Project Blue Book and other Fairy Tales — Part 2

The Robertson Panel

In July 1952, after hundreds of sightings over the previous few months, a series of radar detections coincident with visual sightings were observed near the National Airport in Washington, D.C. Following much publicity, the Central Intelligence Agency created a panel of scientists headed by Dr. H. P. Robertson, a California Institute of Technology physicist.  The panel included physicists, meteorologists, and engineers.  Their first meeting was on 14 January 1953.

Captain Ruppelt, Dr. Hynek, and others presented the best evidence that Blue Book had collected, including movie footage.  After spending 12 hours reviewing six years of data, the Robertson Panel concluded that most U.F.O. reports had straightforward explanations.  In the panel’s final report, members stressed that low-grade, unverifiable U.F.O. reports were overloading intelligence channels, with the risk of overlooking a genuine conventional threat to U.S. national security.

The panel recommended, with C.I.A. approval, that the U.S.A.F. de-emphasize the subject of U.F.O.’s and begin a debunking campaign to lessen the public interest.  They wanted the cooperation of national media, including Walt Disney Productions, and employing psychologists, astronomers, and celebrities to ridicule the notion of extraterrestrials so that the public would eventually think the idea was silly.

Robertson recommended a government program to control public opinion through official propaganda and spying.  Robertson also shaped official U.S. Air Force policy regarding U.F.O. studies — an impact that continues today.  Step One: controlling the leaks.  In December 1953, DoD Regulations made it a crime for military personnel to discuss U.F.O. reports with unauthorized personnel.  Violators faced two years in prison and a $10,000.00 fine.

U.F.O. Reporting

In his book The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, Ruppelt described the demoralization of the BLUE BOOK staff after the Robertson Panel/Air Force stripped them of their investigative authority.  The consequence of the Robertson Panel was Air Force Regulation 200-2, which authorized U.S.A.F. officers to discuss U.F.O. incidents only if judged to have been resolved and to classify (with a high classification) all unsolved cases as a way of keeping them out of the public conversation.

In February 1953, responsibility for U.F.O. investigation was handed off to the 4602nd Air Intelligence Squadron, Air Defense Command — but only the “most important” cases.  These were cases deemed those with national security implications.  All of the least important cases remained with BLUE BOOK.

In 1954, General Twining was Air Force Chief of Staff.  He ordered an update to AFR 200-2 directing the 4602nd to consider any airborne object that, by performance, aerodynamic characteristics, or unusual features, does not conform to any presently known aircraft or missile type and cannot be positively identified as a familiar object.  Again, the Air Force directed that the investigation of the U.F.O.’s was for national security and reiterated that Blue Book could only discuss U.F.O. cases with the media if they had a conventional explanation.  If they were unidentified, the press was to be told only that the situation was under investigation, and to ensure this worked out to the Air Force’s advantage, the hierarchy ordered BLUE BOOK to reduce the number of unidentified objects to a minimum.

All this work was secret.  The public face of BLUE BOOK continued to be the official Air Force investigation of U.F.O.’s, but the reality was that beyond its public relations value, it was an empty office.  By the end of 1956, the number of cases listed as unsolved had dipped to 0.4 percent.  After Ruppelt’s resignation, the Air Force replaced him with a low-ranking noncommissioned officer.  Later, when an officer resumed the leadership of BLUE BOOK, they invariably exhibited apathy or hostility to the subject of U.F.O.’s.  Why?  Because it was a dead-end job — a career-ender.

The Mouseketeers (1954 – 1964)

Captain Charles Hardin assumed command of BLUE BOOK in March 1954.  He was bored with U.F.O.’s and anyone interested in them.  By the time Hardin was due for reassignment, the number of U.F.O. cases had dropped to 1% of the former.

Captain George T. Gregory took over as BLUE BOOK director in 1956.  If Hardin was anti-U.F.O., Gregory was out in the left field.  Responsibility for U.F.O. investigations was reassigned to the 1066th Air Intelligence Service Squadron, where no studies occurred.  If a witness came forward to report an observation of an unusual balloon-like object, BLUE BOOK usually classified it as a balloon — with no research or qualification.  These became standing procedures for BLUE BOOK.

Lieutenant Colonel Robert J. Friend took over BLUE BOOK in 1958.  He tried to reverse the project’s direction, but the Air Force reduced BLUE BOOK’s budget to the point where the office couldn’t order typing paper.  Dr. Hynek was heartened by Friend’s efforts and suggested that the Air Force reconsider its files, but the Air Force gave none of his suggestions or efforts its approval.  Friend even suggested that BLUE BOOK be assigned to another Air Force agency.  That didn’t work, either.  The Secretary of the Air Force wanted this U.F.O. business to “go away.”

In 1960, Congress conducted hearings on U.F.O.’s.  Since the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (N.I.C.A.P.) was one of the loudest voices calling into question Air Force corruption and an Air Force coverup of U.F.O. evidence — Congress subpoenaed the agency to testify.[1]  At the time, N.I.C.A.P. probably had the most visibility of any American non-military U.F.O. group and, arguably, had the most mainstream respectability.  The presence of several prominent military officials as members of N.I.C.A.P. brought a further measure of respectability for many observers.[2]

N.I.C.A.P. demanded a transparent scientific investigation of U.F.O. phenomena — but at the same time, they maintained skepticism of those reporting contact with aliens.  Until the mid-1960s, N.I.C.A.P. gave little attention to the so-called close encounters of the third kind (defined as animated beings sighted in connection to a U.F.O.).  However, longtime N.I.C.A.P. member Richard H. Hall claimed that the organization’s position was more about how to handle the question of U.F.O.’s and alien contact than a strategy of embracing outlandish claims and possibilities.[3]

Due to congressional interest in alien research, the Air Force added three staff members to BLUE BOOK operations and increased its budget.  This mollified some critics, but it was only a band-aid on a sucking chest wound.  When Colonel Friend was transferred in 1963, he believed the BLUE BOOK was useless.  Indeed it was — which is why the criticism continued.

Major Hector Quintanilla replaced Colonel Friend as the BLUE BOOK director.  Under his leadership, public criticism increased — some said the project had no credibility with anyone.  Dr. James E. McDonald of the University of Arizona was one of Major Quintanilla’s fiercest critics — claiming that the officer was incompetent as an investigator and a scientist.  McDonald added that it wasn’t Quintanilla’s fault: the Air Force chose him for that reason.[4]

And then, the Air Force treated the American public to its conclusions from the famous Portage County U.F.O. chase in April 1966.  The chase began at around 5:00 a.m. near Ravenna, Ohio.  Police officers Dale Spaur and Wilbur Neff observed what they described as a disc-shaped, silvery object with a bright light emanating from its underside traveling at about 1000 feet in altitude.  They followed the object, along with police units from several jurisdictions — the chase ending around thirty minutes later, eighty-five miles distant.

The chase made national news that ran the story for several days.  Meanwhile, police officials submitted detailed reports to the Air Force.  Five days later, BLUE BOOK interviewed one police officer (but no ground witnesses).  A few days after that, Major Quintanilla announced his conclusions that the police officers (trained as observers, one of whom was a former Air Force gunner during the Korean War) were mistakenly following a communications satellite and then shifted their attention to the planet Venus. 

But Robert Riser, the Oklahoma Science and Art Foundation director, reached a point where he could no longer abide BLUE BOOK’s incompetence and publicly rebuked the Air Force’s U.F.O. effort.  The problem, as he and others pointed out, was that the Air Force’s absurd pronouncements only made the issue of the Air Force’s competence worse.  Even the barely informed public knew that radar doesn’t have anything to do with the position of planets and stars and that communications satellites don’t travel at such low altitudes.

Despite Quintanilla’s incompetence, the Air Force promoted him to Lieutenant Colonel.  He was kind enough to document his perspectives about the Blue Book Project in his manuscript, U.F.O.’s: An Air Force Dilemma.  Quintanilla wrote the manuscript in 1975, but it was not published until after he died in 1998.

The Sightings Continue

In 1966, a string of sightings in Massachusetts and New Hampshire provoked Congressional Hearings by the House Committee on the Armed Forces.  In the first round, the Air force testified that the sightings were part of an area training exercise. N.I.C.A.P. contradicted that testimony, submitting proof that no planes were flying at the time of the sightings.  Raymond Fowler told of his investigation and interviews with local citizens.  According to their testimony, Air Force officers confiscated newspapers carrying the story of U.F.O.’s and ordered them not to report what they’d seen.

Two police officers, Eugene Bertrand, and David Hunt, communicated with Quintanilla — and they were not pleased.  Air Force Secretary Harold Brown explained that BLUE BOOK consisted of three steps — investigation, analysis, and the distribution of information.  With Brown’s permission, the Chairman invited press members into the hearing.  Brown stated, for the record, “I know of no one of scientific standing or executive standing with a detailed knowledge of this in our organization who believes that they came from extraterrestrial sources.”

Dr. Hynek, the Project Blue Book scientific advisor, stated that he had not seen any confirmation of the existence of extraterrestrials, knew of any scientist that had, or knew of any scientist that believed in the existence of any extraterrestrial intelligence. 

Criticism of BLUE BOOK continued through the 1960s as N.I.C.A.P.’s membership ballooned.  These were people who loudly accused the Air Force of corruption.  Following Congressional hearings, the Air Force funded a committee of its own through the University of Colorado U.F.O. Project (1966 – 1968). Its director was Edward Condon — it became known as the Condon Committee, whose work he published as the Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects (1968).

After examining hundreds of U.F.O. files from BLUE BOOK, N.I.C.A.P., and the Aerial Phenomena Research Organization (A.P.R.O.), the committee determined that studies of U.F.O.’s were unlikely to produce any significant scientific discoveries. Still, the findings received a mixed reception from scientific and academic journals — and to some extent, explain the relatively low-interest level in U.F.O. activity in the academic world. One wonders at this point how much money the Air Force spent reaching this “obvious” conclusion.

The U. S. Space Force

The U.S. government released its report on U.F.O.’s in 2021.  For many, it was anti-climactic — because the government could not explain 143 out of 144 “sightings” of unidentified flying objects.  In the one explained case, the government determined that the object was a large deflating balloon.  The public wondered, “Where are the aliens?”

It wasn’t the Air Force who released that information; it was the Director of National Intelligence — without any details.  The question was if there was any analysis, what it was, and who conducted the study.  After all, it had only been 75 years.  Surely someone knows something after 75 years of investigation.

That’s when the Director of National Intelligence introduced Dr. Travis Wayne Taylor (1968 – ).  Dr. Taylor’s educational credentials are brilliant.  He holds a Bachelor of Electrical Engineering (B.E.E.), two Masters of Science, a Master of Science in Engineering, and two post-honorary degrees.  He is an employee of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (N.A.S.A.) within the U.S. Department of Defense.  He is also a science fiction writer, authored two science textbooks, a reality television personality (When Alien’s Attack), and lead investigator in the History Channel’s The Secret of Skinwalker Ranch.

The revelation of Dr. Taylor as the United States’ lead investigator of the Director of National Intelligence’s effort to analyze 75 years of U.F.O. data did nothing to warm the hearts of people who are interested in the existence of alien life forms — particularly since Dr. Taylor had made some extraordinary claims. He’s said, for the record, that he’s seen more U.F.O.’s than he can count.

Real-life astronomers can only shake their heads because appointing a clown to guide the nation’s space assessment program is a kick in the teeth for all the hard work they’ve put into such activities as the S.E.T.I. operations.  Worse, it calls into question the credibility and validity of advanced degrees awarded by the country’s prestigious universities — causing some to wonder whether this is just another aspect of the affirmative action program in the United States.

Many people fear that the government’s decision to hire a science fiction writer as N.A.S.A.’s chief analyst is simply one more silly effort to discredit any serious attempt to evaluate the likelihood of extraterrestrial life forms.  They wonder if the U.S. Air Force or Space Force is leading the American people down the path of accepting “reality television” as the nation’s best effort toward understanding deep space — and of all the platforms available to the Director of National Intelligence, the History Channel — which also produces the fictional (zero-credibility) Ancient Aliens program.

The government’s revelation tells us something else: if you are a pilot, if you observe a U.F.O., if you wish to remain in flight status, if you want to retain your credibility as an airman, you’ll keep your mouth shut.  That is unless you want a reality television program of your own. There’s more money in that than there is working at S.E.T.I.

Or, we could add the U.S. Air Force and Space Force to our growing list of government agencies, departments, and institutions with no credibility with the American people.

(End of Series)


  1. Blum, H.  Out There: The Government’s Secret Quest for Extraterrestrials.  Simon & Schuster, 1990.V
  2. Ruppelt, E. J.  Report on Unidentified Flying Objects.  Doubleday, 1960.
  3. Swords, M. D.  UFOs, the Military, and the Early Cold War Era.  Kansas University Press, 2000.
  4. Valle, J.  Passport to Magonia: On UFOs, Folklore and Parallel Worlds.  Contemporary Books, 1993.


[1] NICAP was a non-profit organization facing financial collapse on several occasions — mostly due to the ineptitude of its directors. 

[2] Major Donald E. Keyhoe, USMC; Rear Admiral Delmer S. Fahrney, U.S.N., former Chief, Navy Guided Missile Program. 

[3] There were more than a few “outlandish” claims, beginning in the mid-1940s.  One of these claims originated with George Adamski (1891 – 1965), who insisted that he had established friendships with his “space brothers” and made several space flights with aliens.  Another strange character was Truman Bethurun, who beginning in 1953, offered accounts of eleven separate contacts with alien humanoid-type beings — people who spoke colloquial English and came from the planet Clarion.

[4] Most U.F.O. reports mostly claim incidents after sunset — so one common theme is a multicolored flashing light and aerial vehicles shaped like eggs or diamonds.  The Oklahoma Highway Patrol reported that air control specialists at Tinker A.F.B. tracked four U.F.O.s simultaneously with erratic behavior and altitudinal changes from 22,000 feet to 4,000 feet in mere seconds.  Kansas meteorologist John Shockley reported tracking several aerial objects traveling at a high rate of speed at around 6,000 to 9,000 feet.  In both cases (as well as others), BLUE BOOK staff concluded that witnesses mistook planets for stars or some other lame explanation.


Posted in Air Force/Space Force, American Military, Corruption, Extraterrestrials, History, Mythical stories, U.S. Government | 3 Comments

Project Blue Book and other Fairy Tales — Part 1

The Sightings

On 19 September 1961, Barney and Betty Hill returned to their home in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, when they encountered an alien spaceship.  The couple was not the first to sight, report, or claim contact with beings from outer space. It’s been going on for a while — the claims, I mean.

The first claim, which supposedly dates back to 1440 B.C., is that Thutmose III reported “fiery disks” floating in the sky over Lower Egypt.  The claim was rendered fake by the Condon Committee, a group of academics associated with the University of Colorado, who received grants from the U.S. Air Force to study U.F.O. phenomena under the direction of physicist Edward Condon between 1966 – 1968.

The basis for the Egyptian claim was the so-called Tulli Papyrus, which wasn’t revealed to anyone until 1953 in an article published in the Fortean Society magazine Doubt by Tiffany Thayer.[1]  The Fortean Society, created to promote the ideas of Charles Hoy Fort (1874 – 1932), was a writer/researcher specializing in strange phenomena.  Several of Fort’s books influenced later science fiction writers, both in their skepticism and their ideas.  One of the Fortean Society’s early members was the journalist H. L. Mencken.  Mr. Menchken opined that Fort’s head was full of mush.  As proof, theorist Erich von Daniken included the Tulli Papyrus as part of his “ancient aliens” discoveries.

There were also “sightings” in 218 B.C. recorded by Livy, in 76 B.C., noted by Pliny, the Elder, and in 65 A.D. by Flavius Josephus during the First Romano-Jewish War.  Sightings of aerial flights by chariots and other strange instruments repeated in 1562, Nuremberg, 1883, Zacatecas, Mexico, and 1897, Aurora, Texas.

More about the Hills

Barney Hill (1918 – 1969) was a U.S. Postal employee.  Eunice (Betty) Hill (1919 – 2004) was a social worker, a church activist, and a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (N.A.A.C.P.).  The Hills were an interracial couple at a time when interracial marriages were rare.

According to the Hills, they were driving home from a vacation at Niagara Falls and Montreal.  Just south of Lancaster, New Hampshire, Betty observed a bright point of light in the sky and moved from below the moon upward to the west.  Barney, at the time driving on U.S. Route 3, focused his attention on highway safety.  Initially, Betty thought she was seeing a falling star — except that it was moving upward, but then because it was moving erratically and growing bigger by the second, the Hills stopped the car so that they both could get a better view.

The Hills later claimed that while they had no direct memory of their abduction, they began experiencing odd sensations, impulses, and dreams.  The watches they were wearing that night stopped working and never worked again.  There was press coverage, of course — and a book, with rumors of a film (which never materialized).  Inevitably, the Hills lost their credibility.

Unidentified Flying Object (U.F.O.) expert Robert Shaeffer described the Hills as the poster children for not driving when sleep deprived.  He wrote, “I was present at the National U.F.O. Conference in New York City in 1980, where Betty[Hill] presented some of the U.F.O. photos she had taken.  She showed what must have been far more than 200 slides, mostly of blips, blurs, and blobs against a dark background.  These were supposed to be U.F.O.s coming in close, chasing her car, landing, etc.  After her talk had exceeded about twice its allotted time, Betty was jeered off the stage by what had been, at first, a sympathetic audience.  This incident, witnessed by many ufology leaders and top activists, removed any lingering doubts about Betty’s credibility — she had none.  In 1995, Betty Hill wrote a self-published book, A Common Sense Approach to U.F.O.s, filled with delusional stories, such as seeing entire squadrons of U.F.O.s in flight and a truck levitating above the freeway.”

Before Hill

Concerns about extraterrestrials pre-dated the Hill episode by fifteen years.  On 27 June 1947, the national press picked up a story about civilian pilot Kenneth Arnold seeing what became known as “flying saucers.” Within a short time, there were over 800 copycat stories.  Ten days later, rancher Mac Brazel (unaware of the flying saucer bruhaha reported debris scattered across his ranch to the sheriff in Roswell.  The sheriff notified the U.S. Army Air Field, who sent Major Jesse Marcel to investigate.  On 8 July, Marcel took the debris to his Commanding Officer, Colonel William Blanchard.  Later that day, the public affairs office issued a press release stating that Air Corps personnel had recovered a “flying disk,” which had landed on a ranch near Roswell.

The Air Force began slicing its wrist shortly after it retracted its initial claim to replace it with a story about weather balloons.  The national press liked the first announcement best because it was more sensational — so, of course, that was the headliner. Neither story was true. Today, we know this as the Roswell Incident. The debris discovered by Brazel was part of a top-secret Air Corps effort to spy on the Soviet Union with high-altitude balloons.  The Americans came up with this idea from the Japanese, who, during World War II, attempted to send incendiary weapons against the U.S. west coast using high-altitude balloons.  The so-called Fu-Go balloons didn’t work well then, either.[2]

Oddly enough, the Air Corps (soon to be U.S. Air Force) turned to a civilian industry to help develop a high-altitude balloon program.  General Mills Corporation of Minneapolis, Minnesota — known for manufacturing breakfast cereals- was a significant innovator in aerospace technology, particularly in scientific balloons.

Established in 1946, the Aeronautical Research Division fell under the leadership of the recent German émigré Otto Winzen. Winzen determined that the latex balloons weren’t cut out for high-altitude missions, whereas polyethylene materials were up to the tasks assigned to such operations. General Mills worked closely with the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research.

The codename for the first of these balloons was Skyhook — launched in September 1947.  They proved tremendously successful in carrying a wide range of scientific payloads.  They were exactly what the Air Force needed for reconnaissance overflights — codenamed MOGUL.  Earlier, in 1944, a geophysicist named Maurice Ewing realized that at a certain depth below the ocean, pressure and temperature combine to create a zone of water in which the speed of sound is at a minimum — so that any sound produced in this zone will bounce off the layers of water above and below allowing it to propagate over long distances.[3]

From Ewing’s work, the Navy created a device known as the SOFAR bomb, which allowed downed Navy pilots to communicate their position at sea.  After the war, scientists realized that a similar sound channel exists in the upper atmosphere.  The sounds of distant enemy nuclear tests and missile launches were detectable by flying balloons equipped with instruments into this channel.  To this end, technicians fitted MOGUL balloons with ultra-sensitive microphones, telemetry systems for transmitting recorded data to ground stations — and automatic systems for maintaining the balloons’ altitude.

To disguise the project’s true nature during the testing phase of MOGUL, unclassified weather balloons contained sensitive military equipment designed and launched by a research team from the University of New York.  As it happened, MOGUL flight No.4 launched on 4 June 1947 — and this equipment fell into the ranch abutting Roswell, New Mexico.

To allow the monitoring teams to track these balloons, researchers fitted them with a chain of kite-shaped radar reflectors consisting of lightweight balsa wood frames covered in metal foil.  According to Charles Moore, working at the time as a General Mills engineer attached to Project MOGUL, the foil was fixed to the frames using metallic tape purchased from a New York City toy factory.  The packing tape was stamped with decorative patterns, which included the kinds of designs that appealed most to children — hearts, flowers, sea shells, and so forth.  During the Air Force’s investigation of the material collected from Bezel’s ranch, U.F.O. experts identified these designs as extraterrestrial hieroglyphics.  There was no other possible explanation.

