After you give out the last piece of candy or consume the last piece of candy or just need a break from the doorbell ringing and handing out candy, join Emerging Revolutionary War for our latest “Rev War Revelry” this Sunday, at 7 p.m. EDT, on our Facebook page. This next installment of the historian happy hour will discuss Headless Hessians and other German tales from the American Revolution.
Joining Emerging Revolutionary War historians Kevin Pawlak and Mark Wilcox will be guest historian Ross Schwalm who specializes in the history of Hessians and their role in the American Revolutionary era. Besides diving into this tale on Halloween night, the history behind Washington Irving’s fictional tale will also be discussed.
Questions such as; Was the Headless Horsemen really a Headless Hessian? What is fact and what is fiction? The answers to these questions and more (and we encourage questions from the viewers) will be answered this Sunday. Grab your favorite pumpkin beverage and/or Halloween treat and tune in to this exciting “Rev War Revelry.”
When one thinks of December 1776 in American Revolutionary War history, one’s mind immediately goes to Washington crossing the Delaware River and the Battle of Trenton, fought on December 26th. Historians refer to that engagement as the beginning of the “Ten Crucial Days” that culminated with the American victory at the Battle of Princeton on January 3, 1777.
However, days prior, American militia under Colonel Samuel Griffin fought an engagement with Hessian troops under the command of Colonel Carl von Donop. The actions occurred on December 22 and 23, 1776. Although the American forces were pushed out of their positions, the end result was the occupation of Bordentown by Donop and his troops, approximately 10 miles from their fellow Hessian comrades at Trenton.
To discuss these engagements, collectively known as the Battle of Iron Works Hill, Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes historian Adam Zelinski to “Rev War Revelry.” Zelinski is a writer and published historian and has worked on various projects with the American Battlefield Trust and the American Revolution Museum in Philadelphia. He will also speak on some exciting news coming out of the Iron Works battlefield too.
Emerging Revolutionary War looks forward to you tuning in, this Sunday, at 7 p.m. EST on our Facebook page as we discuss another component of the 1776 campaign season as we prepare for our inaugural bus tour of the Trenton and Princeton battlefields next month (only 4 tickets left!). If you can’t make it on Sunday night, you will be able to find it later (along with all our videos) on our YouTube page.
Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes guest historian Liz Williams, from Historic Alexandria, the host of the second annual symposium
When we planned our 2nd Annual Revolutionary War Symposium for 2020, our theme came easily – Hindsight is 2020. Little did we know that our cheeky title would take on a different meaning as we had to navigate a global pandemic. But I am excited that we can still offer our symposium (yes 6 months later) and virtual! In this format, we can zoom our experts to computers and smartphones across the country. And this year we have a great variety of topics – from Drunken Hessians to African American Continentals. Learn about Loyalists, battles in the Southern Theatre, and along a creek in southeastern Pennsylvania.
As we move toward the 250th anniversary of the nation, it is critical for us all to look with fresh eyes at our founding. At Gadsby’s Tavern Museum, we engage with the complexity and challenges of early America, many of which were rooted in what transpired before and during the Revolutionary War. By understanding our past, we can continue the work of creating a better United States for all.
The Symposium costs $40 per person, $20 OHA Members & Students and reservations can be made at AlexandriaVa.gov/Shop. Looking forward to seeing everyone on May 22!
Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes back guest historians Karl G. Elsea and William M. Welsch.
The Rall Artillery Detachment:
It is well known that the Battle of Trenton saved the American Revolution from defeat. What is not well known is the story of two of the three Hessian artillery detachments and the description of their field guns. This series of articles tells the story of the three Hessian artillery engagements at the First Battle of Trenton. These three fights largely determined the victory for the patriots.
The field guns used by the patriots in the artillery engagement at Trenton were fairly well documented. The Patriots used British Armstrong design M1736 six-pounders, British commercial iron four-pounder barrels on Patriot designed carriages, and the Common Pattern British designed three-pounders (looked like scaled down six-pounders).
The Hessian three-pounder field guns were primarily designed to be beautiful, symmetric and fill both the roles of field (light) artillery and garrison (medium) artillery. The “brass” barrel was one caliber (caliber was equal to 3.01 English inch) thick at the breech, one half caliber thick at the muzzle, and was twenty calibers long from breech ring to muzzle. This symmetry came at a price, namely, the barrel alone weighted over 700 pounds. As a comparison, the 1776 designed British Congreve three-pounder barrel had a weight of 212 pounds and was 12.4 calibers long while the “Common” pattern three-pounder barrel used by the Patriots was 287 pounds and 14.5 calibers long.[i] This flaw in the Hessian guns concerning the weight required four horses to pull each gun and made each gun more vulnerable to sinking in mud. Field guns were supposed to be” light,” something these Hessian guns were not.
On April 19, 2017, symbolic in American Revolutionary War history, the Museum of the American Revolution opened in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The weekend before, I had the chance, to get a “sneak peak” of the new museum.
