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)”

Return to Command

Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes back guest historian Dan Davis

Like my last post at Emerging Revolutionary War on the “Race to the Dan”, the origins of this post lie in a conversation with blog co-founder, Phill Greenwalt. The topic of our discussion revolved around the aftermath of the British victory at the Battle of Camden. The engagement ultimately brought two American officers to the Southern Theater: Nathanael Greene and Daniel Morgan. Greene accepted the position as the new head of the Southern Department’s co two months to the day after the battle while commanding the post at West Point, New York. Morgan’s story, however, is much more fascinating.

In the spring of 1779, George Washington created a light infantry corps within the Continental Army. Such a command fit Morgan’s skillset. He previously commanded the army’s provisional rifle corps. Additionally, Morgan, then a colonel, had compiled a record that arguably warranted elevation to brigadier general. After fighting broke out at Lexington and Concord, Morgan led a rifle company to the aid to the American army besieging Boston. Morgan participated in Col. Benedict Arnold’s Canadian Expedition and was captured during the assault on Quebec. He also played a critical role in the Battles of Saratoga. Morgan’s home state of Virginia, however, had met its quota for general officers and a vacancy was not available.

On June 30, 1779, Morgan learned Brig. Gen. Anthony Wayne received command of the new corps. With his pride devastated, Morgan traveled to Philadelphia. There, on July 19, Congress read his resignation.

Continue reading “Return to Command”

History after a Pandemic

The odds are good that you haven’t been able to visit some of your favorite Revolutionary War sites during the Covid-19 pandemic. Many of these locations rely on foot traffic for their annual income and may be struggling to stay afloat amidst various state lockdowns and a smaller number of visitors.  (We left out many national, state, and local parks, which sometimes have access to government funds.  But, they often have partnerships with non-profit foundations that provide vital support for their activities.)  So, we decided to start a list of museums and parks that you can help out now and visit as circumstances allow.  No doubt it will grow.  The list does not constitute a solicitation or endorsement, but many of our historians visited some of these museums in the past and found them really helpful to our own work.  (You may need to copy and paste some links.)  If you search our “weekender” posts, there are even more sites to support and visit when you can.

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Saving 1862 Battlefield Land But Really Saving Land From the Siege of Yorktown

Emerging Revolutionary War would like to thank Drew Gruber, for bringing this connection to our attention.

During the May 5th, 1862 Battle of Williamsburg as Confederate soldiers ran down into what would be called the bloody ravine they ran headlong into men from New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts. In an effort to push the Union soldiers out of the ravine and sweep them from the field brigade after brigade was sent into the fight. Among those was four Virginia regiments under AP Hill. After leaving the relative safely of the City they deployed in some form of a line and pitched down into the ravine too. 

Portion of the map of the Battle of Williamsburg, showing the land the American Battlefield Trust is currently working to purchase (map courtesy of LOC)

In the ravine hand-to-hand combat, fallen trees, driving rain, and the thick smoke made communication almost impossible and command fell on company commanders to keep the battle moving in their favor. Among the men in Hill’s brigade fighting down in the bloody ravine was Tipton Davis Jennings of the 11th Virginia Infantry. His account of the fighting here at Williamsburg will be of particular interest to your readers of the ERW blog. 

Writing in 1897 his “Incidents in the Battle of Williamsburg” appeared in the Confederate Veteran Magazine. In fact Kate and I covered this in an earlier ERW post titled, Revolutionary Memory. (click here to read that post). 

“Just then,” he wrote, “we happened upon what was apparently an ancient line of grass-grown earthworks. We learned afterward that portions of Washington’s line of entrenchment were yet discernible thereabouts. And so it is possible that we ragged ‘Rebs’ were actually defending the same works were [sic] once stood the ragged continental ‘Rebs’ fighting, the hessian of Europe, as we were now, some eighty years later. So doth history repeat itself.”

At first glance is this a cool anecdote and yet rather odd. However, when you consult french maps from the Williamsburg region created during the Yorktown Campaign you’ll find references to Mulhenburg’s “lights” camped in this very area. Moreover, almost hidden in plain sight on one of Sneden’s 1862 maps is and “Old Fort of 1781.” Civil War soldiers seemed wholly cognizant of the Revolutionary landscape around them and like Jennings used it to spur on their cause(s). 

Yesterday, on the 158th anniversary of the May 5th, 1862 battle the American Battlefield Trust launched a campaign to save the 29 acres over which Jennings charged. Perhaps it is this very same ground where the original cast of “ragged continental ‘Rebs'” also campaigned. Click here to read about that initiative and for further information on how to donate.

“The Sword is Now Drawn…” The Powder Incident, Lexington and Concord moves Virginia to Revolution

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Battle of Lexington by Amos Doolittle, December, 1775

One of the most amazing parts of the events on April 19, 1775 is just how sophisticated the colonial information network was. As soon as Lt. Col. Francis Smith’s British Regulars began to move across the Charles River, riders fanned out from Boston and to neighboring towns. Each town then had more riders that spread out and soon dozens of men were riding through the New England countryside warning of the fighting that took place. Soon information spread to the mid-Atlantic colonies and Philadelphia on April 24th. In the age of no electricity, the complexities and speed that news traveled from Boston to the other colonies was pretty amazing. Stories grew from person to person and it would take months and even years to decipher truth from exaggeration. It was imperative for both the “Patriots” and General Thomas Gage to get their version of the events of April 19th out as fast as possible. Facts or not, the importance of the public relations was of utmost importance to both sides to win the hearts and minds of the other colonies.