The Air Force Takes Charge

The first Air Force U.F.O. study fell under Project SIGN.  The project began in 1948 under the direction of Air Force General Nathan Farragut Twining, who commanded the Air Technical Services Command.  Earlier, Project SIGN was called Project SAUCER. Twining’s task was to collect, evaluate, and distribute (within the government) all information relating to U.F.O. sightings — on the premise that they might represent a national security concern.[4]

In late April 1947, the Air Force released a paper prepared by the Intelligence Division of the Air Material Command (Wright-Patterson A.F.B.).  The report was anti-climactic, stating that while some U.F.O.s appeared to represent actual aircraft, the Air Force didn’t have enough data to determine their origin.  And recommended a continuation of the investigation of all sightings.  According to Captain Edward J. Ruppelt, U.S.A.F., later director of Project BLUE BOOK, Project SIGN produced an “Estimate of the Situation,” which endorsed an interplanetary explanation for U.F.O.’s.  General Hoyt Vandenberg, U.S.A.F. Chief of Staff, shut down Project SIGN for “lack of proof.” There is no verification of Ruppelt’s claim remains unverified.

Project GRUDGE followed Project SIGN.  The GRUDGE staff concluded that a foreign power could exploit U.F.O. reports to induce panic among the population and be useful to foreign secret services.  Accordingly, Project GRUDGE publicly disparaged all U.F.O. reports as (a) misidentification of conventional objects, (b) a form of mass hysteria and post-war nervousness, (c) hoaxers and liars, and (d) psychotic persons.

The Caldwell Investigation

In 1949, Air Force officials received information from a shareholder of an aeronautical company advising them that his company was developing aircraft fashioned after the saucers spoken about in the press.  This followed revelations of Kenneth Arnold of seeing U.F.O.’s over Mount Rainier and the Roswell Incident (already discussed).[5]  The reason for this letter was that the Air Force had asked for reports of flying saucers, and the shareholder believed that his company’s efforts might explain them.

With the help of Maryland State Police, Air Force investigators discovered the remains of the inventor John Caldwell’s flying machine in a barn just outside Baltimore.  In as much as these prototypes never gained airworthiness, there was no way Caldwell’s invention could have been mistaken for U.F.O.’s.  But in response to the Air Force’s request for information, letters and telegrams flooded in from all across the country — along with an inexhaustible number of photographs of the Caldwell machine described as wreckage from alien spacecraft.

The Ruppelt Period

Captain Ruppelt referred to the GRUDGE period as the “dark ages” of the Air Force U.F.O. effort.  Of course, the GRUDGE standard line was that spacecraft were natural phenomena and nothing to see — while admitting that there was no acceptable explanation for a quarter of all reports.  By the end of 1951, several Air Force generals were so dissatisfied with the service’s handling of U.F.O. investigations that they dismantled GRUDGE and replaced it with BLUE BOOK in 1952.  Two of those unhappy generals were Charles Cabell and William Garland.  Having claimed to have witnessed a U.F.O., Garland thought the question of U.F.O.’s deserved serious consideration.

The term BLUE BOOK refers to the booklets used at some colleges and universities for final exams.  According to Captain Ruppelt, the name was inspired by the attention of high-ranking officers to the project — which led to the creation of the Air Force Aerial Phenomenon Department.

Ruppelt was the first to head the project.  He was a decorated airman from World War II with a degree in aeronautics — and it is said that it was Ruppelt who first coined the term “Unidentified Flying Object.” To him, it was better than a flying saucer or flying disk.  Some years later, Ruppelt resigned from the Air Force and wrote a book entitled The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects.  In this book, he described the study of U.F.O.s by the Air Force from 1947 to 1955.  One scientist opined that Captain Ruppelt led the last serious effort to analyze U.F.O.s.

During his tenure at BLUE BOOK, Ruppelt scream lined the process of U.F.O. reporting in the hopes of alleviating the ridicule of the U.F.O. project.  Not everyone in America believed in such things.  But he developed a questionnaire for witnesses to standardize the information to be analyzed.  These efforts led to qualitative statistical analysis and computerized storage of data.

Ruppelt wanted to avoid the factionalism that existed under Project SIGN.  He took his job seriously, and he expected his staff to do so as well.  Early in his post, he fired three of his staff because they couldn’t be objective.  Through his commander, Ruppelt tasked each U.S. Air Force Base to collect U.F.O. reports and forward them to his desk.  To accomplish his task, Ruppelt was authorized to interview all military personnel who witnessed U.F.O.s irrespective of the chain of command.  It was an unprecedented authority that illustrated the seriousness of BLUE BOOK.

Under Ruppelt’s direction, BLUE BOOK investigated several high-profile cases.  They were high-profile because they were featured in the national press.  Dr. J. Allen Hynek (1910 – 1986), an astronomer, served as the project’s scientific consultant.  It was Hynek that established the categories known today as Close Encounters.  Dr. Hynek regarded himself as a wavering skeptic.  In 1953, Ruppelt returned to his office after a short period of temporary duty and found that his superiors had dismissed most of his staff.  Frustrated, Ruppelt recommended that BLUE BOOK turn over U.F.O. investigations to the Air Defense Command.  He then resigned.  He died from a heart attack in 1960 — aged 37.


  1. Blum, H.  Out There: The Government’s Secret Quest for Extraterrestrials.  Simon & Schuster, 1990.V
  2. Ruppelt, E. J.  Report on Unidentified Flying Objects.  Doubleday, 1960.
  3. Swords, M. D.  UFOs, the Military, and the Early Cold War Era.  Kansas University Press, 2000.
  4. Valle, J.  Passport to Magonia: On UFOs, Folklore and Parallel Worlds.  Contemporary Books, 1993.


[1] Tiffany Elworth Thayer (1902 – 1959) was an American actor, writer, and one of the founding members of the Fortean Society (1931). 

[2] Five people enjoying a picnic on 5 May 1945 were killed near Bly, Oregon, where a Japanese balloon fell on them.

[3] Today, we know that whales and other marine creatures use this zone, which Ewing called the Sound Fixing and Ranging channel (SOFAR), to communicate across entire oceans.

[4] Nathan Twining (later to become Chairman of the JCS, was the elder brother of Merrill C. Twining and the nephew of Rear Admiral Nathan C. Twining.  

[5] Arnold was a private pilot, a businessman, and a politician.

Posted in Air Force/Space Force, American Military, Corruption, Extraterrestrials, History, Mythical stories, U.S. Government | Leave a comment

The Indefatigable Julius Cæsar — Part 2

The Rebellion

The outbreak began among the Carnuti (the “horned ones”) when two chieftains led their retinues into the town of Cenabum (present-day Orléans) and massacred Roman tradesmen.  Vercingetorix, a young Arverni nobleman previously favored by Cæsar, followed their example by embarking on a terror campaign targeting local merchants.  Initially, Vercingetorix lacked support from his tribal elders — that is, until dozens of young warriors began flocking to join his band.

Vercingetorix was the son of Celtillus, a tribal leader.  Through birth and a demonstration of the warrior ethos, he rose to power as a chieftain.  Some scholars say that he proclaimed himself king and then called for fighters.  This may be true because, within a short time, Vercingetorix had amassed a substantial army.  Historians also point out that it was Vercingetorix’s experience serving in Cæsar’s legions that aided him in organizing his army.  Moreover, the young warrior imposed a level of discipline on his men that were previously unknown in Gaul.  Judging from his strategies, Vercingetorix believed he had discovered a way to defeat Cæsar.

Vercingetorix started his war by attacking Rome’s staunch ally, the Remi.  Even though aware of these assaults, none of Cæsar’s junior legates took direct action.  They did ask the Aedui to send help, but that tribe had already turned lukewarm in its allegiance to Rome.  Observing that Rome’s legion had no interest in putting down the rebellion, even more, tribes joined Vercingetorix.  Believing he was strong enough to sustain a protracted war against Rome, Vercingetorix initiated hostilities toward even more Roman allies.  Still, Cæsar’s legates took no action — giving Rome the appearance of weakness and indecisiveness.

When word of the rebellion finally reached Cæsar, he expedited his return to Gaul, arriving in time to observe a raid into the Transalpine region.  Since Cæsar’s regular legions were much further to the north, he raised local troops and used them to defend the province and launch counter-raids against the Arverni.

With relatively few troops at his disposal, Cæsar’s options were limited to forcing Vercingetorix’s hand.  After clearing a pathway through deep snow in Cevennes, Cæsar sent his cavalry on wide-ranging patrols with orders to destroy Arverni settlements wherever found.  The damage imposed by the cavalry was minimal, but it was enough to make tribal leaders nervous — and it was enough to petition Vercingetorix to come to their aid.

While his enemy was distracted looking for suspected legionnaires, Cæsar spread a false rumor that he was returning to Trans-Alpine Gaul to raise more troops.  Instead, he hurried northward to join his army — consisting of the ten legions that were about to emerge from their winter quarters.  It was a bold move — but that’s what Cæsar did for a living.  His northward trek took him directly through the center of hostile territory.  Still, even after marshaling his troops, the situation in Gaul remained grim.  Once more, success or failure rested on logistics — Cæsar needed food for his men and his animals.

Meanwhile, Vercingetorix quickly recovered from Cæsar’s ruse and launched a series of attacks against the Boii.  Leaving two legions to maintain a presence in the north, Cæsar led eight legions against Vercingetorix.  Initially, the targeted areas are rich in forage.  When the Legionnaires reached Orléans, they utterly destroyed it in Retribution for Vercingetorix’s assault on Roman merchants.

Cæsar believed he had drawn Vercingetorix away from the Boii — and while this is probably true, the young warrior chief continued to avoid Cæsar, preferring instead to maintain his plan of starving the Romans into submission.  At a council of war, he persuaded the Bituriges Cubi tribe to burn most of their towns and villages to prevent the Romans from finding any supplies.

Cæsar, aware that Avaricum (modern Bourges) was the largest and best-fortified town of the Bituriges Cubi tribe, believed that if he could capture the town, then the entire tribe would surrender.  Vercingetorix didn’t share this opinion. 

Because of its strategic location, the Bituriges Cubi was sure that the town of Avaricum would receive a visit from Cæsar and his legions.  Still, the people of Avaricum resisted Vercingetorix’s order.  With protected access to water and enough food to feed forty-thousand people for a year, the townspeople demanded their right to defend their own community.  Against his better judgment, Vercingetorix agreed to garrison the town.

Avaricum was easy to defend because the town was protected by a river and a sizable marsh — with only one narrow approach to the city.  Cæsar camped outside that narrow entrance and began to build a giant mound and siege towers.  The marshy location of the town prevented the Romans from their typical construction of a line of circumvallation by the river and marsh.

Vercingetorix followed behind the Romans and set up his camp fifteen miles from the town.  A swamp protected Bituriges camp from Roman attack.  Scouts kept the two Gallic forces in touch with each other while Vercingetorix concentrated on attacking Roman foraging parties that traveled too far from their main camp.  The Romans soon ran short of supplies, partly because of these attacks but also because the Aedui, Cæsar’s most valuable allies in Gaul, were reluctant to provide him with supplies.

When he discovered that the Romans had completed their siege towers, Vercingetorix moved his camp nearer to the town and prepared to ambush the next day’s foraging party.  When scouts reported this move, Cæsar decided to attack the new camp.  Early the following day, while Vercingetorix was waiting in vain for the Roman foragers, Cæsar, and the main Roman army, advanced towards his camp, where they discovered the Gallic army formed up on a hill.  For a short time, it looked as if a major battle was about to break out, but a swamp separated the two armies, and neither side was willing to risk the first move.

Eventually, the Romans returned to their camp.  When Vercingetorix returned to his camp, his officers accused him of planning to betray the army, and he was forced to defend his decision to withdraw.

The siege lasted for twenty-seven days.  The Bituriges had become much more skilled at defending their towns against Roman siege engines, and many of the inhabitants of Avaricum were experienced iron miners, which gave them the engineering skills needed to counter Cæsar’s mound ramp. The Gallic miners dug countermines when the Romans attempted to dig tunnels under the walls. When the Romans tried to use grappling hooks to pull stones off the walls, the Bituriges trapped them and used their machines to drag the grappling hooks inside the city.

After twenty-five days, the Roman mound was 330 feet wide, 80 feet high, and getting close to the city walls.  Just after midnight on the 25th day, Cæsar realized that the mound was sinking.  The Bituriges had dug tunnels under the mound and had set fire to its wooden pit props, which collapsed the tunnel and denied its use to the Romans.

At the same time, the Bituriges launched sallies from gates on either side of the mound.  The lateness of the hour and the flames caused great confusion in the Roman camp, but eventually, with the help of the entire besieging army, the situation was restored, and the Bituriges attack failed.

On the following day, the garrison of Avaricum decided to attempt an escape from the town and cross the marsh to join Vercingetorix.  The Romans became aware of the attempt when sentries were alerted by the sounds of arguments from within the city.  Bituriges women were overheard pleading with tribal warriors not to abandon them to the Romans.  It wasn’t long before the Bituriges became aware that the Romans were on to their plan, and they abandoned it.  Still, the incident convinced Cæsar it was time to attack the town.

On the next day, under cover of a storm, Cæsar’s lead elements successfully reached the top of the town walls.  The Bituriges formed up a wedge in the open marketplace, ready to resist the expected Roman attack, but instead of climbing down into the town, the Roman infantry spread out along the top of the walls.  This unnerved the defenders, who began a foot race to see who could get out of the walled town first.  Roman infantry killed some of these men in the narrow approaches to the gate, but Roman cavalry caught most of the fleeing men outside the town.

A massacre of the inhabitants followed the fall of the Avaricum, women, and children included.  Of 40,000 inhabitants, only 800 joined Vercingetorix in his camp.  Cæsar described this as having been caused by a combination of the legionnaire’s anger at the massacre of the Romans at Cenabum and their frustration with the difficult siege.  Yet, Cæsar gave no indication why the people were massacred rather than enslaved (where Cæsar would profit from the sale of slaves).

The fall of Avaricum didn’t have the effect Cæsar had hoped, even though the town had enough grain to meet the army’s immediate needs.  Cæsar gave his soldiers a few days’ rests as his two additional legions joined the army.  With the arrival of spring came greater opportunities for foraging, and Cæsar’s instinct was to press his advantage and continue his counterattacks against Vercingetorix.

The lull in fighting gave Vercingetorix the time he needed to recover, while the failure of Avaricum to hold out helped convince his followers of the wisdom of avoiding direct fighting with the Romans.  Vercingetorix managed to restore the morale of his army with a rousing speech, and he was soon able to replace the troops lost during the siege.

More importantly, however, the Aedui finally abandoned their long attachment to the Roman cause and joined the revolt.  Cæsar lost one of his best sources of cavalry and faced an ever more powerful coalition of Gallic tribes.

Cæsar’s next move was his attack on Gergovia.  It was his only major defeat in the Gallic Wars, but Vercingetorix then attempted to defend Alesia.  It was his last mistake.

After Avaricum, Cæsar had lost the initiative and was in a desperate position.  He withdrew from Gergovia, shadowed at a safe distance by the Gallic army.  Forcing the pace, the general headed north and joined his cavalry commander, Titus Labienus before the enemy could intervene.[1]

The proconsul now led all ten legions — between 40 and 45 thousand men, roughly — and a few thousand auxiliaries, including Labienus’ cavalry.  But the fact was that allied Gallic tribes had always supplied the bulk of his horsemen.  Comparatively speaking, the Roman cavalry was weak.  To compensate, Cæsar hired German mercenaries from beyond the Rhine, giving them horses taken from his own officers because their mounts were of poor quality.

With these few modifications, Cæsar had assembled a powerful and concentrated force.  Shortages in supplies and forage continued to plague him, however.  Additionally, news reached him of fresh Gallic raids on the Trans­alpine province, so he headed southward to be nearer to his bases there.

Vercingetorix viewed this withdrawal as another retreat.  Encouraged and with far more cavalry than the Romans, Vercingetorix drew closer in his pursuit.  Traditionally, horsemen were the battle arm of the Gallic aristocracy.

Divided into three groups, the Gallic cavalry struck at the head and flanks of the marching Romans.  Cæsar divided his badly outnumbered horsemen into three units to match the enemy.  Fighting with infantry in close support, the Roman cavalry could hold the Gauls at bay until Cæsar’s German horsemen finally learned how to defeat Vercingetorix’s mounted warriors.  The route, once started, spread throughout the rest of the Gauls’ forces.

This was the smallest of successes, but its impact on the campaign proved massive. Cæsar immediately abandoned any thought of retreat and instead advanced to attack the Gallic army.  Vercingetorix retreated with the Romans in hot pursuit and, after a few days, reached the town of Alesia, thus setting the stage for the Gallic warrior’s final act.

Cæsar claimed that the Gauls had eighty thousand infantry and a large cavalry force camped outside the walled town.  We have no way of verifying his account.  We do know that a solid wall surrounded Alesia, and the high ground on which it lay offered a strong position. Unlike Gergovia, however, Cæsar had a much stronger force.  It was also summer, which made foraging easier — and especially since the region had not seen heavy campaigning up to that point.  Cæsar resolved to blockade the enemy and set his legionaries to constructing massively fortified lines.  Archaeological excavation reveals that Cæsar’s description of the place, while simple, is amazingly accurate.  Here’s something even more amazing: Cæsar’s legions constructed a rampart eleven miles long surrounding Alesia.  The circumvallation was strengthened by twenty-three forts.

 Cæsar was aware that Vercingetorix had sent for help.  He knew that it was only a matter of time before Gallic reinforcements arrived.  To protect his troops from that eventuality, the Legate ordered a second defensive line facing outward — a second line of contravallation —which was three miles longer than the first.  In front of both defensive lines, the legionnaires dug ditches, flooded where possible, and placed lines of stakes and other obstacles.

In his commentaries, Cæsar claimed that Gallic reinforcements numbered 250,000 infantry and 8,000 mounted troops.  We must question such a precise figure when even their chieftains could not have known an exact figure — but we do know that the number of enemies approaching the Roman line was massive.  Were they all “warriors?”  Not likely — which means that their effectiveness against the Romans was on the light side of the spectrum.  Even so, Cæsar’s men were greatly outnumbered — and from the moment these reinforcements arrived, the legionnaires would have to subsist on what they already had.

Inside Alesia, Vercingetorix was also running low on supplies.  Historians argue that one can measure his desperation by the fact that he expelled all inhabitants of Alesia unable to fight.  If Vercingetorix expected Cæsar to let these non-combatants through his lines, he was disappointed.  Cæsar refused to let them pass; he ordered his men to let the people starve between the city walls and the inside defensive line.

The two Gallic armies, unable to communicate directly, launched a series of heavy, if not quite coordinated, attacks on the Roman fortifications. All were repulsed —  although, in several instances, by the narrowest of margins.

The culmination came in a day of massive assaults, the heaviest coming from the relief army against the camp that was the weakest position in the Roman lines. The camp was overshadowed by higher ground, as it would have taken too much effort for the Romans to include the heights within their lines. Two legions held the camp, but when the main attack was launched at noon, these came under massive pressure.

Cæsar sent Labienus to take charge, giving him six cohorts to bolster the garrison.  Moving to a vantage point that gave him a better view of the areas under threat, Cæsar sent reserves and senior officers to plug gaps in the line.  The Gauls broke into the fort, but Labienus managed to hold them by forming a line inside, adding eight more cohorts to his existing forces.

But Labienus’ men were barely holding their own.  Cæsar decided to lead his last available reserve in person.  He divided the force, vectoring some between the two Roman lines and sending a body of cavalry outside to hit the enemy in the rear.  According to the Commentaries, his —

… arrival was known through the color of his cloak, which he always wore in battle as a distinguishing mark; and the troops of cavalry and the cohorts which he had ordered to follow him were also visible because, from the higher parts of the hill, these downward slopes and dips could be seen.  Then the enemy joined battle; both sides cheered, and the cry was taken up by a shout from the men within the fortifications and rampart.  Our troops threw their pila and got to work with their swords.  Suddenly the Gauls spotted the cavalry behind them and were caught as they fled by the cavalry, and a great slaughter ensued.  Seventy-four war standards were carried to Cæsar; very few of this vast host escaped unscathed to their camp.

The next day, the Gauls admitted their defeat.  The great reinforcing army dispersed, and Vercingetorix rode out to surrender.  Cæsar had won a remarkable victory, but he knew that the peace would only last if he could put together a viable political settlement.  From the first, his treatment of the tribes reflected this.

Vercingetorix knew that he could expect no mercy because tradition held that an enemy leader must be ritually strangled at the end of a Roman triumph.  However, Cæsar treated Vercingetorix’s own people — the Arverni — (as well as the treasonous Aedui) generously.  He did not sell captives from these tribes into slavery like other prisoners, nor did he direct reprisals against any of their communities.  It was not true elsewhere —

On 31 December 52 B.C., Cæsar led the first of a series of punitive expeditions against the other rebellious tribes.  These campaigns lasted for much of the following year and culminated in the siege and capture of the town of Uxellodunum (near present-day Vayrac, in Southwest France.  The warriors who surrendered there had their hands cut off.  They were then released as visible reminders of the price of opposing Rome.

Cæsar met open resistance with overwhelming force, but he spent much of his time in a concerted diplomatic effort.  One of Cæsar’s officers recorded that the legate’s primary goal was keeping the tribes “friendly” and giving them neither opportunity nor cause for hostility.  By dealing with the tribes honorably, granting rich bounties to chieftains, not imposing burdens, and keeping the peace.  The Gallic tribes had become weary of war.