I left thoroughly impressed as the museum fills in a critical need for telling this utmost important era in our nation’s history. Yet, the development of exhibits along with the myriad of learning styles and technology underscores the need in this 21st century to be approachable and inclusive to reach various levels of interest that the visitor may have.
Greeting visitors as they approach are a few murals depicting well-known scenes of the American Revolution–including the symbolic “Crossing of the Delaware” and the “Signing of the Declaration of the Declaration.” Along with one of the most important sections of the Declaration of Independence.
After entering the museum the exhibit area is on the second floor, beginning with the build-up to the war and ending with a nod to the upholding of the revolutionary ideals. Broken up into four segments, the exhibits cover the period of the “Road to Independence” from 1760-1775, “The Darkest Hour” 1776-1778, “A Revolutionary War” 1778-1783, and ending with “A New Nation” 1783 to present-day. A must-see is the short 15-minute film that is centered on George Washington’s command tent, which is shown behind the screen at the conclusion of the film.
Yet, do not shirk the exhibits, which include the a portion of the last remaining “Liberty Tree” from Annapolis, Maryland that fell during a hurricane a few years back. Small movie theaters dot the exhibit area depicting different aspects of the war and history. The Oneida Native Americans, the first allies of the United States are also prominently–and rightfully–highlighted as to their contributions.
Another of the interesting components of the museum is the use of interpretive questions, including “Why were they called Hessians?” with an accompanying multi-dimensional map that shows the different German principalities that contributed troops to the British war effort. Another interesting panel discusses the first use of acronym “USA.”
The museum’s display collection of artifacts is also truly amazing. From a few of the first flags carried by units in the war, to the aforementioned “Liberty Tree”, to a portion of the famous North Bridge, in Concord, Massachusetts.
Combined with the interactive displays, the chance to walk onto a privateer ship, and the assortment of artifacts on display, the museum exhibit area caters to all levels of enthusiasts and can definitely absorb a few hours of your time.
With the museum main attractions situated on the second floor, the first floor of the museum is free to house the orientation film, a cafe, and the gift shop. If you have never been to Philadelphia, the museum is another highlight to add to your bucket list itinerary. If you have ventured to the “City of Brotherly Love” before, the museum provides an excellent reason to journey back.
For information on the museum, including programs, exhibits, and the admission fee, click here.
I grew up in a suburb of Reading, Pennsylvania. Reading is the county seat of Berks County, and is located about sixty miles northwest of Philadelphia. Reading is an old town; Richard and Thomas Penn, the sons of William Penn, founded the town in 1743. It is situated on the banks of the Schuylkill River, and has always been an important logistics center as a result. German immigrants settled much of Berks County, and many in the area spoke the language. Today, Reading remains the gateway to the so-called Pennsylvania Dutch region.
There’s a part of the east side of the city, situated at the base of Mt. Penn, the dominating high ground that overlooks the city, called Hessian Camp. This is what a local newspaper writer said about that part of town a few years ago: “Reading’s Hessian Camp section is arguably the city’s finest neighborhood. Mansions line the curvy, hilly streets…The neighborhood, tucked into the side of Mount Penn, is hidden from the hustle and bustle of the downtown.” My mother’s favorite aunt and uncle lived in Hessian Camp.
A historical marker erected by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in Hessian Camp stands out. As a child, I thought it an odd name, so I started asking questions. I eventually learned that it was the site of a Hessian prisoner of war camp during the Revolutionary War. That satisfied my youthful curiosity, but as an adult who has traveled back to Reading regularly since moving away in 1983, I retained my interest in it and remained curious about it. Consequently, I decided to tackle it and see what I could learn of it. Eventually, the story took shape.
After George Washington crossed the Delaware River and surprised Hessian mercenaries at the Battle of Trenton, the Hessian prisoners of war were take inland for detention. Due to the heavy German presence in Reading, it was a perfect place to house these men because so many of the locals spoke the language and could converse with these men. They also hoped that the Hessians would desert and take up residence—and perhaps their loyalty—with the Patriot cause. Further, as a result of Reading’s location, it would require a determined campaign to free the prisoners of war.
The initial prisoners of war were housed in a temporary prison along the banks of the Schuylkill River. They spent a cold, rough winter, and many died of disease and/or cold. After the Battle of Saratoga, when it became obvious that more Hessian prisoners of war would be heading to Reading for detention, the local citizenry demanded that the POW’s be moved to a more remote location. The original campsite was about 12 acres in size, and housed about 1,000 detainees—about the same as the permanent population of Reading. There was plenty of fresh water from a spring and plenty of lumber to construct huts, so the site was chosen.
There are two surviving accounts from German POW’s housed in Reading. Johann Bense, from the Duchy of Brunswick, arrived in Reading on June 16, 1781:
On the bank of the Schuylkill, we had been camping on a meadow in the open air for 8 weeks and were plagued by the great heat during the day and by rain and cold during the night. On August 9, we marched from the Schuylkill via Reading onto a high, rocky mountain.
