15 August 2013

Stephen Kemble: A Jersey Boy in the British Army

           Stephen Kemble, the fifth child of Peter Kemble and his first wife, Gertrude Bayard, was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey in 1740.  Related to influential and politically powerful families of New York, the Kembles remained loyal to the British during the Revolutionary period.  Stephen attended college in Philadelphia and accepted an ensign commission in the British Army, joining the 44th Regiment of Foot in 1757.  The following year his sister, Margaret, married a British lieutenant on the rise – Thomas Gage – who had been recruiting for the British Army in New Jersey.  

           After fighting with William Howe at Ticonderoga during the French and Indian War, Kemble was promoted to captain of the First Battalion of the 60th Regiment.  In 1759, Thomas Gage, was promoted to general, and after the surrender of the French, Gage was named military governor of Montreal. In 1761, Gage was promoted to major general, and, after the Treaty of Paris ended the war, Gage was informed he would act as commander-in-chief of the British forces in America. Kemble would profit from the rise of his brother-in-law. 

 In 1772, Kemble was named Deputy Adjutant General of the Forces in North America. Now a major in the British Army, Kemble was at the side of one of the most powerful men in North America. Kemble traveled to England the following year, meeting with King George. In 1774, Gage was named governor of Massachusetts, arriving in Boston in May.  Relatively well-received by the people of Boston initially, Gage’s vigorous defense and enforcement of the series of British laws passed to punish the people of Boston and Massachusetts quickly made him an enemy of the people.  Kemble was with Gage in Massachusetts when the opening shots of the war were fired in April 1775.  Gage was replaced by William Howe in the fall, and Kemble was demoted, though he remained loyal, due to his close relationship with Howe and his familial connections. 

Kemble continued to serve under Howe, and then General Henry Clinton, in New Jersey and Philadelphia, in 1776 and 1777. In June 1778, shortly before the British Army evacuated Philadelphia, Kemble was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel of the 1st Battalion of the 60th Foot.  He resigned his position in October 1779, however, when Clinton refused to promote him. 

Kemble was not out of service for long.  He soon resumed his position as Lieutenant Colonel of the First Battalion of the 60th Regiment, and fought in the Caribbean and Central American against the Spanish, where, at one point, he held a temporary command of brigadier general. After an attempt in Nicaragua ended in disaster, Kemble went to England, where he was promoted to Colonel in 1782 and sent to Grenada.  In 1786, after being placed under the command of an officer of inferior grade at Quebec, Kemble retired from the British Army. 

 In 1788 he returned to New Brunswick, New Jersey, for a short time, but soon returned to England.  In 1805 he sold his property in England and returned to live in his old home in New Brunswick, where he remained until his death in 1822.  He is buried at Christ Episcopal Churchyard in New Brunswick.


Source: The Kemble Papers, vol. I, 1773-1789. Collections of the New York Historical Society, 1883.


18 January 2013

Biographical Sketches of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence representing New Jersey - Part 5

JOHN WITHERSPOON


John Witherspoon was born on 5 February 1723 in Gifford, Scotland to a family with traditions in the ministry.  Witherspoon attended the University of Edinburgh, and after graduation was licensed to preach, in 1743.  Two years later, he was ordained. 

 

On 17 January 1746, Witherspoon was among a number of witnesses of the Battle of Falkirk, during the Jacobite Rebellion in Scotland.  Following the defeat of the royal troops of George II, Witherspoon was captured by the rebels, and imprisoned in the castle of Doune for a short time.  About two years after his release, Witherspoon married Elizabeth Montgomery, [1] with whom he had 10 children. [2]

 

In 1766, Witherspoon was invited to be the President of the College of New Jersey (Princeton University, today).  He declined, mainly because his wife did not want to leave her homeland.  However, upon the urging of Richard Stockton (soon to be a fellow signer of the Declaration), who was visiting Scotland, Witherspoon accepted. [3]  He arrived in New Jersey during the summer of 1768, and was inaugurated President of the College on 17 August.  The College began to flourish under him.