Cæsar’s Gallic conquests enrolled Gaul as part of the Roman Empire for over five centuries.  His success was as much careful diplomacy as military skill.  Richard Wellesley and Lord Wellesley found this true in India, as well.  Rarely does any imperial power have enough “force” to hold down large, well-populated countries.  In time, the Gauls became Roman — and carried forward Roman traditions.  In time, Gauls served in the Senate of Rome.  Cæsar didn’t go to Gaul to establish democracy; he went there to conquer and seek advantages for himself and the empire he sought to rule.  But the unintended consequence of his actions was, in time, the beginning of western civilization.


  1. Canfora, L.  Julius Cæsar: The People’s Dictator.  Edinburgh University Press, 2006.
  2. Freeman, P.  Julius Cæsar.  Simon & Schuster, 2008.
  3. Goldsworthy, A.  Cæsar: Life of a Colossus.  Yale University Press, 2006.
  4. Griffin, M.  A Companion to Julius Cæsar.  Wiley & Sons, 2009.
  5. Trollope, A.  The Commentaries of CæsarOnline.


[1] Titus Labienus (100 – 45 B.C.) was a military genius and a lieutenant of Julius Cæsar . 

Posted in Antiquity, Corruption, Feuds & Rivalries, Gaul, History, Imperialism, Rome, Western Civilization | 2 Comments

The Indefatigable Julius Cæsar — Part 1

It is hard to know where to begin with a man like Gaius Julius Cæsar.  Was he a dangerous egocentric and a genuine threat to Rome, a man undeserving of admiration, or was he the noblest of men — as proclaimed by Shakespeare?  Was he a good man with flaws, a flawed man with streaks of worthiness in him, or was he simply a Roman in touch with his own culture?

The Beginning

Historians tell us that Julius Cæsar was born on 12 July 100 B.C.  That may be true for us, but it wasn’t true for Julius.  We date events of the past as either Before the Common Era (B.C.E.) (also Before Christ (B.C.)), or as occurring in the Common Era (C.E.), or in Latin, Anno Domini (in the year of our Lord).  The Romans recorded their years differently — often spoken of in terms of who served as consul or in the number of years from the founding of Rome.  Later, people may have spoken of years in terms of an emperor’s reign.

Gaius Julius Cæsar was named after his father, who was married to Aurelia.  In manhood, Julius was tall, fair-haired, well-built, and mostly healthy.  He did suffer epileptic episodes.[1]  The historian Suetonius wrote, “He was embarrassed by his baldness, which was a frequent subject of jokes on the part of his opponents; so much so, that he used to comb his straggling locks forward from the back, and of all honors heaped upon him by senate and people, the one he most appreciated was to be able to wear a wreath at all times …”

Of course, since Suetonius wasn’t born until Julius had been dead 113 years, we aren’t sure how he would know these things — but we can chalk it up to interesting, compare it to the busts and statues of Cæsar that survived him, and decide for ourselves what the man might have looked like.

Cæsar grew up in a period of unrest and civil war in Rome.  The increased size of the empire had led to cheap slave labor flooding into the country — which in turn caused Roman workers to lose their work.  The so-called Social Wars created turmoil all over Italy, and Marius and Sulla were the great leaders of the time.

Julius was a member of an old aristocratic family, and as such, Roman culture expected him to assume a modest office on the lower end of a Roman political career pattern.  Julius Cæsar, however, was not your average Roman.  At a young age, he understood that money, audacity, and corruption were key to success in Roman politics.  Gaius the elder died when Julius was 15 years old.  The significance of his father’s death was this: Gaius the younger would have to enter adulthood without the advice of a sage and moderately successful father.  If Julius was to succeed in life, it would be up to him alone.

His first step was to marry into a more distinguished family — and build a network through which he could build his future.  It was walking on eggshells (unguided) because some of his connections were enemies of other connections.  His patron Marius was an enemy of Sulla, the dictator sworn to wipe out every remnant of the Marius household.  Julius learned quickly that a networking mistake could be his last mistake and came perilously close to that on more than one occasion.  When the nineteen-year-old Cæsar was arrested, Sulla chose to spare him.  Influential friends managed to release him, but it was obvious that Cæsar  would have to leave Rome for a while — to let things “cool down.”  It was the beginning of his days as a marine.[2]

Roman Politics

In 60 BC, Cæsar sought election as Consul of Rome for 59 B.C., along with two other candidates.[3]  The election was sordid — even by Washington standards.  Romans, thought to be incorruptible, paid bribes to help defeat Cæsar.  Of the three, Cæsar was the most liberal, and he ended up winning (along with a conservative named Marcus Bibulus) — which tends to suggest there was a “great society” scam long before Lyndon Johnson.

It was no easy matter winning an election in ancient Rome, but the costs of doing so were comparable to modern elections.  It may have been the Romans who first developed the axiom “go big or stay home.”  To meet these expenses, Cæsar borrowed money — actually, a lot of money, from Marcus Licinius Crassus — but it still wasn’t enough, prompting Cæsar to approach Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey).  His strategy was amazingly brazen because Pompey and Crassus were life-long enemies.  Cæsar wanted to reconcile these men, and while they were at the point of reconciling, why not chip in a few more denarii for an important election?

Between Cæsar, Crassus, and Pompey, there was almost as much money in their campaign chest as one might find in the modern Democratic Party — and for the same purposes: controlling public influence and businesses.  It was an informal coalition of like-minded men seeking to enrich themselves.  Scholars refer to this period as the First Triumvirate (the rule of three men) — a relationship cemented by the marriage of Pompey to Cæsar’s daughter, Julia.  It was also the time when Cæsar remarried — a woman named Calpurnia, the daughter of a powerful senator.  In Rome, many marriages were more about business than romance.

While serving as Consul (and not too long after the election), Cæsar proposed a law for redistributing public lands to the poor — by force of arms, if necessary.  Pompey and Crassus supported this proposal because they, like most Democrats, realized the advantages of bribing voters from the public treasury.

Pompey filled the City of Rome with legionnaires (which publicly revealed the triumvirate) and effectively intimidated nearly everyone inside the city — not unlike the 6 January debacle in Washington, D.C.  Co-Consul Bibulus tried to declare omens unfavorable to the proposed law, thus voiding it.  It might have worked had Julius not sent his ruffians to drive him out of the city.  Then, to ensure that everyone knew there was a new sheriff in town, Cæsar’s boys traveled throughout the city, breaking symbols of his opponent’s power.

Despite this danger to himself, Bibulus continued issuing “bad omens.”  By then, no one paid any heed to his warnings.  Roman satirists began referring to the consulship as the year of Julius and Cæsar.

But the Romans knew their culture, and they knew Julius Cæsar.  Not long after his election, the Roman aristocracy attempted to limit his “future power” by restricting his subsequent military assignments (as was the custom) to various forests and pastures inside Italy rather than the governorship of a Roman province.  Cæsar wouldn’t have it.  He secured the passage of the Lex Vatinia — legislation that gave him the governorship of the provinces of Cisalpine Gaul (Southern France) and Illyricum (the area of Dalmatia)  (for a period of five years … rather than the customary one year).  The law also gave him immunity from prosecution for the length of that time.  The law also gave Cæsar command of four legions.  When his consulship ended, Cæsar left town rather quickly.  His enemies gathered to celebrate his prosecution.

Province of Gaul

In 52 B.C., Cæsar had been in Gaul for seven years.  One might imagine that what Cæsar didn’t know about Gaul by that time probably wasn’t worth knowing.  Nevertheless, a rebellion occurred in that year that seemed to catch the famed general off guard.[4]  He simply didn’t see it coming, and when it arrived, his vast legions were all in the wrong places.  Cæsar, himself, was just outside Rome “keeping an eye” on politics.

Until the time of Charlemagne, Gaul was never a unified region.  Every tribe was independent and hostile toward all other tribes.  Bitter conflicts erupted between individuals and minor noblemen.  But in the winter of 52 B.C., all of these quarrelsome tribal leaders joined in a common cause — to push the Romans and their general out of Gaul.

The result of this effort was war on a massive scale — and a conflict that would test the limits of both Cæsar and his army.  The two aspects of foreign domination that the Roman hierarchy found disturbing were its costs and its politics.  But there being no distinction between Cæsar the politician and Cæsar the general … the fight in Gaul became a two-front war.

In Rome, political success brought opportunities for military command.  Success in war gave a man glory and wealth, allowing him to rise even further up the political ladder.  It was a repeating cycle.  Some Roman commanders were more fortunate than others.

Compared to his contemporaries, Julius Cæsar was not much different.  He had talent, and he was determined to rise to the very top — even if it meant that he had to redefine what “the top” meant.  The connection between Roman war and politics had another important consequence: Roman governors exercised supreme civil and military power within their provinces. They also had complete freedom of action because Rome was too far away.

It is true that some Roman governors received specific instructions before they set out from Rome, admonitions about what the Senate expected of them.  Ultimately, these governors would have to answer for their sins (or successfully hide them), but beyond that, the governors were on their own.

In Cæsar’s case, the senate granted him an especially large command — a combination of three normally separate provinces: Illyria, Cisalpine Gaul, and Transalpine Gaul.  He also enjoyed the security of an unusually long term in the post — initially five years, later extended to ten.[5]

When Cæsar arrived in Gaul, he was massively in debt, and he needed a successful (and profitable) war.  He may have first considered a campaign in the Balkans, but in 58 B.C., the Helvetii tribe (from present-day Switzerland) began migrating and trespassing on lands of tribes that were friendly to Rome.  The situation demanded a Roman response in support of allied Aedui people (and others).  Cæsar had no hesitation in confronting those early Swiss or any of the Germanic tribes — and he was ruthless in doing so.[6]

Cæsar maintained a war footing in Gaul for a full ten years.  If he wasn’t smashing the Belgic tribes of northeastern Gaul, then he was off to visit Britannia.  One of the main themes of Cæsar’s famous War Commentaries was to illustrate how each campaign was undertaken in the interests of the Roman Republic — and by Roman standards, his claim was no doubt true.[7]

The only criticism Cæsar received during his long tenure in Gaul was one that surfaced in 55 B.C.  A senator claimed that Cæsar was a war criminal and should be handed over to the Germans for punishment.  The individual who made that allegation was a political opponent, and the only people who listened to him were politically aligned nabobs.  Cæsar was undoubtedly aware of the allegation, but he ignored it along with everyone else.

Today, scholars call into question whether Cæsar’s Commentaries were accurate and truthful, but one should consider that Julius Cæsar wasn’t the only individual writing letters to Rome.  Cæsar’s subordinates did that too.  They wrote to their family and to their extended relations who might also be in the Senate, always giving accounts of what was going on in Gaul.  Knowing this, Cæsar would not place his professional credibility at risk with frivolous embellishments.

Was Cæsar a war criminal?  It is true that he could be utterly ruthless in the pursuit of victory — this is how battles are won (even now), but as to his empathy for others once the fighting was done, Cæsar clearly believed that it was more practical to be generous in victory than excessively oppressive.  After each of his successful battles, Cæsar took pains to create a viable political settlement with both the vanquished and his allies.[8]  For example, when he sent the surviving Helvetii back to their homeland, he arranged to provide them with food until they had re-established their own farms and harvested their first crops.  He even permitted the Boii, one of several groups that had joined the Helvetii migration, to settle in Gaul “as a favor” to the Aedui, one of his favored tribes.  The Aedui themselves grew in power and influence under Cæsar’s reign as governor, but he was often called upon to arbitrate disputes within the tribes.  He must have had exceptionally gifted and completely trustworthy translators on his staff.

One example of a favored ally was the Aedui leader Diviciacus — and what we find most interesting about this fellow is that he was a Druid and the ONLY one in history known by his name.  Cæsar made Diviciacus an important leader “of senatorial rank” within his tribe.  Diviciacus had a brother named Dumnorix — a competitive sibling. Cæsar did not trust this brother and had him investigated — learning that it was Dumnorix who conspired to convince the Helvetii to migrate in the first place, to conspire against his own tribe.[9]

Cæsar’s patronage had a negative effect, too.  Men whom Cæsar excluded from his inner circle were likely to resort to desperate measures to secure power for themselves.  During the winter of 54-53 B.C., for example, several chieftains conspired to incite a large-scale rebellion among the Belgic tribes and even sought the support of nearby German war bands from across the Rhine.

Initially, the rebels enjoyed a stunning success when one of the tribes lured a Roman garrison into an ambush resulting in the utter destruction of Legio XIV Gemina (and five other cohorts).[10]  It was the first serious defeat Cæsar’s army suffered, and he took an oath not to shave or cut his hair until the massacre had been avenged.  Such an oath may not sound like much, but historians claim it was an especially significant gesture from the ever-fastidious Cæsar.  In this case, Roman vengeance proved both swift and brutal.  In the following twelve months, Cæsar laid total waste to the lands of the insurrectionists.

To replace the lost legion and cohorts, Cæsar created three new legions — a demonstration of the power of Rome.  At the end of the year, Cæsar summoned the leaders of the Gallic tribes to a council at Reims.  During the council, a dispute developed among the tribes.  Cæsar had nothing to do with it, but he used it to his advantage.  He discovered that the individual who created the dispute was a man named Acco.  Cæsar accused him of perfidy, rendered judgment, had him flogged, and then beheaded him.

Subsequently, Cæsar departed Gaul and traveled to the Cisalpine provinces to be nearer to Rome. This was his usual practice after each campaigning season — but the seriousness of the rebellion had kept him in Gaul the previous winter.  This year, there were serious developments in Rome, including civil unrest, gangland activities, and rampant political corruption.

With Cæsar in the Cisalpine region, Gallic leadership met secretly and began to plan another rebellion.  These men had managed to do well for themselves outside of Cæsar’s power circle but believed they could do better without the Romans — full stop.[11]  When Cæsar prohibited armed conflicts among Gallic tribes, there was (in Cæsar’s mind) no justification for maintaining warriors at all.  Cæsar also stipulated that Rome would not recognize any leader who achieved power by force of arms.  These rules, imposed by a foreigner, irritated the Gallic chiefs because they were contrary to cultural traditions.

Gallic chieftains also realized that the Romans had come to stay.  This realization also brought into focus the actual cost of loyalty to Rome.  Roman sycophancy may have served them well in the past, but with Rome having to deal with problems at home, kissing Cæsar’s ring seemed less attractive.

Most of Gaul’s southern and central tribes never opposed Cæsar.  Tribes such as the Aedui, Sequani, and Arverni were the wealthiest and most politically astute of all the Gallic peoples.  The reason for their wealth and affluence was that their lands were situated along the main trade routes from Italy.  Despite protections offered by Rome’s legions, these “allies” came to resent Cæsar and all he stood for.  The general’s execution of Dumnorix and Acco did nothing to inspire friendship with Rome.

Although earlier rebellions had failed, the annihilation of Legio XIV Gemina proved that Rome was not too strong to fail.  Moreover, disturbances inside Rome might work to the advantage of Gallic rebels.  And, of course, it was always possible that Rome’s civil problems could prevent Cæsar from returning to Gaul.


  1. Canfora, L.  Julius Cæsar: The People’s Dictator.  Edinburgh University Press, 2006.
  2. Freeman, P.  Julius Cæsar.  Simon & Schuster, 2008.
  3. Goldsworthy, A.  Cæsar: Life of a Colossus.  Yale University Press, 2006.
  4. Griffin, M.  A Companion to Julius Cæsar.  Wiley & Sons, 2009.
  5. Trollope, A.  The Commentaries of CæsarOnline.


[1] Cæsar suffered from epilepsy for his entire life and tried to hide it from all but his closest associates.

[2] See also Before he was a General.

[3] The Consul of Rome was the highest political office in the Roman Republic.  To secure a system of checks and balances, the law required two (2) consuls serving together for one year.  They had to agree before ordering any changes to the law or declaring war.  

[4] When Cæsar first intervened in Gaul in 58 BC, many of the tribes welcomed him as a friend and liberator. Seven years later, all but a handful had turned against him — and leading the revolt were chieftains he had promoted and rewarded with favor and friendship.

[5] The scale of Cæsar’s appointment reflected the strength of his political alliances — which was also a guarantee that he had almost unparalleled freedom of action.  He raised new legions on his own initiative, doubling and later trebling the forces at his disposal, and it was only after the fact did he obtain senatorial approval and funding.

[6] On the question of casualties during the Gallic Wars, estimates in Cæsar’s time involve fantastical numbers.  Plutarch suggests more than a million were killed and another million captured and enslaved.  Cæsar claimed 430,000 Germani were killed.  Modern scholars estimate between 30-40,000 dead and 10,000 wounded.  How anyone came to these numbers is beyond me.

[7] Cæsar no doubt intended his commentaries to document his intentions and accomplishments — as an official record and perhaps also as evidence of his compliance with Roman law.    

[8] After surrendering, Cæsar’s vanquished handed over hostages as a pledge of good faith.  In doing so, Cæsar demanded that his new allies support future Roman operations with grain supplies and troops.  There were a few “vanquished” that needed a reminder of their obligations.  In one example, Cæsar executed a council of elders of one tribe.  In the main, however, the governor left the conquered people to govern their own affairs in their traditional way, with little or no Roman interference.

[9] Eventually, Dumnorix was killed by legionnaires “while resisting arrest.”  Problem solved.

[10] A cohort was a standard tactical unit, more or less the equivalent of a modern battalion.  A legion would consist of ten cohorts numbering around 5,000 men, identified as First Cohort and so on, with the most experienced legionnaires serving in the First and least experienced men serving in the Tenth. 

[11] In Gaul, a chieftain’s status was judged by the number of warriors in his household.  The more warriors, the wealthier he was, and the more influence he had over affairs within his region. 

Posted in Antiquity, Gaul, History, Imperialism, Rome, Western Civilization | 2 Comments

Smugglers, Bootleggers, and other Scoundrels


Thanks to the Gutenberg Project

The subject of smuggling is interesting, instructive, and not confined to any one country, region, or culture.  People are — who they are, and none of the folkways of a particular people change simply because they uproot themselves and travel to another settlement.  Long before the first person from Great Britain traveled to North America, the British ignored any law their king or parliament imposed upon them that they regarded as disagreeable or unjust.  One might argue, therefore, that smuggling has been a regular consequence of government tyranny.

Of course, governments impose taxes to pay for things government leaders believe are essential or most desired.  Paying for wars is generally at the top of this list, or in the modern day, paying for social services as part of the notion of redistributing wealth.  If people believe such taxes are onerous, unfair, or unwarranted, the taxed will likely rebel in some form or fashion.  They will refuse to pay the tax or lie about how much of a taxable item they possess, or they may find ways to avoid the tax altogether.

The problem began when European powers attempted to establish coherent imperial economies and sought ways to control the trade of their own (as well as foreign shipping) while expanding state revenues through taxation.  During most of the 16th to 18th centuries, ambitious attempts to constrain, delimit, or monopolize specific areas of commerce were rarely bolstered by sufficient power to back up those policies.  There were never an adequate number of customs agents — and, in any case, the government’s expenses in imposing taxes quite often exceeded revenues produced from enforcing such policies.


Early modern smuggling is connected in many ways to the history of state regulations of commerce, what historians once called “mercantilism.”  Smuggling could consist of illicit trade within a particular state to avoid paying taxes and duties, trading in goods controlled by monopolies (or “interloping”), or trading in outlawed goods.  Smuggling also included inter-imperial contraband involving many parties.  It was common to find Spanish customs agents willing to accept bribes for looking the other way and sea captains from numerous countries willing to offer those bribes — even when such transactions involved traditional or long-time enemies.

As with most illicit activities, there are not many records to document what happened, when, or the names of individuals involved — otherwise, such records might become evidence of the existence of the world’s worst smugglers and lawbreakers.  This dearth of information forces historians to speak of “informal” economies rather than smuggling operations because smuggling was but one illicit activity — and there were several.

As for smuggling, such activities required complex networks of human activities.  There had to be people who served as lookouts; others had to load ships, others to unload them and carry goods to shore.  There had to be a place to store smuggled goods until they could be collected.  Someone had to maintain records of transactions and do it in a way that government agents or investigators could not easily decipher.  Last but not least, there had to be some way in which smugglers could hide or disguise their ill-begotten incomes.

The sole purpose of some settlements in the West Indies was to smuggle goods in and out of such places as France, England, Scotland, Ireland, and Spain.  The Dutch-owned island of Sint Eustatius is but one example of many.  The Danes had a well-oiled operation smuggling sugar through Saint Thomas and Saint Croix.  The Brandenburg Company smuggled slaves to New Spain.[1]  After 1833, the slave trade became illicit, which increased the cost of slaves to those who used them. 

The sole purpose of several Atlantic settlements, especially in the West Indies, was for smuggling goods in and out of empires, like the Dutch island of Sint Eustatius.  The Danes also smuggled goods like sugar through their islands in Saint Thomas or Saint Croix, and the Brandenburg Company was involved with smuggling slaves into New Spain.

Illicit trade could go on seamlessly with the compliance of local administrative officials — and there has never been a lack of corrupt officials.  And, in any case, some historians note that one nation’s smuggler is another nation’s legitimate merchant. 

The Role of Salutary neglect

The word mercantilism refers to an economic system of trade that existed between the 16th to 18th centuries.  It was based on the principle that the world’s wealth was static, and governments had to regulate trade to build wealth and national power.  Due to the nationalistic nature of mercantilism, nations frequently used military and naval forces to protect markets and natural resources.