We were supposed to build barracks there. But because we did not want to agree to that right away, but rather made ourselves straw huts, we were treated very severely. A sharp command from the corporal forced us to build the barracks and it was our good fortune because all our straw huts were consumed by fire on October 21, 1781.
Therefore, those who had not yet completed their barracks, had to do more now to get them ready. Through that, the men got some freedom to go into the country and work and so they kept their supplies. They are read out twice a month [report for roll call twice a month].
On April 26, 1782, we received money, linen trousers, shirts, and 1 pair of shoes from Lieutenant du Roi [of the Regiment Prinz Friederich]. Now, our situation was pretty good.
It did not last long, however, that they locked us up and all who were in the country and worked there, had to come in [to the city].
In the month of July, they read us an order from Congress. Any one of us wanting to be free, and that immediately, should give 80 silver talers [one British pound was worth 5 5/6 talers] as ransom and if he did not have that much money, a citizen should pay it for him with whom he should work in bondage for 3 years.
But if we wished to enter service with them [in the American army], each would get 8 silver talers as gratuity and after the end of the war, he would be given 100 acres of land. This now was voluntary, to be sure, but because our men did not want to agree to that, we were treated very harshly.
Since a few of us deserted, 356 men [of ours] were suddenly taken to the Reading jail and because there was not enough room, they had to lie in the court yard in the rain and the cold. They had to buy wood and water.
Two hundred of our men were sent to the prison in Lancaster; the artisans were also taken there. Afterwards another 100 men were taken into prison, among them was myself. Because a few non-commissioned officers deserted, 42 sergeants and non-commissioned officers were also taken to jail. These had to lie in the cellar and below in the dungeon [at Lancaster]. Many of our men who could not stand it entered [American] service or sold themselves as indentured slaves for 3 years. The rest, who had been prisoners since September 11, were let out on December 16 but each had to give 1 taler.
The non-commissioned officers were let out after 17 days but because some deserted right away again, those having been in jail before were quickly taken back to prison and had to remain there up to the exchange.
Some of our men took up service on a pirate ship which was captured immediately at its departure from Philadelphia, and taken to New York. In the last year of our captivity, we thus were the most wretched and most miserable men. None of us could go out and none of the inhabitants were allowed to see us…
On February 13, we had our first news of peace [from a Hessian Quartermaster]. We continued being in doubt until finally in March a French ship arrived in Philadelphia with the same message. It was made known to us at the barracks on the 26th that there was peace with France, Spain, Holland, and England and now we were daily hoping for our release. . . On April 16 in the afternoon, the non-commissioned officers came out of the city jail and [returned] to the barracks.
On April 21, which was also the second day of Easter, at 12 Noon, 13 cannon shots were fired for the 13 free colonies. The whole city was illuminated in the evening and fires were made on April 24. In the morning the English Commissary Maclean came to give us each a blanket. Other staff officers came and we prisoners found out we would march to New York.
Bense departed Reading on May 3, 1783, and by May 10, had arrived in New York City. He eventually returned home to the Duchy of Brunswick,
The second account comes from a letter by Sgt.-Maj. Samuel Vaupel, who served in the Leib Company, Erbprinz Regiment of Hessen-Hanau. He reported to his commanding officer, Lt. Col. Lentz, in New York:
Your Excellency, I have a report to humbly send you, also a resolution from the Board of War of Congress and the address of Captain Thomas Bowen. From these, your Excellency will see in what a depressing situation we are in….We were told everyone must choose to either buy himself free or join the American service. The king would not help us, and our prince did not want us… Nobody [from the ranks] responded to this reading and speech. It was immediately ordered that now nobody could leave camp and the proclamation read three times daily. But our people pretty much stuck together.
On August 7, 1782, we were visited by Major-General [Benjamin] Lincoln and Brigadier-General [Moses] Hazen from Lancaster. The Corps had to form up and we were reviewed but they didn’t speak. They rode our regimental street and around the barracks, then went on to Reading.
On the morning of the 10th instant, Brigadier-General Hazen returned with a German Captain [Anthony] Selin from his regiment. The troops had to turn out again and form a circle. The General spoke, which was translated by the above mentioned captain. We should choose to either make ourselves free by paying 80 Dollars or join the American army; the King of England did not care enough about us to exchange us or pay for our provisions; they cannot provide for us any longer when they have problems feeding their own men; and if we continue refusing to make our decision, serious measures will be taken.
After the speech we NCOs said that we could not agree to these conditions, and asked if he would allow two NCOs from our Corps to go to New York to report these conditions to our commanding officer. If he says all hope is gone and doesn’t need us any longer, then every man can do as he wishes. The general’s answer was: He wanted to report it to Congress, but we have not heard anything as of now and don’t expect to.