 

Witherspoon, already with a poor view of English rule, spoke out against the English in speeches and sermons as unrest grew in the colonies.  From 1774 to 1776, he served as a representative in the New Jersey Provincial Assembly, and he sat in local committees of correspondence.  Witherspoon was involved in the arrest and removal of Governor William Franklin from office in early 1776.  [4]  He was then appointed as a delegate to the Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia, taking his seat on 29 June 1776.

 

On 2 July 1776, while debating the merits of Richard Henry Lee’s proposal for a declaration of independence, Witherspoon stood and gave a speech in favor of its passage, and shortly thereafter, affixed his name to the document.  He sat in Congress until 1782, serving on committees of military and foreign affairs.  He also signed the Articles of Confederation, which served as the first constitution of the new United States. [5]
 

Following the war, Witherspoon worked to rebuild the College of New Jersey, which had been used as a barracks by both the British and Americans during the war.  He also sat in the state legislature from 1783 to 1789, and attended the New Jersey Convention which ratified the U.S. Constitution in 1787.

 

Following the death of Elizabeth, Witherspoon took a second wife in 1791.  Ann Dill was 44 years his junior.  With her, he had two daughters.  Soon afterwards, Witherspoon went blind.  Despite this handicap, he continued to serve as President of the College of New Jersey, and as minister to his congregation, until his death on 15 November 1794.  Witherspoon was buried in the Presidents’ Plot at Princeton Cemetery, only yards away from a street that bears his name.

 



 

[1] Goodrich, Charles A.  Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence. New York: William Reed & Co., 1856.

[2] Five of those children survived childhood; among them, James died at the Battle of Germantown in Pennsylvania, on 4 October 1777; John became a physician; David entered the practice of law; a daughter, Frances, married Dr. David Ramsay, a Congressman who wrote one of the first major histories of the Revolutionary War; a second daughter married Samuel Stanhope Smith, a minister who followed Witherspoon as President of the College of New Jersey.

[3] Lossing, Benson J.  Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence.  New York: Derby & Jackson, 1859.

[4] National Park Service. “Signers of the Declaration of Independence - John Witherspoon.”
http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/declaration/bio54.htm,  4 July 2004.

[5] The Articles were approved by the Congress in 1777, but not finally ratified by the states until 1781.  The signatures of Witherspoon and Nathaniel Scudder, the two New Jersey representatives, are dated 26 November 1778.


09 January 2013

NJ Before the Revolution

This post in an adaptation of the rough draft of the introduction to my work on New Jersey in the Revolution.


European exploration of New Jersey stretches back nearly five hundred years.  The coast of New Jersey was surveyed in 1524 by the Italian explorer and mapmaker, Giovanni da Verrazzano, sailing under the French flag.  Eighty-five years later, Henry Hudson, exploring for the Dutch East India Company, further investigated the coast.  In the years following, companies set up small trading posts in New Jersey.  These temporary stations situated in and around what is now New York City had their start as small Dutch trading posts in the early part of the 1600s.

Cornelius Mey (or May), in 1623, attempted to bring settlers up the Delaware River.  Mey and the settlers built Fort Nassau in present-day Gloucester County, approximately five miles south of Camden, on a creek which is presently called Big Timber Creek.[i]  The fort was quickly abandoned, however.  

Soon after, Swedish settlers moved into the area, establishing themselves first in present-day Wilmington, Delaware, (1638) then branching out across the river into New Jersey.  In 1643, they constructed Fort Nya Elfsborg on the Delaware River between Salem and Alloway’s Creeks (present-day Elsingboro Point, N.J.).[ii]  By 1655, the Dutch reclaimed control of the area without a fight from the Swedes, who retained their autonomy.  From this time until 1664 New Jersey was part of the Dutch colony of New Netherland, which included New York City, the entire Hudson River Valley north to Albany, and large areas of land in New Jersey, as well as the former Swedish settlements in Delaware.  This quickly changed when, on 29 August 1664, a British fleet sailed into New York harbor and took possession of the Dutch colony without much resistance.