The British policy of mercantilism set the stage for imperial regulation of colonial trade policies.  Mercantilism prioritized the financial growth of the British crown and controlled colonial economies.  In the 17th century, the British government demonstrated control and placed formal trade restrictions on the American colonies, known as the Navigation Acts.  In 1651, the first of the Navigation Acts targeted Dutch competitors and forced all British-colonial shipments into British-owned ships.  Later iterations of the Navigation Acts implemented regulations on trading specific goods such as wool, sugar, indigo, and tobacco.  The British benefitted by taxing vessels arriving and departing from English ports but hindered national profit by forcing people to avoid taxation through smuggling schemes.

The essence of salutary neglect was that the parent (mother country) sought to encourage productivity from the petulant child (colonies) by turning a blind eye to illicit trade activities.  As much, previously mentioned, enforcing trade laws was an expensive proposition — for every shilling paid to a customs agent, there was one less shilling deposited into the national treasury.  Turning a blind eye to illegal activity did increase individual freedom of action in matters pertaining to trade and self-government, and it did result in colonial growth and prosperity — until the British government needed money to pay for disagreements with foreign competitors.  The British treasury was nearly empty at the end of the Seven Years’ War (which included conflicts with several European countries).  Salutary neglect suddenly came to a screeching halt, and the Colonists decided they were unfairly taxed.  The Americans wanted the British Army to protect them from French and Indian marauders — they just didn’t think they should have to pay for it.

Luckily, the American colonists had been smuggling goods for more than 100 years; they knew how to do it (mostly) without getting caught — and it was a skill set they would need between 1776 – 1783.

American Attitudes

The attitudes of Anglo-Americans didn’t change simply because they shucked off one government for another.  In 1789, Congress was pleased to announce the new United States of America, founded on a constitution restricting government to only a few enumerated powers (over the people).  And to sweeten the deal, Congress agreed (after much debate) to offer the people a Bill of Rights.  Previously, under the so-called Articles of Confederation, the central government could not raise taxes, severely limiting the government’s ability to spend money.  In effect, if there were to be any government spending, it would have to be passed along to the states to pay their “fair share.”

The Revolutionary War required Congress to borrow money to pay for it.  At the war’s end, Congress had accumulated $54 million in debt, and state governments had amassed an additional $25 million.  Alexander Hamilton (formerly a West Indies tradesman and smuggler) devised a scheme to use this indebtedness to develop a national financial system that would promote prosperity and national unity.  He succeeded in doing that.  He united nearly every American around the fact that they hated paying taxes to the U.S. government as they did to the British parliament — which was revealed in 1790 when Congress passed an excise tax on whiskey production.  Nearly everyone who made distilled spirits agreed, but everyone who ever thumped a bible lined up in favor of the “luxury” tax.

The population of Western Pennsylvania in 1790 was around 17,000 people.  Pennsylvania farmers relied on whiskey production to supplement their meager incomes.  Complicating the matter in 1790 is that money was in short supply … and more often than not, people bartered with one another.  Whiskey was often traded for other goods.  For Congress to impose a tax on whiskey made it an “income tax” rather than an excise tax.[2] 

Initially, people who opposed the Whiskey Tax petitioned the government to repeal it.  Several conventions met to discuss the matter in Western Carolina and Pennsylvania.  That didn’t work, of course, because the United States was in debt and needed to raise money to reduce it or pay it off.  Unfortunately, Mr. Robert Johnson of Washington County bore the brunt of the citizen’s unhappiness when he was tarred and feathered and “run out.”  Mr. Johnson’s attackers were ordered to appear in court, but they refused.  When whiskey makers learned that the government was serious about the tax, they ran for their guns, determined to resist any effort to force payments.

In this instance, nothing had changed since the Malt Tax imposed on the Scots 66 years earlier — with amazingly similar results.  The Whiskey Rebellion was only this: the continuation of the long-established American bootlegger movement — and one that continues to this very day.

One amusing story from the 1920s involved a fellow known as The Man in the Green Hat.  According to The Washington Post, an underemployed veteran from World War I named George Cassiday turned to selling and transporting illegal alcohol during the Prohibition period.  From 1920 – 1925, George sold illegal whiskey to members of the House of Representatives when the House was in session, and business was so good he found himself hustling from one congressman’s office to another from around 9 a.m. until quitting time.  According to the article, Cassiday transported between 35-40 quarts of whiskey daily by train from New York, concealed in two large suitcases.  House members were so grateful for his libations that they even provided him with an office in the basement, from which he would make his deliveries.

When Capitol Police discovered the illegal activities, they arrested Mr. Cassiday and sent him to court.  He paid his fine and acknowledged the court order that he be forever banned from the U.S. House of Representatives.  The story made Cassidy nationally famous — so much so that he moved his operation to the U.S. Senate through 1930.  In comparing the two operations (House vs. Senate), Cassiday indicated that the Representatives were nicer people.


  1. History, Art & Archives.  United States House of Representatives, Historical Highlights 1901 – 1950.  Online Resource.
  2. Karras, Alan L. “Smuggling and Its Malcontents.” In Interactions: Transregional Perspectives on World History. Edited by Jerry H. Bentley, Renate Bridenthal, and Anand A. Yang, 135–149. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005.
  3. Klooster, Wim. “Inter-imperial Smuggling in the Americas, 1600–1800.” In Soundings in Atlantic History: Latent Structures and Intellectual Currents, 1500–1830. Edited by Bernard Bailyn and Patricia L. Denault, 141–180. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.
  4. Mancke, Elizabeth. “Empire and State.” In The British Atlantic World, 1500–1800. 2d ed. Edited by David Armitage and Michael J. Braddick, 193–213. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.


[1] Archival Materials on the Brandenburg African Company (1682 – 1721), Adam Jones. Cambridge University Press, 1984.

[2] Excise taxes are taxes imposed by legislation on specific goods, such as motor fuel, tires, batteries, tobacco, and alcohol.

Posted in Antiquity, British Colonies, Colonial America, History, Imperialism, Indenture & Slavery, Outlaws | 2 Comments

The White Man’s Burden

British Imperialism

At one time, the British Empire was a global system of dependencies (colonies and protectorates) and other territories that, for around three-hundred years, fell under the British Crown’s sovereignty and the British government’s administration.  How the British accomplished this was quite clever (and ruthless).  In time, the British Empire transitioned into the British Commonwealth, which today forms an association of self-governing states that acknowledge symbolic British sovereignty.

Sixteenth-century ambition and competition led to maritime expansion — which accelerated over the next one-hundred years.  This resulted in the establishment of settlements in North America and the West Indies.  Before 1675, the British had colonies in New England, Virginia, and Maryland; they had settlements in the Bermudas, Honduras, Antiqua, Barbados, and Nova Scotia.  They seized and retained Jamaica.  The Hudson Bay Company was set up in Northwestern Canada.  The East India Company established trading posts in India and settlements in Penang, Singapore, Malacca, and Labuan.  They even found themselves with a property on James Island on the Gambia River.  In 1806, the British acquired the Cape of Good Hope.

Almost none of this resulted from any scheme by the British Crown. Instead, the moves were the brainchild of the owners and managers of certain companies.  The Crown exercised some right of appointment and supervision, but the colonies and settlements were essentially self-managing enterprises.  Altogether, it was a somewhat muddled process through piecemeal acquisition, sometimes with the British government being the least willing partner of the enterprise.  The colonies were granted monopolies for their products (tobacco and sugar) in the British market.  In exchange for that monopoly, the colonies were expected to conduct all their trade by English ships — and serve as markets for British manufactured goods.

In 1651, the Navigation Act (and follow-on acts) established a closed economy between Britain and its colonies.  All colonial exports had to be shipped on English ships to the British market, and all colonial imports had to come by way of England.  This arrangement lasted until the combined effects of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, the loss of the American colonies, and the growth of a “free-trade” movement in Britain.

Slavery in Great Britain

Slavery in Britain existed before the invasion of Rome and lasted through the eleventh century when the Norman conquest resulted in the merger of post-Roman slavery into serfdom.[1]  By the middle of the twelfth century, the institution of slavery as it had existed before the Norman conquest had entirely disappeared — leaving other forms of servitude for several centuries.

British merchants were a significant force behind the Atlantic Slave Trade between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, but no legislation was ever passed in England that legalized human bondage.  In 1772, Charles Stewart enslaved a person named James Somerset.  Stewart intended to send Somerset to Jamaica, where he was to be sold.  Somerset sued his owner in court, arguing that his owner had no right to forcibly remove him from English soil and sell him in another country.

The king’s court agreed with Somerset, and as there was no law in England protecting slavery, he was freed.  Over time, an abolitionist movement developed in England.  The Slave Trade Act of 1807 abolished the slave trade in the British Empire, but slavery itself was not abolished until 1833.

After 1843, slavery was illegal in India and other British territories; after 1865, the United States banned slavery as well.  The fact that national policy no longer supported human bondage did not impede the ordinary course of imperialism — the policy or practice of extending power and dominion (through territorial acquisition or gaining political and economic control of the territory).  The working of imperialism always involves the use of force (military or financial) to achieve its goals.

Maintaining the Realm

What the British learned about themselves from the Seven Years’ War (1754 – 1763) was that if they wanted something desperately enough, they had the wherewithal to reach out and take it.  The Treaty of Paris (1763) left Great Britain with all of Canada, and men such as Robert Clive and Eyre Coote gained the Indian sub-continent.  Once more, the French were whipped, and the rulers of Bengal offered the British a massive territory.  It was sufficient to guarantee an English future in India.  In any case, the loss of the North American colonies offered the British time to concentrate elsewhere — such as Upper Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and India.

From the mid-1850s, British-controlled territory increased in Burma, the Punjab, East Africa, Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf, Cyprus, Malta, and Gibraltar.  British influence spread to Hong Kong and Shanghai from the Straits settlements and federated Malay states.  The greatest 19th-century extension of British power took place in Africa, including Egypt, Sudan, Nigeria, Ghana, Gambia, Kenya, Uganda, and South Africa.

Changing the Culture

At some point, the people living in Canada ceased being English and became Canadians.  Well, except for the French.  One simply cannot get le François out of one’s system.  Similarly, at some point, Englishmen became Americans — and people born elsewhere in the Empire may have been British, but they weren’t English.

Imperial nations believed such policies created new technology and economic growth — and thought such a return was a fair exchange for schools, railroads, medicines, and improved communications.  Depending on one’s point of view, one might argue that it wasn’t an equitable exchange.  To solidify the arrangement, indigenous populations had to relinquish their culture and assimilate that of the conqueror.

Anti-imperialists viewed this system as condescending toward people from other countries — and, of course, it was.  But there are those today, the unhappily under-educated people, who use the word “racism” in everything imaginable.  The truth is otherwise.  A racist is someone with a predilection of discrimination toward those of different races — hence the word. 

Rudyard Kipling’s parents were English — he was not.  The fact that he was raised in India had a significant impact on the balance of his life.  It affected his career as a journalist, a novelist, a  writer of short stories, and a poet.  He told the story of the British Empire from various points of view: from the young Indian boy, from the British Soldier, and the standpoint of the British Foreign Office as it goes about “managing” the Empire.  One of his many glimpses of Imperial life was his poem titled The White Man’s Burden (1899).

The poem follows —.


Take up the White Man’s burden—
    Send forth the best ye breed—
Go bind your sons to exile
    To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness
    On fluttered folk and wild—
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
    Half devil and half child.

Take up the White Man’s burden—
    In patience to abide,
To veil the threat of terror
    And check the show of pride;
By open speech and simple,
    An hundred times made plain.
To seek another’s profit,
    And work another’s gain.

Take up the White Man’s burden—
    The savage wars of peace—
Fill full the mouth of Famine
    And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
    The end for others sought,
Watch Sloth and heathen Folly
    Bring all your hopes to nought.

Take up the White Man’s burden—
    No tawdry rule of kings,
But toil of serf and sweeper—
    The tale of common things.
The ports ye shall not enter,
    The roads ye shall not tread,
Go make them with your living,
    And mark them with your dead!

Take up the White Man’s burden—
    And reap his old reward:
The blame of those ye better,
    The hate of those ye guard—
The cry of hosts ye humour
    (Ah, slowly!) toward the light:—
“Why brought ye us from bondage,
    Our loved Egyptian night?”

Take up the White Man’s burden—
    Ye dare not stoop to less
Nor call too loud on Freedom
    To cloak your weariness;
By all ye cry or whisper,
    By all ye leave or do,
The silent, sullen peoples
    Shall weigh your Gods and you.

Take up the White Man’s burden—
    Have done with childish days—
The lightly proffered laurel,
    The easy, ungrudged praise.
Comes now, to search your manhood
    Through all the thankless years,
Cold-edged with dear-bought wisdom,
    The judgment of your peers!

Some History

Difficulties between Spain and the United States developed over several years, ultimately resulting in the war of 1898.  It wasn’t a long war, but it ended with the United States possessing Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam.  Internally, the notion of the United States as an imperial (colonial) power was hotly debated, with the outward-looking President McKinley and his imperialist allies having their way over those with inward-looking (anti-imperialist) views.

The problems associated with imperialism began much earlier, of course.  European nations interested in Chinese trade began dividing the country up for their own purposes — often using force to obtain concessions from China’s imperial government.  One example of this was the Sino-British Opium War (1841).  Japan, believing it should become the dominant power in the Far East, began a series of imperialist confrontations with China (as well).

Following the Sino-Japanese War (1895) and the Spanish American War (1898), people living in North China correctly feared the expansion of foreign spheres of influence.  They deeply resented the extension of privileges to Christian missionaries who used them to shield their followers from traditional Chinese relationships.  The result of this was the Boxer Rebellion (1899 – 1901).

Critics of Rudyard Kipling argue that in writing his poem, he was writing about the Philippine-American War (1899 – 1902), or perhaps the Boxer Rebellion (1901) and that in doing so, he urged the United States to assume colonial control over the Philippines or its enclaves in China.  Critics say that he implored Americans to assume the white man’s burden.  In the minds of these shabbily educated critics, Rudyard Kipling was a racist — and this is the uninformed message carried forward to today in America’s institutions of ignorance.

I disagree with the analysis of most literary critics about Kipling’s message.  Rudyard Kipling was British but not English.  He was born in India, which was part of the British Empire. Kipling was not a racist; he was ethnocentric — believing that his British culture was superior to all others and represented the preferred way of life. He no doubt noted the attitudes toward those of less-white complexion — and may have even shared them. Rudyard Kipling was a jingoist in the same way that most upper-class people believed their values should be preferred to all others.

I believe Kipling’s poem pushed forward the opposite argument: a sarcastic warning about assuming the white man’s burden.  “Send forth the best ye breed, go bind your sons to exile, to serve your captive’s needs.”  (Send your sons) to wait in heavy harness, on fluttered folk and while — your new-caught sullen people, half devil, and half child.”  In this passage, Kipling does not recommend becoming involved with sullen people who offer more challenges than benefits.

I wonder — who in their right mind would deign to follow such advice?  Whether Kipling was writing about the Philippines, or American involvement in other places — China, or Mexico, for example, to “watch sloth and heathen Folly, bring all your hopes to nought.”

The white man’s burden was dragging people along in a direction they did not wish to go.  Forcing on them aspects of a foreign culture that they did not understand and could not abide — the liberators began experiencing great disappointment when the unwashed refused, for example, to convert to Christianity.  They rebelled.  They murdered their betters.  “The ports ye shall not enter, the roads ye shall not tread, Go make them with your living, and mark them with your dead.

In Conclusion

The United States did embark upon a period of imperialism.  Some argue that it continues still.  My opinion is that we have, in the past 125 years, sent too many of our young men off to serve and die in a muddy field or fungus-infested swamp.  We’ve emptied our treasury so that people living in far distant places can benefit from our labors.  We’ve even gone into debt to ensure Ho Lee can receive free medications while our seniors pay premium prices for the same medication.  I see Kipling’s poem as a warning: Assume the white man’s burden at significant risk.  Did we listen to this man’s sage advice?  No.

Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) was indeed anti-imperialist and quite vocal about it.  For example, in response to Kipling’s The White Man’s Burden, Clemens penned To the Person Sitting in Darkness.  Despite these differences of opinion, Clemens (the commoner) and Kipling (as part of the British upper class) were good friends — in the same way, Kipling and Theodore Roosevelt were friends.  And, of course, Kipling married Caroline Starr Balestier, an American from Rochester, New York — where the Roosevelt’s lived.

It should go without saying that people living under the imperialist yoke deeply resented the intrusion of foreigners.  The resentment resulted in uprisings and rebellions on more than a few occasions.  Ultimately, the bitterness evolved into a new nationalism that spread throughout the world following the end of the Second World War.  In that sense, perhaps imperialism served its purpose. But let me add that what the critics have done is misconstrue Kipling’s message — and I believe it was an intentional effort to unfairly malign one of Britain’s greatest poets as part of a larger effort to discredit “white” history.  True or not, that’s how I see it.


[1] Serfdom was the status of peasants under feudalism — a condition of debt bondage and indentured servitude with similarities to (and differences from) slavery. 

Posted in Antiquity, British Canada, British Colonies, Christianity, Civil War, Colonial America, History, Imperialism, Indenture & Slavery, New England, New France, Revolution | 5 Comments

Slaves in the American Revolution


Despite what the founding fathers said or wrote, the “new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” began as a slave society.  This unhappy fact has left an indelible imprint on the nation’s soul — if nations have souls.  In its resolution, slavery demanded a terrible price in blood and searing pain to the national psyche.  It still isn’t over.  Some people simply won’t let it go.

In the United States today, millions of people remain enslaved to corrupt politicians and political parties.  The only difference between now and 1863 is that some people, whether black or white, Asian or occidental, adult or child, male or female — seem bound to enslave themselves to a failed ideology.  Millions of blacks, having been freed through the crucible of war, have re-enslaved themselves to their dear old Uncle Sam and an entitlement mentality, all paid for through an abusive tax scheme.  This is not conjecture; it’s a fact.

Moreover, it is not a problem confined to the United States.  Presently, there are more than fifty-million human beings living as slaves.  This number, provided by the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights of the United Nations, is the highest number of slaves in all of human history.  It includes children, women, and able-bodied men trapped in modern slavery in every corner of the world.  Whether through the Kafala System, binding migrant workers to their Middle Eastern employers, the prolific number of children being bought and sold in India, the number of young women and boys kidnapped as part of the international sex cartel, or the number of boys kidnapped and forced into African militias, it is out of control — the United Nations is doing nothing about it — and neither is any American, other than pretending that they’re offended by slavery. 

From this point on, my reader may choose to ignore the problem — but they can never again say that they did not know.

Relevant Background

Americans didn’t invent slavery.  They didn’t establish the Atlantic Slave Trade, either.  Americans had nothing to do with the Arab Slave Trade, which, unlike the Atlantic Slave Trade, continues to exist.  But Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall was correct to observe that the U.S. Constitution was defective from its beginning.  It ignored tens of thousands of Americans whose skin color was darker than average, but perhaps worse than this, the people who voiced eloquent objections to slavery had no hesitation voting to adopt an instrument that laid the foundation of all the grief that was to follow.

The word “slave” does not appear in the U.S. Constitution, but the institution of slavery did receive important protections in the Constitution.  The “Three-Fifths Clause” (counting 3/5 of the slave population in apportioning representation) gave southern states extra representation in the House of Representatives and extra votes in the Electoral College.  Were it not for this clause, Thomas Jefferson would have lost the election of 1800.[1]  The Constitution also prohibited the U.S. Congress from outlawing the Atlantic Slave Trade for twenty years.  A fugitive slave clause required the return of runaway slaves to their owners, and the Constitution gave the federal government the power to “put down” domestic rebellions — including slave uprisings.[2]

The framers of the Constitution believed that concessions on the issue of slavery were the price for gaining and retaining the support of southern delegates for a strong federalist government.  They were convinced that if the Constitution restricted the slave trade, South Carolina and Georgia would refuse to join the Union.  This is no doubt true.  But by sidestepping the slavery issue, the framers Guaranteed that subsequent generations would have to deal with it.  James Madison touted as the “father of the U.S. Constitution,” wrote, “It seems now to be pretty well understood that the real difference of interests lies not between the large and small but between the northern and southern states. The institution of slavery and its consequences form the line of discrimination.”

Of the 55 Convention delegates, 25 owned slaves.  We can say that many of the framers harbored moral misgivings about slavery.  Some, including Benjamin Franklin (a former slave owner) and Alexander Hamilton (who was born in a slave colony in the British West Indies), became members of antislavery societies — which, of course, did nothing to change the direction of the country in 1789.  But no one spoke more plainly than John Rutledge of South Carolina: “Religion and humanity have nothing to do with this question.  Unless regulation of the slave trade is left to the states, the southern-most states shall not be parties to the union.”

George Mason of Virginia owned hundreds of slaves yet spoke out against slavery in ringing terms: “Slavery discourages arts and manufactures.  The poor despise labor when performed by slaves.  And every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant, and they will bring the judgment of heaven on a country.”

Mr. Mason could not have been more correct.

Now About the Revolution

Given the African experience in North America before 1775, why would any enslaved person wish to participate on either side of the American Revolution? If one accepts the argument that we all act in our perceived best interests, then “freedom” would be an obvious answer.

American rebels and British officials offered freedom to enslaved persons if they enlisted as soldiers or made other contributions to either side. Historians claim around 20,000 Africans joined the British cause — as “Black Loyalists.” If accurate, the number of black loyalists would round to about four percent of the enslaved population. Historians also tell us that an additional 9,000 blacks supported the patriot cause. They were called “black patriots.” How anyone could be a patriot and a slave defies logic.

