The Supreme Court at Risk

Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes back guest historian Dan Welch.

It’s December 9, 1775. Not only was the future of the fledgling Patriot’s cause at stake, but the future of our yet-to-be created Supreme Court was as well. 

Over the previous months, rebel forces in the area had been engaged with Lord Dunmore’s troops for control of military supplies in the colony of Virginia. This eventually led towards the area around Norfolk, where Dunmore’s forces had fortified a position opposite a river crossing that was strategic both militarily and economically. The position, south of Norfolk, at Great Bridge, was not uncontested. Just opposite Dunmore’s stockade, known as Fort Murray, on the other side of the river, rebel forces settled in, arriving on December 2.

Col. William Wofford, in command of the 2nd Virginia Regiment and about 100 men of the Culpeper Minutemen battalion, began entrenching their position opposite Fort Murray while more militia from surrounding Virginia counties and North Carolina marched towards their aid. As more men arrived, as well as several pieces of field artillery, Lord Dunmore grew wary. He believed his only course of action was to attack Wofford’s men and drive them from the field. The attack was set to begin by dawn’s early light on December 9, 1775.

Found in the ranks of Wofford’s command that morning as the battle opened was a father and son, Thomas and John Marshall. Thomas, a vestryman, High Sheriff, and a member of the House of Burgesses had brought his son with him into the patriot ranks from Fauquier County.  By the time of the battle, Thomas, who had been active in the organizing and raising the Culpeper Minutemen, had been appointed its major. His son John, age 20, its first lieutenant.

John Marshall’s biographer later recounted the importance of this moment on the young nineteen-year-old, writing “The young soldier in this brief time saw a flash of the great truth that liberty can be made a reality and then possessed only by men who are strong, courageous, unselfish, and wise enough to act unitedly…He began to discern, though vaguely as yet, the supreme need of the organization of democracy.”

John Marshall went on to serve as the fourth Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court in 1801. Marshall remained at the post for thirty-four years, and, during his tenure, the Marshall Court brought the role of the Supreme Court to the fore, issued more than 1,000 decisions, and set the precedent of handing down a single majority opinion.  These accomplishments and influences are just some of many that Marshall had on the Court, the federal government, and American history.  Today, on the 245th anniversary of the battle of Great Bridge, it’s interesting to pause, reflect, and wonder how very different the United States and the Supreme Court might have been had Colonel Wofford’s forces, among them John Marshall, been defeated that day at the “second Bunker’s Hill affair….”

Pictures of Great Bridge Battlefield and monuments.

Winter, 1777

Part Two

In the lowest depths of one of the coldest winters in the American Revolution, the Continental Army uncovered the dedication that the core of the military movement had.

Suffering was beyond comparison.

The cause was supply, the crux of many an army before and after the Revolutionary War. The issue started from the top, the quartermaster general position.

“The lack of a competent, effective quartermaster general for the period from October 10, 1777 to May 2, 1778 threatened the Continental Army’s existence more than the enemy” wrote author and historian Herman O. Benninghoff, II.

His bold proclamation is chillingly on-point.

That time frame coincided with the approximately same length of time George Washington’s forces were at Valley Forge.

Nathanael Greene would become Quartermaster General in March 1778 during the encampment at Valley Forge
Nathanael Greene would become Quartermaster General in March 1778 during the encampment at Valley Forge

On January 5, 1778, Nathanael Greene, who would soon be tapped as quartermaster general of the Continental Army, wrote to fellow officer General Alexander McDougall;

“The troops are worn out with fatigue, badly fed, and almost naked. There are and have been thousands of the Army without shoes for months past. It is difficult to get sufficient supplies to cloath the Army at large.”

Moving directly to Valley Forge from active campaigning, the soldiers arrived with their supplies in a deplorable condition. Shoes had been torn to shreds with the long marches and many of the men had nothing but rags to wrap feet in. Shortly after arriving, the army numbered approximately 12,000 men under arms, yet 4,000 of these men, 1/3rd of Washington’s entire force, was deemed “unfit for duty” because a lack of supplies.

Another 1,100 would desert because of the horrid conditions of the winter encampment; no food, no pay, and barely clothes to keep warm.

Another 2,000 died of disease, including typhus, pneumonia, and other “camp fevers” which categorized a whole assortment of various ailments. Medicine was almost non-existent and lack of proper sanitation played a major role as well.

A delegate to the Confederation Congress was informed by an informant in Valley Forge that “a great portion of the soldiers are in a very suffering condition for want of necessary clothing, and totally unfit for duty.”

The suffering of the soldiers for a want of simple, basic clothing, becomes even more painful with the following realization by John Marshall, serving as an officer at Valley Forge, and the same Marshall who would become the Supreme Court Justice.

“In a desert which supplies not the means of subsistence, or in a garrison where food is unattainable, courage, patriotism, and habits of discipline, enable the soldier…..but to perish in a country abounding with provisions, requires something more than fortitude.”

One artist's depiction of what the encampment at Valley Forge looked like
One artist’s depiction of what the encampment at Valley Forge looked like

That is what is most astonishing, that there were surpluses to be attained, but Continental currency had depreciated to the point that by late 1777 and early 1778 it was at an exchange rate of four Continental dollars to one dollar of hard specie. By 1779 that ratio would be 30 to 1.

To further complicate matters, the Continental Army did not even have the wagons to gather the materials. In mid-February, a report from camp to Henry Laurens, president of the Confederate Congress, deplored of the “want of Waggons & the like.”

Out of the depths of this despair, where cries of “No Meat, No Meat” rent the air as soldiers voice their frustration, came a self-proclaimed baron.

This man would leave a lasting impression on the make-up of the army, second only to George Washington.

His assessment of the army upon his arrival amazed him, the “fortitude of the common soldiers and that no army in Europe would hold together and endure under such deprivations of food and clothing and shelter.”

That prognosis shows the depth of commitment that boiled in the hearts of the dedicated survivors of the cold, hunger, and privations of Valley Forge.

The army was ready to be molded and with his arrival,  Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben would turn out to be the right guy at the right juncture in time. The Continental Army, held together by George Washington, would be transformed by this new inspector general.

Valley Forge would be the elixir of change for the army and the revolution.