Two Riders….Gage Gathers Information

As British General Thomas Gage and his American Whig (or Patriot) antagonists squared off in Boston and the surrounding towns, information gathering became the key to success. Both sides had created networks of spies, but the advantage was clearly in favor of the Whigs. During the winter 1774-1775, groups such as the Sons of Liberty had established a complex spy network within Boston comprised of a system of riders that spread information and “alarms’ quickly. The Committee of Safety and the Massachusetts Provincial Congress relied on this network to stay informed of what was going on in Boston and the British intentions. Continue reading

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Seeing Jefferson Anew: A Review of Jefferson’s Body: A Corporeal Biography, by Maurizio Valsania


Maurizio Valsania, Jefferson’s Body: A Corporeal Biography

University of Virginia Press, 2017.

265 pages, endnotes, bibliography, index.


After reading about Thomas Jefferson for over thirty years, I was beginning to wonder if anything new could be said about the man from Monticello.  That query has been answered in the affirmative by University of Torino, Italy, Professor Maurizio Valsania, who gives us an earthy and unique biography of Jefferson focused on his body.

Valsania’s fascinating work is an interdisciplinary study which borrows from physical and cultural anthropology, anatomy and psychology, which measures Jefferson’s corporality as a way of understanding his life.  Broken into two main parts: the self and the other, the author examines how Jefferson was constructed, biologically, and how he constructed  himself before moving on to consider how the sage of Monticello used these to make sense of the other – most notably Native Americans, African Americans and women.

In Valsania’s book we find a “mild, harmonious, flexible, engaging, maybe also “feminine” [man;]…Jefferson had an unconventional corporeality.”[i]  Described as refined, retiring, soft and mild mannered, Jefferson exhibited a natural simplicity.  But, as Valsania explained, “Jefferson, like many others who sought to perform “simplicity,” relied heavily on the worship of naturalness.  Impossible to hide is the fact that “natural” in the period could simultaneously mean something good and something bad; nature had to be emulated and defeated as the same time.”[ii] Continue reading

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March 17: Evacuation Day

Boston is typically thought of as a quintessential place to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.  Interestingly though, the celebration in Suffolk County (which encompasses Boston) is officially referred to as Evacuation Day, and the parade that meanders through South Boston is the St. Patrick’s Day/Evacuation Day Parade.  Evacuation Day celebrates the evacuation of the British army from Boston that occurred on March 17, 1776.

An Inclusive St. Patrick's Day Parade

Revolutionary War reenactors march in the Boston St. Patrick’s Day/Evacuation Day Parade. (Boston Globe photo)

In early March of 1776, General George Washington and his Continental Army had been laying siege to the British occupied city of Boston for almost a year, ever since the first blood of the war had been shed on April 19, 1775 at Lexington and Concord. (read more about this in the new book: “A Single Blow”) The British had been holed up in the city for months as a stalemate ensued. Continue reading

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An Account of April 19, 1775

“the Country was an amazing strong one; full of Hills, Woods, stone Walls, & c., which the Rebels did not fail to take advantage of, for they were all lined with People who kept an incessant fire upon us…”

From the diary of Lieutenant Frederick Mackenzie who was part of the 23rd Regiment–the Royal Welch Fusiliers that survived the ordeal of April 19, 1775. He would keep a diary until the early 1790’s and chronicled his experiences in the American Revolutionary War. His account on April 19, of the retreat from Concord is most descriptive. The British did not just take the brunt of the firing as the marched hurriedly back toward Boston and safety, but;

“as we did too upon them, but not with the same advantage, as they were so concealed there was hardly any seeing them: in this way we marched between 9 and 10 miles, their numbers increasing from all parts…”

The column was led by Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith and had been tasked by General Thomas Gage, British military leader in North America, to root out the military supplies being stored in Concord by the colonials. The mission, albeit supposedly secretive, did not remain so for long, and the colonials got word out to the countryside. After initial firing at Lexington Green and then at the North Bridge in Concord, the British had to march back through the countryside, facing arriving militia and minute men.

“while ours was reducing by deaths, wounds, and fatigue; and  we were totally surrounded with such an incessant fire as it is impossible to conceive; our ammunition was likewise near expended.”  


Modern-day view along Battle Road, the route the British column retreated back toward Boston on (author collection)

Luckily, for Mackenzie and the other struggling British officers and rank-and-file, on a rise in the ground, outside the town of Menotomy, was a relief column, ready to provide a few moments’ respite.



