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?
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.”
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.
 Urban, Mark. “Fusiliers: The Saga of a British Redcoat Regiment in the American Revolution (Walker & Company: Manhattan, 2007).
This Sunday on the Emerging Revolutionary War’s Facebook page, Robert Dunkerly will join the “Rev War Revelry” to discuss his newest publication, Decision at Brandywine: The Battle of Birmingham Hill.
The Battle of Brandywine, fought on September 11, 1777, saw the defeat of the American forces in southeastern Pennsylvania. The victory by the British opened the road to Philadelphia, which fell to Sir William Howe’s forces on September 26, fifteen days after the battle.
Dunkerly, a park ranger with Richmond National Battlefield Park and a contributing historian for Emerging Revolutionary War will discuss the pivotal action that happened around Birmingham Hill on that Thursday in 1777. The engagement at Brandywine was the largest and longest battle in the entire American Revolution and the third bloodiest. This new publication examines the action near Birmingham Hill and Meeting House where the action that day turned against George Washington’s forces.
Thus, this Sunday, at 7 p.m. EDT, tune into ERW’s Facebook page for the next historian happy hour as the popular “Rev War Revelry” series continues with this author spotlight.
On October 17, 1777, British General John Burgoyne surrendered his joint British, Canadian, and Hessian and Brunswicker forces to patriot General Horatio Gates near Saratoga, New York. Over 6,000 soldiers, the number placed by one historian is 6,222, became captives of war. Under the terms of the convention agreed upon by Burgoyne and Gates, the vanquished army was to march to Boston, Massachusetts, board British ships, and sail to England, to await formal exchange and to not participate in the war in America further.
When news reached the Continental Congress of this concession, that political body demanded a complete list of the troops surrendered to ensure the terms of the convention was to be upheld. When this was not forthcoming by the British, Congress reacted by vowing to not adhere to the stipulations of the convention. Burgoyne’s forces would not head back to Great Britain to await an exchange that year. Instead, these men were to be confined in camps both in New England and Virginia for the duration of the war. This force came to be called the Convention Army.
This Sunday, March 6, at 7 p.m. EDT, join Emerging Revolutionary War on our Facebook page for the next historian happy hour, as Dan Welch and Phillip S. Greenwalt discuss the Convention Army and what happened after the pivotal battle of Saratoga in October 1777.
In the throes of the winter of 1778, spent at Valley Forge, General George Washington and his staff formulated a mountain of paperwork to multiple recipients of the American cause. On February 16, 1778, Alexander Hamilton composed a letter for the commander-in-chief of the Continental army to a gentleman who had moved from the military to the political ranks; George Clinton of New York.
He had seen service in the Hudson Highlands and had been commissioned a brigadier general in the Continental army on March 25, 1777. Later that same year both governor and lieutenant governor of New York, formally resigning the latter and accepting the former on July 30, 1777. In that capacity, he received the letter, excerpts below, from Valley Forge.
“It is with great reluctance, I trouble you on a subject, which does not properly fall within your province; but it is a subject that occasions me more distress, than I have felt, since the commencement of the war; and which loudly demands the most zealous exertions of every person of weight and authority, who is interested in the success of our affairs.”I mean the present dreadful situation of the army for want of provisions and the miserable prospects before us, with respect to futurity. It is more alarming, than you will probably conceive, for to form a just idea, it were necessary to be on the spot.2 For some days past, there has been little less, than a famine in camp. A part of the army has been a week, without any kind of flesh & the rest three or four days.3 Naked and starving as they are, we cannot eno⟨ugh⟩ admire the incomparable patience and fidelity of the soldiery, that they have not been, ere this, excited by their sufferings, to a general mutiny and dispersion. Strong symptoms however of discontent have appeared in particular instances; and nothing but the most active effort⟨s⟩ every where, can long avert so shocking a catastrophe.
Washington then asks for any help or supplies that Clinton can send his way, even though the army is outside the state lines of New York. Washington’s mindset is that the cause of the army in Pennsylvania is the cause of American independence and that Clinton, who had served would recognize that and do his utmost to provide what he can.
