Review: Rebels at Sea, Privateering in the American Revolution by Eric Jay Doulin

“Many believed then and have believed since that privateering was a sideshow in the war” Furthermore, “privateering has long been given short shrift in general histories of the conflict, where privateers are treated as a minor theme if they are mentioned at all” [pg. xviii].

Best-selling maritime historian Erica Jay Dolin penned the two lines above in his introduction to his latest publication, Rebels at Sea, Privateering in the American Revolution. Building on previous works that covered specific aspects of “do succeed in showing how it [privateering] contributed to the American victory. But none of these books offers a comprehensive picture of the full extent of privateering” [xviii].

A bold statement to make, crafting a comprehensive picture “of the full extent of privateering” but that is exactly what Dolin does in his work. Starting with how individual colonies then states moved to outfitting vessels to begin preying on British maritime trade and on occasion Royal British Navy ships. The best tabulation of how much British maritime trade was affected during the American Revolution comes from John Bennett Jr. first secretary of Lloyd’s of London, the largest insurance marketplace at that time. He concluded that 3,386 British vessels were captured, only a 1,002 were recaptured or ransomed, which leaves a net gain of 2,384 that remained in enemy or American hands [pgs. 161-162].

Impactful.

The ensuing chapters after the introduction pivot the reader through the life of a privateersman, including the travails faced. He circles back to this in another chapter detailing the British response, including what imprisonment looked like; either in a British land jail or on the infamous Jersey prison ship in Wallabout Bay, New York. Keeping the narrative flowing, Doulin gives snippets on some of the greatest triumphs of American privateersman and some of the greatest tragedies to befall these sailors on the high seas. Tidbits of interesting information, for example, did you know that the future dentist of George Washington cut his teeth as a privateer? (Okay, pun intended).

Sandwiched in between is the role of the French, America’s steady ally, after 1777, and how that country and its ports helped American vessels. Lastly one of the other admirable additions to this text is the plethora of pictures Doulin was able to find and include. Having the visuals certainly enhances the public history side of this publication.

Overall, this is a great read on a lesser viewed subject of the American Revolution. However, what the privateers did enabled eventual American independence. As John Lehman, the secretary of the navy under President Ronald Reagan once wrote.

               “From the beginning of the American Revolution until the end of the War of
1812, America’s real naval advantage lay in its privateers. It has been said that
the battles of the American Revolution were fought on land, and independence
was won at sea. For this we have the enormous success of American privateers
to thank even more than the Continental Navy” [pg. xviii].

Individuals come to life in this narrative. The cat-and-mouse of life on the high seas comes to life in this book. Join Doulin in an adventure on the high seas and understand the role of privateers in securing American independence in the process. Enjoy!

“Rev War Revelry” Battle of North Point

On September 12, 1814, approximately 4,700 soldiers, a mix of British infantry and marines, were landed on the North Point peninsula, a jut of land between the Back and Patapsco River and on a direct line of march toward Baltimore. While the infantry and marines advanced toward the city, the British Navy’s task was to subdue the American fortifications in Baltimore harbor. The latter was foiled by the stout defense of Fort McHenry which served as the backdrop for the future national anthem, the Star-Spangled Banner.

Less is known about the accompanying land engagement, fought at North Point between the British and American militia. That battle, which cost the life of Major General Robert Ross, the British commander, saw the American militia retreat, but in order, and stymied the initial approach of the British toward Baltimore. Furthermore, the battle gave the Americans more time to add to their defenses.

To shed light on this aspect of the Battle of Baltimore, Emerging Revolutionary War will be joined by two historians, both of who have worked on volunteered at Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine.

Jim Bailey is now the Chief of Visitor Services and Education at Manassas National Battlefield Park but is a former park ranger at Fort McHenry. The other guest historian is Chris Boyle who has been a National Park Service volunteer at Fort McHenry National Monument & Historical Shrine since 2005 in both the Fort McHenry Guard living history program and as an historical interpreter focusing on the Fort’s history from the War of 1812 through the Civil War. While not a native Baltimorean, he has called the city home for the last 20 years.

We hope you can join us on Sunday at 7 p.m EDT on our Facebook page for this historian happy hour.

