16 March 2011

The War Begins (1775-1776): An Overview

During the time leading up to the events of 19 April 1775, both the Americans and the British were preparing for war, but neither side was prepared for war. Militia companies throughout the colonies (and especially in Massachusetts) were training and stockpiling supplies. There was no cohesion, however, on a multi-colony force, and the discipline needed for an effective fighting force was not to be found. The British, for their part, sent more soldiers to the colonies, but they did not send enough. Despite warnings from General Thomas Gage in Massachusetts, the British government was still slow to respond to what Gage though necessary to quell the rebellion. The British for the most part, though, were smug and overconfident, and, during 1775-6, they sometimes underestimated the Americans.

After the British were forced back to Boston from Concord in devastating fashion by the guerilla tactics used by the Americans, there was little change in British thinking. The British army was a well-trained, well-disciplined fighting force in open-field battle. The Americans, however, were not as reliable in that setting, though they were usually effective behind walls, in houses and among the woods. On 17 June 1775, a combination of these factors turned into disaster for the British. They attempted to take a fortified American position on Breed’s/Bunker Hill in Boston, but no effort was made to prepare for retreat, and the British did not even bring a reserve force onto the field. The Americans retreated only after they ran out of powder.

The British wanted, and thought they could have, a quick end to the war. A prolonged war favored the Americans. The Americans could replace their losses more easily; even small American victories (or British setbacks) were huge in the American and British psyche; and the Americans could always retreat and regroup in the seemingly endless wilderness of the country forever. The British had their work cut out for them. Along with the aforementioned American advantages, the British were also at a disadvantage in the facts that not only did they have to re-occupy every colony to re-establish themselves, but they also had the added worry that a protracted war would bring other European powers into the fray.

After Bunker Hill, in late 1775, the Americans made an attempt to take Canada, which failed. By early March 1776, however, George Washington and his rag-tag mix of soldiers had forced the British from Boston, mostly on the backs of Henry Knox and his men. Howe briefly retreated to Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The overall British strategy remained the same – bring the Americans back into the fold. Conversely, the details of how to do this differed depending on who was asked. Politics in Parliament and amongst the generals played a major role in the British strategy. While many in England wanted to make the Americans feel the strength of Britain’s full military might, some also wanted to subdue the Americans via economic consequences. The Howe brothers – General Sir William Howe and Admiral Richard Howe – were sympathetic to the American cause. They wanted the colonies under the British umbrella, but they did not want to force it upon them with a devastating war. Howe reminded those who would listen to “treat our enemies as if they might one day become our friends” (Mackesy, 34). It would seem that he would avoid acting in any matter that might be too destructive to the Americans in the early going.

Howe’s early strategy was to use New York City as the British base of operations. From here, Howe planned to isolate the New England colonies by advancing up the Hudson River and uniting with Sir Guy Carleton’s force there. After subduing the hotbed of revolution in New England, Howe would contend with the other colonies (Mackesy, 60). After a failed attempt to subdue South Carolina, General Henry Clinton returned to New York and joined with Howe. The Battle for New York began horribly for the Americans. After the Declaration of Independence was signed, Howe landed his force on Long Island in August. A follow-up to the devastating defeat on Long Island was only slowed by Howe’s general cautiousness, and his hope for peace without further war. In fact, from the time of Washington’s retreat on 29 August 1776 until 15 September, Howe’s army made no moves (Mackesy, 89). An attempt at peace was made on 11 September, when Howe met with some prominent American Congressmen on Staten Island. Howe offered only pardons, while the Americans were looking for promises of independence, and nothing was accomplished.

Washington retreated from New York City ahead of the British advance and moved to Harlem Heights and then White Plains. His strategy now was to “on all occasions avoid a general action” (Mackesy, 91). Still Washington, or at least his generals, believed that Forts Washington and Lee could hold strong against whatever the British could throw at them. Unfortunately for Washington, he listened to his generals, who proved to be very wrong. Fort Washington, which the Americans believed could hold out virtually indefinitely against a British assault, was overpowered by a combined British and Hessian force in one afternoon. Those of the American defending force who were killed surrendered to the British to the tune of over 2,600 men (Carrington, 254). Days later, the Americans retreated from Fort Lee without a fight – and without most of their supplies and stores. The loss of these valuable men and accoutrements sent Washington’s army scurrying just ahead of the British advance, clear across New Jersey and into Pennsylvania.

While Howe’s men were pacifying New Jersey, Clinton was sent to Rhode Island, where he took Newport with little resistance. Howe was happy with the results of the campaign, and established his winter quarters in lines across New Jersey. Washington was camped with his men on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River. He also had posts along the Hudson River in New York. Howe’s plan for the next campaign at the start of December called for a push up the Hudson River. After his unforeseen success, and his closeness to the city, he changed his goal to first capture the Philadelphia, this even despite Washington’s surprise attack and victory at Trenton to close 1776 (and his subsequent successes in the state of New Jersey).