Following the English triumph, the Duke of York was granted a Royal Colony, which included part of present-day New Jersey.  To settle an unpaid debt, he gave some of his land to Sir George Carteret, who named it New Jersey, in honor of Carteret’s defense of his homeland-isle in 1649 against the Parliamentarians.  The Duke of York then sold off adjoining land to Lord John Berkeley.  Carteret and Berkeley became the proprietors of New Jersey. In 1665 they appointed Philip Carteret as the first governor of the colony.  He landed at a point which he called Elizabethtown, in honor of the wife of George Carteret.[iii] 

The Dutch briefly regained control of New Jersey in August of 1673, but quickly surrendered the colony back to the English the following year, signing a treaty at Westminster, N.J. on 9 February.  Berkeley then sold his share of New Jersey (the western portion) to John Fenwick and Edward Byllinge.  Byllinge promptly assigned William Penn, Gawen Laurie and Nicholas Lucas as trustees, and Fenwick’s small portion was bought out. 
 
New Jersey was formally split into East Jersey, governed by Carteret, and West Jersey, governed by the Quakers under Byllinge.  The line separating the two, known as the Provincial Line, ran from a point at Little Egg Harbor diagonally northwestward, to a point south of the mouth of Dingman’s Creek on the Delaware River, in Sussex County.  Between this time and 1702, life in East and West Jersey remained largely uneventful, except at the political level, where governorships and ownerships changed hands a number of times.  In 1702 New Jersey became a Royal Colony under Queen Anne and was once again joined with the colony of New York.  East and West Jersey ceased to exist as separate political locales (though the geographical monikers were used throughout the eighteenth century).  The colony was governed by New York (though it retained its own legislative assembly) until 1738, when Lewis Morris was named governor of New Jersey.
 
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In 1765, Parliament passed, in quick succession, the Stamp Act and the Quartering Act.  The former taxed “every skin or piece of vellum or parchment, or sheet or piece of paper[…]every pack of playing cards, and all dice[…]every paper called a pamphlet, and upon every newspaper, containing public news or occurrences[…and] every almanac, or calendar.”[i]  Though the colonists were used to being taxed, these new taxes were passed in order to raise money instead of regulate colonial commerce as taxes had been used in the past.  The latter act was passed in order to provide lodging to the 10,000 British soldiers sent to the colonies for their protection.  It called for the soldiers to be billeted in barracks or public housing; should that be lacking, the soldiers should be housed in private buildings.  Furthermore, by the act, the colonies were required to pay to house and feed the troops.  New Jersey housed soldiers in the barracks at New Brunswick, Perth Amboy, and Elizabeth Town until 1770 when they were transferred to New York.[ii] 
The combination of these two acts – the precedent of taxing to raise money and maintaining a standing army, which was against the English Bill of Rights (1689) – angered and troubled the American colonists.  The colonists simmered with complaints until Virginia passed Patrick Henry’s Stamp Act Resolves.  These declared that according to British law only the Virginia Assembly had the right to tax Virginians; Parliament, lacking a representative from Virginia, did not have that right.
The Massachusetts Assembly also acted by sending a circular to the individual colonial legislatures calling for a meeting to plan a united effort to resist the new acts.  The New Jersey Legislature, at Burlington, took up this call on 20 June.  The Speaker of the Assembly, Robert Ogden,[iii] was able to convince the New Jersey Assembly to refrain from sending representatives at first.  A short time later, however, at the urging of Richard Stockton, Ogden was forced to call a special meeting, to be held at Perth Amboy, to appoint delegates to the requested meeting.[iv]  Though not all of the members were present, Ogden, Hendrick Fisher and Joseph Borden[v] were appointed to represent New Jersey at the meeting of the colonies.
Before the meeting of colonial representatives, the people of New Jersey took some actions of their own.  In September the distributor of stamps for New Jersey, William Coxe, resigned from his position under pressure, including threats to body and property, from the Sons of Liberty.[vi]  Lawyers from the colony met and agreed to boycott the stamps.   This, in effect, stopped all legal action in the colony.[vii]  Also, before the Congress began, the graduating students at the College of New Jersey held a protest of their own against the Stamp Act[viii]
The Stamp Act Congress, as it became known, convened in October in New York City.  Thirty representatives from nine colonies attended. [ix]  They settled upon fourteen resolutions, which they submitted to King George III.  This “Declaration of Rights and Grievances” was left unsigned by the speaker of the Congress, Timothy Ruggles (of Massachusetts) and Robert Ogden.  While the Congress had voted to send the resolutions directly to the king, Ruggles and Ogden believed they should first be circulated among, and approved by, the individual colonial assemblies.[x]  For his efforts, Ogden was burned in effigy by the people of New Jersey, and resigned his seat in the Assembly on 27 November.[xi]
The people of New Jersey remained animated while the Stamp Act remained in place.  A report from a paper in New York, dated 27 February 1766, read: “A large Gallows was erected in Elizabeth Town, last Week, with a Rope ready fixed thereto, and the Inhabitants there vow and declare that the first Person that either distributes or takes out a Stamped Paper shall be hung thereon without Judge or Jury.”[xii]   The following month, King George approved Parliament’s repeal of the Stamp Act.  However, the Declaratory Act, stating that the king and Parliament “had, hash, and of right ought to have, full power and authority to make laws and statutes of sufficient force and validity to bind the colonies and people of America, subjects of the crown of Great Britain, in all cases whatsoever,” was passed at the same time.[xiii]  During the following year, Parliament and the colonies were relatively quiet.[xiv]
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New Jersey reacted to the Intolerable Acts by electing Committees of Safety and Correspondence throughout the colony.  At one of these meetings, by the freeholders and inhabitants of the Township of Lower Freehold, it was resolved
 
