Roland — and his Song


There was an actual Roland.  Charlemagne’s biographer Einhard mentions him.  He is referred to by his Frankish name, Hruodlandus Brittannici limitis praefectus (Roland, Prefect of the borders of Brittany).  Chapter 9 of the account records Roland’s death in the Battle of Roncevaux Pass in 778 A.D.

The Background

Charlemagne was relentlessly engaged in the Saxon Wars (772 – 804).  After he had placed large garrisons at selected points along the border, Charlemagne marched into Spain (778) with as large an army as he could mount.  He passed over the Pyrenees Mountains and the Basque territories of Upper and Lower Navarre, assaulting Pamplona, his men pillaging the town and having their way with the women.  The Basque was not amused.[1]

As Charlemagne moved his army back into Gaul, he encountered these Basque, who had armed themselves and sought to punish Charlemagne for his abusive treatment of the people of Navarre.  The location of their attack was the pass-through Roncesvalles, an area covered with thick forests and narrow and treacherous pathways.  At the pass, high in the mountain, the Basques assaulted the Franks.  The Basque were lightly armed, light on their feet, and familiar with the land.  The Franks were disadvantaged by their heavy armor and the narrow track.  It was where Roland, Lord of the Breton March, Anselm as Count of the Palace, and Eggihard, overseer of the King’s Table, were all killed.

When the killing was done, the Basques disappeared, and Charlemagne’s force could not pursue them without endangering the army further.

Roland was the first official appointed by a king to direct the affairs of the Bretons; none of the previous Merovingians had established any relations with the people of Brittany.  It is believed that Roland’s body was laid to rest at the basilica at Blaye, near the citadel of Bordeaux.

Medieval Europe’s minstrel culture transformed Roland from a functionary under Charlemagne into a popular and iconic figure.  Some tales made him out to be a nephew of Charlemagne; others transformed his life into an epic tale of the noble Christian killed by hostiles — a story of how some wanted Francia remembered.  And in one aspect, it is.  The story of Roland’s death is told in The Song of Roland.  In this fictional account, Roland is equipped with the olifant, an unbreakable sword, and protected by Christian relics (which, it would seem, did not protect him from the Basque).[2]  Roland’s death was celebrated at Charlemagne’s Court for many years.

The Minstrel’s Story

From a historical perspective, the minstrel’s account of the Battle of Roncesvalles was impossible.  The verses, written in the late 8th century, tell the tale of how the Basques were incited to attack Charlemagne to avenge the sacking of Pamplona.  The story, which does not equate to actual history, tells us that Charlemagne has been inside Spain for seven years, fighting the Moslems.  The last city standing is Saragossa, held by the Emir Marsile.  Marsile worried about the might of Charlemagne, consults with his advisor Blancandrin, who urges him to surrender and offer hostages.  In addition to offering Charlemagne treasure, Marsile promises to convert to Christianity if Charlemagne returns to France.

Charlemagne, tired of fighting, accepted Marsile’s offer of peace.  Charlemagne tasked Roland with finding a suitable messenger to carry the agreement to Marsile, and Roland chose his stepfather, Ganelon.  Ganelon, fearing for his safety, accuses Roland of perfidy and takes revenge by informing the Saracens of a way to ambush the rear guard of Charlemagne’s army.  In this account, the Moslems attack the rear guard at Roncesvalles, and the Christians are quickly overwhelmed.

In the thick of the fighting, Roland’s companion Oliver urges him to blow his horn to call for help, but Roland refuses because he feels that calling for help is a sign of cowardice.  Archbishop Turpin intervenes and instructs Roland to blow the horn because the battle will be fatal to them anyway.

Charlemagne hears the horn and, in the company of his knights, rides to the scene of battle.  By the time he arrives, it is already too late.  The battle is over, and Roland, Oliver, and Turpin are dead.  As Roland breathes his last, Angels appear and escort his soul to Heaven.

The Death of Roland by Ernest Lavisse, 1913

Note: I have made the journey on foot from St. Jean Pied de Port, France, across the Pyrenees Mountains into Roncesvalles, Spain, on two occasions (2016 and 2018).  The journey is roughly twenty miles, ascending 1,491 meters (4,892 feet) and descending 950 meters (3,118 feet) into the Roncesvalles Valley.  The artist’s rendition of the death of Roland (shown right) correctly depicts the terrain and vegetation type found in the Roncesvalles Pass.  The Camino de Santiago de Compostela pathway is mostly good, but the area at the top of the mountain is frequently dense with fog.  Storms rapidly form in this area, and it is not uncommon to find yourself in a heavy rainstorm with summer temperatures dropping from around 85° F to 50° F within minutes.  The down-mountain track is treacherous in many places because the ground cover is loose rocks and shale.  I can attest to the fact that the pathway into Roncesvalles is exactly as described by those who told the story of Roland; steep and narrow tracks, thick forests, and if a hiker experiences sudden rain storms, flash flooding occurs on and across the hiking trail.

History and the Battle of Roncesvalles

Before leaving the Iberian Peninsula, Charlemagne decided to further secure his hold on the Basque territory, which may have been referred to as Wasconia.  Believing the Basque tribes were aligned with the Moors, Charlemagne sought to eliminate them; he ordered Pamplona sacked, and in the process, many surrounding villages were pillaged as well.  No female was safe during these times.

Charlemagne stationed guard detachments throughout the region — men who caused much suffering and insult to the Basques.  Believing he had secured Upper and Lower Navarre, Charlemagne led his army back into Gaul (also Francia).  Not knowing the Basques, the 31-year-old Charlemagne was unaware that he had ignited a firestorm by razing Basque villages and raping their women.  Basque tribes united their effort to punish Charlemagne.