“Rev War Revelry” Nathanael Greene, Quartermaster

In March 1778, Major General Nathanael Greene finally consented to become the quartermaster for the Continental army then encamped at Valley Forge. He was loathe to give up his position as a line commander in charge of a division of infantry but with reassurances from General George Washington that he would retain his place and that his expertise was absolutely needed to revitalize the quartermaster department the Rhode Islander agreed.

His work over the next two plus years paid huge dividends. On Sunday, August 21, at 7p.m. EDT join Emerging Revolutionary War on our Facebook page for the next “Rev War Revelry.” Joining ERW will be the American Battlefield Trust’s Senior Education Manager, historian and author Dan Davis.

In reference to Greene’s role as quartermaster general at Valley Forge, Davis said, “Primarily remembered for his actions during the Southern Campaign, Nathanael Greene’s efforts at Valley Forge were critical in sustaining the Continental Army during a crucial period of its history.”

We look forward to a great discussion and hope you can join us for this historian happy hour!

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

Brief Book Review: Hero of Two Worlds, the Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution by Mike Duncan

Mike Duncan
Public Affairs Publishing
$30.00

I admit, I was skeptical when I saw the book on the bookshelf of my local bookstore and then again at the county library. Another biography on the Marquis de Lafayette? Was one truly needed? Four days later with the book finished and now laying beside me as I type this review I can emphatically say “yes” that this biography was needed about the most celebrated Frenchman in the history of the United States.

Having read previously a biography solely on Lafayette and another where a historian compared him as a revolutionary brother to Thomas Jefferson, I had a baseline knowledge of the marquis. Mike Duncan, popular history podcaster and New York Times-Bestselling Author provides a very readable, engaging biography that moves gracefully through Lafayette’s life, more graceful than supposedly the young Frenchman’s first dance at Versailles in front of Marie Antoinette.

After a brief but concise overview of the young Lafayettes’s formative years, Duncan dedicates the majority of the narrative of how the Frenchman became the “hero of two worlds.” From how he navigated his escape to America in 1777 to the ideals he brought back to France and his hopefulness for creating a better homeland. One of the values of Duncan’s work is his ability to find the inner workings of Lafayette’s demeanor and mindset. This is done by looking at his peers and their criticalness of how the Frenchman navigated the shifting sands of the turbulent French political scene from 1789 through the Napoleon era.

I greatly enjoyed the writing style and the blend of popular and academic historical scholarship that Duncan effortlessly moved between throughout the narrative. This work is definitely a must read for anyone looking for that introductory book about the Marquis de Lafayette. For those who have a little more foundational knowledge there may be limited new material but the primary sources from contemporaries adds a much-needed element of constructing the two worlds that Lafayette moved between.

To walk the footsteps of Lafayette at Valley Forge, join Emerging Revolutionary War in November for our Second Annual Emerging Revolutionary War Bus Tour. Click the “2022 Bus Tour” link on the black bar above to secure your ticket.

‘Timely and Handsome’: Transformation of the Continental Army at Valley Forge (Virtual Event)

April 19th in American Revolutionary War history is usually remembered as the day the “shot heard around the world” happened in the towns of Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts. For the 2022 edition of that day, Emerging Revolutionary War invites you to turn your attention to Valley Forge and a virtual event hosted by the Valley Forge Park Alliance.

Starting at 7 p.m. EDT, Emerging Revolutionary War historian, Phillip S. Greenwalt will present a virtual talk entitled, ‘Timely and Handsome’: Transformation of the Continental Army at Valley Forge. A synopsis of the talk is below.

“As spring began to blossom over Valley Forge, Baron von Steuben’s drilling of the Continental army was in full effect. Although the men and officers of Washington’s army had become proficient on the drill field, there was still the simple question of how would they fare against the British in the upcoming campaign season? A month prior to the end of the winter encampment on June 19, 1778, a small-scale action, at Barren Hill, by a detachment of the Continental army would prove a snapshot into possible future battlefield behavior. The signs were promising. This talk will focus on the training of von Steuben, the composition of the Marquis de Lafayette’s force that marched out of the encampment in middle of May, the action at Barren’s Hill, and the insight this small scale action showed about the transformation of the army during the winter at Valley Forge.”