that the cause in which the inhabitants of the town of Boston are now suffering is the common cause of the whole Continent of North America; and that unless some general spirited measures, for the public safety, be speedily entered into, there is just reason to fear that every Province may in turn share the same fate with them; and that, therefore, it is highly incumbent on them all to unite in some effectual means to obtain a repeal of the Boston Port Bill, and any other that may follow it, which shall be deemed subversive of the rights and privileges of free-born Americans.[i]
 
They decided to boycott all goods from Great Britain and the West Indies.  A meeting of the freeholders and inhabitants of Essex County reached a similar conclusion, and called on the freeholders and inhabitants of the other counties to come together to discuss what measures could be taken.
 
A meeting encouraging the creation of a General Congress for the colonies was held at the courthouse in Newark on 11 June 1774.  As a result of these meetings, delegates were appointed to a convention which met in New Brunswick beginning on 21 July.  Stephen Crane of Elizabethtown was chosen to preside over the convention.  The convention, which ended on 23 July, consisted of seventy-two delegates.  After declaring allegiance to King George III, they recommended that the people of New Jersey send money to help the citizens of Boston and also passed a resolution to boycott British goods. [ii]  The convention also chose five men as delegates to a General Congress which would meet in Philadelphia on 5 September.  The men chosen were the aforementioned Stephen Crane, William Livingston and John De Hart each from Elizabethtown, and James Kinsey and Richard Smith, both from Burlington.
 
            The First Continental Congress debated reconciliation and independence, but by its close on 26 October, the fifty-six delegates from twelve colonies (Georgia was not represented) settled on boycotting British goods and establishing committees of observation and correspondence in each colony.  They determined to meet again on 10 May 1775.
 
 
            In the interim, colonists in New Jersey held a tea party of their own.  In early December the brig Greyhound, Captain J. Allen, sailed into the Cohansey River after being refused at the port of Philadelphia.  The Greyhound carried a shipment of tea.  The tea was unloaded at Greenwich, in secrecy, to be stored in the cellar of Dan Bowen’s house on Market Square.  A number of the colonists in Greenwich soon discovered the deception and a temporary committee was established to take charge of the tea.[iii]
 
            The committee was chosen on 22 December at Bridgeton to determine what should be done with the tea.[iv] They could not reach a decision on how to proceed, for the reason that they had no information on where the tea came from and to whom it belonged.  They decided to meet the following morning at ten o’clock so that information could be gathered.  The entire committee did not agree with the decision, however.  Several committee members and other men met at the house of Lewis and Richard Howell later that night.[v]  They dressed as Indians, broke into the cellar where the tea was stored, removed the boxes of tea to a field, and burned them.  The Reverend Philip Vickers Fithian, who is said to have taken part in the affair, wrote in his diary the next day:
 