On the evening of 15 August 778, Basques suddenly and viciously attacked Charlemagne’s rear guard element.  The assault confused the Franks, and they were soon in complete disarray.  The Basque fighters were lightly armed, lethal in their enthusiasm and blood-lust.  They cut off the rear guard from the main body, isolated the Franks, and began a systematic slaughter.  No Frank fared well if he was caught trying to escape — nor was the Basque merciful in their retribution. 

As Charlemagne tried to regroup and evacuate his army, Roland and the others held their position for a considerable time before the Basques massacred them.  There were no survivors.  After raiding the baggage train, the Basques disappeared into the mountains as if they were never there.

Areas of northeast Span and southwest France populated by Basques in antiquity

In 778, the Basque were tribal groups.[3]  The warrior was armed with two short spears, a long blade knife or a short sword (perhaps a gladius), and bows and javelins used for artillery.  The Basque warrior was highly motivated — first as retribution, and second because the Basque had never enjoyed much affection for the Franks.[4] Some historians believe that the leader of the Basque attack was Lupo II of Gascony (d. 778).  Lupo may have been a Basque because the name is widespread in Basque culture.  Lupo II’s realm extended from St. Jean Pied de Port to Gascony, just below Bordeaux.

The Pyrenees Mountains are a range of mountains in southwest Europe that form a natural border between France and Spain.  The range extends 309 miles from the Bay of Biscay to the Mediterranean Sea.  The range also separates Spain and Portugal from the rest of Western Europe.  The northern slopes are the French frontier and wilderness.  The mountains are older than the Alps; the highest elevation is 5,862 feet.

Charlemagne’s biographer, Einhard, stated that the men of the rear guard were massacred to the last man.  Of course, the most important (highest ranking) were Roland, Eggihard, and Count Anselmus.  By sacking the baggage train, the Basques made off with Charlemagne’s gold and silver treasures — which was no small loss.  We can admit that the battle was a minor setback for Charlemagne, but it was nevertheless a stinging blow and, as important, the only significant defeat Charlemagne ever suffered.  Charlemagne never again personally led a campaign into Spain — a task he relegated to his generals.  It took Charlemagne ten additional years to seize Barcelona and pacify Aquitaine.

Meanwhile, because the Basques would not be pacified, Charlemagne set his son up as king of Aquitaine and then, in cooperation with the Catholic Church, initiated a program of Christian pacification throughout Lower Navarre and Aquitaine.  Despite these efforts, high Pyrenees Basques continued their rebellion until 790, when William of Gellone captured and exiled Lupo II’s son, Adalric.  Pamplona remained in Moslem hands until 801 A.D., when Basques decided they hated Moslems more than they hated the Franks.

In 824, the Second Battle of Roncesvalles Pass resulted in an even more significant defeat of Franks by Basques, who used similar tactics but extracted far more death and destruction to the forces led by Count Aeblus and Count Aznar — both of whom were captured by Iñigo Arista.  Iñigo was a Basque leader and the first king of Pamplona who rose to prominence after the Battle of Pancorbo in 816.  Historians are unsure of the name of his father but agree that he is likely Enneco filius Simeonis (Iñigo, son of Jimeno (ergo, Jiménez) or Enneco Garceanes que fuit vulgariter vocas Areista (Iñigo Garcés (son of Garcia) who was commonly called Arista).[5]


  1. Chisholm, H.  The Legend of Roland.  Encyclopedia Britannica V.23 (1911)
  2. Collins, R.  The Basques.  Blackwell Publishing, 1990.
  3. Gorrochategui, J.  The Basque Language and its Neighbors in Antiquity.  Bilbao, 1995.
  4. Lewis, A. R.  The Development of Southern French and Catalan Society, 718 – 1050.  Austin University Press, 1965.
  5. Lewis, D. L. God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570 – 1215.  Norton Press, 2008.
  6. Xabier, I. Charlemagne’s Defeat in the Pyrenees: The Battle of Roncesvalles.  Amsterdam University Press, 2021.


[1] The Basques living in present-day Spain referred to themselves as Vascones or Wascones; Basques living in ancient Aquitaine referred to themselves as Gascones (of Gascony)

[2] Olifant was a horn.  The word is reputedly ancient for elephant, as an elephant’s tusk made into a horn.

[3] The Basque are mentioned by Greek and Roman historians (Strabo and Pliny) as Vascones, Gascones, and Aquitani.   

[4] The Basque land and territories included all of the Kingdom of Navarre, extending from Pamplona, Spain into Aquitaine, France, generally regarded as Upper Navarre (Spain) and Lower Navarre, Aquitaine, the capital of which was St. Jean Pied de Port..  

[5] The origin of the Jimenéz (also, Jimenes) dynasty is believed to have been the 9th century man known as Ximeno el Fuerte (Jimena the Strong, the father of Garcia and Iñigo Jimenéz). 

Posted in Antiquity, Aquitaine, Gaul, History, Iberian Peninsula, Mythical stories, Navarre, Personal Lineage | Leave a comment

Irishmen — Blue and Gray

Historians tell us that more than 150,000 Irishmen, most of whom were recent immigrants (and many of whom were not yet U.S. citizens), joined the Union Army during the Civil War.  Some of these young men joined out of loyalty to their new home, others hoped that such a conspicuous display of patriotism might put a stop to anti-Irish discrimination in America’s largest cities.  As the war dragged on, Irish casualties mounted, and Irish sympathy for the Union began to diminish.  By the end of the war, many Irish soldiers had abandoned the Northern cause altogether.  But between 1861 and 1863 soldiers who fought in the all-Irish units that made up the “Irish Brigade” were known for their courage and intrepidity in battle.

Note:  For a good read, check out my friend Tom’s blog, Irish Confederates.

The (Yankee) Irish Brigade

At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, thousands of ethnic Irish New Yorkers enlisted in the Union Army.  Some joined ordinary (non-Irish) regiments, but others formed three all-Irish volunteer units: the 63rd New York Infantry Regiment (organized on Staten Island), and the 69th and 88th New York Infantry Regiments, organized in the Bronx. These units would form the core of what would come to be called the Irish Brigade.

