Empire of Liberty: The Times That Try Men’s Souls

Previous Chapter: The Winds of War

“The die is cast; the colonies must either submit or triumph. We must not retreat.”

~ King George III

Excerpt from Thomas Paine’s “The American Crisis”, Federalistpapers.org, 2016.

“These are the time’s that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated. Britain, with an army to enforce her tyranny, has declared that she has a right (not only to TAX) but “to BIND us in ALL CASES WHATSOEVER,” and if being bound in that manner, is not slavery, then is there not such a thing as slavery upon earth. Even the expression is impious; for so unlimited a power can belong only to God.”

***

Excerpt from Douglas Oswald’s “Annotated History of the American Revolution”, University of Michigan Press, 1932.

“Bolstered by Commodore Briggs’ successful defense of the Caribbean, there was considerable hope amongst the mainlanders that counterattacks could be organized against Generals Howe and Clinton. The British extinguished this hope the moment the 1777 campaign season opened. In February of that year, Clinton moved east from Augusta into central South Carolina where he defeated a continental force led by the Polish-born commander Casimir Pulaski at the Battle of Camden.

On the Carolina coast, Commander Rodney redeemed his earlier loss at the Windward Passage by taking Charleston from the sea. By the first signs of summer of 1777, the British appeared poised to push their invasion into North Carolina. Continental forces under Pulaski and Baron Johann De Kalb mustered defenses on the roads heading north from South Carolina into North Carolina. De Kalb positioned his forces in the coastal town of Brunswick [1] while Pulaski dug in at the strategic crossroads towns of Campbellton and Cross Creek [2], a little ways north up the Cape Fear River from Brunswick. The strong positions and long supply lines halted the British advance while Clinton determined his next move.

With the war going smoothly, Clinton was clearly in no rush.

To the north, the spring continued to be a disaster for the revolutionaries. More reinforcements from Britain arrived to bolster Howe’s forces in New York and New Jersey. With forces to spare and having enjoyed a comfortable winter in New York City, Howe determined it was time to scatter the rebellion. Howe crossed the Delaware River at Trenton and engaged Washington at the Battle of Cheltenham. The hard fought battle become the costliest of the revolutionary war thus far to the continentals. Ultimately, the British forced Washington to retreat and the Congress evacuated Philadelphia in favor of Fredrick. On April 27, Howe and his forces captured Philadelphia.

While Congress fled, the revolutionaries found themselves in crisis. Many questioned the leadership and battlefield prowess of Washington. Speculation and rumor spread across the colonies about an imminent replacement vote. Names like Arnold, Carleton, and De Kalb swirled. The rumors even reached British encampments. An amusing letter from Howe to his wife briefly discusses the subject:

“The congress, whom we have displaced, is most displeased with the events at hand. Scattered south and west from their comforts, idle gossip appears to demonstrate considerable fingerpointing in the direction of Mr. Washington. The talk of Philadelphia is that he could be dispatched south to Jamaica and replaced with another officer. Admittedly this seems a smart proposal.”

Later post-war evidence demonstrates that Howe actually held Washington in fair esteem as a commander, even in those months when Washington was on the defensive. Like many commanders in those days, Howe was keenly aware of the possibilities of his mail being intercepted, and tended to speak highly of commanders he truly felt were less than competent (and thus wanted to face as long as possible) and lowly of those commanders he’d rather have dispatched elsewhere. Napoleon’s “orders of the day”, which were given to his armies every morning, were infamous for wording that simultaneously stoked the ego of his own soldiers and sowed confusion for Austrian spies by talking up any poor commanders he would be facing in a given campaign.

Speculation aside, Washington retained numerous allies in the Congress, and the loyalty of his men, and thus managed to stave off threats to his leadership. Yet, it was clear the Continental Army needed a major victory over the British and it needed it soon.

That summer, New York City acted as a British springboard for operations across North America. London charged Sir Archibald Campbell with expanding the scope of the war into the previously untouched Canadian territories. Following the Hudson River northward, he took Albany then Fort Ticonderoga and Fort Crown Point on the southern shores of Lake Champlain and invaded into Canada. He then defeated General Carleton to take the key city of Montreal on July 22, 1777. Frustrated, Carleton retreated to Trois Rivieres where river defenses were strong enough to hold off Royal Navy support that frequently incurring up the St. Lawrence River. With British forces now in Quebec, many French and English loyalists flocked to their support undermining the Patriot cause even more.