Last night the tea was, by a number of persons in disguise, taken out of the house and consumed with fire.  Violent and different are the words about this uncommon maneuver among the inhabitants.  Some rave, some curse and condemn, some try to reason; many are glad the tea is destroyed, but almost all disapprove the manner of the destruction.[vi]
 
Despite the attempts of remaining unidentified, lawsuits were filed against some of the tea-burners for their actions.  The defendants were either found not guilty, or the cases were dropped after New Jersey severed ties with Britain.  The tea party in Greenwich was closely followed by the closing of the ports of New York and Philadelphia to British tea shipments.[vii]
 
            The year 1775 brought the reality of war to the colonies, and New Jersey was not exempt from the action.  Conflicts between patriots and loyalists were reported in the papers, though for the most part in the first year of the war, New Jersey was limited to greeting delegates of the Second Continental Congress on their way through the province and prosecuting a war off shore.  Before the end of the year, New Jersey would lose its first soldier in military service.



[i] Willson, 222
[ii] Lee, F.B., 93.
[iii] Ibid, 129, 133.

[i] Lillian Goldman Law Library – Stamp Act.
[ii] Hatfield, 409.  Amboy is located on the Raritan River and Bay, across the Arthur Kill from Staten Island, New York.  The first houses were built in Amboy in 1683.  The following year, when the Earl of Perth, one of the Jersey Proprietors, became Lord High Chancellor under King James II, it was instructed that the town be called Perth.  Residents soon took to calling it Perth Amboy (though it was still sometimes referred to as Amboy during the Revolution).  A charter was received in 1718 and by 1762 construction began on the Proprietary House.  Completed in 1764 by the Proprietors of East Jersey, the house was built for the Royal Governor of the colony, and is the only colonial Governor’s Mansion still standing today.  In 1686, the capital of East Jersey moved from Elizabethtown (where it had been since 1676) to Amboy, where it stayed until 1776, alternating with Burlington from 1702 onward (“The History of Perth Amboy,” The City of Perth Amboy. http://ci.perthamboy.nj.us/the-history-of-perth-amboy.html Accessed 22 February 2012.)
[iii] Robert Ogden was born in Elizabethtown, NJ on 7 October 1716.  He was the second child, first son, of Robert and Elizabeth (Crane) Ogden.  He married Phebe Hatfield (1720 – 1796) when he was about twenty years old.  He was a friend of Governor Belcher, and in 1753 was appointed a clerk of the Chancery.  In 1761 he was commissioned a justice and judge, and later that year a clerk on the Essex County Court (The Ogden Family in America, 79).
[iv] Chroust, 286-7.
[v] Hendrick Fisher (1697 – 1778) was from Somerset County.  He represented New Jersey at the Stamp Act Congress in 1765 and served on the Committee of Correspondence and Committee of Safety.  His homestead, built in 1688, still stands at 1960 Easton Avenue in Franklin Township, Somerset County.  On 7 July 1776 Fisher read the Declaration of Independence aloud at the Frelinghuysen Tavern in Bound Brook, Somerset County (a plaque marks the former location of the tavern at 213 East Main Street).  His house was raided by the British in April 1777, but Fisher was not at home.  He is buried in the family burial ground near the property.
Joseph Borden (1719 – 1791), of Burlington County, NJ, was the son of the founder of Bordentown, NJ.  He was a judge and a colonel of the Burlington militia.  His house was burned by the British during the war, but was rebuilt and still stands at 32 Farnsworth Avenue in Bordentown.
[vi] Chroust, 287.  William Coxe  was the son of Col. Daniel Coxe (d. 1739) and was most likely from Burlington, NJ.  He ran a successful mercantile business in Philadelphia and was twice elected mayor of Philadelphia, though he refused the appointment both times.  He and his wife, Mary Francis, had thirteen children.  Their third child, a son named Tench (1755 – 1824), had a long political career in the new government after the Revolution.  William took a neutral stance after his resignation, further angering Governor William Franklin (Coxe Family Papers, Historical Society of Pennsylvania).
[vii] Proceedings NJHS; 2Series IV, 190.
[viii] Ryan, 12.
[ix] Georgia, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Virginia did not send representatives.
[x] Wheeler, 81.
[xi] The misunderstanding may have cost Ogden a chance to sign the Declaration of Independence.  After the war began he was a chairman of the Elizabethtown Committee of Safety.  His sons and sons-in-law served the patriot cause during the war.  He died 21 January 1787 and is buried in the Sparta (NJ) Presbyterian Churchyard (The Ogden Family in America, 83).
[xii] Qtd. in Hatfield, 408.
[xiii] Lillian Goldman Law Library – Declaratory Act.
[xiv] Troubles did not die down completely, however.  In the spring of 1766, Lemuel Blowers and two fellow justices of the peace “beat, abused and wounded” a recruiting party led by Captain George Etherington in Morris County.  The attack, in which four of the soldiers were hospitalized, was launched in response to the questionable enlistment practices of the British.  Problems with the British soldiery continued into 1767.  The officers of the 28th Regiment, led by Colonel John St. Clair, had secured private quarters in Elizabethtown due to lack of space in the barracks.  Upon their departure, they demanded reimbursement from the colony for monies spent.  Governor Franklin declined to pay the officers, claiming that such allowances had been discontinued after construction of barracks.  On the 27th, the night before the regiment was to leave, some of the officers began a riot in which most of the male inhabitants of the community participated.  Windows were smashed, citizens were confronted by British bayonets and at least one officer was shot.  The clash only ended when the soldiers retreated to transport ships anchored in Raritan Bay, off Amboy (New Jersey History. v. 93, no. 1-2; 16, 20-21).   
 