Forming ethnic units was one way the U.S. Army hoped to increase and maintain the recruitment of men in adequate numbers to sustain the war effort — and it was one way for the Union Army to help win Irish support for its cause.  This support was not guaranteed, however.

Though most immigrants lived in the North, the Irish were sympathetic to the Confederacy’s struggle for independence from an overbearing government — because it reminded them of their fight to be free of British tyranny.  Unlike the Scots, however, Irish-Americans did not seem opposed to the issue of slavery — which according to some historians is explained by the fact that Irish labor preferred to keep blacks out of the paid labor market.

This “unsettled condition” forced Union officials to offer additional inducements to prospective Irish enlistees: enlistment bonuses, extra rations, family subsidies, Catholic chaplains, etc., in order to persuade the North’s largest immigrant population to join with them, rather than against them.

In February 1862, the U.S. Army advanced Captain Thomas Francis Meagher to Brigadier General and placed him in command of the Irish Brigade.  Meagher was Irish-born and active in the so-called “young Ireland” movement.  It was this activity that caused his exile to the British penal colony in Tasmania.  Meagher escaped from Australia in 1853 and found his way to the United States where he became a well-known nationalist Irish activist.

Meagher joined the U.S. Army in 1861.  It dawned on him that if he could raise an all-Irish brigade, Union Army officials would be inclined to appoint him as its commander.  He also wanted the Irish Brigade to draw attention to the cause of nationalism in Ireland.

In the spring of 1862, Union Army officials added a non-Irish regiment, the 29th Massachusetts Infantry, to the Irish Brigade in order to increase its strength before the Peninsula Campaign for the capture of Richmond, Virginia.  In October, the 116th Pennsylvania (an Irish regiment) joined the Brigade for the Battle of Harper’s Ferry.  In November, the Army swapped the non-Irish 29th for the Irish 28th Massachusetts.

Fearless fighters

The five-regiment Irish Brigade established a reputation for its toughness and courage under fire as part of the Army of the Potomac.  This was only possible, however, by suffering a disproportionate number of casualties (compared to non-Irish brigades).  At the Battle of Antietam in September 1862, about 60 percent of the soldiers in the 63rd and 69th New York regiments (around 600 total) were killed in action.

A few months later, at the Battle of Fredericksburg, the Brigade gave up 45% of its strength.  One Irish soldier wrote, “Irish blood and Irish bones cover that terrible field today.  We are slaughtered like sheep.”

In July 1863, at the Battle of Gettysburg, the Irish Brigade gave up another 60%.  Today, one can view the monument to the Irish Brigade.  At the base of the statue lies the image of an Irish wolfhound — the symbol of steadfastness and honor.

The Draft Riot of 1863

Modern scholars claim that the Battle of Gettysburg was the Civil War’s turning point toward Union victory.  This is probably true.  But Gettysburg was also a turning point for the Irish Brigade.  By the summer of 1863, the tragically high numbers of casualties in the Brigade led many Irish soldiers and their families to believe that the Union Army was taking advantage of the Irishman’s willingness to fight by using them as cannon fodder.

The Irish were further infuriated by the National Conscription Act, passed in March 1863.  The new law made every unmarried man in the Union between the ages of 21 and 45 subject to a draft lottery — unless he could hire a replacement or pay a $300 fee.  As many working-class Irish people saw it, this was pure discrimination against the poor, who were being forced to fight to make rich men even richer.

At the same time, many Irish people were arguing that the reason for the war had shifted: it was no longer about preserving the Union, but about ending slavery — a cause that most Irish people in the U.S. emphatically did not support.

These tensions boiled over in New York City on 13 July — about a week after the Battle of Gettysburg.  It was a situation in which thousands of Irish immigrants took to the streets for five days of violent demonstrations against the draft law — and, more generally, against the black people, whom they blamed for the war.  Mobs of Irish tough’s assaulted any black person they saw on the street, they ransacked and burned homes in Negro neighborhoods, and looted stores owned by blacks and “sympathetic” whites.  Federal troops arrived in the city on July 16 to quell the disorder.  At least 120 people, mostly Negroes, died in the violence.

This outburst of racist violence marked the end of organized Irish participation in the Civil War, though individual Irishmen continued to serve as soldiers in the Union Army.  The Irish Brigade disbanded in 1864.

In the South

Although significantly fewer Irish lived in the American South, six Confederate general officers were Irish-born.  The highest ranking of these was General Patrick Cleburne.  Units such as the Charleston Irish Volunteers attracted young men from South Carolina.[1]  Irish Americans in Georgia were attracted to the 24th Georgia Volunteer Infantry under General Thomas R. R. Cobb, and the Irishmen in Tennessee sought out the 10th Tennessee Infantry Regiment.  Irishmen in Missouri (Missouri Volunteer Militia and Missouri State Guard) followed Colonel Joseph Kelly (pictured right), who was the subject of a popular Confederate song, “Kelly’s Irish Brigade.”  For a historic note on the song (and a little more), see also The Wild Geese.

There appears little doubt of an “Irish Brigade” in the Union Army, but no evidence of a corollary in the Confederate forces.  Yes, there were Irishmen serving in predominantly Irish units, but not as a Brigade (consisting of three regiments) — and there is no doubt that Irish units in the south distinguished themselves at certain times and certain locations.

The title “Louisiana Tigers” was a nickname used for certain infantry forces from the State of Louisiana in the Confederate States Army.  The term was originally applied to a specific company raised by Major Chatham Roberdeau Wheat, but it was also used by a battalion, a brigade, and then to all Louisiana troops serving in the Army of Northern Virginia.  Some Civil War historians tell us that they were used as “shock troops” in certain encounters.  Company E of the Emerald Guard (33rd Virginia Infantry) of the Stonewall Brigade, composed of Irish volunteers may have been the first to use the famous “rebel yell” at the 1st Battle of Manassas.  The story of the Davis Guards is also quite interesting — it’s the story about a handful of Irish artillerists who handed Union forces the most one-sided defeat in U.S. history.