As the news reached Virginia, the colony was already at a crossroads with their

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Virginia Lt Governor, John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore

Governor. The last House of Burgesses that met in Williamsburg was dissolved in August 1774 over their vocal support of the people of Massachusetts after the Boston Port Act. The once popular Governor, John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore (Governor Dunmore), was angered over their overt support and ordered them dissolved and returned home. The legislature defied his orders and met soon after at the nearby Raleigh Tavern, thus constituting the “First Virginia Convention.” With questionable legal authority, the Convention called for solidarity and non-importation of British goods. They also agreed to meet again in the future. The “Second Virginia Convention” met in March of 1775 in Richmond, a safe distance from the Governor’s influence in Williamsburg. It was at this Convention that Patrick Henry made his famous “Give me Liberty or Give me Death” speech on March 23. Though considered radical at the time, the speech energized the Convention and set the tone. When the Governor learned of the Convention and especially Henry’s speech, he made a fateful decision to remove the gunpowder stored in the magazine in Williamsburg. Continue reading ““The Sword is Now Drawn…” The Powder Incident, Lexington and Concord moves Virginia to Revolution”

The Post Script

At 3:00 in the afternoon on April 21, 1781 Virginia militia Colonel James Innes sat down to write a letter near Hickory Neck Church, just shy of the halfway point between Virginia’s old colonial capitol at Williamsburg and its new capitol at Richmond. Perhaps with a heavy heart and a weary hand, Innes picked up his pen to scrawl a letter to Governor Thomas Jefferson. The situation in Virginia was bleak. It had only been a year since, in apprehension of a British attack, the Virginia Assembly voted to move the seat of government from the Peninsula west to Richmond, and along with it the public stores for outfitting, equipping, and otherwise supporting Virginia’s patriot forces in the fifth and sixth years of the war with the British. The gamble hadn’t paid off. January 1781 saw Benedict Arnold’s forces sacking Richmond. Everywhere they went, it seems, a new combined force of British, Hessian, and Loyalist forces left destruction in its wake.

he approximate landing site of the the main body of British soldiers with Col. Simcoe’s detachment landing further downstream in an effort to catch the Virginians by surprise. “…On a signal given, they all, except the gun-boat turned and rowed rapidly towards the point where the landing was to take place…” (author collection)
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The Journal of Nicholas Cresswell, Part 5

Escape from America

Finally, in the spring of 1777, Cresswell again decided to try returning to England.  Thomson Mason, who had already intervened with two Committees of Safety to protect the Englishman, offered to help with Virginia authorities once more, provided that Cresswell swear not to join the British Army.  Cresswell did.  The best plan was to leave Leesburg, travel overland to Alexandria, then take a schooner down the Potomac and Chesapeake for Williamsburg and Hampton, where it might be possible go aboard a ship bound for British-occupied New York.  As he made his preparations, the local Committee of Safety arrived on April 16 to search his possessions for treasonable items.  They seized a shot pouch, powder horn, and bearskin he acquired from the Delaware Indians.  Cresswell decided not to contest the seizure lest it complicate his departure.

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The Journal of Nicholas Cresswell, Part 4

A Loyalist under House Arrest

Having failed to reach the British Army in New York, Cresswell spent a miserable autumn and winter of 1776/1777 in northern Virginia, often arguing with his host, James Kirk, a Patriot and the only man who had ensured the Englishman could keep clothes on his back and a roof over his head.  Cresswell’s loyalist proclivities and extensive travels were widely known and on November 28, three men of the Committee of Safety in Alexandria “waited on me and informed me that the committee did not think it prudent to let me go out of the Country at this time and hoped that I would give  my word of honour not to depart this Colony for three months.  Otherwise they would confine me.  I was obliged to do the first as the lesser evil of the two.  They were polite enough not to search my chest.”[i]  Depressed as ever and suspecting Kirk of arranging the entire affair in order to keep him in Virginia, Cresswell did what he usually did when he was unhappy.  He got drunk.

Continue reading “The Journal of Nicholas Cresswell, Part 4”

The Journal of Nicholas Cresswell, Part 3

A Loyal Englishman in a Hostile Country

Part 2 click here.

When he arrived in Alexandria, Virginia in October 1775, Nicholas Cresswell, an Englishman visiting the colonies in search opportunity, found himself in dire straits.  The war had cut off his father’s money, while his loyalist principles strained his acquaintances and put him in an awkward position.  He summed it up: “if I enter into any sort of business I must be obliged to enter into the service of these rascals and fight against my Friends and Country if called upon.  On the other hand, I am not permitted to depart the Continent and have nothing if I am fortunate enough to escape the jail.  I will live as cheap as I can and hope for better times.”[i]

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The 245th Anniversary of "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death"

On this date, in 1775, Virginian Patrick Henry, a delegate to the Second Virginia Convention from Hanover County, Virginia sat in on the ongoing debate at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia.

Patrick Henry

The 28-year old then stood to give his defense of his proposed amendments to the petition then being debated. Below is the last few lines of his now famous statement, with the last sentence being the one most remembered;

If we were base enough to desire it, it is now too late to retire from the contest. There is no retreat but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston! The war is inevitable and let it come! I repeat it, sir, let it come.

Continue reading “The 245th Anniversary of "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death"”