The British Cause 

On 7 November 1775, Virginia Governor John Murray, Fourth Lord Dunmore, issued a proclamation to announce (a) the imposition of Martial Law within the colony of Virginia and (b) granted freedom to all “indentured servants, Negroes, or others (appertaining to Rebels) free that are able and willing to bear arms, they joining [sic] His Majesty’s Troops as soon as may be.”

Lord Dunmore’s proclamation wasn’t promulgated in a few days.  It was months in the making because Governor Murray was in a very vulnerable position.  Throngs of rebels filled the Virginia capital of Williamsburg, and the Governor wisely departed for Norfolk, Virginia.  Amazingly, most of the governor’s troops had deserted him.  At most, he had 300 loyal troops remaining at his new headquarters.

But six months before, in June 1775, a group of enslaved Africans approached him about the prospect of joining forces with the British against their American oppressors.  Murray initially ignored these petitioners; their owners did not.  This willingness to challenge the status quo may have been the seed establishing an overwhelming fear among slave owners of a black insurrection.  When Lord Dunmore boarded his ship at Yorktown, he asked enslaved blacks to accompany him.  He had hoped that the threat of using blacks against the rebels would persuade Virginians to remain loyal to the Crown.

Colonists fearing Negro militias serving the Crown began patrolling the land and water and limited gatherings of black people.  They also attempted to convince blacks that collaborating with the British would be self-destructive.

Virginia’s legislature countered Dunmore’s proclamation by issuing a declaration: enslaved fugitives would forgo punishment if they returned to their owners within ten days — and stiff consequences if they did not.  Any slave who took part in an insurrection would face a death sentence.  Ultimately, between 800 and 2,000 slaves joined Dunmore’s regiment, known as the Ethiopian Regiment.  Their battle jacket featured the words Freedom to Slaves.  In Virginia, smallpox devastated Dunmore’s regiment, and by August 1776, British loyalists (and 300 loyal slaves) sailed away after first destroying most of their ships.  It was a modest number of black loyalists, but historians argue that at least 100,000 slaves attempted to join the British.  If that argument is valid, then just under half of Virginia’s slaves attempted to revolt against oppression.

It wasn’t until June 1779 that General Sir Henry Clinton, serving as Commander-in-Chief of British North America, issued his Philipsburg Proclamation.  In it, he offered freedom to all runaway slaves who took up arms with His Majesty’s Forces.

Dr. John Hannigan (Brandeis University) argues that the 20,000 runaway slaves previously mentioned were merely an estimate.  It could have been more or less — but either way, it represented the largest exodus of North American slaves before the Civil War (1861 – 1865).

Negro slaves supported the British for obvious reasons.  To begin with, most slaves believed that slavery had already been abolished in Great Britain.  It wasn’t true, of course.  Great Britain didn’t relinquish slavery until 1833.  How American slaves came by this misunderstanding was the case of James Somerset, a slave of a British customs official named Charles Stuart.  Somerset sued Stuart in a London Court to obtain his freedom.  Lord Mansfield, the presiding judge, ruled in Somerset’s favor (1772), barring Stuart from selling Somerset.  Mansfield did not (could not) outlaw slavery, but he found it incompatible with English common law — and we can say with certainty that his ruling damaged slavery as an institution within the United Kingdom and sent a terrifying signal to North America.  As the case was widely reported in American newspapers, slaves believed that the days of slavery were coming to an end.[3]

Secondarily, the British Army promised freedom for enslaved people almost from the beginning of the Revolutionary War.  More than 1,500 slaves fled to the Dunmore’s sanctuary — and of those, nearly two-thirds succumbed to the disease.  In the following year, General Sir William Howe extended Dunmore’s promise to slaves living near British Army posts in New York and New Jersey.  The success of these inducements culminated in Sir Henry Clinton’s Philipsburg Proclamation.

British policy, as regularly communicated through Lord Dunmore, General Howe, and General Clinton,  ensured that British military camps functioned as recruitment centers for black refugees.  Unsurprisingly, runaway slaves were numerous in areas controlled by the British Army.  The Black Loyalist exodus that began with Dunmore peaked in South Carolina during the British campaigns of 1779 – 1781 and in Virginia between 1780 and 1781.  Combined with the Somerset case and the army’s proclamations, southern area slaves preferred the risk of running away and an uncertain future with British military forces rather than remain in the great slave centers of Virginia and South Carolina.[4]

It was a different matter in the northern colonies.  Some slaves in Massachusetts did avail themselves of the offer of freedom through service to Great Britain, but not in substantial numbers.  That reality resulted in the departure of the British Army to the southern colonies.  Some estimates (although none are quite certain) reflect fewer than one hundred runaway slaves who sought freedom in Massachusetts.  But in fairness to those poor souls remaining captive, after 1776, they would have had to make their way to new British encampments in either Newport or New York City.  There is no credible record of any Massachusetts slave fighting with British forces during the war — but that doesn’t mean there weren’t any; it only means there are no records of such.

Among the black units known to have served with the British, only a few records listing the names of black soldiers have survived.  Among the more famous was the Black Company of Pioneers.  They served in Rhode Island, New York, and in the southern colonies between 1776 – 1783.  Many of these men left New York City with the British and settled in Nova Scotia.

As the war drew to a close and the British prepared to evacuate New York City in November 1783, thousands of emancipated slaves petitioned to leave with them.  For those African runaways, the British Army offered their best chance of survival in the post-War period.  The British made every effort to make good their promises.  To help facilitate this process, naval officers prepared documents to substantiate claims made by men, women, and children who wished to join white loyalists in British-controlled Canada.  Today, there are three volumes of the so-called “Book of Negroes” that contain the names, and physical descriptions (and, where known, places of origin) of 3,000 freed slaves from the Revolutionary War period.

The British formed many regiments with their African allies.  The largest of these regiments was the pioneer unit, which the British placed in a support role.  The unit was ordered to attend “the scavengers, assist in cleaning the streets, removing all nuances from the streets of Philadelphia — but a smaller portion of this unit served as raiders against Patriot settlements in New Jersey.

When patriot forces threatened Savannah, Augusta, and Charleston, the British filled their ranks with black troops.  In October 1779, two-hundred black loyalist soldiers assisted the British in defending Savannah against French and Patriot assaults.

On 21 July 1781, the British evacuated Savannah with more than 5,000 former slaves bound for Jamaica or St. Augustine.  Three hundred former slaves remained behind, but fearing for their safety, they ran off to form a colony in the swamps along the Savannah River.  Within five years, most of these people were back in bondage. 

On the Patriot Side

Of the 9,000 slaves fighting for the revolutionary cause, 5,000 served as field infantry.  If not killed in combat, the average time in service for these “patriots” was 4.5 years (of eight years total), although many did serve for the eight years duration of the Revolutionary War.[5]  Since between 220,000 and 250,000 soldiers and militia served the American cause between 1776 – 1783, black soldiers made up roughly four percent of the Continental armed land force.  We may better understand this phenomenon by realizing that before the Revolution, many enslaved persons participated as part of community militias defending against hostile Indians.  This means that certain slaves were routinely trained in the use of firearms.

Note that such terms as militia and minutemen are sometimes used interchangeably, there were important differences between the two.  Militia were men in arms formed to protect their towns from attack by hostile forces, whereas minutemen were small, handpicked elite forces of highly mobile sharpshooters able to assemble and deploy quickly.  They were selected from militia companies.  They were 25 years old or younger and selected for their enthusiasm, field skills, reliability, and their physical strength/endurance.  Somewhere around 25% of the militia served as minutemen.

Minutemen were generally the first on the scene to become involved in armed conflict.  Historians say that some of the Massachusetts minutemen were blacks who swore an oath to serve against any British force that took offensive measures against any Massachusetts community.  One such individual was Private Peter Salem (1750 – 1816).

Peter was named after the hometown of his owner, Jeremiah Belknap.  In 1775, Belknap sold Peter to Lawson Buckminster.  When the Continental Army commissioned Buckminster a major, he freed Peter Salem so that Salem could enlist in the patriot militia and serve as a minuteman.  Private Salem served alongside Private Titus Coburn, Salem Poor, and Seymour Burr.  Salem fought at the opening engagements at Lexington Green and Concord.

Some argue that Private Salem should be credited with the shooting of British Major John Pitcairn, who, during the fight at Bunker Hill, was shot through the chest by a Negro rifleman.  A witness to the shooting was Mr. Aaron White of Thompson, Connecticut, who in 1807 testified that “ … a negro soldier stepped forward and, aiming his musket at the major’s bosom, blew him through.”

Salem was not the only black rifleman at Bunker Hill, and it may not matter since the battle was a British Victory — but some say that whoever shot Pitcairn bolstered morale among the rebels at a time when they needed it most.  Either way, Private Salem participated in several notable battles; his final honorable discharge being awarded in 1780.  Salem died in 1816 in a poor house in Framingham, Massachusetts.  Despite promises of freedom after the war, many blacks were returned to slavery after the Revolutionary War.  So much for government appreciation for negro patriotism.

It may be worth noting that in colonial times and following the declaration of independence, militia laws required able-bodied males to enroll in the militia, undergo a minimum of military training, and serve for limited periods of time in war or other emergencies.  This was an early form of conscription that involved selective drafts of militiamen for service in particular campaigns.  In 1778, the Continental Congress recommended that states draft men from their militias for a year of military service in the Continental Army.  Although regularly applied, this form of conscription failed to fill the Continental Army’s ranks.[6]

In addition to Peter Salem, other enslaved persons served as infantrymen throughout the American Revolution — men such as Prince Estabrook, Salem Poor, Barzillai Lew, Blaney Grusha, Titus Coburn, Alexander Ames, Cato Howe, and Seymour Burr.  But in addition to these men, many other enslaved persons served the rebellion as local guides, messengers, and spies.  It was a black sentry by the name of John (“Rifle Jack”) Peterson whose clear-thinking threw Benedict Arnold’s treasonous plans into disarray and resulted in the capture of British Major John André.[7]

In 1778, Rhode Island was having difficulty recruiting white men to meet the troop quotas set by the Continental Congress — so the legislative assembly decided to adopt a suggestion by militia Major General James M. Varnum to enlist slaves into the 1st Rhode Island Regiment.  Varnum made this proposal to General Washington, who forwarded it to the governor of Rhode Island.

On 14 February 1778, the assembly voted to allow the enlistment of “every able-bodied negro, mulatto, or Indian man slave” who chose to do so, be immediately discharged from slavery — and be absolutely free.  Their former owners were properly compensated.  The number of men so “enlisted” over the following four months was eighty-eight.  Eventually, the regiment numbered 225, with fewer than 140 blacks.  The First Rhode Island was the only regiment of the Continental Army to have segregated companies of Black soldiers.

In 1781, British Loyalists ambushed Colonel Christopher Greene while leading his black soldiers.  The Loyalists mutilated Greene’s body as a punishment for leading blacks against them.  Forty blacks were also killed. 

In Conclusion

The slave problem in Revolutionary America was acute.  So many slaves had fled to the British Army under General Cornwallis that they “caused serious distress to us all.”  By liberating slaves, Cornwallis hindered the southern economy in significant ways.  But these slaves did make substantial contributions to the British cause as soldiers, laborers, and guides during the Southern Campaign.  At the time of his surrender in 1781, General Cornwallis declined to turn these soldiers over to General Washington unless they went willingly.  General Washington, nevertheless, ordered, “All Negroes, or Mulattoes” that fought for the British held until they could be returned to their former owners.

When the British evacuated Charleston in 1782, they took with them 5,000 black loyalists.  Half of these men were former slaves of British loyalists, and these British loyalists took their former slaves with them to the West Indies and re-enslaved on new plantations.  The British settled “freed” African slaves in Jamaica, eventually granting them land.  Another 500 men were taken to East Florida, which remained under British control.

Life did not substantially improve for these freed slaves.  Among those living in Nova Scotia and London, they struggled for all their lives with racial discrimination.  The British were slow to honor their promises of land grants, and it was no picnic living in Canadian weather.  Supporters living in London formed associations to help establish a colony in West Africa to resettle poor blacks.  The first settlement was named Freetown in Sierra Leone.  Black loyalists in Nova Scotia were also asked if they wanted to relocate — and some did.  On 15 January 1792, dozens of free blacks let Halifax for West Africa and a new life.  After 1807, British ships liberated slaves at sea and transported them to West African settlements or those in the West Indies.

African slaves who aligned themselves with the Patriot cause found few rewards for doing so.  In 1784 and 1785, legislatures in Connecticut and Massachusetts banned all blacks (free or enslaved) from military service.  North Carolina, in contrast, was among the states allowing free people of color to serve in the militia and bear arms — until the 1830s.  In 1792, the U.S. Congress officially excluded Africans from military service.  In 1789, “free black” men could vote in five of 13 states (including North Carolina).

Some African slaves earned their freedom by fighting for either side, but many more did not.  Someone was lying to these desperate people.  Within twenty years of the end of the American revolution, most northern states abolished slavery — some gradually, others during the war.  By 1840, virtually all African Americans in the North were either free or living in “free state” jurisdictions.

Most southern state legislatures maintained slavery, but in the Upper South, numerous slaveholders were inspired by revolutionary ideals to free their slaves.  At this time, Methodist, Baptist, and Quaker preachers also urged manumission — the proportion of free blacks in the Upper South increased from around one percent to more than ten percent.  More than half of the number of free blacks in the United States was concentrated in the Upper South.  In Delaware, nearly 75% of blacks were free by 1810.  Subsequently, with the increased development of cotton, the demand for enslaved people as labor sources also increased.  In 1861, more than one million people were enslaved in the Deep South.


  1. Foner, P.  Blacks in the American Revolution.   Greenwood Press, 1976.
  2. MacLeod, D. J.  Slavery, Race, and the American Revolution.  Cambridge University Press, 1975.
  3. Piecuch, J.  Three Peoples, One King: Loyalists, Indians, and Slaves in the Revolutionary South.  University of South Carolina Press, 2008.
  4. Taylor, A.  The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772 – 1832.  Norton & Company, 2013.


[1] Mr. Jefferson was far from being one of our better presidents.

[2] And, apparently, anyone seeking to demonstrate on the property of the U.S. Capitol.

[3] Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves, and the American Revolution.  Vintage Books, 2008.

[4] See also Cassandra Pybus: Jefferson’s Faulty Math: The Question of Slave Defections in the American Revolution.  William & Mary Quarterly, 2005.

[5] Four to eight times longer than the average white soldier, who averaged one year of service.

[6] Under the Articles of Confederation, the U.S. government had no authority to conscript citizens of states.  By cooperative agreement, however, states did conscript their citizens for service with the Continental and, later, the U.S. Army.  The Continental (and later, the U.S.) The Navy could “impress” crewmen for service at sea.  In 1777, Continental Navy captain James Nicholson impressed 30 men from Baltimore, Maryland, but was later ordered to release them.  Impressment had to occur whilst at sea, which Nicholson then proceeded to do until 1780.  Impressment, one will recall, was one justification for the U.S. declaring war on Great Britain in 1812.  Individual states had no qualms with impressment so long as they did it; they did object to impressment by the national government.

[7] Peterson was born into slavery near Peekskill, New York.  He was known as “Rifle Jack” because of his skill as a marksman, and he is known to have distinguished himself during the battles at Saratoga and Peekskill.  In 1780, Peterson was on guard duty with Private Moses Sherwood watching ships sailing up the Hudson River.  One that caught their eye was HMS Vulture.   This particular ship was key to a plot hatched by British Major John Andre and American General Benedict Arnold to hand over West Point to the British.  When Peterson and Sherwood made the presence of this ship known to their officers, patriot artillery forced the ship further upstream, stranding Andre, facilitating his capture, and disrupting Arnold’s treason.

Posted in American Frontier, American Indians, Antebellum Period, British Canada, British Colonies, British Generals, Colonial America, Feuds & Rivalries, History, Indenture & Slavery, New England, New York, North Carolina, Old Florida, Revolution, South Carolina, Spies & such, Virginia | 4 Comments

The Backcountry

But first, some geography

We will be talking about Virginia — sometimes referred to as the Old Dominion because Virginia was the first English colony and the dominion of English kings and queens.  We will also be speaking about the Carolinas and the western regions of New York and Pennsylvania because those areas share many geographical features found in Virginia.  There are five principal regions of Virginia:

Tidewater spans the eastern seaboard of the United States from New Jersey to Georgia, extending westward from the ocean to a point where the flatness of the landscape ends.  In Virginia, this peculiar terrain rises 300 feet above sea level.

Piedmont is a French word meaning foot of the mountains.  The American Piedmont extends from Pennsylvania to Alabama.  The Virginia piedmont is separated from its coastal plain by a fall line where rivers, small waterfalls, and rapids cascade off resistant rocks as they make their way to the ocean.  Those rivers give Virginia its unique geography and strongly affect its history and economy.  The fall line runs through Alexandria, Fredericksburg, Richmond, and Petersburg; west of these points, the rivers are too shallow for deep-bottom ships to navigate. The Virginia piedmont is its largest region, with a hill country that gently rises to 1,000 feet and then doubles that height at the foothills of the Blue Ridge.

The Blue Ridge region extends from southern Pennsylvania to South Carolina and Georgia.  It is a rounded mountain range that looks blue from a distance.  It is rugged from tectonic collisions between 1.0 and 1.6 billion years ago.  The Blue Ridge is covered with thick forests and rises to an average elevation of 4,000 feet.  The highest peak is Mount Rogers, at 5,729 feet.  These mountains extend southwestward for 615 miles, from Carlisle, Pennsylvania, through Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina to Oglethorpe, Georgia.  The range itself is a relatively narrow ridge, fluctuating from between five and 65 miles wide.   In the mid-1600s, this entire region was referred to as “the backcountry.”

The Valley & Ridge region is part of a gigantic trough that extends from Quebec, Canada, to Alabama — often referred to as The Great Valley. Virginia’s portion of this valley is the largest of any state, with narrow and elongated elevations extending 3,000 to 4,000 feet high, with flat, lush valleys and a gentle topography containing deep caves, caverns, and hot springs.

Virginia’s Appalachian Plateau is in the state’s southwestern portion, but part stretches from New York to Alabama.  It is the smallest of the state’s five regions, containing only three counties.

Geography is an essential factor in human development. One’s physical environment determines a range of human attributes, from physical appearance to diet and lifespan.  We know that settling into a new climate will impact human health — and we know that lifespan could be adversely affected by a well-placed tomahawk.  We also understand that people born in one region and later migrate to another take all they know about life.  Whether this works out to anyone’s satisfaction depends on the willingness of human beings to cooperate.

Physical geography and human settlement patterns produced two frontiers in Virginia.  One frontier pushed westward from Tidewater into the Piedmont.  Simultaneously, an autonomous backcountry developed as a southward extension of the Pennsylvania settlements into the drainages of the upper Potomac River, beginning with the Shenandoah Valley.  These circumstances helped to create cultural differences within Virginia’s backcountry settlements.

Some background

The London Company’s expedition in 1606 was by no means the first European attempt to explore North America.  In 1564, French Protestants (Huguenots) established a colony near Jacksonville, Florida.  It was an intrusion soon noticed by the Spanish, who had previously claimed this region.  Spanish officials established a military post at St. Augustine within a year, from which their troops used extreme measures to remove all French interlopers.

Meanwhile, Basque, English, and French fishing fleets became regular visitors to the coasts from Newfoundland to Cape Cod.  Some of these fishing fleets even set up semi-permanent camps on the shores to dry their catches and to trade with local people — exchanging furs for manufactured goods.  For the next twenty years, the European presence in North America was limited to these semi-permanent incursions.  Then in the 1580s, the English tried to plant a permanent colony on Roanoke Island (on the outer banks of present-day North Carolina) — an effort that, for several reasons, was doomed to failure.

In the early 1600s, and rapid succession, the English established a settlement in Chesapeake Bay (Jamestown, 1607), the French constructed Quebec (1608), and the Dutch exhibited an interest in present-day New York (then called New Amsterdam).  The Plymouth Company established a colony in 1620, and nine years later, the Massachusetts Bay Company began their settlement. 

Despite the widely communicated caution that success in North America was never guaranteed, thousands of families opted to make the journey.  Competition for space soon took on a distinctly global complexion with names like New England, New France, and New Spain.  To the people already living in North America (the so-called Native Americans), it was an invasion of epic proportions.  The Indians did resist, of course, but in the long term, they were destined to lose.  Along with thousands of human beings, the Europeans imported sophisticated new technology and (unbeknownst to them) virulent diseases.

There was also a third group: African tribalists ripped out of their traditional homes by ethnic enemies and Moslem merchants seeking wealth through Portuguese and Spanish slave merchants.  Enslaving blacks was intentional because the Spanish and Portuguese found Africans physically superior to Indian laborers.  Spanish and Portuguese colonists believed African slavery was essential to their success in the New World.

All European colonial powers faced similar challenges: company investors pushed colonial officials to turn profits, but there was more land than people to work it.  There is no question that human bondage was a dastardly imposition, but Africans weren’t the only people bonded to the land.  Seventy-five percent of all English settlers were indentured.  In July 1776, two-and-a-half million Englishmen lived in British America — of which 1.8 million were indentured.  In contrast, there were (an estimated) 462,000 enslaved Africans in the British colonies in 1775.

Considering the sheer number of European immigrants and then factoring in their political and cultural differences, there can be no doubt about the complexity of colonization.  The process forced people, officials, and migrants to confront issues not of their own making.  When they responded to stimuli, they did so in the best way they knew how and from a limited number of choices.  Some of these were not the best choices — which demanded a very high price.   