The above mentioned Captain Selin is Swiss-born and cannot be described badly enough; he was introduced to us as our commander. The new captain called together all the NCOs and gave orders that nobody will dare go 10 paces beyond the post without being termed a deserter and when the provost guard calls and they don’t stop, the guard should fire on them
The water is located just outside the post, but nobody may go for it alone. The NCO of the guard has to call for water and one of his armed guards goes along to the well. This captain has ordered the guard to allow nobody out of camp, not even a woman or child, without permission. [Some of for-hire soldiers were allowed to have wives and children with them.]
He also said he has forbidden the local residents into the camp. It is not permitted to openly bring us an apple. Since all this did not help, the above mentioned captain announced the NCOs were to blame for the lack of enlistments – that they discouraged the men from enlisting.
This lasted until September 7, when he unexpectedly came to the barracks at daybreak and gave the order to march; our people were to go to the mountain with sack and pack. We all packed our things and when we were formed up on the barracks mountain, the captain went from right to left without saying anything. Finally, with the Brunswickers, he began pulling young people from the ranks.
When he came to our regiment he only said the married men and NCOs should step forward. The remainder dressed ranks, were turned right and joined up with the Brunswickers to march to the jail in Reading.
There were 142 men of our regiments and 158 Brunswickers, 300 in all. They filled up the jail and the remainder had to camp in the jail yard. The first day these people had to pay 2 pence for a pail of water and also had to pay for firewood to cook with. They were in this jail through the 10th instant.
On the 11th instant 102 men from the regiment and 84 Brunswickers were taken to the jail in Lancaster.
On the 24th instant, 21 men from the regiment and 25 Brunswickers were again taken to the jail in Lancaster. There is now nobody from the regiment in the Reading jail except the baker Muller from the Lt. Colonel’s Company.
Private Wiskermann of the Leib Company was employed in Reading by a rich widow. On September 2, the captain had him brought in from the widow and asked him to enlist, buy himself free, or be sent to an underground prison or dungeon as the English call it. He decided he would rather be free and the above mentioned madam, named Mifflin, ransomed him.
Fourteen men from the regiment who were employed at an iron smelter, have returned to the barracks. On September 23, 10 of these men were taken to the Reading jail. The other 4 men remained sick in the barracks; the other 10 men were taken, with others, on September 24 to Lancaster. They also had to each pay the jail keeper in Reading 1/4 Dollar for the one night lodging.
Concerning us here in the barracks, we expect daily and hourly to go to the jail. Captain Selin indicated, when the others went to jail, that at the slightest incident or attempt at desertion, the others would also go into the jail. We have to hear daily from this captain how our tyrannical prince no longer needs us and that we will not get any more clothing or money from him. We collectively humbly beg your Excellency to have mercy on us and rescue us from this unhappy and depressing situation.
Should this be impossible, we beg you to have the grace to send us uniforms, blankets, and money. Otherwise it will be impossible to withstand the coming winter as our blankets are torn and so little firewood is issued that we can’t make the fires small enough. . . nobody is allowed out to gather firewood.
Sergeant-Major Vaupel ransomed himself on or about December 8, 1782. His fate is unknown. The fates of the poor German soldiers sent to fight in North America remains a fascinating mystery.
Other than large, handsome houses, there is nothing left of the Hessian campsite in Reading. The historical marker and the name of the neighborhood are the only reflection of the former occupants of the area. However, the presence of those prisoners of war was among the earliest things to draw my interest in the Revolutionary War.
When a historian, author, or student of the American Revolutionary War mentions the following three words, “Green Mountain Boys” there is usually one name that comes to the forefront.
Seth Warner is usually not that name. Yet, he is one of the two names that should be forever linked with the great history of the “Green Mountain Boys.”
For those that are drawing a blank, the other name usually associated with this famous unit is Ethan Allen.
Warner, born in hilly Woodbury, Connecticut on May 17, 1743, the fourth of ten children to Dr. Benjamin Warner and Silence Hurd Warner. The young Seth was a product of the western frontier, growing up on the fringes of the English world, and thus learning from an early age to live and survive in the woods, rivers, and hills of Connecticut and what would become Vermont.
He did attend what limited schooling was available and from his father, rudimentary medical practice. In an 18th century biography, Warner was remembered to have vast information on the nature and uses of indigenous plants.
During the French and Indian War, Warner served two summers fighting in the cause of the British and would serve as a captain in the “Green Mountain Boys” following the French and Indian War. One biography states that Warner was part of the famous ranger outfit known as Major Roger’s Rangers, yet there is no primary evidence that supports this biographical claim.
With war on the horizon following the action at Lexington and Concord, Warner was elected third in command, with Ethan Allen being elected in top command, on May 8, 1775 for the task of capturing Fort Ticonderoga in western New York.
Born where Native American still threatened the westward-minded colonists, with the training during two summers in the last major war on the American Continent, Warner would now play a major role in the upcoming American Revolution.