“I am calling upon all those, whose stations and influence enable them to contribute their aid upon so important an occasion, and from your well known zeal, I expect every thing within the compass of your power, and that the abilities and resources of the state over which you preside, will admit. I am sensible of the disadvantages it labours under, from having been so long the scene of war, and that it must be exceedingly drained by the great demands to which it has been subject, But though you may not be able to contribute materially to our relief, you can perhaps do something towards it; and any assistance, however trifling in itself, will be of great moment, at so critical a juncture, and will conduce to keeping the army together, ’till the Commissary’s department can be put upon a better footing, and effectual measures concerted to secure a permanent and competent supply. What methods you can take, you will be the best judge of; but if you can devise any means to procure a quantity of cattle or other kind of flesh, for the use of this army, to be at camp in the course of a month, you will render a most essential service to the common cause.“
Not only did Clinton receive this missive from Washington, dated February 16, but the following day Gouverneur Morris from a camp committee established by the Continental Congress also sent the New York governor a letter asking for any assistance he could provide for the army at Valley Forge.
These letters underscore the seriousness of the plight of the army encamped at Valley Forge as the winter slowly turned to spring. The action at Washington’s headquarters and from the camp committee helped create a path forward through that pivotal winter. To learn more about what transpired during those six months from December 1777 to June 1778, follow the link above to the “2022 Bus Tour” and join Emerging Revolutionary War on our second annual bus tour November 11-13, 2022.
The entire letter from Washington (Hamilton) to George Clinton can be found here.
244 years ago this week is when the Continental army, under the command of George Washington, marched into what would become their winter encampment as the year turned from 1777-1778. Recently, Phillip S. Greenwalt, one of the Emerging Revolutionary War historians was a “talking head” on a documentary about the Valley Forge encampment and what the soldiers and civilians faced during the ensuing six-month cantonment.
The documentary which features historians and park rangers is airing on Fox News Nation, the streaming service that is part of the Fox News network. Below is a screen shot of Phillip, who is also the author of Winter that Won the War, the Winter Encampment at Valley Forge, 1777-1778, which is part of the Emerging Revolutionary War Series published by Savas Beatie LLC.
So, if you need a break from the holiday specials that are airing, tune in for your history fix and learn more about the history at Valley Forge. If you want to dive even deeper into this period of the American Revolution, check out the link above labeled “2022 Bus Tour” and secure your tickets to join ERW at our second annual bus tour next November, which will include Valley Forge.
From November 2, 1777 until early-December, General George Washington and the Continental Army occupied a defensive position at White Marsh, approximately 13 miles northwest of Philadelphia. In early December, a series of small skirmishes erupted along the American lines in the last actions of the campaigning season of 1777. Frustrated by Washington’s refusal to emerge from his entrenchments, Sir William Howe led his British columns back to their winter abode in Philadelphia.
Washington moved the army shortly thereafter toward Valley Forge and their winter cantonment, arriving in that vicinity on December 19. As Washington prepared for the winter of 1777-1778 you can also start the preparations to follow this route with Emerging Revolutionary War on the weekend of November 11 – 13, 2022 on the Rise of the American Army: Valley Forge and the Battle of Monmouth Bus Tour. To secure your spot and further information, click here (or the link on the banner at the top of this page).
On January 3, 1777, George Washington’s forces struck the British outside the town of Princeton, New Jersey. The battle culminated a ten-day period that would be crucial to the survival and eventual victory of American independence.
As Emerging Revolutionary War builds up to the first annual bus tour of the Trenton and Princeton in November, this “Rev War Revelry” will provide some of the background of this engagement. Joining Emerging Revolutionary War on this installment of the “Revelry” will be historian and Princeton Battlefield History Educator Will Krakower.
Join us, this Sunday, at 7pm EST on our Facebook page for this great discussion on the Battle of Princeton and the history around it.
During the winter encampment at Valley Forge, as thousands of men huddled around drafty wooden cabins, with dwindling supplies, and battled boredom and disease, a relief effort was organized hundreds of miles away.
George Washington, ensconced at the Potts House in the heart of the Valley Forge encampment, was very aware of the dire straights that his forces were exposed to. Throughout the winter he sent missives, directly and through intermediaries, discreetly asking for more aid, for supplies, for changes to military bureaucracy. He even consented to a delegation of congressmen to visit Valley Forge and see first-hand the situation in the winter of 1777-1778.