On December 20, 1606, ships of the London Company set sail from England to establish a colony in Virginia.  These would-be colonists arrived in the Chesapeake Bay in April 1607.  On board the ship, mastered by Captain Newport, was 105 men, including 40 soldiers, 35 “gentlemen,” and various artisans and laborers.  It fell upon Captain Newport to find a suitable site for a secure and profitable colony.  Spanish soldiers routinely scoured the coastal regions for evidence of English encroachments in these years.  He chose a river the English named the James and sailed fifty miles from its mouth to find a low-lying peninsula that seemed to meet his requirements.  Captain Newport decided to call it James Towne.

Initially, matters proceeded in good order.  Colonists cleared land and erected a palisade for communal protection.  Inside they built small, crude dwellings.  The colonists also cleared land for agriculture.  Nearby, a resident confederation of tribes led by Powhatan seemed to change from initial hostility to friendship and hospitality.  With the offers of food and friendship, the English began to pay less attention to planting crops and more to exploring the region for quick riches.

Despite early promises of success, danger signs began to reveal themselves.  During the summer and autumn months, colonists contracted illnesses that caused death among more than a few settlers — a product of settling in marshy swamps.  Modern scientists say that the English brought the disease with them — something they called the bloody flux (known today as typhoid and dysentery).  The unhygienic practices of settlers made the flux into an epidemic.  Worse, they were consuming water contaminated by human waste and seawater.

By autumn, settlers realized their agricultural production was insufficient to get them through the winter months.  At first, they didn’t know what they didn’t know about farming in Virginia, but the rude awakening was that they were looking at starvation, and part of that problem was that the gentlemen settlers didn’t think they should have to work in the fields.  The Powhatan community would soon become their food source — but even with that, only 35 of 105 settlers survived the winter.

History may seem to favor Captain John Smith — but it is a fact that he saved Jamestown by organizing the settlers and forcing them to work in productive ways.  He established a trade relationship with the Indians — manufactured goods for food.  When he was desperate, he took from the natives what he felt he needed, which of course, soured whatever goodwill existed between the Indians and colonists.  The lesson learned at Jamestown was that colonies needed strong governors.

Almost from the start, English investors in the Virginia Company were unhappy with the accomplishments of their Jamestown colonists.[1]  They sought a new charter, which the king granted in May 1609 — a measure to place the company on a sounder financial footing by selling shares valued at £12, 10 sh, £25, and £50.[2]  Investors were promised a dividend from whatever gold, land, or other valuable commodities the Company amassed after seven years.

The Charter allowed the company to make its laws and regulations, subject only to their compatibility with English law.  To avoid the disputes that had characterized Virginia in its first years, the Company gave full authority and nearly dictatorial powers to the colony’s governor.  These changes were nearly too little and too late, for Jamestown was just then experiencing its “starving time.” The Company, however, was bent on persevering and sent a new batch of ships and colonists in 1611.  Over the next five years, Sir Thomas Gates and then Sir Thomas Dale governed the colony with iron fists through Lawes devine, morall, and martiall.

The tyranny of Virginia governors was not especially attractive to potential colonists.  What was more, the colonists who went to Virginia lacked the knowledge and skill to contribute to the colony’s success.  They could not even feed themselves — which is why many colonists perished from disease, unsanitary conditions, and malnutrition.  Historians claim that between 1614 and 1618, potential colonists were far more attracted to the West Indies and Bermuda than they were to Virginia.

By 1618, the Virginia Company was forced to change course once more.  The Company had yet to solve either the profitability problem or the settlers’ morale (or incompetence).

The company treasurer, Sir Edwin Sandys, embarked on a series of reforms known as the Virginia Headright System.  Sandys believed Virginia needed more than an increase in settlers; Virginia needed quality citizens.  He schemed to grant sub-patents of land to wealthy adventurers.  Investors would be rewarded with 100 acres of land to each émigré, fifty acres to each colonist who paid their way to Virginia, and fifty additional acres for each person he brought along.

Sandys also hit upon the idea of convening an assembly in the colony, whose representatives would be elected by colonists.  The assembly would have full power to enact laws on all matters relating to the colony — subject to veto by either the governor or the Company in London.

Historians emphasize there were some improvements — but only some.  John Rolfe (1585 – 1622) developed the first successful cultivation of tobacco as an export crop in Virginia.  While colonists favored tobacco as a cash crop, company managers discouraged tobacco in favor of planting corn.[3]

Meanwhile, Virginia continued to face shortages of laborers.  The answer to this problem was ominously foreshadowed in a little-noticed event that John Rolfe described to Sir Edwin in 1619 — the arrival of a Dutch man-o-war carrying a group of captive Africans.  By the end of the century, slave labor would become the foundation of the colony’s economy.[4]

Ultimately, the Virginia Company failed because of poor relations with the Indians.  In 1622, an Indian war party slaughtered a large number of Virginia planters.  Following an inquiry into company affairs, the company’s Royal Charter was revoked.

First Come — First Serve

The way things worked in the early settlement period was that the first waves of colonists to arrive usually ended up with the choicest land nearest the seacoast.  Of course, there are more than a few ways to describe “choice land,” so I suppose what I mean to say is  — the land easiest to clear and farm, the land closest to waterways with landings suitable for loading and unloading ships, and land most suitable controlling slave labor.  One hundred years later, most of the prime land along the coast had been taken by wealthy investors and gentlemen farmers.  One hundred years later, and certainly by 1745, new arrivals had nowhere to go other than to the “backcountry.”

The term “backcountry” was used during the early settlement and colonial periods for the vast interior of Virginia and the Carolinas — areas far inland from the coastline, across and west of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  Dr. John Lederer first explored this region in 1670.[5]  It wasn’t until the mid-eighteenth century that large numbers of Scotch-Irish and German settlers began to make their way into the backcountry.[6]  In time, the interior (western) population swelled to become forty percent of the region’s total and, because of political conditions in the colonies, became one of the most volatile regions of southern colonial society for several decades.

By royal charter, the extreme western boundaries of Virginia at this time extended to the Pacific Ocean.  Still, the terms “backcountry” or “back settlements” specifically refer to new settlements in the eastern Appalachian Mountains — most notably in the Shenandoah Valley — that began taking shape in the 1720s.  This term was commonly used in the colonial era when “frontier” referred more specifically to national boundaries.  In the 1720s and 1730s, British and colonial authorities encouraged settlement of the backcountry, particularly by non-English Protestant immigrants whose small-farm, non-slave communities might create a buffer zone against Indian attacks and French territorial expansion (while deterring runaway slaves hoping to establish independent colonies in the Appalachians).

Due to its social, economic, political, and cultural distinctiveness, the backcountry frontier region played a significant role in the eighteenth-century history of Virginia and the writings of historians about the influence of Virginia’s colonial period on the later history of the state and the nation.  By the end of the eighteenth century, the backcountry had become a successful model for developing mixed-farm/market-town settlements as Americans overspread the trans-Appalachian west.

Although American Indians had occupied the western region of the Blue Ridge Mountains for a thousand years before contact with Europeans, it did not harbor large Indian populations at the time when colonial explorers broached the western regions.  In a series of conflicts over trade and the use of natural resources that consumed much of the latter half of the seventeenth century, the Five Nations of the Iroquois League had driven most native peoples out of the upper Ohio and Potomac River valleys by 1700.

In 1701, as the result of treaties with British and French colonial officials, the Iroquois established their neutrality in the future imperial wars of European powers and resumed endemic conflicts with southern Indians, namely Cherokee, Creek, and Catawba.  Setting northern Indians against southern Indians polarized western Virginia, making it unstable for over one hundred years.  Indian war parties, diplomatic intrigues, hunting expeditions, trading ventures, and a hunger for political domination beset the region.

Virginia’s former frontier was an expression of an Anglo-Virginia plantation society reliant on slave labor; its last frontier was an egalitarian, multi-religious, small farm and mixed grain-livestock economy that was neither dependent on tobacco nor slavery.

What made the backcountry distinct was its people — its history — the tension between the ancient people, the Indians, and the newly arrived Virginians.  The Virginians believed that this western land belonged to them.  The Indians believed otherwise.  The territorial claims were important, but so too were anxieties over colonial security in a rapidly expanding slave society.  The backcountry’s character (and significance) was the product of political and imperial conflicts that set fire to the Atlantic world.

Europe’s unquenchable appetite for land, wealth, and recognition as a world power helps explain the westward push and a sudden demand for tobacco throughout Europe.[7]  In the western backcountry, the craving for land converged with the security concerns of imperial authorities in London and the colonial capitals.  Historians explain this significance in the following way: “the Blue Ridge was to the British colonies what the north of Ireland had earlier been to England — and, in a larger sense, what Gibraltar meant for British access to the Mediterranean.”

In the west …

Alexander Spotswood (1676 – 1740) served as lieutenant governor of Virginia (1710 – 1722), ruling in the absence of Colonial Governor George Hamilton, Earl of Orkney.  It was common practice for colonial governors to remain in England, leaving the day-to-day operations in the hands of their lieutenant governors. Spotswood’s accomplishments included improved relations with American Indians, an end to piracy, and increased gubernatorial power.  He was not a fan of the House of Burgesses, particularly members who criticized his decisions.

The Shenandoah Valley’s strategic importance was undoubtedly on Governor Spotswood’s mind when he led an expedition there in 1716. Spotswood believed that settlement of the valley by British subjects would secure Virginia and serve the colony’s defensive interests — against Indians and in the imperial struggles of the French and Indian Wars. Virginia Rangers had recently discovered hidden passes over the Blue Ridge that exposed the colony to attack by Indians and French marines. 

Lieutenant Colonel Spotswood was additionally concerned about the growing threat of runaway slaves establishing autonomous mountain communities to resist re-capture.  This was a valid concern among British colonial officials owing to the rebellion in Jamaica by the maroons, with whom the British engaged in a protracted war.

The major push toward British occupation of the backcountry began with a series of land orders totaling 400,000 acres west of the Blue Ridge.  Lieutenant Governor William Gooch issued these between 1730 – 1732.[8]  Most recipients (some of whom obtained orders for more than 100,000 acres) were Germanic and Scots-Irish immigrants from Pennsylvania.  Gooch mandated that these recipients recruit one settler family for every 1,000 acres within two years as a condition of receiving their land patents.  The policy initiated a massive migration of Pennsylvanians to the Virginia backcountry.  Within three years, 160 families had settled the region — by 1745, nearly 10,000 Europeans lived in the Shenandoah Valley.

In the backcountry, stark differences in racial, ethnic, and religious identity set the society of frontier settlers apart from the culture of eastern Virginia.  In the minds of colonial officials in Williamsburg and London, backcountry Protestants, capable of standing on their two feet with no interest in African slavery, were perfect champions in the global struggle with Catholic France and Spain.  They also had the potential to form a militia barrier in defense of eastern Virginia against rampaging blacks.  That was the thinking, of course — and not too far off the mark considering the involvement of these far-western independent thinkers protecting eastern Virginia in another 120 years.

Backcountry developments

Robert Dinwiddie (1692 – 1770) served as a member of the Governor’s Council (1742 – 1751) and then as Lieutenant Governor (1751 – 1758).[9]  Dinwiddie was a Scottish merchant from Glasgow who began his public career in Bermuda, where he worked as an Admiralty Agent and customs agent.  Governor Dinwiddie was always a controversial official in Virginia, particularly in his role leading up to the French & Indian War (1754).

Settlers arriving in the backcountry “scattered” for the benefit of the best lands, which resulted in open-country communities, with each homestead consisting of around 300 acres with access to springs and water courses.  The situation resulted in mixed German, Scots-Irish, English, and Anglo-Virginian families through endogamy.  Local tradecraft involved entire communities through frontier exchange economies, irrespective of ethnic identities.  Households engaged each other continually in the commerce of agricultural surpluses, labor exchanges, and artisan services.  Trading for a few spare bushels of wheat, corn, or apples for a day’s work or a bit of blacksmithing with a neighbor was a standing arrangement.

Hard currency in the colonies was rare, so most commercial exchanges were measured by calculating debits and credits in book accounts.  This kind of joint economic development on an isolated frontier was encouraged by a long period of (mostly) peaceful relations with American Indians, with whom trade in skins and furs advanced everyone’s interests.  However, the nature of backcountry life changed dramatically between 1750 and 1760.  In a long-term trend that started in the mid-1740s (accelerating sharply in the 1750s), prices for wheat and flour in the Atlantic economy began to rise.  Flour exports from Philadelphia increased several times as the port city took control of the provisions trade with the West Indies and southern Europe.

Philadelphia was connected to western Virginia by the Great Wagon Road, one of the longest roads in early America.[10]  By late in the 1760s, wheat had become the Shenandoah Valley’s primary staple crop: a farmer in the lower valley could grow wheat, grind it into flour at a local mill, sell it at the Philadelphia or Alexandria market, and realize a profit against considerable transportation costs.[11]

The defining transformation of backcountry Virginia and Carolina was the development of towns.  While it is true that agricultural commodities were left for the market from farm gates and mills, the credit recorded in the accounts of town merchants (and imported goods) provided robust commerce in the backcountry.

A second significant development that stimulated town founding and growth was the global struggle of the Seven Years’ War, which embroiled the backcountry in armed conflict from 1754 to 1763. Pontiac’s War (1763–1765), waged by Indians against the British in the Illinois and Ohio countries, also engrossed the backcountry in fearmongering and fighting.  Fleeing outlying farms and unfortified open-country neighborhoods, farm families sought the security of garrisoned towns such as Winchester, Virginia.  There, and in at least five new towns founded during the conflict, the economic demand created by refugees and the labor they could provide intermingled with the needs of soldiers and camp followers to stir a dynamic economic mix out of which true market-town economies emerged.


If so-called open-country neighborhoods and exchange economies were characteristic of the first phase of backcountry settlement, then the evolutionary town-and-country settlement system was the product of a revolution in agricultural production.  The emergence of this system by the end of the 1700s enabled frontier households to participate in a consumer revolution that transformed British Imperialism into an empire of goods and services.

What happened after the backcountry ended, however, was anything but backward.  The economy was so productive that agriculture west of the Blue Ridge Mountains could only be described as bountiful.  The backcountry became the “new” Virginia and Carolina — best characterized by high-farming and market-town commerce.

It was undoubtedly true that certain sectional patterns endured — giving meaning to the term Old Dominion, or Old Virginia (slavery, tobacco, and plantation conservativism), but dynamic town-and-country economies west of the Blue Ridge predisposed its peoples to favor banks, internal improvements, and other forms of economic modernization.  They voted for Federalists in debates over the Constitution.  They actively supported the new central government whose economic power to integrate interstate and international commerce constituted the lifeblood of the backcountry.  In this way, the backcountry became a model for trans-Appalachian frontier development — and the model for what the United States would eventually become.


  1. Brooks, M.  The Appalachians: The Naturalist America.  Houghton Mifflin Company, 1965.
  2. Constantz, G.  Hollows, Peepers, and Highlanders: An Appalachian Mountain Ecology.  West Virginia University Press, 2004.
  3. Olson, T.  Blue Ridge Folklife.  University Press of Mississippi, 1998.
  4. Rehder, J.  Appalachian Folkways.  University of Tennessee Press, 2013.
  5. The Encyclopedia of Virginia, online.
  6. The Jefferson Monticello, online.
  7. The National Park Service, online.


[1] The London Company was also called the Virginia Company.  Same company. 

[2] The English monetary unit was originally equivalent to one pound (symbol £ ) of silver.

[3] England’s king opposed and discouraged the use of filthy weed.

[4] The 1619 Project is a “long-form journalism project” developed by Nikole Hannah-Jones (et al.), a staff writer for The New York Times and The New York Times Magazine (2019), which seeks to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery at the center of the national narrative.  This project was timed to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the “first enslaved Africans” in the English colony of Virginia.  Unfortunately, while the essential supposition is true, the Africans that arrived in the English colony were aboard a Dutch ship, as noted in correspondence from John Rolfe to Virginia Company treasurer Sir Edwin Sandys, London.  A question remains about whether these Africans were enslaved or indentured people.

From these essential facts, Hannah-Jones contends that the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain were because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.  She no doubt believes that this proposition is well-founded in historical evidence.  It is not — and in her zeal to publish a racially biased proposal, she ignores all the evidence to the contrary.  One may understand this in the context of Miss Hannah-Jones’s educational background, which is in sensational journalism rather than in history.

Several distinguished scholars strenuously oppose Miss Hannah-Jones in her flawed assertions about The New York Times 1619 Project — including:

  • Dr. Leslie M. Harris, Ph.D., a scholar at Northwestern University.  Dr. Harris received her post-honorary degree from Stanford University in 1995; she is regarded as an American History, African-American Studies, and African Studies expert.
  • Dr. Gordon S. Wood (b. 1933) has a post-honorary degree from Harvard University (a Pulitzer Prize-winning scholar).
  • Dr. James M. McPherson (b.1936), a post-honorary degree from John Hopkins University (a Pulitzer Prize-winning scholar).
  • Dr. Robert Sean Wilentz (b.1951), a post-honorary degree from Yale (Pulitzer Prize finalist/Bancroft Scholar).
  • Dr. Victoria E. Bynum (b. circa 1959), a post-honorary degree from the University of California, San Diego, and
  • Dr. James Oakes has a post-honorary degree from the University of California (Berkley) and is currently a Distinguished Professor of History and Humanities at the University of New York (Manhattan).

Further note: despite evidence to the contrary, several leftist states have adopted the 1619 Project by incorporating it into state history curricula, as evidenced by the New Jersey State Library unit offering on African slavery during the British Colonial period.

[5] Lederer was a 17th-century physician and an explorer of the Appalachian Mountain region.  He and his party were the first Europeans to crest the Blue Ridge Mountains (1669) and see the Shenandoah Valley and Allegheny Mountains.

[6] The first sizeable group of Scots to arrive in the Carolinas was the so-called Argyll Colony (1739).  A second group migrated following the Jacobean War (1745 – 1746) — which some estimate exceeded 20,000 Scotch settlers.  German settlement resulted from an effort by the Swiss Land Company and the British Crown to settle 100 families from the German Palatines (Holy Roman principalities) in the town of New Bern (on the Neuse and Trent Rivers) in 1710.  The colony prospered for around 18 months until local Indians massacred the settlers and destroyed the town.

[7] The 1707 Act of Union opened trade throughout the British Empire for the first time, substantially increasing the demand for Tobacco products.

[8] For a true story of Lieutenant Colonel William Gooch, see also Gooch’s Colonial Marines.

[9] Dinwiddie’s governor was William Anne Keppel, Second Earl Albemarle (1702 – 1754).  Keppel was one of Great Britain’s many absentee governors, serving as such from 1737 – 1754 (his death).  Keppel had a distinguished military career, rising to lieutenant general during the War of Austrian Succession.  He also served as Ambassador to France under King George II.  Keppel was a shrewd politician who frustrated his lieutenant governors by playing them off against the House of Burgesses.    

[10] The Great Wagon Road was an “improved trail” connecting the Appalachian Valley in Pennsylvania to Georgia through the backcountry.  The primary ethnic groups that traveled this region were ethnic German Palatines and Scots-Irish immigrants.  Essentially, the road connected Philadelphia to York, York to Winchester, Virginia, Winchester to Roanoke, Roanoke to Wachovia, North Carolina, then Salisbury, Charlotte to Augusta, Georgia through Pelzer, South Carolina.  Note: Roanoke was once known as Big Lick.

[11] The proceeds of flour production enabled frontier households to participate in a consumer revolution that transformed the British empire into a trade empire by the end of the eighteenth century.  Fine imported wares began to appear on the tables and in the sitting rooms of backcountry houses, which were often enlarged or rebuilt according to new international Georgian-designed homes (an I-House) — a two-story dwelling with an exterior end-chimney.

Posted in American Frontier, American Indians, British Colonies, Colonial America, Corruption, Georgia, History, Indenture & Slavery, Indian War, Massacres, Mountain Men, New France, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Pioneers, Politicians, South Carolina, Virginia | 2 Comments

The North Carolina Regulator War


In the year 1700, around 200,000 people lived in the British colonies in North America.  In the next 100 years, the population doubled roughly every 25 years (except that migration to the New World slowed during the French & Indian War (1754 ~ 1763).  The majority of these new immigrants were Scots-Irish and German immigrants.  Around 50,000 were English convicts.  The only method of getting to the American colonies was by sea.

The Atlantic Passage

Discounting convicts and enslaved Africans transported against their will, there were essentially two classes of migrants to the American colonies: those wealthy enough to pay for their own passage (8 pounds sterling for an adult) and those who indentured themselves for transportation costs (estimated by some as 75% of the total number of migrants to the British colonies between 1700 ~ 1775).[1]  In many cases, the broker making such arrangements was the sea captain.

By any measure, no matter what the status of the traveler, the passage to the American colonies was treacherous.  Ship’s passengers were crammed into small wooden ships that were subject to the turbulence of an angry Atlantic Ocean.  Once aboard ship, they were trapped there until they reached their destinations.  Men, women, and children endured unimaginable hardships: there was aboard ship the constant smell of human waste and vomit, sea sickness, fever, dysentery, headaches, mouth rot, rotted food, food poisoning, and putrid water.  Untold numbers of people died during the average of seven weeks passage.  One passenger recorded body lice so thick the mites could be scraped off with a knife.