With that, Seth Warner and the “Green Mountain Boys” marched off to help make the dream of American independence a reality. Following Ethan Allen, Warner found himself embroiled in the first campaign outside the environs of Boston when on May 10, 1775 he took part in the American capture of Fort Ticonderoga in western New York. Following up the next day, Warner, serving as second-in-command, attacked and captured the British garrison at Crown Point, approximately 13 miles away from Fort Ticonderoga. When news broke of the exploit, the “Green Mountain Boys” and subsequently Warner quickly became a household name for the patriot cause.
With the turn of the season to summer, Allen and Warner appeared in Philadelphia to appeal directly to the Continental Congress. Their aim was to achieve recognition as a regiment for the “Green Mountain Boys.” On June 23, 1775, the day the two men appeared in front of the governing body of the American cause, the Congress agreed and sent the endorsement to the state of New York. After some debate in provincial Congress of the Empire State, the endorsement was finally agreed upon.
With the ensuing vote of officers, surprisingly, Allen was not elected as commander, but Warner survived in an officer capacity, garnering 41 of 46 votes for lieutenant colonel. No reason or notes from this convention, held on July 6, 1775 has ever surfaced.
Before 1775 was out, Warner, who would lead the command, found themselves on the way to Canada. Initially stationed along the St. Lawrence River on the way to Montreal and near the end of October, Warner’s men repulsed an amphibious landing and attack by Sir Guy Carleton, the British Governor-General of Canada. With the repulse, at the Battle of Longeuill led to the surrender of Fort St. John on November 3, 1775.
Ten days later Montreal fell to the American forces and Warner and his “Green Mountain Boys” entered the fallen city later that same day. The American commander, General Richard Montgomery wanted this crack unit to continue with him by canoe to Quebec but because of the lack of winter clothing, the command was forced to head south, for supplies.
Not to stay in a support role for long, Warner’s men marched north shortly after the turn of the year in January 1776 to reinforce the Americans laying siege to Quebec. While there Warner showed the depth of his concern for the welfare of his men. With the smallpox epidemic ravaging the American ranks–in fact more American soldiers would die of that disease than any single other cause–Warner allowed his men to be inoculated, which was not not akin to what inoculations are like today.
Click this link, courtesy of Mount Vernon, on what smallpox inoculation was like in Colonial America.
After the return from Canada, on July 5, 1776, Warner was elevated to the rank of colonel and tasked with raising another regiment from the New Hampshire Grants (the area now comprising Vermont). Yet, it was one year and one day later that Warner showed how valuable his role as a general officer was.
During the Battle of Hubbardton, Warner oversaw the rearguard of General Arthur St. Clair’s retreating American forces. Outside this frontier settlement, Warner’s men suffered more casualties and eventually yielded the field to the British, but the toll extracted from the British (over 200 killed, wounded, and captured) was high enough to cause the British to stop their pursuit of the retreating American army.
A month later, on August 16, 1777, Warner played another critical role in the American victory at Bennington. Under the overall command of General John Stark–another of the fiery, yet competent, and overlooked American general officers–Warner provided invaluable assistance because of his familiarity with the region. His home was a scant few miles from where the engagement would unfold.
Warner would oversee the left wing of the American assault and have as his goal the “Tory Redoubt” that fell on the east side of the Walloomsac River, which would be a dominant feature in the ensuing battle.
The Americans routed the German, British, and Loyalist forces, even halting a 600-man reinforcement column under German Lieutenant Colonel Heinrich Breymann who arrived on the field in the latter stages.
Stark reported to Congress that Warner showed “superior skill in the action.”
Unbeknownst to Warner at the time, the campaign that culminated with British General John Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga, was the defining moment in Warner’s American Revolutionary War career. Warner would stay in the service, reaching the rank of brigadier general, bestowed upon him in 1778 by the new state of Vermont courtesy of the state legislature. That made him the only brigadier general in the newly formed state. On September 6, 1780 Warner received his only wound of the war, in an ambush by Native Americans outside Fort George in New York.
Unfortunately for the old “Green Mountain Boys” commander, the years after his retirement in 1780 were not kind. He fell out of favor with his former commander, Ethan Allen which led Warner to confront him in 1781 about contact with the British when Allen was a prisoner-of-war. This was all in conjunction with some contact Vermont had with British Canada about possible negotiations in reunifying Vermont with the British Empire. The extent of the negotiations and the seriousness of the idea has been in question by historians ever since.
Regardless, Warner, in failing health in 1784, returned to Woodbury, where he died on December 26, 1784, at the age of 41. Warner’s remains lay in Roxbury, Connecticut.
*For more information on the campaigns of New York in which Warner played a role in, consult Michael O. Logusz’s two-volume “With Musket and Tomahawk” series published by Savas Beatie LLC. at http://www.savasbeatie.com*
Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes guest historian Robert “Bert” Dunkerly to the blog as the author of this post.
It is well known that German troops (commonly called Hessians) fought alongside the British during the war. One of the more intriguing questions of the Revolution remains; how did they communicate? At any given time, German units could comprise from one third to one half of the larger British armies. They were also present in equal numbers in smaller detachments.