The story of the 10th Tennessee Infantry Regiment offers an interesting contrast to the Union Army’s Irish Brigade.  This regiment was organized at Fort Henry, on the Tennessee River, in May 1861 under the leadership of CSA Colonel Adolphus Heiman.  In July, the regiment reported 720 armed men (flintlock muskets).  After the CSA accepted the regiment for service, some reorganization was necessary.  The company mustered from Giles County was designated Company I.

The regiment remained at Fort Henry in training until February 1862, when federal forces began an artillery assault that lasted for more than four hours.  There was no infantry assault, but before the fort raised the white flag of surrender, Colonel Heiman and Confederate Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman led the regiment out of Fort Henry to Fort Donelson.  The 12-mile journey required that the men wade through a number of frigid swollen streams while being pursued and harassed by federal troops.

After delivering the regiment to Fort Donelson, Tilghman and Heiman returned to Fort Henry where, because the fort was beginning to flood, both men surrendered to Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant.  Heiman was transferred as a prisoner of war to Boston, where he died from illness in November 1862.  Tilghman, later exchanged for Union General John Reynolds, was killed in battle a few months later.

General Grant moved onward to Fort Donelson where, on 16 February 1862, he defeated rebel forces under CSA Brigadier General Simon B. Buckner.  Confederate casualties numbered 13,846 (327 killed in action, 1,127 wounded, 12,392 missing in action and captured).  Subsequent to Buckner’s surrender, the 10th Tennessee became known as the “Bloody Tenth.”  After the surrender of Fort Donelson, the 10th Tennessee was broken up.  Senior officers were sent to one location, junior officers to another, and enlisted men to a third location — at Camp Douglas, Illinois.

In September 1862, the Union Army decided to exchange the enlisted prisoners at Camp Douglas for imprisoned union troops. The troops were moved to Vicksburg, exchanged, and then moved to Clinton, Mississippi.  Colonel Randall W. McGavock assumed command of the regiment in October 1862, however, with fewer men, it was necessary to consolidate units before placing them with General John Gregg’s brigade.

On 3 January 1863, the 10th Tennessee reported 349 effective.  In September, at the battle of Chickamauga, the regiment went into battle with 328 men.  Of those, 224 were either killed or wounded.  In December, the 10th reported an effective strength of 69 men.  By the time the 10th surrendered to Union forces in April 1865, the regiment had just under 100 men — every man remaining had been wounded more than once.


[1] South Carolina Irish Volunteers organized in Charleston in 1798.  Originally, the unit was part of the 28th Regiment of South Carolina Infantry Militia.  It was first employed during the War of 1812 as a security force and work detail supporting the construction of coastal defenses.  The company also served in the Seminole Wars, the Mexican-American War, and served as Company K, 1st Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers, CSA (Captain W. H. Ryan, Commanding).  SC Irish Volunteers also served along the Mexican border in 1916.  During World War I, the units served as the U.S. Army’s 105th Ammunition Train.   

Posted in American Military, Civil War, Confederate States, History, New York | 2 Comments

British Ignobility


British colonial administrators were almost always members of the nobility — the peers and landed gentry.  But there were two groups of nobles: high nobles and everyone else.  In North America, the colonial administrators were mostly minor nobility.  Very few “high born” nobles wanted to spend any time in backwater America.

Early American history did not treat nobility too kindly because the experiences of the average colonist in dealing with royalty were not very good.  Soon after the Americans achieved independence, people began naming their animals after British royalty: Duke, King, Lady, Prince, Princess, and Baron featured consistently in the top ten names for pet animals.[1]

British society is very structured.  Before the 20th century, descendants in the male line of peers and landowners were entitled to inherit property and titles.  Today, the nobility is a British custom bestowed by the Sovereign on those who warrant awards and national recognition.  Some titles are still inherited, but most are not.

As to the right of inheritance (as previously noted), only the eldest son could inherit his father’s wealth and title.  All other sons were entitled to nothing — but they were still sons, and if they maintained good relations with their fathers, he may “assist them” with getting started in a career that would someday sustain them.  This is why eldest sons (and their sons) could claim British titles, and all other sons would have to fend for themselves.  Purchasing a commission for a second or later son might one day lead to honorific titles, such as baronets or/and military titles.

Gov. William Tryon

Governor William Tryon (first of North Carolina and then of New York) was such a man.  Styled Major General-Governor William Tryon, he served as the Eighth Governor of North Carolina (1764 – 1771) and 39th Governor of New York (1771 – 1777). 

Tryon (1729 – 1788) was born at Norbury Park, Surrey.  His maternal grandfather was Sir Robert Shirley, 1st Earl Ferrers, whose lands and title passed to his second (but eldest surviving) son Washington.  William’s father was Charles Tryon, and his mother, Lady Mary Shirley.  In all likelihood, Charles purchased an army commission for his son (as they were costly in 1754), a lieutenancy in the 1st Regiment Foot Guards.  Before the end of the year, William advanced to captain — again, one likely purchased for him by his father.

William’s participation in the Seven Years’ War took him to Cherbourg and St. Malo.  Tryon was wounded by artillery at the battle of Saint Cast in 1758.  In 1764, Tryon’s family connections enabled William to obtain the position of Acting Governor of North Carolina because the province’s 7th Governor, 75-year-old Arthur Dobbs, was ill and sought retirement.  William, his wife Margaret Wake-Tryon, and two children arrived in early October only to find that Gov. Dobbs had yet to step down.[2]  This meant that Tryon could not draw his salary as governor until Dobbs did remove himself.  It was one of those awkward moments.