In a proverbial sense, he did not leave any stone unturned to try and ease the plight of his forces or continue to stay abreast of British designs, less than twenty-miles away in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
After hearing of the contributions of the Oneidas and Tuscaroras at the Battle of Oriskany in New York, Washington sent a letter of invitation for the Native Americans to visit his army. Approximately 50 warriors along with supplies made the few hundred mile journey from upstate New York to eastern Pennsylvania. They left their villages on April 25 and arrived on May 15,1778 in Valley Forge. The leaders of the Oneida party dined with Washington. Five days later some of the warriors participated in the engagement at Barren Hill under the Marquis de Lafayette. Six of the warriors gave their life in service to their ally.
In 2007 historian Joseph T. Glatthaar published a book about the Oneidas and their contributions to the American victory in the war. The title, in part, is Forgotten Allies. A fitting testament to the service and sacrifice this tribe underwent in their partnership with the fledgling American nation.
If the Oneidas were the “forgotten allies” than in the winter encampment at Valley Forge there was a forgotten woman that tramped south with her fellow Oneidas. Her name was Polly Cooper.
Along with the warriors, whom Washington wanted to serve as scouts, the Oneidas brought much needed supplies, including bushels of white corn. While the leaders dined at the Potts House, Cooper established a de-facto cooking show. She handed out the white corn to the soldiers and taught them how to use husks to make soup and ground grain to make it palatable.
This much needed food sources, along with an improved supply chain under quartermaster Nathanael Greene rounded out the bleak winter with the glimmer of hope for better supplies in the upcoming campaign season.
The Oneida, including Polly Cooper for her services, refused any and all payment. Friends help friends in need is what the Oneida told Washington and his officers. However, a tradition exists in the history of the Oneida nation. That story, passed down orally from generation to generation, highlights that Marth Washington, in her gratitude for what Polly Cooper did for the rank-and-file of the Continental army, presented the Oneida heroine with a shawl and bonnet.
Another account reads that Cooper was gifted a black shawl that she saw for sale in a store window. The Continental Congress appropriated the money for the clothing item and gifted it as their thanks to her. This shawl is still in the ownership of her descendants and has been loaned to the Oneida cultural center from time to time.
Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes back guest author Drew Gruber.
Since Arnold’s raid in January the situation for Virginians in the Spring of 1781 was deplorable and growing worse. Keeping soldiers shod and fed (besides properly armed and equipped) proved difficult. For example, Gen. Baron von Steuben noted that despite receiving 100,000 cartridges the Virginians simply lacked cartridge boxes to store them or even an adequate number of muskets to fire them. In Virginia, a colony defined by its deep waterways finding vessels to move men and supplies was also a major piece of the puzzle.
The Chesapeake Bay and navigable rivers provided quick access into the interior of Virginia and both sides vied to control them. Previous campaigns in Virginia and along the Bay highlighted why towns like Portsmouth, near the confluence of the James River, and the Chesapeake Bay could help armies control large swaths of the largest and most prosperous colony. Of course, access to vessels of a variety of sizes was necessary to ensure the control of not only Virginia but Coastal North Carolina and Maryland.
Thankfully by March 1781 Virginians had an upper hand over their adversaries not only in the number of boats but the means to outfit, repair, and support an ad-hoc navy. It was the culmination of years of effort and ingenuity which began just after Virginia declared its independence.
Alongside Virginia’s establishment of a system of public stores and the creation of a standing army a shipyard was on the short-list of priorities for the fledgling independent state. In June 1776 the Virginia Committee of Safety empowered shipbuilder John Herbert to “examine all such places upon the James River or its branches…proper and convenient for erecting ship-yards…”1 Herbert selected a bend in the Chickahominy River just a dozen miles west of Williamsburg.
The Virginia State Navy appears to have been amorphous and inconsistently armed between June 1776 and the spring of 1781. At various points it consisted of about a dozen ships, although the term ‘ship’ may be generous descriptions for some of these vessels.2 According to Charles Paulin’s Navy of the American Revolution despite Virginia leadership’s zeal to fund additional ships, marines, and infrastructure to support coastal defense, the vessels were largely undermanned and poorly armed. To our modern sensibilities and perhaps to the men and women of the Revolutionary era the names of the “armed boats” which comprised Virginia’s navy are less than inspiring. For instance, the ships Experiment and the Dolphin don’t give off an air of martial prowess but still sound better when compared to my personal favorite, the Fly.
