take off apron (remove the vent cover), take out tompion (remove the “plug” at the muzzle of the gun), the gunners would perform the following activity with-out a specific command. This was a critical function and is not usually shown when firing a gun. It was to level the piece. As stated in their training, “and which ever Wheel stands too high, the Earth must be loosened in the rear, and the Gun drawn gently back until the Bubble rest in the Center of the Tube.”[ii] The science was simple, the trunnions on the barrel must be level or the barrel will move in a non-vertical plane and thus be off target. Leveling the gun was of great importance. The Artillerist’s Companion 1778 states it was an artillerist’s function, “Quadrating a piece [barrel] mounted, is to see whether it be directly placed, and equally poised in the carriage, which may be found by a gunner’s instrument called a level or perpendicular.”[iii]

The following picture shows what was called the Gunner’s level or the Spirit Level. It was the quintessential instrument carried by gunners to level the gun. In a cylinder in the middle of the gunner’s level was a vial and when the trunnions are level the bubble in the vial will be in the middle. At that point the gun was leveled.

(Author’s Level and Photograph)

The next activity was sometimes required to point the gun and it also required the Gunner’s Level. The level could be used to place a noticeable mark indicating the top of the base ring and the top of the muzzle ring. These two marks constitute what was called the “centre” [center] line of the cannon. The activity of marking the “centre” line was performed immediately after leveling the cannon unless the points or the line were already marked on the cannon. This line on the barrel was called the “gun metal line.” On many of the guns of the period the metal line marks were discretely engraved into the design on the barrel. For example, on this patriot cast Byers’ gun the base ring line, touch hole, and liberty pole mark one end of the “gun metal line.”

After these tasks (leveling and marking) were complete the gun was ready for pointing (aiming).  With regards to the Patriot’s drill, there was a distinct difference between the primary source drills of William Stevens and Louis de Tousard. Stevens records that “Take Aim” happens after the command “Prime.”[iv] In Tousard’s drill “Take Aim” takes place before “Prime.”[v] There was a reason for these differences, and it depended on how the gun was primed. The use of a priming tube, whether tin, reed, or quill, could potentially block the sighting line. Tousard’s drill avoided this problem by sighting before the priming tube was inserted. It should be noted the centre line passed over the touch hole. It was noteworthy that the British drill specifically mentions pointing before the tube was inserted into the touch hole. The British drills for a six-pounder stated, “The man who serves the Vent … not put the tube in until the Gun is pointed.”[vi] With regards to Steven’s drill, the priming likely consisted of using powder to touch off the charge, thus the “take aim” command could take place after priming. Using powder only to prime did not block the sighting line. Tousard’s drill assumed tubes were used in priming. British and Patriots used tubes as the preferred manor in priming field guns.

(Author’s Photograph)

Last came the task of elevating the gun barrel. The need for proper elevation of the barrel was demonstrated by noting the psychological impact of cannon fire as shown in the following contemporary quote, “it having been often proved that Soldiers have been more alarmed and put in confusion, by seeing Shot hopping to them, than by having double the Number of their Comrades killed by their sides without seeing it.”[vii] That quote showed the importance for shot to land and bounce somewhat in front of the soldiers. Elevation was adjusted to accomplish that task.

For elevation the gunners would know their individual piece and the characteristics concerning how the various types of shot with varying powder charges would fall. The Officers would likely have some recordation measuring the needed elevation for the distance to first graze. First graze was the range at which the shot would first touch the ground. That recordation would allow the gunners to know what elevation to use for their barrel.

The gunners would also know what the dispart (half the difference between the diameter of the base ring and muzzle ring) was for their individual gun. Dispart was the key to understanding that aiming the gun on the centre line automatically elevates the barrel. Dispart could be quickly measured in the field by placing the vent pick into the touch hole until it reached the bottom, and then subtract that measurement taken at the muzzle from the bottom of the tube to the top of the muzzle ring. As noted above, when the cannon was aimed using the centre line (“gun metal line”) then the resulting cannon ball strike on level ground was called the “Common range.”  Common range was different from “point blank range” which was the distance when a cannon ball first touches ground when fired from a level barrel on level ground.

There was an exception to aiming and elevating the gun. The exception was if a gun were to be overrun. British training materials stated, “Case Shot may be fired as quick as the Dragropemen can draw the Gun up to its proper Position in the Interval again, which will allow the Non Commissioned Officer a sufficient time to direct the Gun nearly to the Center of the Enemies Battalion and give a pretty good guess at the Elevation.”[viii]


[i] Adrian B. Caruana, The Light 6-Pdr. Battalion Gun of 1776, (Alexandria Bay, NY: Museum Restoration Service, 1993), 27.

[ii] Caruana,33.

[iii] T. Fortune, The Artillerist’s Companion 1778, (London: Whitehall, 1993), (Alexandria Bay, NY: Museum Restoration Service, 1992), 9.

[iv] William Stevens, A System for the Discipline of the Artillery of the United States of America, (New York: William A. Davis, 1797), 68.

[v] Louis de Tousard, Artillerist’s Companion on Elements of Artillery, (Philadelphia: C and A Conrad and Co., 1809), 140-141.

[vi] Adrian B. Caruana, The Light 6-Pdr. Battalion Gun of 1776, (Alexandria Bay, NY: Museum Restoration Service, 1993), 29.

[vii] Caruana, 27.

[viii] Caruana, 27.

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