[i] American Archives Series 4, Volume 1, “Meeting of the Freeholders and Inhabitants of the Township of Lower Freehold, in the County of Monmouth, in New-Jersey,”390
[ii] Wall & Pickersgill, 86.
[iii] Andrews, 8.
[iv]According to Dunlap’s Pennsylvania Packet (or The General Advertiser) of Monday, 9 January 1775, the following men were chosen for the committee: William Aul, Jonathan Ayers, David Bowen, Joshua Brick, Thomas Brown, John Buck, Thomas Daniel, Daniel Elmore, Joshua Ewing, Thomas Ewing, Joel Fithian, Ezekiel Foster, John Gibbon, Elijah Hand, Ephraim Harris, Gideon Heaton, Abijah Holmes, Michael Hoshell, Abraham Jones, John Laning, Samuel Leak, Jonathan Lore, Daniel Maskell, Thomas Maskell, Benjamin Mulford, Joseph Newcomb, Silas Newcomb, Isaac Preston, Mark Ryley, Joseph Sheppard, Jonathan Smith, John Terry, John Wheaton and Richard Wood.
[v] A monument to the tea-burners stands in Greenwich, NJ today, near the site of the incident. A list of names on the monument includes the following: Ebenezer Elmer (1752 – 1843), Timothy Elmer (1748 – 1780), James Ewing (d. 1780), Thomas Ewing (1748 – 1782), Joel Fithian (1748 – 1821), Philip Vickers Fithian (1747 – 1776), Lewis Howell (d. 1778), Richard Howell (1754 –1802), James Booth Hunt (d. 1824), Andrew Hunter, Jr. (1752 – 1823), Joel Miller (d. 1827), Alexander Moore, Jr. (d. 1786), Ephraim Newcomb, Silas Newcomb (1723 – 1779), Clarence Parvin (1750 – 1788), David Pierson, Stephen Pierson, Henry Seeley, Josiah Seeley (d. 1832), Abraham Sheppard b. c.1755), Henry Stacks, and Silas Whittaker (Whiteker). The monument also reads “AND OTHERS;”Frank D. Andrews lists Enos Ewing and Isaac Preston as tea-burners. Many of these men served during the Revolution. Richard Howell served in the army and was elected New Jersey’s third Governor, serving from 1793 – 1801; he was also the grandfather of Varina Howell Davis, wife of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Ebenezer Elmer served in the army, represented New Jersey in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1801 – 1807, and served in the War of 1812.
[vi]The Burning On Market Square Greenwich, 2.
[vii] A poem, by an unknown poet, was published in Greenwich on the Creekby Grace Watson Ewing. It follows: “On the wharf I sit and dream / While the stars throw many a beam - / Make a soft and silver streak / On the stillness of the creek; / And a vessel, through the haze / Of the old colonial days, / Like a spectre seems to ride / On the inward flowing tide; / Like a phantom it appears / Faintly through the many years / That have vanished since it sails / Braved the fierce Atlantic gales / Are they risen from the graves? / Those dark figures, clad as braves, / Of the dusky tribal hosts / That of old possessed these coasts? / Swift they glide from‘neath the trees, / The ill-fated stores to seize. / Noiselessly, with whispered jests, / High they heap the fragrant chests, / ‘Round the gnarled trunk that still / Lifts its limbs on yonder hill; / And, at once a ruddy blaze / Skyward leaps and madly plays, / Snapping, crackling o’ver the pyre, / Till, with patriotic fire, / All that costly cargo doomed, / Unto ashes is consumed! / Back the ship drifts through the haze, / And the figures with the blaze / Fade and vanish from the sight.”