French was a common language that many European officers would have known, and there is evidence that German and English officers communicated in French during campaigns. The language barrier also impacted daily army operations. For example, Georg Pausch of the Hesse-Hanau Artillery requested an English officer who spoke German for a court martial. Yet most of that procedure was conducted in French.
Written orders from General Phillips in Montreal in 1777 to Hessian Artillery units were given in French, suggesting that this was commonly done in these calm, routine situations.
It wasn’t a perfect system but it worked well enough. Adjutant General Major Bauermister of Hesse-Cassel, for example, notes that the English spoke poor French, when communicating with them. Yet what about among small units like companies or battalions?
Would mediocre command of a language suffice for communication in combat situations? Often small groups of British and German troops operated together on patrols or raids. Marching to Freeman’s Farm (Saratoga) in 1777 was a column that included Germans on the left, English on the right, and English troops as flankers. Such situations required close coordination.
Other times they were side by side on battlefields, such as at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse in 1781, where the German Von Bose Regiment was aligned next to the British 71st Highland Regiment. Close coordination in these cases was essential.
Still another example is from Brandywine, where Captain Johann Ewald wrote that in the army’s advance, were 60 jaegers on foot, fifteen mounted jaegers, a company of Highlanders, and a company of British light infantry. All these troops worked in tandem to protect the army from ambush and clear the way for the advance. Yet Ewald was silent on how they did so.
Captain Ewald, also wrote of his experiences in Virginia, where, in the advance on Richmond, small numbers of troops were interspersed. They marched into the town in this order: Jaegers, British dragoons, more jaegers, and British Light Infantry. There are dozens of other examples.
Despite the many instances of German and British units mingling, there is precious little documentary evidence of how officers, or the common soldiers, communicated. Perhaps they used a combination of French, translators who spoke either English or German, and hand signals or other agreed- upon methods.
Timing and clarity are key in close quarters combat, there is no chance to second guess in an ambush or a raid. There were likely instances of misunderstanding that may have led to mistakes and even led to friendly fire incidents.
Of the many accounts this author has researched, only a few mention how they communicated. Perhaps it was something so mundane, or so well understood, that they saw no need to comment on it in their writings. It is hoped that further research will shed light on this question.
One of the iconic images of the Revolutionary War is Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s 1851 painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware. It is the night of December 25, 1776. The Continental Army is being transported across the Delaware River to attack a Hessian garrison at Trenton, New Jersey, some nine miles to the south. In the foreground, anonymous men (and possibly one woman) of varying nationalities and races row an overloaded boat across the river, pushing great slabs of ice out of the way. Two of the boat’s occupants are not anonymous: General George Washington, standing resolutely near the bow, and young Lieutenant James Monroe, holding the stars and stripes.
Leutze’s painting is glorious–and wrong in almost every detail. The river resembles the Rhine more than the Delaware; the boat is too small and of inaccurate design; there is too much light for what was a night crossing; Washington did not cross standing up; the stars and stripes had not yet been adopted by the Continental Congress; and James Monroe was not holding the flag, not in the boat, and not even present with the army.
He was already across the river, and he was busy.
Washington’s plan for a surprise attack on Trenton was a risky attempt to reverse the sagging fortunes of the Patriot cause. During the summer of 1776 British forces, including Hessian mercenaries, had driven the Continental Army from New York across New Jersey and into Buck’s County, Pennsylvania. Expired enlistments and outright desertion had thinned the American ranks, and many of those who remained were despondent. Washington gambled that a successful attack against an isolated British outpost would boost the army’s morale and stiffen the resolve of Congress and the people.
Three Hessian regiments, comprising about 1,400 men, were stationed at Trenton under the command of Colonel Johann Rall (also spelled Rahl). Washington planned to bring 2,400 Continental soldiers across the river overnight at McKonkey’s Ferry, march to Trenton, and attack before dawn. Two other elements of the army were part of the plan. A 1,900-man force under Colonel John Cadwalader would make a diversionary attack against British troops at Bordentown, New Jersey. General James Ewing would lead 700 men across the Delaware at Trenton Ferry, control the bridge over Assunpink Creek, and intercept any Hessian troops retreating from Trenton. Bad weather prevented both of these deployments, meaning that everything would depend on the main body’s effort. The army’s password for the evening was “Victory or Death.”
Washington’s plan included sending a small detachment of troops over the Delaware first to secure the army’s route of march. James Monroe was with this contingent. In his autobiography (written in the third person late in life and not completed before his death), Monroe described the mission:
The command of the vanguard, consisting of 50 men, was given to Captain William Washington, of the Third Virginia Regiment . . . Lieutenant Monroe promptly offered his services to act as a subaltern under him, which was promptly accepted. On the 25th of December, 1776, they passed the Delaware in front of the army, in the dusk of the evening, at [McKonkey’s] ferry, 10 miles above Trenton, and hastened to a point, about one and one-half miles from it, at which the road by which they descended intersected that which led from Trenton to Princeton, for the purpose, in obedience of orders, of cutting off all communication between them and from the country to Trenton.