North Carolina

While awaiting Dobbs’ departure, Lieutenant-Governor Tryon lived in a temporary home in Brunswick Town (along the Cape Fear River).[3]  When Dobbs passed away on 28 March 1765, Tryon assumed his post as Acting Governor of North Carolina.  In July, King George III appointed Tryon as Governor.

Governor Tryon was religious and thought it was his duty to his sovereign to expand the Church of England in the Province of North Carolina.  At the time he assumed his role as governor, there were only five Anglican clergy in North Carolina.  He energetically pushed for church construction projects in Wilmington (40 miles from Brunswick Town), Edenton (213 miles), and New Bern (130 miles).  The British Parliament did colonial governors no favors by passing the Stamp Act of 1765.  Settlers in North Carolinian were not pleased and wasted no time communicating their displeasure.  When Tryon received notification of the Stamp Act, the colonial assembly was not in session.  Tryon decided not to seat the legislators as a strategy Tryon Palace - Wikipediato keep the assemblymen from making public announcements in opposition.  Personally, Tryon believed the Stamp Act was a bad idea, but he did his duty until Parliament repealed the Act.

Tryon Palace, North Carolina’s First Permanent Capital, New Bern

William Tryon was energetic in how he went about his duties, and he had several notable achievements — such as the creation of the postal service in 1769.  He is noted for two additional accomplishments: the Tryon Mansion (shown right) (which I have visited on two occasions) and for suppressing the North Carolina Regulator Movement.  They were related problems.[4]  The uprising lasted from 1768 – 1771 until the colonial militia defeated the regulators at the Battle of Alamance.[5]

Following the battle, Governor Tryon ordered the execution of seven convicted Regulators.  Most men were accused of violating the Riot Act, a capital offense.  The executed men were James Few, Benjamin Merrill, Enoch Pugh, Robert Matear, Robert Messer, Bryant Austin, and one other.  King George III pardoned six other regulators, but not before Governor Tryon raised taxes again to pay for the militia campaign against the protestors.

Modern academics and politicians claim that the colonists hated Governor Tryon — and this could be true, particularly if the colonists found themselves on the wrong side of the law during the difficulties leading up to the American Revolution.  On the other hand, it is more likely that colonists gave as much thought to Governor Tryon as they give to their current governor — which is not much.

William Tryon’s tenure as Governor of North Carolina ended on 30 June 1771.  His palace was reconstructed in the 1950s with reliance on the original architectural drawings of Mr. John Hawkes.  It is a remarkable historical monument.

New York

On 8 July 1771, William Tryon assumed the mantle of power as Governor of New York.  The Governor would not enjoy any improvement in his popularity among New Yorkers — but then, the colonies were inching ever closer to war.

Among General Tryon’s first challenges in New York was resolving the issue of quartering for those serving in uniform and various construction projects that would enable New York to defend itself against — well, who might that have been?

Tryon’s problems began in 1772 when colonists reacted unfavorably to the Tea Act.  In December, the Sons of Liberty somehow persuaded tax collectors to resign — which meant that the shipboard tea could not be off-loaded and moved ashore.  Tryon ordered it stored at Fort George if the tea could not be offloaded.  It was probably the only sensible decision he could make, but a ruffian leader named Alexander McDougall increased tensions by threatening the Governor’s life.  When the Boston Tea Party news arrived in late December, Tryon gave up trying to bring the tea ashore.

In early April 1774, Governor Tryon embarked for London, leaving Cadwallader Colden to govern in his absence.  Tryon returned to New York in June 1775 — after the outbreak of hostilities.  Meanwhile, the Continental Congress dispatched Isaac Sears to place Tryon under arrest.[6]  George Washington ordered his military commander in New York to leave Tryon unmolested to minimize his military commitments.

Nevertheless, fully aware that his safety was in jeopardy, Governor Tryon sought refuge on the British sloop Halifax — later establishing his headquarters aboard the merchant vessel Duchess of Gordon.  In 1776, Tryon dissolved the New York assembly and, working closely with British loyalists, attempted to sway the outcome of new elections.  The new assembly, once seat, promptly voted for independence.  The two immediate effects of this are that (a) Gov. Tryon developed a case of indigestion, and (b) Gov. Tryon dissolved the New York State Assembly.

From the deck of Duchess of Gordon, Tryon oversaw a counterfeiting workshop that he designed to disrupt the economy of the rebel colony and bankrupt the Continental Army.  Tryon’s efforts were so successful that the American Congress made counterfeiting a capital crime.

Counterfeiting wasn’t Tryon’s only scheme.  He routinely met with other British sympathizers, including David Mathews, the Loyalist mayor of New York City.[7]  Together, the men conspired to recruit several men guarding George Washington — one of whom was a man named Thomas Hickey, recruited by Tryon to help distribute counterfeit money and as a conspirator in the scheme to kidnap General Washington.  Had Tryon’s plan succeeded, it would have changed the course of the American Revolution.

“Tryon has been very mischievous, and we find our hands full in counteracting and suppressing the conspiracies formed by him and his adherents.”  — John Jay.

Before the kidnapping scheme could take place, Continental officials arrested Hickey and, finding him in possession of a large sum of counterfeit money, imprisoned him pending trial.  It was a capital offense.  Hickey, who was no genius in his own right, bragged to a cellmate, Isaac Ketcham, about the plot against Washington and his role in it.  Ketcham, seeking his freedom, revealed Hickey’s confessed involvement.  Continental authorities released Ketcham and hanged Hickey.  Hickey’s lesson might have been —never trust a cellmate.