As a final note, the British planned to blockade the American coast, to squeeze the American economy. The Howe brothers were not provided enough ships for this goal, but even more than that, two other factors were involved in the failure of bringing the American economy to its knees. First, not all of the British (including the Howe brothers) were one hundred percent on board with this plan. More importantly, despite the fact that the Americans had barely a navy to speak of, they did have many smaller and faster privateers. These ships were not only able to avoid the larger and slower British ships to deliver goods to the Americans, but some of them were also outfitted for offensive actions. Some of these ships, with the promises of riches, harasses and captured British shipping. The privateers were more than annoying pests, as they were sometimes lucky enough to capture ships containing arms or other necessities, and they continued to act throughout the war to the detriment of the British war effort.


Carrington, Henry B. 1974. Battles of the American Revolution 1775-1781. New York: Promontory Press.

Mackesy, Piers. 1964. The War for America 1775-1783. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

11 March 2011

Battle of Bunker Hill

After the American colonists had chased the British soldiers from Concord back to Boston on 19 April 1775, the militia formed a line across the narrow neck of land that connected the peninsula that was the city of Boston to the surrounding countryside. The British were stuck in the town and could only be relieved by sea or by breaking through the American lines. A short glance at a map shows two other peninsulas surrounding Boston in the harbor. To the south lies Dorchester Heights. The neck of land leading to this area was many times wider than that leading into Boston, but the Heights had a commanding view of the city. To the north of Boston is the Charlestown Peninsula. Besides the small settlement of Charlestown, directly across the harbor from Boston, there are a series of hills, the highest being Bunker Hill. To get to this peninsula by land, a width of ground about the size of that leading to Boston had to be crossed.

map from sonofthesouth.net

The Americans were ordered by General Artemas Ward to occupy Bunker Hill on the night of 16-17 June 1775 after receiving intelligence that the British would attempt to do so the following evening. After a meeting between some of the American commanders, it was decided to fortify Breed’s Hill first, and Bunker Hill if time permitted. The reasoning behind the decision lay in the fact that Breed’s Hill lay closer to Boston and could prevent a buffer if the British launched an attack from across the harbor.

In the morning, Charlestown was fired upon by British ships in the harbor. The Americans by this time had been working all night; they were short on all supplies – food, water and ammunition included. They were also short on sleep, and they were aware that an attack by the British must be short in coming. By afternoon no less than four British ships, bearing about forty guns, were firing from the harbor onto American positions. Colonel William Prescott, commanding the American forces, watched Sir William Howe maneuver his forces into position, and reacted by moving his men into a better defensive position. From his post on the hill, Prescott could observe almost every move made by the redcoats and make an appropriate response.

Howe lined up his men ready to attack with the bayonet in three charges. Two errors were made in the process. The British artillery was supplied with the wrong caliber balls, making them of little service and Howe was unaware of the some of the American positions. Most importantly, Howe did not know of Stark’s men on the beach where the British would make their initial charge. [1] The resulting British offensive was disastrous. American fire cut down the British and stopped their advance each time, resulting in the British leaving 96 dead on the field. [2]

map from sonofthesouth.net

The following British advancing lines had difficulty on the approach to the American position at the rail fence because of the terrain and other obstructions. While the British fire mostly went over the heads of the Americans, the colonists fired at wave after wave of the redcoats with deadly results. After a number of charges and many men left lying on the field, the British retreated to regroup for another attack.

The next British attack was directed at the American force on Breed’s Hill. Again, the British, firing from seventy to eighty yards away, shot over the American positions. The Americans, waiting until the redcoats got closer, hit their marks, forcing another British retreat. This time, however, Howe had a more orderly retreat and was able to reform his men for a new attack. The second attack was also beaten back. Howe, now with General Henry Clinton and Robert Pigot, prepared for a three-pronged attack on Breed’s Hill, with a holding fire on Stark’s men at the rail fence. This time, with British fire seemingly surrounding the Americans, including artillery firing grapeshot, the Americans were forced to retreat as the British stormed the redoubt. The Americans had their greatest losses during the retreat. [3] The American forces stormed past the neck of Charlestown peninsula in their retreat, where they would build entrenchments overnight, but the British had command of both Breed’s and Bunker Hill.

Either side could lay claim to victory in the Battle of Bunker Hill. The Americans inflicted more casualties, but the British won the ground.* General Clinton summed up the battle: “A dear bought victory, another such would have ruined us.” [4] The battle would have an effect on the fighting in the New York-New Jersey campaign of 1776. Howe moved cautiously, with Bunker Hill always in mind, and General Nathaniel Greene was convinced that the Americans could hold Fort Washington indefinitely against a British attack using the defense at Bunker Hill as his reasoning.