Monroe noted that the night was “tempestuous,” and that snow was falling. While manning their post, the detachment was accosted by a local resident who thought the Continentals were British troops. Describing the incident many years later at a White House dinner during his presidency, Monroe recalled that the man, whose name was John Riker, was “determined in his manner and very profane.” Upon learning that the soldiers were Americans, he brought food from his house and said to Monroe, “I know something is to be done, and I am going with you. I am a doctor, and I may help some poor fellow.” Dr. Riker proved remarkably prescient.
The main army’s river crossing and march to Trenton took longer than planned, meaning that the attack would occur well after sunup. Outside the town Washington divided his force, sending a division commanded by Major General Nathaniel Greene to attack from the north while the other, led by Major General John Sullivan, attacked from the south. At 8:00 AM the assault began, and here we return to Monroe’s account from his autobiography:
Captain Washington then moved forward with the vanguard in front, attacked the enemy’s picket, shot down the commanding officer, and drove it before him. A general alarm then took place among the troops in town. The drums were beat to arms, and two cannon were placed in the main street to bear on the head of our column as it entered. Captain Washington rushed forward, attacked, and put the troops around the cannon to flight, and took possession of them. Moving on afterwards, he received a severe wound and was taken from the field. The command then devolved upon Lieutenant Monroe, who attacked in like manner at the head of the corps, and was shot down by a musket ball which passed through his breast and shoulder. He was also carried from the field.
Monroe was brought to the same room where William Washington lay, and their wounds were dressed by the army’s surgeon general and Dr. John Riker. Riker’s prediction of helping “some poor fellow” came true as he repaired a damaged artery in Monroe’s shoulder. What neither man realized at the time was that the intrepid physician had saved the life of a future president.
George Washington’s gamble in initiating the Battle of Trenton paid off. The victory was complete, and came at a surprisingly small cost in terms of American casualties. Two enlisted men froze to death during the nighttime march, and two were wounded in combat. The only losses among officers were the nonfatal wounds sustained by William Washington and James Monroe. Washington followed up his success at Trenton with another at Princeton on January 3, 1777, where the Continental Army proved that it could prevail over regular British troops.
The best commentary upon James Monroe’s performance at Trenton, and his Revolutionary War service generally, comes from no less an authority than George Washington. Writing to an acquaintance in 1779, Washington noted Monroe’s “zeal he discovered by entering the service at an early period, the character he supported in his regiment, and the manner in which he distinguished himself at Trenton, where he received a wound.” The general concluded that James Monroe had “in every instance maintained the reputation of a brave, active, and sensible officer.”
Scott H. Harris is the Executive Directors of the James Monroe Museum in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Harris became director of the James Monroe Museum and Memorial Library in July 2011, following ten years as director of the New Market Battlefield State Historical Park (administered by Virginia Military Institute). From 1988 to 2001, Scott was the first curator of the Manassas Museum and later director of historic resources for the City of Manassas, Virginia. Prior to his work in Manassas, he was a consulting historian with the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities in Richmond and an historical interpreter with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. He has been a board member of the New Market Area Chamber of Commerce, Prince William County/Manassas Convention and Visitors Bureau, Shenandoah Valley Travel Association, and Virginia Civil War Trails, Inc. He is a past president of the Virginia Association of Museums and serves as a peer reviewer for the Museum Assessment and Accreditation programs of the American Association of Museums.
Scott received his BA with honors in History and Historic Preservation from the University of Mary Washington in 1983. In 1988, he received an MA in History and Museum Administration from the College of William and Mary. Scott is also a graduate of the Seminar for Historical Administration, the nation’s oldest advanced museum professional development program.
When I was completing my graduate degree in American history from George Mason University a few years back, I took on the challenge of trying to examine the motivations of American soldiers during the American Revolutionary War.
The basis was to examine, “why they fought” if I can borrow a line used frequently by Civil War scholars and historians.
Being a native Marylander, I narrowed my focus on soldiers from that colony/state.
Yet, I was struck by the continued emergence of one name in particular and this gentleman became a focal point of mine.
This gentleman became through the war and could not be ignored with any mention of Maryland and her patriotic citizenry’s service in the war. His name is Otho Holland Williams.
First a little background on Otho Holland Williams. Otho Williams’ early life mirrors that of many early American colonists. His parents, Joseph and Prudence Holland Williams were born and married in Wales before emigrating to the colonies and settling in Prince George’s County, Maryland.
Otho was born on March 1, 1749, one of eight children. The following year the family moved to western Maryland, settling near the mouth of Conococheauge Creek in Frederick County. Life on the frontiers of the British North American colonies could be rough and hard and before Otho reached adulthood, he lost his father. However, he showed enough promise and potential to be entrusted by a brother-in-law to a clerk position in Frederick County. Showing his ability to grasp a new skill, the young Williams rose to be given “final charge” of the clerk’s office before moving on to a clerk position in the larger town of Baltimore at age eighteen in 1757.