Still, the Virginia General Assembly pushed to create and maintain a more effective naval system and in 1777 appointed James Maxwell as Superintendent. He apparently oversaw the operation at the various shipyards, rope works, foundries and all the materials and men needed to create and maintain an effective navy. Maxwell’s base of operations at the Chickahominy yard included over 150 acres of stores, barracks, and other infrastructure essential to the maintenance and creation of a vast flotilla.
Although the Chickahominy yard was ably led and with copious old growth timber at their disposal the lack of manpower persisted. Maxwell reported to Virginia’s Gov. Jefferson that in outfitting two vessels they relied on volunteers.3 In the same letter to the governor, Maxwell noted that the term of service for the crew of the Jefferson expired and he was “detaining them Against their will.” Despite setbacks and the shortage of able bodies the shipyard kept Virginia float.
The information available in the papers of Williamsburg Public Store and the Calendar of State Papers provides a snapshot into the day-to-day operations in the naval yard.4 However, a letter written in February 1781 provides the best insight into the effectiveness of the operation. Capt. Beesly Edgar Joel wrote Gov. Jefferson from Williamsburg commenting that the Dragon (a much better name) was under water rendering it, obviously, unfit for service. Within five days it was floating and on day six was sailing down the James River.5 In an era obviously devoid of pneumatic lifts this quick turnaround speaks volumes as to the facility’s capabilities despite its handicaps.
Maxwell’s operation at the Navy Yard grew slightly by March 1781 as the state prepared for what was certain to be an intense spring campaign. Maxwell reported that he had 96 guns with the majority being four pounders but lamented that his full compliment of sailors should be 590 whereas he had 78 men to staff 7 ships. Two additional ships were ready but had no crew to speak of while 4 of his operable boats had less than 10 men serving on them.6 This would have to suffice.
That same month, reports flooded into Richmond from various points near the Chesapeake Bay that British reinforcements had arrived in Portsmouth to support Arnold. Within a few short days various Virginia arsenals, warehouses, and even shipyards were being instructed to police up their men and materials and move them west out of the possible path of destruction. Virginia could not afford another disastrous raid like the one they experienced in January.
As predicted, British Gen. Phillips left Portsmouth on April 18th, with over two dozen boats and approximately 2,000 men. It happened quickly. Virginian Rodham Kenner recalled their retreat as Phillips combined force sailed west up the James River.
“the whole of our little fleet which was in this part of the Bay was driven up James River a much Superior British force, and into the Chickahominy River to what was called the Ship Yard: whilst our little fleet composed of the following Vessels to wit the Ship Dragon, the Brigg Jefferson and the Thetis a 36 gun Ship”7
The following morning, on April 19, British Col. John Simcoe landed at Burwell’s Ferry with a force of Jagers, light infantry and the Queen’s Rangers. The Ferry, located at the confluence of the James and Chickahominy rivers sat scarcely a few miles from Maxwell’s shipyard. Phillips ordered Simcoe to “beat up any party who might be in ambuscade there.”8 Finding no ambush this elite force quickly marched across the Virginia Peninsula towards Williamsburg.
A small force of Virginians, apparently under the command of Maj. Armistead briefly skirmished with Simcoe’s men as they pushed east towards Williamsburg.9 Simcoe’s men continued east along the old Yorktown road as various Virginia militia units melted away before them eventually arriving in Yorktown itself. As this was unfolding British Lt. Col. Robert Abercromby (Ambercombie) with his light infantry paddled up the Chickahominy towards the shipyard. Over a dozen flat boats, supported by perhaps as many as a dozen additional vessels turned into the mouth of the Chickahominy River from the James River – a few miles of the shipyard.
Although few primary source accounts describe the British attack on the shipyard Virginia pensioner Joseph Saunders provided the best description so far. Although he was recalling the event almost fifty years after the fact, his deposition has a surprising amount of detail.