* Casualty counts, as in most battles of the war, are hard to nail down. It is generally agreed that although the Americans had about 3,000 men on Charlestown peninsula, only about 1,400-1,500 were ever engaged in battle. Most accounts have the number of American casualties between 440-450 killed, wounded and captured. Similar discrepancies exist among British numbers. A number of historians agree on the British force numbering about 2,500 men, although at least one has them with over 3,000 men fighting. British casualties were about 1,150. Besides Wood, Carrington’s Battles of the American Revolution and Savas and Dameron’s A Guide to the Battles of the American Revolution were consulted for obtaining these casualty numbers.

[1] Wood, W.J. Battles of the Revolutionary War, 1775-1781. Chapel Hill: Da Capo Press, 2003, p. 19-20.
[2] Ibid, p. 22.
[3] Ibid, p. 31

[4] Moran, Donald N. "The Battle of Bunker Hill." Revolutionary War Archives. March 1985. http://www.revolutionarywararchives.org/battles-link/49-the-battle-of-bunker-hill (accessed January 16, 2011).

06 March 2011

A Duel

Button Gwinnett was born in England in 1732. There he became a merchant. He emigrated to Charleston, South Carolina in the year 1770. Within a couple of years, Gwinnett moved to Georgia, where he was swept up among the patriots, and was elected a delegate to the Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia. There, in 1776, he voted for independence from Great Britain, affixing his name to the Declaration of Independence. Gwinnett left Congress in 1777 in order to join the Georgia Convention to write a constitution for that state. He was shortly thereafter voted as President of the Council, which was the highest office in the state. Not simply content with this position, Gwinett attempted to acquire the position of Brigadier General. [1]

Lachlan McIntosh was born in 1727 in Scotland, and arrived in the American colonies at the age of eight years. He was active on the patriot side in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War, and he obtained the rank of colonel in time to assist in repelling the British from Savannah in 1776. [2] His skills and popularity allowed him to defeat Gwinnett and become a brigadier general in the Continental Army.

Soon after this defeat, Gwinnett, in an attempt to usurp power from McIntosh, proposed that the Georgia militia attack a British post in eastern Florida. The expedition resulted in defeat for the Georgians, possibly due to a lack of assistance from McIntosh. After an inquiry into the failed attempt exonerated Gwinnett of any misconduct, McIntosh denounced Gwinnett in harsh terms. McIntosh said of Gwinnett, among other things, that he was "a Scoundrell & lying Rascal." [3] Gwinnett demanded an apology, which was promptly denied to him. Gwinnett, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, challenged McIntosh, a Brigadier General, to a duel.

The two combatants met outside of Savannah, Georgia on land belonging to former royal governor James Wright on the morning of 16 May 1777. The men examined their pistols and took their stand. Gwinnett and McIntosh exchanged fire at close range. Both men were wounded in the thigh. McIntosh asked Gwinnett if he had received his satisfaction, and the men shook hands, ending the duel. [4] Gwinnett's wound, however, proved to be fatal. He died three days later, 19 May 1777. Gwinnett was buried in Colonial Park Cemetery in Savannah, Georgia.

McIntosh survived the duel, as well as the ensuing trial. He was, however, removed from Georgia at the request of George Walton, another Georgia politician and signer of the Declaration of Independence. Walton wrote to George Washington in August 1777 that he was "afraid the friends of the deceased, made sore by the loss of their principal, would again blow up the embers of party & dissention, and disturb the harmony & vigour of the Civil & military authorities." [5] In consequence, McIntosh spent the winter of 1778 at the Valley Forge camp before leading a successful expedition against the Indians in the Ohio River Valley. McIntosh returned to Georgia in 1779. He participated in the failed defense of Savannah in that year, and was captured in Charleston, South Carolina in 1780. He was relieved of his duty by the Continental Congress, though not dishonorably, and served in that body in 1784. [6] McIntosh died in Savannah in 1806 and is also buried in Colonial Park Cemetery.

As a final note, Gwinnett's signature is a rarity because of his untimely death so soon after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It is considered the most valuable of all the signatures of the 56 men who signed the document. In 1979 a letter signed by Gwinnett sold for $100,000 at auction in New York. (This was the last time a document with Gwinnett's signature was for sale at auction.) [7]


[1] Lossing, Benjamin J. Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence. Aledo, TX: Wallbuilders, Inc., 1998. (Reprinted from the 1848 original), p. 227-8.
[2] Sullivan, Buddy. "Lachlan McIntosh," New Georgia Encyclopedia. 12 September 2002. http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/nge/Article.jsp?id=h-671> Accessed 6 March 2011.
[3] The Papers of George Washington June – August 1777, Revolutionary War Series, Volume 10. ed. Frank E. Grizzard, Jr.. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2000, p. 514.
[4] "Historic Duel Recalled," New York Times. 10 April 1914. http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?_r=1&res=9F06E1D91E39E633A25753C1A9629C946596D6CF>. Accessed 6 March 2011.
[5] The Papers of George Washington..., p. 513.
[6] Sullivan, Buddy.
[7] Deaton, Stan. "Button Gwinnett," New Georgia Encyclopedia. 9 February 2009. http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/nge/Article.jsp?id=h-2543&hl=y> Accessed 6 March 2011.