The British capture of Montreal allowed for the return of communications between Royal leadership and the interior. Howe in New York, via Campbell in Montreal, was able to coordinate with Governor Henry Hamilton in Fort Detroit. The Irish-born Lieutenant Governor and Superintendent of Indian Affairs in the region was able encourage Indian raids against frontier settlements in Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Despite British attempts to limit civilian casualties, hundreds of settlers across the Ohio Valley frontier were killed and scalped by raiding parties throughout the war. Frontier militia forces attempted to mobilize defenses but were largely caught off guard. Many of the most experienced fighters had left to fight the war to the east and many women and children were caught in the unexpected raids from the west. It seemed no location was beyond the long reach of the Crown.

The summer transitioned into the fall and the British continued to press the Continentals. In early September, Sir John Burgoyne took an army out of New York and into Connecticut, bringing the war back into New England for the first time since the British evacuated Boston. This forced colonial maneuvering to hold off the British advance and prevent Burgoyne from taking Providence or threatening Boston. By October, the Patriots organized an army in Springfield under command of General Benedict Arnold, comprised largely from Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut militiamen. They took their fight into Connecticut on Halloween, Arnold determined to engage Burgoyne and score the victory the revolutionaries so desperately needed.

Unbeknownst to Arnold, the questions around Washington’s leadership and the colonial need for a victory were being answered and fulfilled several hundred miles to the south. On October 19, Howe took his forces out of Philadelphia towards Baltimore. The British were determined to take control of the Chesapeake and cut off the Congress’ communications with its far-flung territories and, more importantly, potential foreign allies. This time however, when Washington and Howe clashed, it was the Americans who emerged the victors. The Battle of the Brandywine occurred as British forces attempted to cross Brandywine Creek, just south of Philadelphia and invade Maryland. Washington, taking advantage of the exposed British troops, routed the British and forced Howe back to Philadelphia. An attempt by Washington to take Philadelphia and push Howe into New Jersey failed on October 24 but the British advance had finally been checked.

As rumor reached Connecticut of Washington’s victory on Halloween, the Continental forces under General Benedict Arnold were in soaring spirits as they engaged the suddenly nervous British at Hartford. The Battle of Hartford is a tactical masterpiece and testament to Arnold’s skill as a field officer. It also exposed how stretched the British had allowed themselves in their attempt to crush the revolution quickly. Burgoyne’s forces, while rested and professional, were lacking in ammunition and artillery. A third of his forces were comprised of Hanoverian mercenaries with their own German speaking officers making coordination difficult and slow. The timely capture of Burgoyne’s supply train by Connecticut cavalry further squeezed the Royals. After a hard fought battle, Burgoyne found his forces pinned against the Connecticut River after steadily giving up territory all afternoon. With no alternative, he flew a white flag and presented Arnold with his sword.

After a year of consistent losses and being pushed around by the Crown, in two weeks the revolutionaries scored two massive victories. Washington had saved his reputation and perhaps the leadership of the fledgling country. Arnold had proved his worth and captured an entire British army. New England and the Mid-Atlantic colonies were secure. More importantly, the victories caught the eye of European courtiers and suddenly the “internal disturbance” appeared more serious and, perhaps, more worthy of “investment”. Arnold encamped his force at White Plains, just north of British-ocucpied New York while Washington made camp at Valley Forge, overlooking British-occupied Philadelphia. To the north, Carleton had already encamped his army at Trois-Riveries to endure the brutal Canadian cold. The winter encampments would be brutal for all continental armies, legendary for the biting cold, lacking rations, rampant disease and tedious training regime.  Yet, as the snows melted the next year, reinvigorated and, dare it be said, professional continental armies emerged ready to build on their prior success.

And of course over those same brutal winter months the whispers in Europe evolved into open discussions.

And we shouldn’t forget that, with hurricane season past, the campaign season in the Caribbean was just beginning.

———-Author’s Notes———-

[1] Brunswick Town in our timeline is a historic site and was a port at the confluence of the Cape Fear River and Atlantic Ocean. It was burned by the British in 1776 and never rebuilt.

[2] Campbellton and Cross Creek unified in 1783 to form the present day city of Fayetteville North Carolina.

Next Chapter: The American Caribbean 

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