There was no time nor any inclination toward respectful burials at sea.  Dead people were simply cast over the side into the sea — and if they suffered from the pox, they went into the sea while still alive.  This wasn’t a heartless act; it was to prevent the spreading of the disease to others in those confined spaces.  There were no “isolation rooms.”  If a mother should protest such treatment of her child, she would likely accompany her child into the sea.  On one ship bound for Philadelphia, a passenger recorded the deaths of 32 children — all of whom became food for the monsters of the sea.

Once the ships arrived at their destinations (there were several ports), their captain would only allow fully paid passengers to disembark.  All others had to remain aboard ship until a client looking for indentured servants could inspect the passengers and decide whether to purchase their contract.  Of course, the sick or infirm always fared the worst because no one looking for an indentured servant was much interested in someone who was sick or otherwise unable to perform their duties from the very first day.  If someone was required to remain aboard ship due to illness, they would likely die aboard ship, never setting foot on America’s shore.

If a husband had lost his wife during the passage, the indentured husband would have to agree to serve indenture long enough to pay for his wife’s passage.  The same was true for a wife who had lost her husband during the passage.  Parents were often required to trade away their children like cattle — all children were required to work their indenture to the age of 21 years.  If a child’s parents died at sea, the children must stand on their own in paying off the indenture.  At the end of indenture, the servant was entitled to a new suit of clothing and, if stipulated, a man might receive a horse and a woman a cow.

Waves of Immigrants

In 1707, a new wave of Scottish immigrants began to make their way toward the Americas; it came as the result of the Act of Union between England and Scotland.  In earlier times, Scots tended to settle near seaports because making a living from the sea was how they lived in their home country.  People from the lowlands migrated to New York and the Carolinas.  Two years later, high-born Germans began arriving as refugees from war-torn France and Germany.  In 1717, the British Parliament legalized the transportation to the colonies of people convicted of felonies — the most common destinations were Maryland and Virginia.  A year after that, disaffected Scots began migrating in larger numbers to escape the tyranny of landlords.  These people tended to settle in western Maryland and Pennsylvania.

Migrations to the Carolina backcountry began in earnest in 1730; Colonial Georgia began in 1732.  The British began sending Jews to the colonies, which was the reason for their Naturalization Act of 1740.  After the Jacobite uprising of 1745, highlanders began migrating to the Carolinas in large numbers, most of whom found their way into the back (mountain) country.

Carolina governors

Initially, Carolina was a province of England (1663 ~ 1707) and Great Britain (1707 ~ 1712) until it was partitioned into North and South Carolina on 24 January 1712.  The Carolina province included the present-day states of Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and the Bahamas.

In 1669, the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina divided the colony of Carolina into two provinces: Albemarle in the north and Clarendon in the south.  Due to popular dissension over the governance of the colony and the distance between northern and southern settlements, a deputy governor was appointed in 1691 to administer Albemarle province.  In 1712, the two provinces became separate colonies: North Carolina (formerly Albemarle Province) and South Carolina (formerly Clarendon Province).

Carolina was the first of three English colonies in North America to develop a comprehensive organizational plan.  Known as the Grand Model, it was composed of a well-founded guide for settlement and economic progress — titled Fundamental Constitution of Carolina.  This remarkable instrument was drafted by none other than John Locke, working under the direction of Anthony Ashley Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury.

The disquiet that existed in Carolina between 1708 ~ 1710 was over two issues.  First, whether to establish the Anglican Church in the Province.  Second, Carolina citizens could not agree on a slate of elected officials — the result of which was that there was no recognized or legal government for more than two years.  Within those two years, Governor Thomas Cary refused to relinquish his office to Edward Hyde, prompting an event called the Cary Rebellion.  Political stability was challenged further by two major conflicts with native Americans: the Tuscarora Indians in North Carolina and the Yamasee Indians in South Carolina.[2]

Although the partition of the Province of Carolina began in 1712, it did not officially take place until 1729 — after seven of the Lords Proprietors sold their interests in Carolina to the Crown, making both North and South Carolina “Crown Colonies.”[3]  The Eighth Lord, Sir George Carteret, passed his interest to his great-grandson John Carteret, 2nd Earl Granville.  Carteret retained ownership of a sixty-mile-wide strip of land in North Carolina adjoining the Virginia border — known as the Granville District.  Many land disputes erupted over this strip of land between 1729 and 1776 — quarrels that simply would not go away until finally, North Carolina’s revolutionary government seized the land.

A brief look at the seventh and eighth colonial governors of North Carolina is essential toward understanding the conditions under which migrants found themselves in new world settlements, particularly in relation to land costs, tax assessments, and the method of tax collection, debt, and debt-collection — all of which were issues that led to the Regulator War.

North Carolina Governor Arthur Dobbs (1689 ~ 1765) was a man of English stock born in Ayrshire, Scotland.  He was the eldest son of Richard Dobbs of Carrickfergus, County Antrim, the Sheriff of Antrim, and Mary Stewart from Ballintoy.  As an adult, Dobbs became an engineer and the Surveyor-General of Ireland.  As such, his primary responsibility was to supervise the construction of the Irish Parliament building in Dublin.  In 1720, Dobbs became the High Sheriff of Antrim and, in 1727, a member of Parliament for Carrickfergus — a seat he held until 1760.

Dobbs used his position as a member of parliament to purchase 400,000 acres of land in North Carolina at a very low price.  It was Dobbs’ intention to sell this land to Scots-Irish immigrants, whose migration he encouraged.  Following the death of North Carolina Governor Gabriel Johnson, Dobbs was confirmed to succeed him on 25 January 1753.  Dobbs, however, did not arrive in North Carolina until the following year.

Upon arrival in North Carolina, Dobbs decided to settle in Brunswick Town, named in honor of the Brunswick-Luneburg territory of Germany, then ruled by Great Britain’s King George I.  Brunswick Town became a busy port for exporting longleaf pine and the political center of the Cape Fear region and seat of the county of New Hanover.  The term “capital” of North Carolina only meant that it was where the governor resided.  Governor Dobbs wanted to establish a permanent capital in Honor of King George II, but his difficulties with the North Carolina Assembly impeded any progress in that regard.[4]

Dobbs’ tenure as governor occurred during the French and Indian Wars — and, some argue, at the very beginning of the American Revolutionary War.  It was the colony’s unsympathetic relationship with Native Americans and its expenditures on the French and Indian War that contributed to Governor Dobbs’ difficulty with the colonial legislature — that, along with several complaints about Dobbs’ caustic personality.  Dobbs sought to resolve his problems with the assembly by dissolving it in 1760 and ordering new elections.  Incensed, the assembly drafted charges against Dobbs and sent them to the King.  It was only the succession of King George III that saved Dobbs from further conflict with the assembly.[5]

In 1720, Arthur Dobbs married Anne Osborne, a widow.  Together, they had three sons and a daughter.  In 1762, the widowed 73-year-old married Justina Davis of Brunswick Town.  Justina was 15 years of age.  A few months later, Arthur suffered a stroke and relied on a wheelchair for mobility.  He suffered another seizure on 28 March 1765 and passed away.

North Carolina Governor William Tryon was born in Surrey, England, on 8 June 1729.  He joined the British Army in 1751 and was commissioned lieutenant and captain in the same year.[6]  In seven more years, he was a lieutenant colonel.  During the Seven Year’s War, he fought on European soil and received wounds in combat.

As a result of his family connections, Tryon obtained the position of Acting Lieutenant Governor of the Province of North Carolina in 1764.  William Tryon was a loyal Englishman and could not understand any man who aligned himself with the patriot cause in opposition to the Crown.  He was born as an aristocrat — and he lived as one for all his life.

Among Tryon’s priorities as governor was establishing the Church of England in North Carolina.  With Parliament’s passage of the Stamp Act in 1765, Tryon, having noted strong opposition, prevented the Colonial Assembly from convening until late November 1766.  Tryon claimed to oppose the Stamp Act but called for troops to enforce the law.  Ultimately, Parliament repealed the Stamp Act before the people could tear down the walls of British authority.  Tryon’s other priority was the construction, at public expense, of a new governor’s mansion.  The project required an increase in taxes.

Rebellions do have causes

The governments of the thirteen colonies in British America developed under the influence of the British Constitution.  The experience of colonial rule would eventually form and shape the various state governments of the United States.

All colonial governments all had an executive branch led by a governor and a bi-cameral legislative branch consisting of a governor’s council and a representative assembly.  But there were differences in the British-American colonies.

In Crown Colonies, the British government appointed a governor and council.

Charter Colonies operated under a corporate charter granted by the Crown.  The colonies of Virginia, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts Bay were, at one time or another, Charter Colonies.  The Crown might revoke a charter and convert the colony to a Crown Colony.  Charters established the rules under which the colony was governed.  Charters issued to Rhode Island and Connecticut granted more political liberty than the other colonies.  These two states used their colonial charters as the basis for their state constitutions following the American Revolution.

Proprietary Colonies belonged to the British monarch, bestowed and divided at his or her will, so all such colonies were partitioned by the Royal Charter as proprietary, joint-stock, covenant, or Crown colonies.  These were mostly “commercial” grants to “proprietors,” who then selected the governor and other officials.

Colonial governors came from both military and civilian backgrounds, but they were all well-born aristocrats, wealthy in their own right, whose tenure in the colonies only made them richer.  Of course, colonial governors were the senior law enforcement officer of their respective colonies, so every government had a military title, even if only temporary.  Governors were also the most prominent people in the colony.  They represented the British monarch.  They spoke with the Crown’s voice.  Of course, not everyone was suitably impressed with their governor — or his extraordinary authority — but every challenge was met with overwhelming force to restore order.

The distances separating England from its American colonies, the pressures exerted on royal officials by American colonists, and the inevitable inefficiency of any large bureaucracy combined to weaken royal power.  During the 18th century, colonial legislatures began to exercise greater control over their own parliamentary prerogatives — including responsibility for legislation affecting taxation, defense, and the salaries paid to royal officials.

Provincial leaders also made significant inroads into the governor’s patronage powers.  While the governor theoretically continued to control the appointments of local officials, he most often followed the recommendations of provincial leaders within their localities.  Similarly, governor’s councils (theoretical agents of royal authority) came to be dominated by prominent provincial leaders — men who tended to support the interests of the leadership of the lower house rather than those of the British parliament.

By the 1750s, most political power in America was concentrated in the hands of provincial (rather than royal) officials.  Social and political problems arose when provincial officials began focusing more of their attention on their own interests (and those of their cronies) than on the interests of their constituents.  There was nothing new about this — selfishness is in the nature of mankind: economic standing determined the amount of one’s social prestige and political power, and in the American colonies, power (whether social, political, or economic) was controlled by a relatively few men.

The landowners, slave owners, and the so-called planter class dominated nearly every aspect of life in the middle and southern colonies.  Such people existed in the lowlands and in the backcountry as well, but most people living in the backcountry were recent Scots-Irish arrivals who had no interest in slave ownership.  They performed their own work, often struggling to make farming, dairy, or cattle ventures profitable.  Whether their efforts were profitable might depend on how much the tax man decided these hard-working people owed the colonial treasury.  It should be no surprise that the tax assessor was part of the cartel of wealthy planters, prominent merchants, bankers, and lawyers — men who dominated the two most influential government agencies: county courts and provincial assemblies.  

This extraordinary concentration of power in the hands of a wealthy few occurred despite the fact that a large percentage of the free adult male population participated in the political process.  It was a situation in which ordinary citizens deferred to those they considered their “betters” — to a point.

In the Carolinas, a small group of planters monopolized much of the colony’s wealth, and as in Virginia and Maryland, the planter class made up the social elite.  But as a rule, Carolina planters did not share the same traditions of responsible government as did the ruling oligarchs in Virginia and Maryland.  Many Carolina planters and officials were absentee landlords — choosing to pass most of their time in Charleston or in Wilmington/New Bern.

In the Carolina west, antagonism toward the eastern elite resulted in occasional armed uprisings.  The arrival of so many people from Scotland, Northern England, Wales, and Ireland — people with nary a cent to their names, presented problems for colonial officials and established citizens alike.  Following the French and Indian War, the population exploded in the inland section of the colonies.  Merchants and lawyers began moving west, which upset the social and political structure of colonial society — particularly among the Scots-Irish, who — given the political and social corruption of county sheriffs, county judges, lawyers, and merchants — had little regard for any of those men.

Simultaneously, backcountry communities experienced severe droughts, suffering a loss of crops, reduced income, increased debt, and conspiracies among government officials, lawyers, and merchants to seize the properties of highly perturbed Scotsmen.  Between 1755 – 1765, the number of court cases pitting debt-holders against debtors swelled sixteen-fold — an increase in the annual average of such cases from seven to 110.

In 1764, several thousand Carolinians began to display their dissatisfaction with the wealthy officials — people they considered cruel, arbitrary, tyrannical, and corrupt.  The arrival of William Tryon in the following year only made matters worse.  They were made worse by the fact that Tryon turned a blind eye to corruption in order to gain and retain the support of dishonest officials.


The Carolina Regulator Movement (also known as the Regulator Insurrection, War of Regulation, and War of the Regulation), was an uprising in Provincial North Carolina (1766 – 1771) in which citizens took up arms against corrupt colonial officials.  The movement did nothing to change the conditions that caused the uprising — and some scholars argue that it only worsened colonial life.  There is also the claim that the regulator movement was a precursor of the American Revolutionary War.  That argument is still debated.

On 6 June 1765, George Sims, from Nutbush, North Carolina (Williamsboro), gave an address to protest provincial and county officials and the fees they charged for performing their services.  Carolina scholars claim that the so-called Nutbush Address was the catalyst for the regulator movement in North Carolina.[7]

The effort to eliminate this corrupt system of government became known by several names, but it was essentially the North Carolina Regulator War.  The most heavily affected areas of contention were Rowan, Anson, Orange, Granville, Cumberland, and Dobbs Counties — a struggle between mostly lower-class citizens (who made up the majority of the Scots-Irish backcountry population in the Carolinas), and the roughly 5% of the affluent class who maintained almost total control of the government.

The regulators weren’t asking for much — just an honest government, fair court treatment, and reduced taxes.  The wealthy class, viewing this lower-class uprising as a threat to their power, relied on the golden rule: whoever has the gold makes the rules.

In 1768, armed Carolina regulators broke up a colonial court in session and dragged into the street those whom they saw as corrupt officials and enablers (including Edmund Fanning and Francis Nash[8]).  The regulators intended to force the presiding judge, Richard Henderson, to proceed with the trial without the presence of the corrupt lawyers, but Henderson escaped before they could take him into custody.  Meanwhile, regulators started a riot in town, which began with a good beating of Fanning.  Henderson later testified that Fanning was beaten so severely that one of his eyes was nearly removed.  Meanwhile, regulators destroyed the courtroom and Fanning’s home, his barn, all of his out-buildings, and worst of all, they drank all of his liquor.

The Battle of Alamance

Violence doesn’t happen in a vacuum.  In the Carolinas, small acts of violence had been taking place for over a few years — mainly out of resentment for their poor treatment.  The first organized resistance occurred in Mecklenburg County in 1765.[9]  Many of the local settlers around Mecklenburg were squatters who responded to the presence of county surveyors in a very threatening manner.  Such incidents were frequent in western Carolina, but the first serious clash occurred along Alamance Creek.

Motivated to end the regulator movement, Governor General William Tryon mustered 1,000 men at Hillsborough on 9 May 1771.  At the same time, General Hugh Waddell supported Tryon with a contingent of 236 men.[10]  Enroute to Hillsborough, Waddell chanced upon a much larger force of men under regulator Captain Benjamin Merrill.  Merrill’s larger force caused Waddell to fall back to Salisbury.

Two days later, on 11 May 1771, having received word of Waddell’s retreat Tryon sent a large force to support General Waddell.  Tryon intentionally chose a path that would lead his forces through Regulator territory, but he was adamant that his men should not loot or damage any personal property.  On 14 May, Tryon’s troops reached the location of Alamance Creek and set up camp.  Leaving around 70 men behind to guard the bivouac, Tryon moved the balance of his force in search of regulators.

Ten miles distant, a regulator force of around 2,000 men — intended as a show of force rather than an armed force (although these men were armed — as all men were back then) haphazardly organized without a central leader.  They simply wanted to “scare” Tryon out of his corrupt practices and urge him to treat all citizens of North Carolina (rich and poor) equally.

The first clash occurred on 15 May 1771.  A rogue band of regulators captured two of the governor’s militia.  Governor Tryon dutifully informed the regulators that by displaying open arms and rebellion, he was obligated to take action against them should they refuse to disperse. 

Today, scholars argue that the regulators did not understand the severity of the crisis or the danger they were in.  This is probably a valid point of view.  These poor, uneducated clansmen may not have understood the scope of their predicament — but in any case, they essentially ignored the governor’s warning.

Despite hesitation from his own forces, Governor Tryon initiated the main battle the following day, 16 May 1771.  When Tryon’s Redcoats shot and killed the rebel Robert Thompson, regulator resistance crumbled almost immediately.  It wasn’t much of a battle, actually.  Nine regulators died — including six men whom Tryon hanged as examples, three of whom were Captain Benjamin Merrill, Captain Robert Messer, and Captain Robert Matear.  Governor Tryon pardoned every survivor who participated in the “battle” in exchange for their oath of allegiance to the Crown.

At the time of the regulator defeat at Alamance, most Carolinians viewed the regulators as outlaws and rabble-rousers, and Gov. Tryon was viewed as a hero for stamping out the rebellion.  News articles spread the word of his victory from one end of the colony to the other.  After the initial excitement, however, newsmen in other colonies began to question the reasons behind the regulator rebellion and investigated further.  Several reasons were found to regard the destruction of the Regulators as an act of an oppressive government — most particularly admonished was Governor Tryon for his methods in putting down the “rebellion” and the lynching (murder) of citizens without due process of law.  Reports also surfaced, reflecting the presence of battlefield misconduct.  The allegation was that Governor Tryon gave rebels/farmers a two-hour advance warning period before starting the battle but then broke that agreement by bombarding them with artillery before the two-hour period had elapsed.

Many of the rebellion’s main leaders remained in hiding until 1772 when they were no longer considered outlaws. Governor Tryon was reassigned in 1771 to become the governor of New York.  After the battle of Alamance, many Regulators moved further west into Tennessee, where they established the short-lived Watauga Association in 1772.[11]  Unhappy Carolinians were also involved in creating the Free Republic of Franklin in 1784, an unrecognized proposed state located in present-day East Tennessee (west of the Appalachian Mountains).  In 1788, the government of Franklin collapsed, and the area reverted to the control of North Carolina.  North Carolina ceded the area to the federal government in 1789 as the Southwest Territory — the precursor to the State of Tennessee.[12]


  1. Haywood, M. D.  Governor William Tryon and his Administration in the Province of North Carolina.  Raleigh, 1903.
  2. Howard, J. B.    The Battle of Alamance: A re-analysis of the Historical Record.  North Carolina History Archive, 2009.
  3. Kars, M.  Breaking Loose Together: The Regulator Rebellion in Pre-Revolutionary North Carolina.  University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
  4. Kay, M. L.  The North Carolina Regulation (1766 – 1776): A Class Conflict.  American Revolution, Explorations in the History of American Radicalism, Alfred Young, Ed., 1976.
  5. Kay, M. L.  Class, Mobility, and Conflict in North Carolina on the Eve of the Revolution.  Southern Experience in the American Revolution, Jeffrey J. Crow, Ed., University of North Carolina Press, 1978.
  6. Lefler, H. T.  Colonial North Carolina: A History.  Scribner & Sons, 1973.
  7. Sadler, S.  Prelude to the American Revolution: The War of Regulation — A revolutionary reaction for reforms.  The History Teacher, 2012.
  8. Stewart, C. J.  The Affairs of Boston in North Carolina’s Backcountry during the American Revolution.  University of North Carolina Press, 2010.
  9. Waddell, A.  A Colonial Officer and His Times, 1754 – 1773: A Biographical Sketch of Hugh Waddell. Edwards & Broughton, 1890.


[1] In modern value, 8 pounds sterling in 1700 would be worth $1,803.32 in 2022.  Citation: Eric W. Nye, Pounds Sterling to Dollars: Historical Conversion of Currency.

[2] The Tuscarora War was fought in NC between September 1711 and February 1715.  The Tuscarora were of the Iroquois Nation; the conflict involved territorial encroachment.  Related to the Tuscarora War, the Yamasee War evolved several other tribes, each of which had its own reasons for hostilities toward the Carolina settlers.  Eventually, European settlers overwhelmed local Indian tribes — but not without giving up hundreds of dead Carolinians.  

[3] The Lord Proprietors were the eight Englishmen to whom King Charles II granted joint ownership of the entire area of Carolina.  All of these men had remained loyal to the Crown or aided Charles’s restoration to the English throne.  The Proprietors were William Berkeley (former governor of Virginia), John Colleton, Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, George Monck, Duke of Albemarle, William, Earl Craven, John Lord Berkeley, Anthony Ashley Cooper, and Sir George Carteret.

[4] North Carolina’s capital was fixed at New Bern in 1765 and at Raleigh in 1792. 

[5] The succession of King George III actually increased the governor’s powers.

[6] Tryon was not advanced in rank through merit.  The practice of Army promotions in his time involved paying money for promotions.  Merit and seniority took second place to cash for commissions.  This system was abolished in 1871.  Tryon’s advancement to lieutenant and captain would have cost him (or his father) £2,500.

[7] On 6 June 1765, George Sims published his address to the citizens of Granville County, setting forth in graphic language the abuses of power that the people of the Piedmont Region were forced to endure under colonial rule.  Sims specifically mentioned excessive taxes, high rents, unfair fees, and fraudulent accounting of public funds.  Sims’ target was Sam Benton, a political kingpin of Granville County.