14 May 2012

The French Contribution to American Independence

             General Charles O’Hara was a veteran soldier by the time of the American Revolutionary War.  He had fought in the Seven Years’ War in Europe and also saw service in Africa before coming to the British colonies in North America in 1778.  As second in command to General Charles Cornwallis, he led the counterattack at Guilford Courthouse in March 1781, chasing General Nathanael Greene and his men from the field of battle.  Later, with Cornwallis claiming illness, O’Hara led the surrender of the British troops at Yorktown.[i]  The day following this surrender O’Hara wrote to the Duke of Grafton stating, “Our Ministers will I hope be now persuaded that America is irretrievably lost….The French talk of attacking Charles Town….America is theirs.”[ii]
This vignette is presented to demonstrate how vital the Franco-American alliance was and how significant the victory at Yorktown was to the final peace treaty with British acknowledgment of American independence.  Not only did a veteran general in the British Army think that the colonies were lost after Yorktown, but he believed the French, through their alliance with the Americans, would ultimately control the former British colonies.  Still, few Americans, and few Frenchmen, believed that victory at Yorktown meant victory in the overall war.  The soldiers captured there (about 7,000 men) represented only about one-fourth of the total British strength in North America.[iii]  Comparatively, over 6,000 had been captured at Saratoga four years earlier, and the war continued.  A simple shuffling of troops would have replenished those men easily within months.  So why, then, was the Franco-American coalition and the victory at Yorktown the final blow cast for American independence?
By the time the war had moved south, the British and the Americans were far from giving up fighting.  However, with the French entrance into the war, the British were on the ropes.  Even without full French assistance in the North American colonies, the alarm and anxiety caused by now having to protect the West Indies, India, Gibraltar and the other British possessions against the French caused a change in the British manner of thinking about the North American war.  The French declaration of war against the British led to eventual American victory.
The final two large battles before Yorktown, at Cowpens and Guilford Courthouse, were fought between the Americans under General Greene, and the British under Cornwallis, without French assistance.  The Americans were victorious at Cowpens in January, providing a morale boost, and they could at least claim that even though they had lost the field at Guilford Courthouse, they had added twenty-five percent of Cornwallis’s force to the casualty list.[iv]  Even though Cornwallis publicly claimed victory, he privately noted that the British “had not a regiment or corps that did not at some time give way.”  He also reportedly said in private, “The Americans fought like demons.”  After the battle, Greene proclaimed that he thought that is was “out of the enemies power to do us any great injury.”[v]  Despite the victories, without French assistance, the Americans struggled to put the final nail in the coffin of the British Army.  The war would continue.
The American and British back-and-forth that began in the northern colonies in 1775, continued in the southern colonies in 1781, however, the French entrance now had the British on the ropes.  Though the French fleet bungled their way around the American coastline, they made good on their attacks against the British elsewhere, especially in the Caribbean.  Still, General Washington wanted for French assistance and cooperation with his army, or, at minimum, communication from the French fleet as to their designs.[vi]  