Back to the Army

General William Howe arrived in New York in late June 1776, bringing the British Army with him.  Howe’s first act was to place New York under martial law and designate Major General James Robertson as military commander.  While retaining his title as Governor of New York, General Howe assumed complete jurisdiction for British governance in New York and as Commander-in-Chief, British North America.  In early 1777, General Howe appointed Tryon to serve as General Officer Commanding provincial (Loyalist) forces.  His first mission was to invade Connecticut, march on the city of Danbury, and destroy the Danbury arsenal as a means of denying weapons to the Americans.

In Danbury, Tryon established his headquarters at the house of a loyalist named Joseph Dibble.  His subordinate commanders were Brigadier General William Erskine and Brigadier General James Agnew.  Tryon engaged and defeated Patriot forces under the command of Major General David Wooster and Brigadier General Benedict Arnold at Ridgefield.  Following Tryon’s military success, Howe appointed him as a Major General in the British Army and Colonel of the 70th Regiment of Foot.  He later assumed command of all  British forces on Long Island, New York.

From his experience with the North Carolina Regulator Movement, Tryon had long advocated engaging civilian targets to discourage rebellion. Such was not the behavior of civilized men — and besides, no one with half a brain believes that attacking civilians would have been a good strategy given the number of civilians armed with rifles in the American colonies. General Henry Clinton, who replaced Howe, rejected Tryon’s proposals outright.

Drawing on his previous experiences in North Carolina, William Tryon had no hesitation in shooting civilians if they “got in the way.” In 1779, Tryon commanded a series of raids on the Connecticut coast, targeting New Haven, Fairfield, and Norwalk. General Clinton was not happy with Tryon’s disobedience, but in Tryon’s mind, his purpose was to draw American forces out of the Hudson Valley, forcing them to defend Connecticut civilians.  Connecticut Governor Jonathan Trumbull, General Washington’s close friend, urged Washington for help.  Washington, keeping his eye on the ball, refused.

History should remember William Tryon as a politically tactful and able administrator, but he was also brutal and harsh toward colonists.  Clinton denied Tryon any further command of regular forces and ordered him to return to England in September 1780.  Two years later, Tryon advanced to Lieutenant General.  He passed away at his home in London in 1788.


  1. Haywood, M. D.  Governor William Tryon and his Administration in the Province of North Carolina.  Raleigh, 1903.
  2. McBurney, C. M.  Spies in Revolutionary Rhode Island.  South Carolina History, 2014.
  3. Nash, J. R.  Spies: A narrative encyclopedia of dirty deeds and double-dealing.  Evans & Company, 1997.
  4. Nathan, A. G. The Gentleman Spy: The True Story of the British Officer Who Might Have Presented the American Revolution.  Sedgewick & Jackson, 1970.
  5. Nelson, P.  William Tryon and the Course of Empire: A Life in British Imperial Service. University of North Carolina Press, 1990.
  6. Randall, W. S.  Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor.  New York: William Morrow, 1990


[1] Such is seldom done in the United Kingdom.

[2] Wake County, North Carolina is named in Margaret’s honor.  Her father William Wake, gave her a dowry of more than £30,000 — which made her a very attractive bride.

[3] Brunswick Town was a prominent settlement and the first successful European settlement on the Cape Fear River owing to its status as a major British seaport.  Brunswick ceased to exist in 1776 when the British army burned it to the ground.  The foundations of Brunswick Town now reside beneath the now-abandoned Civil War Fort Anderson. 

[4] The Regulator Movement, also known as an insurrection, a war, and an uprising, was a demonstration of citizens against corrupt politicians.  The uprising did not change the power structure, some scholars regard the event as a precursor to the American Resolution, but others disagree because the regulators did not attempt to change the form or principle of the North Carolina government.

[5] Governor Tryon and North Carolina’s history figure prominently in the fictional (at least I hope it is) television series Outlander.  Highly entertaining and I think accurate with respect to William Tryon, life in Coastal Carolina, and with respect to the Regulator War.  

[6] Despite his religious upbringing, Sears had been a member of the NY Sons of Liberty since around 1765.  There was not another organization member more inclined toward violence than Sears, who threatened the life of more than one British official, and headed every violent demonstration in New York City.

[7] General Washington (and members of Congress) were well-aware of the activities of David, James, and Fletcher Mathews.  Washington ordered an arrest warrant for James and Fletcher, whom he charged with recruiting for the British Crown.  

Posted in British Colonies, British Nobility (or not), Colonial America, History, New England, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Revolution, Spies & such | 1 Comment

The Tragic Case of Dr. Benjamin Church, M.D.

All modern clandestine organizations employ psychologists.  They do this as a measure of self-defense because it is often the psychologist who is most capable of ferreting out a traitor or identifying a candidate for the secret service who may later become a double agent.  It is all very confusing, you see.  We can argue that a traitor is one who betrays another’s trusted or is false to an obligation or duty — which means that a patriot is someone who loves and supports their country — but our definitions are always subjective, along with our accusations.  To whom did our colonial fathers owe their loyalty?  Is it wrong to become a traitor to traitors?

Actors call what they do for a living “an art form,” and it probably is.  Art form when combined with poetic license allows actors to manipulate their audience so that they, the actors, can achieve their desired result.  They can make us laugh, for example — or cry.  If the actors are telling us about an event that did happen, about actual history, then sometimes poetic license or elaboration completely changes the character, the setting, or even the event itself.

That’s what has happened to the telling of the story of Dr. Benjamin Church.  Entertainers (videographers) present him to us as an elderly man, set in his ways, grouchy and contemptible, a no-good traitor to the United States of America, and a thoroughly despicable individual who deserves no fond memory.


In 1776, Ben Church was 42 years old.  The real Benjamin Church was one of the most knowledgeable, highly trained, and capable physicians in the Massachusetts colony.  He was also a refined writer — even poetry, which suggests that he had a certain way of looking at life.  Perhaps fanciful.  He loved to argue, especially in matters of politics, but he was jovial about it, not mean-spirited or vengeful.