To register for the event, click here. The link will take you to the Valley Forge Park Alliance website. To learn more about this important aspect of the Valley Forge encampment, Emerging Revolutionary War invites you to click the link on the title bar at the top of this blog labeled “2022 Bus Tour” and secure one of 14 remaining tickets to attend the November 11-13, 2022 tour that will cover Valley Forge and Monmouth.

Reenactors portraying Continental soldiers being trained at Valley Forge
(courtesy of Valley Forge Park Alliance)

Marquis de Lafayette, Virginia 1781

A few weeks back, you may have noticed a video on Emerging Revolutionary War’s Facebook page about the Marquis de Lafayette and his independent command during the spring and summer of 1781 in Virginia. Along with good pal, Dan Davis, we located a site of where Lafayette encamped while he maneuvers to protect the iron furnaces of the Fredericksburg area, keep a distance from British forces under General Lord Charles Cornwallis, and await reinforcements being sent south under General Anthony Wayne.

He continued to keep his commander-in-chief, General George Washington updated on affairs in the latter’s native state. From a camp in central Virginia the Frenchman penned the following letter.

Camp Betwen Rappaahonock and North Anna June 3d 1781

My Dear General

Inclosed you will find the Copy of a letter to General Greene. He at first Had-Requested I would directly write to you, Since which His orders Have Been different, But He directed me to forward you Copies of My official Accounts. So many letters are lost in their Way that I do not Care to Avoid Repetitions. I Heartly wish, My dear General, My Conduct may Be approved of particularly By You. My Circumstances Have Been peculiar, and in this State I Have Some times Experienced Strange disappointements. Two of them the Stores at Charlotte’s Ville, and the delay of the [Pensylva] Detachement Have given me Much Uneasiness and May Be attended with Bad Consequences. There is great Slowness and Great Carelessness in this part of the world—But the Intentions are good, and the people want to Be Awakened. Your presence, My dear General, would do a Great deal. Should these deta[chments] Be Increased to three or four thousand, and the french Army Come this way, leaving One of our generals at Rhode island and two or three about New York and in the Jersays you Might be on the offensive in this Quarter, and there Could Be a Southern Army in Carolina. Your presence would do Immense good, But I would wish you to Have a large force—General Washington Before He personally appears must Be Strong enough to Hope Success. Adieu, My dear general, With the Highest Respect and Most Tender affection I Have the Honor to be Yours

Lafayette

If you persist in the idea to Come this Way you may depend upon about 3000 Militia in the field Relieved every two months. your presence will induce them to turn out with great Spirit.

That letter may have been written somewhere around the terrain you see in the photos below. You never know what you can stumble into touring central Virginia!

*Link to the letter can be found here.

“Rev War Revelry” Convention Army Discussion

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.

von Steuben arrives…

After a circuitous journey, from Paris, France across the Atlantic Ocean and then into Pennsylvania, an eager participant trekked to join the American effort. After an introduction to the Continental Congress this European officer headed toward the Continental army encampment. Baron Frederich William Ludolf Gerhard Augustin von Steuben, 47-years old, rode into camp drawn by horses and relaxing, as much as one can on the roads of Pennsylvania during 1770s, in a sleigh, with a Russian wolfhound dog strolling beside the wooden vehicle. On this date, 244 years ago, General George Washington, his staff, and any inquiring eyes around camp saw von Steuben for the first time.

Baron von Steuben Statue, Valley Forge NHP

Although Christmas was almost two months in the past, von Steuben became a late blessing for Washington and his Continental army. Through an adaptation of a military training regimen from continental Europe which became a manual known as the “Blue Book” (this guide was used to train United States Army recruits for decades into the future as well), von Steuben began to morph the rank-and-file and junior officer corps of the Continental army into an actual army that knew how to follow commands and change formations. This training aided the Continentals in the battles of 1778, from a small engagement in May at Barren Hill to the last major fighting in the northern theater at Monmouth in June and into other theaters of the conflict.

Today, the field in which he trained the first model company is preserved by the National Park Service within the boundary of Valley Forge National Historical Park.

This November, during the second annual Emerging Revolutionary War bus tour, attendees will see the field and stand at the foot of the statue to von Steuben, looking over the same ground he first saw on this date, February 23, 1778. To secure your tickets, click the link on the header bar above titled “2022 Bus Tour.”

See you in November!

“It it with great reluctance, I trouble you on a subject.”

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.

George Clinton

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.

Valley Forge Documentary

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.