“They sent a number of gun boats up to our shipyard to destroy what was there. I had filled my galley with naval stores to take up the River to conceal them but wind and tide being against me could not go on, came to, put a spring on my cable, and awaited their arrival. It was not long before they came in sight and as soon as near enough I discharged my cannon at them, sunk my vessel, and made my escape to shore…”10
Arnold’s report to Henry Clinton is rather vague as was Virginia’s Lt. Governor David Jameson when he wrote James Madison seven days later on April 28. “When they went into Wbg some of their Vessels with the flat Bottomed Boats moved up to Chickahominy—while there they destroyed the Ship Yard, the Thetis, the Stores &c. &c.”11 Besides untold stores, and raw and finished materials, at least two large vessels were destroyed, either at the hands of their own crew or Ambercromby’s amphibious infantrymen. Besides the limited contemporary reports from soldiers, sailors, and Virginia legislators, myriad archaeological reports highlight the effectiveness of the British raid.
The inferno of the burning yard, ships, stores, and supplies was so large that it could be seen several miles away later that evening. James Innes, commanding Virginia militia who were fleeing west towards New Kent County, recalled in his letter to Thomas Jefferson that, “They possessed themselves of the Ship Yard about 4 o’Clocke yesterday, and I am apprehensive from the fire discoverd in that Quarter last night they have totally destroyed it.”12
According to William Lowrie, the Dragon was “burnt by the British at Chickahominy Ship yard.”13 Both Lowrie and Saunders have ties to the Dragon and it must have been difficult to watch the ship which had served the cause of liberty for almost five years slip beneath the surface. In fact, The Dragon was approximately 81 feet long and roughly matches the size of a one of the two vessels still sitting in the bottom of the bottom of the Chickahominy River today.14 The second vessel which has also been surveyed in myriad cultural resource reports is substantially shorter and has been hypothesized to be either the Lewis or Safeguard.15 In fact, on March 20th 1781 Saunders was placed in command of the Lewis which he scuttled almost a month later a few yards from the wharf at the shipyard.16
Today the site of the shipyard is on private property and the underwater resources are protected by the Code of Virginia § 10.1-2214 which empowers the Virginia Marine Resources Commission with the authority to permit underwater archaeological investigations and makes recovery of underwater archaeological materials illegal without a permit. Trespassing on both land and water is unlawful which helps protect the known and unknown archaeological resources. Without stronger primary source materials like pensions, maps, and letters from soldiers and citizens artifacts become the key to understanding many Revolutionary War events like this one. Every button, nail, and cannonball when professionally recovered and systemically documented will provide us with the best chance to fully understanding how this shipyard contributed to the war for American independence.17
Maxwell’s shipyard never recovered however the Virginia State Navy has escaped wholesale destruction and would live to fight another day. As Phillip’s soldiers and sailors moved west up the James River, with the smoke from the Shipyard bellowing another naval showdown was brewing closer to Richmond.
Naval Document of the American Revolution, Page 342
Paullin, Charles O., Navy of the American Revolution. (1906). Page 413
“Capt: Jas: Maxwell to the Governor, January 1, State Ship Yard.” Calendar of Virginia State Papers. Vol. 1., Page 409.
Williamsburg Public Store records, transcribed by Katherine Egner Gruber. Unpublished.
“B. Edgar Joel to the Governor, February 9, Williamsburg.” Calendar of Virginia State Papers, Vol. 1., Page 501. A day later, after hiring a pilot the Dragon ran aground and sat on the bar for three days and returned to the ship yard.
“To Thomas Jefferson from James Maxwell, 26 April 1781,” Founders Online, national Archives, last modified November 26, 2017
Mention the words “artillery” and “American Revolution” and what name instantly pops into your mind? Henry Knox.
Yet, like George Washington, Knox needed competent officers under him to successfully organize, train, lead, and develop the artillery arm of the Continental Army.
Enter John Lamb.
Born on the first day of 1735 in New York City, he was destined to rebel. The reason he was even born in New York City was due to the fact that his father, a convicted burglar had been sentenced for deportation to the colonies in the 1720s.
His early upbringing saw him become a prosperous wine merchant and he quickly ingratiated himself into the burgeoning patriot movement by becoming an integral part of the Sons of Liberty in New York City. Continue reading “The Other Great Artilleryman”→