Benjamin Church (1734 – 1778) was named after his father, a Boston merchant, and deacon.  The family descended from Richard Warren, a Mayflower passenger.  Benjamin attended the Boston Latin School and graduated from Harvard College in 1754.  He studied medicine under Dr. Joseph Pynchon, later continuing his medical training in London.  While in England, Benjamin married Hannah Hill of Ross, Herefordshire.  After returning to Boston, he established and maintained the reputation of a talented physician and a skillful surgeon.  During this early period, Dr. Benjamin Church performed cataract surgery and treated the eye ailments of John Adams.

As everyone knows today, the people living in the American colonies were citizens of Great Britain.  They were, for the most part, Englishmen.  What many people may not know is that Englishmen are a quarrelsome lot.  They will argue about anything and everything — and if there is one tradition among Englishmen, it is that they complain, gripe, and argue about politics more than anything else (after football).

Friction between the colonies and the motherland in England didn’t suddenly manifest itself in 1763; it had been going on since around ten minutes after the first Pilgrims arrived in the New World.  In fact, arguing is how the Pilgrims and Puritans ended up in North America, to begin with.

Life in the colonies was no walk in the park.  Farmers worked from sun to sun — the work of women was never done — s true statement for most of America’s human history.  Note: a New England farm laborer in 1775 earned 34 pence (symbol d) per day.  That would be 2.8 shillings (20 shillings to a pound).  With only pennies a day in income — taxes, no matter how little they were, would be difficult to pay.  For a perspective on this, if a colonist owed a tax of one British pound, £1 in 1775 = £179.55 today.

Taxation would be one thing that Englishmen would complain about — regularly.  Today, some scholars accuse Dr. Church as someone who outwardly supported the rebels but secretly supported the Tories.  It is a simplistic point of view because Church was one of those Englishmen who variously supported both the home country and colonial points of view — depending, of course, on the argument at the time.

Historians make an issue of the fact that Dr. Church examined the body of Crispus Attucks[1] and treated some of the wounded in the aftermath of the Boston Massacre (1770); a physician would have done that no matter what his political beliefs.

A note about the “massacre.”  Following the Townshend Acts, the so-called Sons of Liberty began a program designed to enrage colonists, urging them to commit violent acts against lawful authority.  In the absence of any meaningful community security forces, General Thomas Gage dispatched troops to occupy Boston town.[2]

On 5 March 1770, a gang of thugs descended on a lone British sentry (who was doing no more than standing guard in front of the customs house) and assaulted him.  The sentry called the corporal of the guard, who notified the guard officer, who led a relief force at the customs house.  The mob surrounded them, as well.  In their own defense, the soldiers fired their weapons killing five mobsters, and wounding six others.  The soldiers were defended in court by John Adams.

In 1773, Church delivered an oration at a gathering to remember “the massacre.”  In Dr. Church’s own words, it was a “commemoration of the bloody tragedy of the fifth of March 1770.”  It was bloody, and it was a tragedy, but of course, it was the Sons of Liberty (including Attucks) who precipitated the “massacre” to begin with.

In 1774, Church was elected as a delegate to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and later served on the Massachusetts Committee of Safety.  It was at this time that British General Thomas Gage began receiving detailed information about the activities of the Congress.  On 21 February 1775, Dr. Church, and Dr. Joseph Warren began a project to create a detailed inventory of medical supplies needed for a large army.  On 7 March, Congress approved £500 for the purchase of needed supplies.[3]

On 14 April 1775, General Sir Thomas Gage received instructions to act against rebellious colonists.  Gage had served as North America’s British Commander-in-Chief since 1763 and as Governor of Massachusetts since 1774.  On 8 May, the Provincial Congress directed that Dr. Church, Dr. Taylor, and Dr. Whiting serve as a committee to determine the proper distribution of medicines for hospitals.  As a member of the Committee of Safety, Church signed off on a report (dated 12 May) that recommended a system of defensive works on Prospect Hill and Bunker Hill.  Shortly after the Battle of Lexington and Bunker Hill, Church was observed conferring with General Gage in Boston.

In late May, Dr. Church traveled to Philadelphia to consult with the Continental Congress about the defense of the Massachusetts colony.  On July 27, Congress authorized a Medical Department of the Army, along with a Director General and Chief Physician — and then appointed Dr. Church to serve as the director.  Meanwhile, on 2 July, General George Washington arrived in Cambridge to take command of the colonial forces; Dr. Church was one of the Massachusetts committee appointed to receive him.

Benjamin Church may have been a good doctor, but he was a lousy leader.  Regimental surgeons submitted numerous complaints about the man and Washington was compelled to order an investigation of the Continental Medical Service.  Dr. Church defended himself by claiming that his rivals were jealous of his position — but he asked to leave army service.

In the meantime, in July, Church had sent a cipher addressed to Major Cane, a British Officer in Boston through his former mistress.  The letter, intercepted by one of the woman’s former lovers, was forwarded to General Washington in September.  The deciphered letter revealed that the Church was providing information to the British about the disposition of land and naval forces.  In the letter, Church declared his loyalty to the Crown.

The matter was placed before a court of inquiry made up of flag-rank officers (Washington presiding), to whom Church admitted the authorship of the letter.  Church attempted to convince the court that the letter was written to impress the enemy with the strength of the colonial forces.  Dr. Church, as Surgeon General of the Army, was court-martialed on 4 October 1775.

The court, in not buying Church’s story, sent a letter to Congress for their final determination.  Washington’s report explained the circumstances of Church’s arrest, concluding — “Upon the first examination he readily acknowledged the letter and said that it was designed for his brother, etc.  The army and country are exceedingly irritated.”

