Review: James Monroe: A Life by Tim McGrath (New York: Dutton, 2020)

Mcgrath Bio of MonroeTim McGrath has written two award-winning winning books about the early history of the United States Navy: Give Me a Fast Ship and John Barry.  For his third book, he switched gears to tackle an oft-overlooked soldier, lawyer, politician, and president: James Monroe.  In what will likely be the definitive Monroe biography, McGrath tackles the entirety of our fifth president’s life.  Born in 1758, Monroe joined the American army in the Revolution’s early days until he was sidelined with a serious wound at Trenton.

As McGrath tells it, the story of Monroe’s early life was a constant search for a mentor and sponsor, which eventually landed him on William “Lord Stirling” Alexander’s staff.  It was enough to bring him the attention and lukewarm friendship or support of many of the army’s leading lights and the country’s future leaders, but not enough to really launch his career.  Eventually, he landed a legal apprenticeship with Virginia’s Governor Thomas Jefferson.  It changed Monroe’s life, giving him a path forward professionally, politically, and intellectually.

Continue reading “Review: James Monroe: A Life by Tim McGrath (New York: Dutton, 2020)”

Captain John Ashby

Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes guest historian Travis Shaw. 

Part One

As he looked northward across the open ground in front of his position, Captain John Ashby could see the advance guard of the British army moving steadily closer. They came on in a loose, open line, taking time to return the fire of Ashby’s men. Made up of red-coated light infantry and their German counterparts, the rifle-armed Jaegers, the advance guard were the cream of the Crown forces – men chosen for their fitness, marksmanship, and ability to endure hardship. Ashby and his men were veterans, so they must have known they’d be in for a fight. As the battle intensified around him, one wonders if Captain Ashby’s thoughts turned to home. The Brandywine Valley of Pennsylvania was a long way from his native Virginia Piedmont.

The Crooked Run Valley in northern Fauquier County looks much as it did when John Ashby lived there two centuries ago (Author_s photo)
The Crooked Run Valley in northern Fauquier County looks much as it did when John Ashby lived there two centuries ago (Author’s photo)

John Ashby was born in 1740 in northwestern Fauquier County, among the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The son of Robert Ashby and Rosanna Berry, he grew up at Yew Hill, the family estate that lay just a few miles from the Gap that bears the family’s name to this day[1]. John’s uncle and namesake, Captain “Jack” Ashby commanded a company of Virginia rangers during the French and Indian War, where he made the acquaintance (and drew the ire) of a young George Washington[2]. Continue reading “Captain John Ashby”

Independence and Contradiction: Our Founding Slaveholders

Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes guest historian Michael Aubrecht. A biography of Mr. Aubrecht is attached below. 

In 2011 an exhibit titled “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty” started running at the Smithsonian’s American History Museum from January 27, 2012 – October 14, 2012. This somewhat controversial exhibition explored slavery and enslaved people in America through the lens of Jefferson’s plantation and was a collaborative effort between the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello and the African American History and Culture Museum in Washington DC. It helped to instigate public discussion about the dichotomy between the Founders and freedom. The paradox of course is that Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence and called slavery an “abominable crime,” yet he was a lifelong slaveholder. The exhibition provides a glimpse into the lives of 6 slave families living at Monticello and reveals how the paradox of slavery in Jefferson’s world is relevant for generations beyond Jefferson’s lifetime.

Founders, presidents, slave-owners

Continue reading “Independence and Contradiction: Our Founding Slaveholders”

James Monroe at the Battle of Trenton

Washington Crossing the Delaware, by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze The Metropolitan Museum of Art,
Washington Crossing the Delaware, by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze
The Metropolitan Museum of Art,

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.

Battle of Trenton map courtesy George Washington’s Mount Vernon
Battle of Trenton map courtesy George Washington’s Mount Vernon

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.

The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton December 26 1776, by John Trumbull (Yale University Art Gallery) (James Monroe lies wounded on the ground at left center)
The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton December 26 1776, by John Trumbull (Yale University Art Gallery)
(James Monroe lies wounded on the ground at left center)

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.

Christmas, 1776

On Christmas, 1776, George Washington took the greatest gamble of the American Revolution, up to that date. On that cold and snowy night, with an ice-clogged river, and an army teetering on the verge of disintegration, the American commander led his command toward a signature, morale-improving, improbable victory.

He defeated Hessian soldiers, in the service of the British, at Trenton, New Jersey. The call sign –used to enter and exit the American camp– leading up to the offensive movement was “victory or death.”

That was quite an accurate statement to summarize the dire straits the American cause of independence had become by winter 1776. The heroics of that night lent itself to the painting by Emanuel Leutze in 1851 that is chock full of historical inaccuracies. But the painting conjured up images of that noble band of American patriots that followed George Washington across the frozen waterway in 1776.

Emmanuel Leutze's painting, 1851
Emanuel Leutze’s painting, 1851

[Did you know that James Monroe, who would be wounded at the Battle of Trenton, is painted in holding the flag? There is no primary account that puts both men in the same boat that night, though.]

Luckily, famous historical artist Mort Kunstler, took a look at Leutze’s famous painting and decided to make it more historically accurate. Although initially reluctant to tackle the project given the popularity of the previous work, Kunstler studied, tackled history books, and diligently sought such information like the type of boats that would have been used, in the process of creating a more historically accurate depiction.

He succeeded.

Mort Kunstler painting of the "Crossing of the Delaware"
Mort Kunstler painting of the “Crossing of the Delaware”

So, as you celebrate the holidays, you now need a little more space on the wall for a second painting of Washington and his army crossing the Delaware.

Whether you have the space or not on your wall for two paintings, one thing these great illustrations have in common is showing the fortitude of the American soldier.

That fortitude is still on display to this very date. On Christmas Day 2015 thousands of men and women, in the service of America, will serve around the world, where the call sign of “victory or death” is not a mere anecdote from years past, unfortunately.

Thank you to all the men who crossed that icy river many cold nights ago to help win our independence and to the men and women who keep watch tonight on another cold night around the world.

To the readers of Emerging Revolutionary War, I wish you a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays. Thank you for reading!



*Great article on Kunstler and the painting can be found here.

**Link to Mort Kunstler’s website can be found here.

James Monroe at War



Part Two

With an excess of officers in the Continental Army and little prospect of getting a field command, James Monroe resigned his commission in 1779.  He became a Lieutenant-Colonel of Virginia forces, but was unable to recruit enough men to form a new regiment.  In 1780 he went to North Carolina as a military observer for Governor Thomas Jefferson, with whom he had begun the study of law. Continue reading “James Monroe at War”

James Monroe at War



Part One

Emerging Revolutionary War is honored to welcome guest historian Scott H. Harris, Director of the James Monroe Museum.

It is one of the great exploits of the American Revolution.  On the night of December 25, 1776, General George Washington led the Continental Army across the icy Delaware River to attack a Hessian garrison at Trenton, New Jersey.  Young Lieutenant James Monroe held the flag behind Washington as they were rowed across the freezing river (standing up).

Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, Washington Crossing the Delaware.  Oil on canvas, 1851.  Only two figures in this fictitious image are identified—General George Washington and Lieutenant James Monroe (holding flag).
Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, Washington Crossing the Delaware. Oil on canvas, 1851. Only two figures in this fictitious image are identified—General George Washington and Lieutenant James Monroe (holding flag).


Except, that’s not what happened.

Continue reading “James Monroe at War”