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General Edward Hand: The Squaw Campaign

Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes guest historian Eric Sterner. 

In February 1778, Brigadier General Edward Hand, commanding Continental forces at Fort Pitt on the American frontier, launched what may be one of the oddest campaigns of the American Revolution, more famous for its fecklessness than any benefit to the American war effort. Born in Ireland, Hand arrived in the colonies with the 18th Royal Irish Regiment as a surgeon’s mate.  He eventually left service in 1774 and set up a medical practice in Philadelphia.  The siege of Boston found him among the besiegers as Lieutenant Colonel of a Pennsylvania Rifle Battalion.  He fought under Washington on Long Island, at White Plains, and then Princeton, after which Washington successfully pursued the rank of Brigadier for him before sending him to Pittsburgh.[1]   Hand arrived in June, 1777, finding just two companies of the 13th Virginia.[2]   As was often the case on the frontier, Fort Pitt was under-garrisoned and Continental officers would have to scrounge constantly for troops, largely relying on local militia forces to defend the frontier.


General Edward Hand (courtesy of Ohio History Central)

Hand hoped to conduct a campaign to the west, driving toward British power at Detroit, but was unable to raise sufficient forces that fall.  Instead, he settled for a trip down the Ohio to ensure local garrisons were in proper order.[3]  Around Christmas, Hand received information that the British had established a small magazine on the Cuyahoga River, likely somewhere close to where it empties into Lake Erie in the current city limits of Cleveland.[4]  As December gave way to January and February, Hand resolved to do something about it.  At the beginning of the month, he wrote Colonel William Crawford, formerly of the 13th Virginia, currently of the Pennsylvania militia and a well-respected local leader, entreating the colonel to undertake an expedition:
“As I am credibly informed that the English have lodged a quantity of arms, ammunition, provision, and clothing at a small indian Town, about one hundred miles from Fort Pitt to support the savages in their excursions against the inhabitants of this and the adjacent counties, I ardently wish to collect as many brave, active lads as are willing to turn out, to destroy this magazine.  Every man must be provided with a horse, and every article necessary to equip them for the expedition, except ammunition, which, with some arms, I can furnish.” Continue reading

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George Washington; October 17, 1781

While reading background on the siege and victory at Yorktown, Virginia in October 1781, I came across the following passage written by historian Jerome Greene.

     “The officer was then quickly escorted to Washington’s headquarters in a nearby house,       where he delivered Cornwallis’s message: “I propose a Cessation of Hostilities for 24             hours, & that two Officers may be appointed by each side, to meet at Mr. Moore’s house         to settle terms for the Surrender of the Posts of York & Gloucester.” One can only                   imagine the emotions coursing through Washington’s body as he read these words.”

That last line is what really struck me.

Every image we have of George Washington depicts a stoic expression staring back out of us. Historians have a few instances from a long life of the Washington behind the marble, behind the self-imposed restraint, that he crafted for posterity.

However, he was human, he did have a fiery temper and he was a passionate person. One of the reasons he strove so hard to mask those emotions, to keep them in check, to keep perspective, and to persevere.

Those competing inclinations would have been bubbling at the surface on October 17, 1781, when that written communication was handed to him outside Yorktown, Virginia. What that moment must have been like, for Washington, for the French and American forces, and for all those fighting in favor of American independence.

Jerome Greene wondered about it. I am curious about it. Are you?



Siege of Yorktown 1836

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“If you Fire, You’ll all be dead men” The Salem Alarm


Thomas Gage

As events quickly spiraled out of control in the winter and spring of 1774-1775 around Massachusetts, several armed confrontations between local “Patriots” and the British army heightened tensions. On many occasions, both sides adverted open confrontation and were able to diffuse the situation. Understanding these events and how they made an impression on both sides helps explain what happened on the Lexington Common on April 19, 1775.

As soon as British General Thomas Gage arrived in Boston in the spring of 1774, he set about enforcing the newly passed “Coercive Acts.” In response to these new laws that restricted many of the rights the people of Massachusetts had grown accustomed too, local groups began to arm themselves in opposition to British authority. Even though Gage was once popular in the colonies, he soon became an enemy to those around Boston who believed the Coercive Acts were an overstep of British authority. Continue reading

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