[8] Edmund Fanning was an American-born British Loyalist, military officer, attorney, colonial official, and supporter of Governor William Tryon.  He and Francis Nash faced charges of extorting money from local Carolina residents and were found guilty but was only required to pay a fine of one penny per charge levied against him.  Francis Nash later served as a Brigadier General in Continental forces and was killed in 1777.  Francis Nash is the POS for whom Nashville, Tennessee, is named.     

[9] Named in honor of Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, the wife of King George III of England.

[10] Hugh Waddell was an Irish-born provincial military officer in Rowan County.  His career was well-served by close connections to several North Carolina governors.   

[11] Although Spanish and French explorers mapped the Tennessee territory in the 1500s and 1600s, the first encroachment by Virginia and Carolina long hunters didn’t occur until around 1750.  The Watauga Association (also the Republic of Watauga) was created in 1772 by Carolina settlers near present-day Elizabethton, Tennessee.  It may have been the first attempt by British colonists to form an independent democratic government, but there is no evidence that the Watauga Association ever claimed its separation from Great Britain.     

[12] David Crockett (1786 ~ 1836) was born in Green County, Franklin.

Posted in American Frontier, American Indians, British Colonies, British Generals, Colonial America, Corruption, History, Indian War, North Carolina, Regulators, Society, South Carolina | 6 Comments

Battle of the Wilderness (1864)


It is possible to argue that the seeds of the American Civil War were planted before the ink was dry on the U.S. Constitution.  Fourteen signers of the Declaration of Independence owned slaves.  The founding fathers’ goal was to create a lasting union of states.  To accomplish that, the founders had to accept the reality of slavery in the plantation south — otherwise, there would not have been the United States of America.

The Civil War began somewhat in earnest on 12 April 1861 when the South Carolina militia fired upon and forced the surrender of the Union garrison at Fort Sumter.  By the early spring of 1864, the Union Army had made little progress in subduing the Confederacy in the eastern theater of operations.  Its greatest success was in the western theater, particularly at Vicksburg, where nearly 30,000 rebel troops surrendered to Major General Ulysses Grant.  Grant distinguished himself with victories at Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, Shiloh, and Chattanooga.  A suitably impressed President Lincoln ordered Grant to Washington, promoted him to lieutenant general, and appointed him to command the Union Army.[1]

Lincoln and his generals

Abraham Lincoln never wanted a civil war and did everything he could to avoid it.  He was wise enough to realize that whoever fired the first shot would likely lose the war if hostilities accompanied secession.  He was right.  It wasn’t until after South Carolina fired upon Fort Sumter that the northern states threw their full support behind Abraham Lincoln’s call for an army to preserve the Union.

Yet, despite all the Union’s advantages, the failed strategy and incompetence of the Union’s generals produced a protracted series of mediocre Union victories and jaw-dropping failures.  Three years of failing to gain the upper hand produced a frustrated and psychologically depressed President Lincoln.  As Lincoln searched for that one commander who could fight, Union Army leadership became a revolving door of senior officers (tried, failed, replaced).  The longer the war went on, the more depressed Lincoln became.

The problem for Lincoln at the beginning of the war was that his generals were never his.  With only a few exceptions, the Army’s generals were more politicians than warriors and most politically prominent before Lincoln assumed the presidency.  And the generals knew that with only limited militia service himself years before, Mr. Lincoln was out of his depth in military matters.  Mr. Lincoln’s generals were a cross to bear; the president soon found that he had no choice but to rely on men who, in many cases, viewed themselves more as the president’s equals than his subordinates.  As a result, Union generals worked with Lincoln only when it suited them — and what suited many of them was to become president someday.

George B. McClellan, for example, frequently corresponded with his Democratic cronies.  It was said that McClellan spent more time dabbling in politics than he did fighting the war.  Joseph Hooker was known for his political intrigue, and William T. Sherman’s brother (and his in-laws) were prominent Republican politicians.  George Meade was always available to speak to members of Congress, and he constantly flattered the president’s wife at White House functions, seeking her favor and support.

Of course, Lincoln’s generals were West Point graduates, but that did not make them exceptional generals — it only made them exceptional aristocrats.  One prevailing opinion among historians is that whatever virtues possessed by Lincoln’s generals, militarily, they were disasters in gold-braided jackets.  There were exceptions, of course — Ulysses S. Grant being one of them.

Grant’s Strategy

Lieutenant General Grant was critical of fighting the war in multiple locations with independent army commands.  He wanted the Union army to fight together with only minor shifts in their objectives.  Grant had no interest in conquering territory.  He had but one focus: destroy the Confederate Army.  To accomplish this, he intended to use all the forces available to him simultaneously, thus reducing rebel movements from one battlefield to another.  His initial focus was the two largest Confederate armies: Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and Johnson’s Army of Tennessee.

Grant’s plan for Meade’s Army of the Potomac was to move south to confront Lee between Richmond and Washington.  He directed Butler’s Army of the James (River) toward Lee’s forces at Richmond and Petersburg.  Sigel’s Army of the Shenandoah would move through the Shenandoah Valley, destroy the railroad line (denying Lee reinforcements), and destroy farms and granaries used to feed Confederate armies.  Crook and Averell would attack the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad, the salt and lead mines, and then move eastward to join Sigel.  Sherman would attack Georgia with similar goals.

Grant’s instructions to Meade were simple: pursue Lee wherever he goes.  Still, Grant was under no illusions about a quick victory — he was fully prepared to fight a war of attrition.  By 2 May 1864, Grant had four army corps positioned for his assault: (1) II Corps under Major General W. S. Hancock (four divisions of infantry); (2) V Corps under Major General G. K. Warren (four divisions of infantry); (3) VI Corps under Major General J. Sedgwick (3 divisions of infantry); IX Corps under Major General Burnside (four divisions of infantry, two regiments of cavalry, one regiment of artillery), and the Cavalry Corps under Major General Phil Sheridan (three divisions of cavalry) — around 100,000 combined troops.

Lee’s order of battle

General Lee commanded four army corps (three infantry with organic artillery and one cavalry) with three infantry divisions in each corps (except one corps had only two divisions).  Lee’s corps commanders were Lieutenant General Longstreet (wounded) and Major General Richard H. Anderson (1st Corps); Lieutenant General Richard S. Ewell (2nd Corps); Lieutenant General Ambrose P. Hill (3rd Corps), and the Cavalry Corps under Major General J.E.B. Stuart, which included a horse artillery battalion.  In total, Lee’s army consisted of around 62,000 men.

Battle of the Wilderness

On 4 May 1864, Meade’s force crossed the Rapidan River at three points, converging on the Wilderness Tavern near Spotsylvania. Thick vegetation and uneven terrain soon hindered Meade’s progress and limited his artillery’s fields of fire.  There was limited visibility inside the dense forests, and Grant’s senior officers became worried that they were walking into a repeat of Chancellorsville. The size of the battle area was around 70 square miles in Spotsylvania and Orange counties.

Grant had no desire to re-fight an old battle, so he directed Meade to proceed to the open ground south and east of The Wilderness before initiating his assault against Lee.  Logistics, however, is a war-stopper, and General Meade’s supply train involved around 4,300 wagons, 835 ambulances, and a large herd of cattle.  To protect that logistics train, Meade had to either slow the pace of his advance or dedicate a protective force sufficient in size to keep enemy cavalry from destroying it.  Nor was it easy to cross the Rapidan River with wagons and cattle.  Circumstances required Meade to slow the pace of his advance.

Lee wanted to draw Grant into terrain favorable to him — the wilderness, where the hilly terrain and thick vegetation gave him a distinct advantage. On 4 May, General Lee had no idea what Grant intended, so to allow himself the flexibility to shift his forces where needed, Lee dispersed his army over an 18-mile front.  Lee ordered Ewell and Hill to restrict Meade’s advance while Longstreet moved directly into Meade’s right flank from the southwest.

Meanwhile, General Meade was receiving false intelligence reports.  Informed that his supply train was under attack from JEB Stuart’s cavalry, Meade directed Sheridan to investigate, which slowed his advance even more.  There was no rebel threat to Meade’s army or his logistics train.

Grant established his headquarters alongside Meade’s.  They arranged that Grant would concern himself with the strategy of the battle, and General Meade would focus on its tactical applications.  Accordingly, Meade sent his army unopposed across the Rapidan on 4 May, but it was no easy task because supply wagons relied upon Meade’s ability to construct pontoon bridges.  Additionally, in entering enemy territory without Sheridan’s cavalry, Meade’s advance was blind to enemy dispositions, particularly in the thick vegetation that impeded the Union’s forward-most elements.  Grant remained confident that Sedgwick, Warren, and Hancock could hold back any Confederate assault until the logistics train moved closer to Meade’s main body.

Observing the Union Army’s crossing at the Rapidan River, Lee knew what Grant was likely to do.  Lee believed it was imperative to draw Union forces into the Wilderness.  To accomplish this, Lee ordered General Ewell east to Robertson’s Tavern and General Hill to New Verdiersville.  The idea was to pin Grant down while Longstreet launched an attack against the Union flank from the southwest.

Battle Joined (5-7 May 1864)

The Battle of the Wilderness was General Grant’s first battle of the “Overland Campaign.”  Grant’s plan involved a relentless and ruthless drive to destroy Lee’s army and capture Richmond, Virginia.  This phase evolved into a bloody and inconclusive encounter, but the battle put the Confederates on the defensive and set the stage for Grant’s aggressive war of attrition and the Confederacy’s ultimate defeat.

As one might expect in a battle area as large as this one, the battle involved a series of engagements, each predicated on circumstances and events unique to a particular sector of the battlefront.

The Turnpike Fight

Warren’s V Corps advanced over farm lanes toward the Plank Road early on 5 May.  Ewell’s 2nd Corps appeared to the west.  Being advised of Ewell’s position, Grant ordered Meade, “If any opportunity presents itself of pitching into Lee’s army, do so without giving time for dispositions.”  Accordingly, having assumed that Warren faced a small group of Confederates, Meade ordered an attack.  Rather than commanding his force, Warren reacted to Meade’s orders without conducting a reconnaissance in force.  Had he done so, he would have discovered that Ewell’s men had erected defensive positions west of Saunders Field, and this, in turn, would have prompted Warren to prep the battlespace with pre-assault artillery.  He did not.

Warren’s front included Griffin’s division on the right and Wadsworth’s division on the left.  The force was insufficient because Ewell’s defensive perimeter extended beyond Griffin’s right; any advance by Griffin’s brigades would subject his men to enfilade fire.  Warren requested a delay until Sedgwick’s VI Corps could be brought up on Warren’s right, thus extending the line of advance.  By early afternoon, an exasperated Meade ordered Warren to advance without delay.  Meade’s blind insistence resulted in the bloody destruction of Bartlett’s Brigade.[2]

Cutler’s Iron Brigade[3]advanced through the thick wood and struck an Alabama brigade under Brigadier General Cullen Battle to the left of Bartlett’s Brigade.  Cutler’s men initially pushed the rebels back, but their counter-attack forced Cutler’s men to withdraw.

Further to the left, near Higgerson’s farm, the Union brigades of Colonel Stone and Brigadier General Rice assaulted Dole’s Georgians and Daniel’s North Carolinians.  Both efforts failed under heavy Confederate fire.  General Warren lost his artillery to an overwhelming Confederate attack involving brutal hand-to-hand fighting.  During this melee, the field caught fire, incinerating men from both sides, particularly among the wounded who could not escape.

When Sedgwick’s VI Corps reached the battlefield, Warren’s corps had quit the fight.  Sedgwick nevertheless attacked the rebel line.  After an hour-long series of assaults and counter-assaults, both sides disengaged to erect earthworks.  At the end of the day, Lee lost two generals (Brigadier Generals Johnson and Stafford).

The Plank Road Fight

The Union men of Crawford’s Brigade were the first to detect the approach of General A. P. Hill’s 3rd Corps.  Meade ordered Sedgewick to employ Getty’s Division to stop Hill’s advance at the intersection of Orange Plant Road and Brock Road.  Getty’s use of Wilson’s cavalry succeeded in delaying Hill’s approach march, but the fighting evolved into mind-numbing hand-to-hand combat.

General Lee’s mobile command post was only a mile south of Hill’s position; Lee called for a war council, thinking the area was relatively secure.  Union cavalry surprised Lee, Stuart, and Hill in the middle of these discussions.  The Confederate generals ran in one direction, and the equally surprised Union troops ran in the opposite direction — missing an opportunity to end the war then and there.

As Hancock’s troops began arriving, Meade ordered Getty into the assault.  Around 1600, Meade ordered Hancock’s II Corps northward to support Getty’s division. These troops were almost immediately pinned down by Confederate General Heth’s defensive line.  Hancock sent his men forward into the line as soon as they arrived at the battle site, which forced Lee to commit Wilcox’s division, his reserve element, to reinforce Heth.  Fierce fighting continued until nightfall, with neither side gaining an advantage.

The Second Day

General Grant based his plan for the following day on the assumption that Hill’s corps was exhausted.  Accordingly, Hill became a primary target for Grant’s assault from the Orange Plank Road by II Corps and Getty’s division.  Concurrently, Grant ordered V and VI Corps to resume their fight with Ewell on the Turnpike to prevent him from coming to Hill’s aid.  Grant then directed Burnside to move his IX Corps through an area between the Turnpike and Plank Road and attack Hill’s rear echelon.  If successful, Grant envisioned the destruction of Hill’s corps and a reconcentration against Ewell’s position.

Lee was aware of the situation along the Plank Road and realized Hill’s force was exhausted.  He decided to replace Hill with Longstreet’s 1st Corps and ordered Longstreet to be in place before dawn on 6 May 1864.  Once Longstreet arrived, Lee shifted Hill to the left to cover the open ground.  General Longstreet received Lee’s order but estimated that he had time to rest his men, who on 5 May had spent most of the day on the march.  Longstreet did not resume his march until after midnight.  Night navigation is difficult — night movement is hazardous.  Unsurprisingly, Longstreet’s Corps lost its way enroute on several occasions and failed to reach its designated position as ordered.

Hancock attacked General Hill at 0500.  Wadsworth, Birney, and Mott (with Getty and Gibbon in support) successfully overwhelmed Hill’s Confederates.  General Ewell’s men attacked the Union forces in the east at around 0445, but Sedgwick and Warren kept the Rebels pinned down.  Despite excellent artillery support from Poague, the Yankees began pushing Ewell’s men back.  Ewell’s corps was near to collapse when Brigadier General Gregg arrived with his 800-man Texas brigade.  General Lee accompanied Gregg to a point so close to the forward edge of the battle area that the Texans refused to continue their attack until Lee withdrew to a place of relative safety.

Before Hancock could consolidate his new positions, Longstreet launched an attack with Major General Field on his left and Brigadier General Kershaw on his right.  Union troops fell back a few hundred yards.  Gregg’s Texans made a gallant charge, but Union forces badly chewed up the brigade.  By 1000, only 250 Texans were left alive.

Unknown to Hancock, an unfinished railroad bed south of the Plank Road offered an excellent avenue for an attack by four rebel brigades.  Leading the rebel charge, Brigadier General Mahone struck Hancock at around 1100.  The suddenness of the attack stunned Hancock.  At the same time, Longstreet resumed his primary attack, driving Hancock back to Brock Road.  General Wadsworth fell mortally wounded. 

Later in the day, General Longstreet accompanied Brigadier General Jenkins on a forward reconnaissance when the party encountered some of Mahone’s Virginians.  These men mistook Longstreet for a Union officer and fired into his party, wounding Longstreet in the neck.  Jenkins died instantly.[4]  Longstreet relinquished his command to General Field.  Soon after, the Confederate line fell into confusion; the resumption of the Rebel attack never materialized.  Lee appointed Major General R. H. Anderson to temporary command of I Corps.

Fighting at the Orange Turnpike was inconclusive for most of the day.  Brigadier General Gordon conducted a reconnaissance of the Union line at around 1000 and recommended that General Early authorize a flanking attack on Sedgwick’s right flank.  Early dismissed the idea as too risky, and Ewell lacked sufficient men for an attack until around 1300 when R. D. Johnston’s brigade arrived.  After the arrival of reinforcements, Early gave Gordon the go-ahead.

At 1800 hours, Gordon plunged his brigade into that of Union Brigadier General Alexander Shaler, forcing a union withdrawal.  Gordon’s men captured Shaler and Brigadier General Truman Seymour — along with around 300 Union troops, and Sedgewick himself was almost taken, prisoner.  The Union line fell back about a mile.  Darkness and dense foliage halted Gordon’s effort, and Sedgwick stabilized his line and extended his right flank to the Germanna Plank Road.

Reports of Sedgewick’s collapse caused great excitement at Grant’s command post.  Several of Grant’s staff officers moaned about not knowing what Lee might do next.  A short-tempered Grant snapped at the moaners: “Start thinking about what we’re going to do and worry less about what Lee might do.”

George Custer’s brigade arrived at Brock Road at daylight on 6 May and filled the gap between Hancock and Gregg.  Thomas Devin brought his brigade forward to join Custer, bringing artillery.  Confederates under Brigadier General Thomas “Tex” Rosser assaulted Custer’s position at around 0800, but Devin’s battery turned the fight to favor Custer, forcing Rosser’s withdrawal.[5]  Hancock, unsure of what Longstreet might do, kept two of his divisions behind the lines as possible reinforcements and/or surge troops.[6]  As the fighting developed, Custer vs. Rosser, Gregg vs. Wickham, the Brock Road was blocked, denying Meade the opportunity of seizing the Spotsylvania Court House.  At mid-afternoon, Gregg was withdrawn to Piney Branch Church, and Custer and Devin were redeployed to the metal works at Catharine’s Furnace.

The Third Day

On the morning of 7 May, General Grant reasoned that he had but two options available to him: he could either a frontal assault against strong Confederate defenses or maneuver his troops for a better effect.  He maneuvered his force southward on Brock Road toward the Spotsylvania Court House.  Grant reasoned that if he could place his army between Lee and Richmond, Lee would attack him across the ground more favorable to Grant.  With that in mind, General Grant ordered preparations for a night march toward Spotsylvania (ten miles southeast).  The distance wasn’t great but organizing 100,000 men to achieve it was no easy task. 

Once Lee understood what Grant was up to, he quick-marched his Army to Spotsylvania, arriving ahead of Grant.  By the time Grant’s Army approached the Court House, Lee’s men had already prepared their defense works.  The Battle of the Spotsylvania Court House was a much more protracted fight, lasting through 21 May 1864.

The Casualties of the Wilderness

In terms of casualties, the Battle of the Wilderness ranks among the top five of the deadliest Civil War battles.  The official Union after-action report listed 2,246 officers and men killed, 12,037 wounded, and 3,383 captured or “missing.”  Union totals — 17,666.  The actual number may have been higher.  General Warren was later accused of deflating his Corps’ casualty figures.  Grant gave up six brigadier generals in the fighting: two killed in action, two taken prisoner, and two wounded in action.

Confederate casualties included 1,477 killed, 7,866 wounded, and 1,690 captured or missing.  Lee gave up three generals: Jones, Jenkins, and Stafford, killed, and Longstreet and Pegram were wounded/evacuated.

There was no “obvious” victor in the battle; neither side was driven from the field.  Lee’s only field initiative was to beat Grant to Spotsylvania — otherwise, Lee’s rebels pursued a textbook defensive strategy.  Grant never withdrew from the fight the way earlier Union generals had; he continued to press Lee and would not relent until Lee realized that the war was lost.  As it turned out, General Longstreet’s advice to Lee was prescient: “Grant will fight you every day, and every hour of the day, until the end of the war.”


  1. Carmichael, P. S.  “Escaping the Shadow of Gettysburg: Richard Ewell and A.P. Hill at the Wilderness.”  Chapel Hill, NC, 1997.
  2. Eicher, J. H.  Civil War High Commands,  Stanford University Press, 2001.
  3. Hogan, D. W.  The Overland Campaign, 4 May – 15 June 1864.  Center for Military History, 2014.
  4. Petty, A.  The Battle of the Wilderness in Myth and Memory: Reconsidering Virginia’s Most Notorious Civil War Battlefield.  Baton Rouge, Louisiana University Press, 2019.


[1] Beginning in 1821, the title of the most senior Army officer was Commanding General, U.S. Army. 

[2] Brigadier General William F. Bartlett received his second gunshot wound in this fight, a head wound, and he was evacuated for hospitalization.  In a subsequent action at Petersburg, Bartlett lost the use of his prosthetic leg, and he was captured by Confederates and spent two months as a prisoner of war.  Bartlett eventually passed away in 1876 from tuberculosis, aged 37 years.

[3] A devastatingly effective brigade that took so many casualties during the Battle of Gettysburg that Cutler’s force in 1864 was mostly comprised of raw recruits.  Try as they might, the brigade’s experienced NCOs could not stop these youngsters from fleeing to the rear.

[4] This incident took place 4 miles from the place where Stonewall Jackson was also killed by his own men the previous year. 

[5] Rosser was a courageous officer and a brilliant tactician.  He was one of the few Confederate Officers to serve as a U.S. Volunteer flag rank officer after the Civil War. 

[6] Hancock was unaware that Longstreet had been wounded and removed from the field.  General Longstreet’s presence on the battlefield made every Union general nervous.

Posted in American Military, Civil War, Confederate States, Feuds & Rivalries, History, Virginia | 2 Comments