Cornwallis realized the predicament facing him before leaving North Carolina.  He knew that leaving Virginia unconquered would provide no security to him in the Carolinas, but should he leave the Carolinas for Virginia, he had not enough men to keep the restless populace subdued.[vii]  However, as had happened within the British command throughout the war, communication was lacking.  Cornwallis moved toward Virginia to the disappointment of Sir Henry Clinton.  Clinton wrote that had Cornwallis informed him of that move, Clinton most certainly who have “endeavored to have stopped” Cornwallis.[viii]   But Cornwallis was frustrated by the hit-and-run guerrilla tactics of the Americans, and his inability to defeat the Americans.  He and his army chased the Americans through the Carolinas and into Virginia.  Cornwallis’s lust for victory and glory partially led to the final defeat of the British in the American colonies.
Cornwallis chose Yorktown because of its defensive nature and access to the sea.  Both of these features would assist in his downfall.  With French assistance at sea, the Americans could complete the blockade of the British army at Yorktown.  In this way, French support was completely necessary for American victory at Yorktown.  Without the French fleet off the Virginia coast, the British could have resupplied Cornwallis and his men indefinitely.  Clinton could also have decided to disembark Cornwallis’s troops, bringing them back to New York, or some other location, or he could have reinforced them with more men and ordered Cornwallis to break out and attack the Americans.  Happily, for the Americans, the French fleet was able to defeat the British fleet in the Chesapeake and blockade the Cornwallis in Yorktown from the sea before assistance could arrive.  Washington, in shrewd and cunning fashion, snuck off to Yorktown with a combined Franco-American force.  The classic siege which followed the Franco-American arrival outside of Yorktown, combined with the French naval blockade finally forced Cornwallis into submission. 
General O’Hara led the somber procession of the British to surrender their arms at Yorktown.  Whether to avoid or to insult Washington, O’Hara attempted to surrender Cornwallis’s sword to Rochambeau, but the Frenchman declined, directing O’Hara toward Washington.  Washington, as a sign of protocol, or maybe as his own form of insult, passed O’Hara on to General Benjamin Lincoln, one subordinate submitting to another.[ix]  Despite the show of fealty by Rochambeau, O’Hara believed the French were the true masters of the victory.
Washington hoped to build on the allied victory and free Charleston and Savannah from British control, but the French Admiral de Grasse informed Washington that his orders were to proceed to the West Indies immediately.[x]  Without French help, Washington was not confident that he could take those cities, or New York.  Though those were the only British strongholds remaining in the former colonies, the British had about 26,000 men spread across those areas, as well as along the Great Lakes region and Canada.[xi]  However, the British Parliament realized that the war was already too costly, and to continue to fight against the Americans, French, and increasingly the Spanish as well, would “jeopardize the very existence of the British Empire.”[xii]  The French, though not assisting Washington and the Americans to their liking, nevertheless contributed elsewhere.  The end of the war did not come swiftly – it was still two years before the final peace treaty was signed – but there was not another major battle fought between the British and the Americans after Yorktown.  The French handled the load.


Babits, Lawrence E. A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
Buchanan, John. The Road to Guilford Courthouse: The American Revolution in the Carolinas. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1997.
Davis, Burke. The Cowpens-Guilford Courthouse Campaign. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1962.
Greene, Jerome A. The Guns of Independence: The Siege of Yorktown, 1781. New York: Savas Beatie, 2005.
Ketchum, Richard. Victory at Yorktown: The Campaign that Won the Revolution. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2004.
Savas, Theodore P. and J. David Dameron. A Guide to the Battles of the American Revolution. New York: Savas Beatie LLC, 2006.


[i] Savas, 290, 336.
[ii] Qtd. in Greene, xv.
[iii] Ibid., xvi.
[iv] Savas, 291.
[v] All qtd. in Buchanan, 382.
[vi] Ketchum, 29.
[vii] Davis, 180.
[viii] Ibid., 184.
[ix] Greene, 297.
[x] Ibid., 319.
[xi] Ibid., 323.
[xii] Ibid., 324.