In Baltimore, Williams continued to enhance his reputation and business prospects. After seventeen years in the spiraling, busy port town situated on the Chesapeake Bay, Williams moved back to more familiar grounds in Frederick in 1774. With the move, he entered into the merchant trade, overseeing commercial enterprises in the growing town. Williams was building a respectable life and he would have been considered a gentleman.
However, nothing truly remarkable had happened to cause this ordinary British colonist in Maryland to be remembered by history. Events transpiring on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean soon reared an opportunity for Williams to change that.
Otho Holland Williams now 26 years of age, at the direction of the Committee of Observation of Frederick County, Md, on the 21st of June, 1775, would have heard of a letter from the Delegates of Maryland asking for the formation of two companies of “expert Riflemen to be raised” to join the army near Boston.
The gist of that correspondence is below:
“A letter from the Delegates of Maryland, and a resolve of the Congress enclosed therein, were read, requiring two companies of expert Riflemen to be furnished by this County, to join the army near Boston, to be there employed as Light-Infantry, under the command of the Chief officer of that Army
In the second company, Williams was elected one of three lieutenants and within the month was marching north to join the army, arriving in Cambridge in 22 days, marching over 550 miles, which needless to say gave a great first impression on the military officers and one that the future Commander-in-Chief George Washington would realize in New York.
In January 1776, Capt. Price, of the rifle company, was promoted to major in Col. William Smallwood’s Maryland Regiment. The gentleman who replaced Price was Williams who succeeded him as captain. Williams’ star continued to rise and in June 1776 was appointed major in Colonel Hugh Stephenson’s newly organized rifle regiment. He was still a major in November when he saw action in New York.
While other Marylanders serving valiantly but unsuccessfully in the opening engagements of the battles around New York City, further the Hudson River stood Fort Washington and stationed there was the rifle company that Otho Williams was a member of.
Upriver from New York City the Americans had constructed two forts on either side of the Hudson River. On the island of Manhattan stood Fort Washington, named in honor of the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. On the other bluff, stood Fort Lee named in honor of Charles Lee, a major general in the American army that had overseen the defense of New York City prior to the Continental Army’s arrival. Nathanael Greene, the very capable American general convinced General Washington that his namesake fort could be held and although of a different opinion initially, Washington relented to his subordinate. The decision would have dire consequences for Williams and the men in the rifle regiment.
Before discussing the role of Williams and his gallant band of riflemen in the defense of Fort Washington, one fact that cannot be looked over is the rapid rise that Williams had undertaken. The mere fact that a young boy, with no prior military experience, could rise to the rank of major was truly exceptional.
To rise to that similar rank in the British army would depend more on family prestige and the ability to pay the price for the commission. That this was not the case in the American army was a sign of the difference in ideals and make-up of the military. The American colonies were revolting against the aristocratic regime of Great Britain, so to imitate their promotion mechanisms would seem out of place with the republican ideals espoused by the aspiring new republic. Furthermore, the ability to navigate the command structure with the added benefit of superior’s being promoted or more morbid, die, allowed Williams to rise.
However, the previous mentioned attribute only tell a portion of the career so far of Williams. His commitment and perseverance to the cause had been duly noted and he would soon show the coolness and battlefield leadership that would cement his rise through the officer ranks.
Williams commanded men of the rifle company occupied a portion of the outlying trenches that surrounded the fort because of a very grave insight the defenses in the environs of Fort Washington could not accommodate the number of American defenders. In their exposed position, the men from Maryland and Virginia would come into contact with their British and Hessian counterparts in the opening stages of the conflict on November 16, 1776. The action commenced in the morning and would be an all-day, drawn out conflict, the epitome of a “fight to the death” type battle. Part of the reason the affair turned out to be so relentless and bloody was the fact that the Americans had refused to surrender the fort initially and the ensuing action could quite possibly result in the British and their allies showing no quarter if the Americans suffered defeat.
History does not depict whether the men with Williams and under the command of Colonel Rawlings knew this fact, but what they did know was that they had been given an assignment to defend the fort and the men from Virginia and Maryland were prepared to do just that.
Unfortunately, after facing overwhelming odds and the collapse of other sections of the American lines, Williams and his men were forced to fall back from their exposed positions. During the action Colonel Rawlings received a severe wound to the leg, resulting in a fracture of the bone. Serving as second in command, Williams assumed command of the rifle regiment, continuing to show his unwillingness to yield the field even after suffering a severe groin wound.
With the wound and the collapse of the American lines, he did not command for long. The survivors of the regiment, along with the rest of the fort’s garrison, surrendered to the British and German forces.
After the conflict, a Hessian survivor remarked about attacking the Maryland riflemen, in which Williams was most likely in command of; that “he had a hard time of it.” Another enemy soldier noted the inordinate number of wounded. Official casualty reports, listed 2,780 Americans, including Williams, as prisoners of war, and another 149 were killed and wounded. The British lost 458 killed, wounded, and missing during the day long fight.