Dr. Church was briefly incarcerated in a room of the Henry Vassall House in Cambridge, where his carved name can be seen today.  The Massachusetts Provisional Congress arraigned Church on 2 November and, despite his eloquent appeal in his own defense, the Congress expelled him.  When the matter was taken up by the Continental Congress, a resolution was passed as follows: “That Doctor Church be confined in some secure jail in the Colony of Connecticut without use of pen, ink, and paper, and that no person be allowed to converse with him except in the presence and hearing of a magistrate of the town or the sheriff of the county where he is confined, and in the English language, until further orders from this or a future Congress.”

Continental officials confined Dr. Church at Norwich.  When he became ill, he was released in January 1776 and permitted movement under guard.  In May, he was allowed to return to Massachusetts after posting a bond.  He remained in the state as a prisoner until 1778 and was named in the Massachusetts Banishment Act.  Ordered to leave the state, Dr. Church set sail from Boston for Martinique a short time later.

The vessel was never heard from again.

When modern historians finally obtained access to General Gage’s private papers, they discovered that Dr. Church was responsible for providing the British with significant intelligence about the Continental forces.  The papers included notations that had been entrusted to Dr. Church to carry into and out of Boston.  Until then, historians had a difficult time estimating the degree of Dr. Church’s guilt, but it became clear that Church was spying for the British since early 1775.  According to scholars, Church’s “treachery” had nothing to do with his loyalty to the Crown — it was because Church was deeply in debt and needed the money he received from General Gage.  In time, Church’s widow received a pension from the British government.


  1. Archer, R.  The Boston Massacre.  Applewood Books, 2006. 
  2. Nagy, J. A.  Dr. Benjamin Church: Spy, A Case of Espionage on the Eve of the American Revolution.  Westholm Publishing, 2013.
  3. French, A.  General Gage’s Informers.  University of Michigan Press, 1932.
  4. McCullough, D.  John Adams.  Simon & Schuster, 2001.


[1] Crispus Attucks was a 47-year-old sailor, whaler, and stevedore of African/Native American descent.  Attucks was one of the mobsters threatening an armed sentry.  Some scholars claim that Attucks was the first individual killed in the American Revolution.  This is clearly not true.  That honor goes to Christopher Seider, age 11, killed on 22 February 1770.  The incident in which the boy was killed was instigated by the Sons of Liberty.  John Adams paid for the boy’s funeral.

[2] In those days, there were no municipal police departments.  There was only a “night watch” whose primary duty was to guard against or sound the alarm in case of fire.

[3] I received my commission on that very date, two hundred years later.

Posted in American Military, Colonial America, History, Massachusetts, Massacres, Revolution, Spies & such | Leave a comment

Who was Major John André?

Major John André

The story of John André is somewhat short but interesting.  By fairly short, I mean that he lived for only 30 years, and by interesting, I mean that he led a heck of a life in those thirty years.  Well, actually, ten years as an adult. John’s parents were Antoine André and Marie Louise Girardot.  They were Huguenots from Geneva and Paris, respectively, and wealthy merchant class emigrants to London, where John was born.[1]  John was educated at St. Paul’s School, Westminster School, and in Geneva.  He entered the British Army at age 20, joining the Royal Fusiliers, stationed in British Canada, in 1774 as a lieutenant. 

In November 1775, before America declared independence, Continental General Richard Montgomery captured Lieutenant André (and others) at Fort Saint-Jean (also Fort St. John) during the Quebec campaign and held him prisoner at Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  While a prisoner, André gave his word that he would not try to escape — and so was given the freedom of the town while living in the home of Caleb Cope.

André was released in a prisoner exchange in December 1776 and assigned to the 26th Regiment of Foot.  He was promoted to captain early in 1777 and to major in 1778.  Captain (and later, Major) John André was a popular young officer in Philadelphia and New York.  He had a lively and pleasant disposition, a good singing voice, a talented artist, and a gift for writing verse.  He was also a prolific writer who, as General Henry Clinton’s adjutant, carried on much of Clinton’s correspondence.  André was fluent in English, French, German, and Italian.

During his nine months of service in Philadelphia, Captain André occupied the confiscated home of Benjamin Franklin.  After the British captured Philadelphia in 1777, the socially prominent and loyalist Shippen family ingratiated themselves with General Clinton and his staff by hosting social gatherings; André was a frequent guest in the Shippen home, which is how he met and, for a time, courted Edward Shippen’s youngest and very talented daughter, Margaret (b. 1760).  Young Margaret (called Peggy) was a socialite known for her intelligence, charisma, and for being physically attractive.  She was an artist, musician, and addicted to the politics of the day.  Major André withdrew from Philadelphia with General Clinton’s command in June 1778, but he maintained contact with Peggy.

After the British withdrew from Philadelphia, General Washington appointed Benedict Arnold as governor and commander of Continental forces inside the city.  According to some historians, placing Arnold in a position of authority in the politically divided and wealthy city was Washington’s worst decision as commander-in-chief because no one could have been less qualified than Arnold.  The position called for someone honest, tactful, politically aware, and administratively/judicially efficient.  Arnold had none of those attributes.  When he assumed command, he almost immediately began to enrich himself.  He engaged in various business ventures siphoning money from businesses seeking to resupply the Continental army.  These schemes weren’t unusual in the Continental Army — officers routinely reached into the till to help themselves when no one was looking — but Arnold’s efforts were blatant, and it was not difficult for men such as Joseph Reed to build a case against him.

Arnold lived an extravagant lifestyle in Philadelphia — and a prominent personage on the social scene.  This placed him in contact with the Shippen family, Peggy Shippen, and through her, John André.  Arnold was introduced to Peggy Shippen in late June 1778; she was 18 years old, and he was a 38-year-old widower with three children.  He was a continental officer; she was a British loyalist.  He was a talker, and she passed this information along to Major André through Philadelphia merchant Joseph Stansbury.  Benedict Arnold and Peggy Shippen were married in 1779.

André was promoted to major in 1779 and appointed to head the British secret service in North America.  By 1780, André briefly took part in Clinton’s invasion of the southern colonies, starting with the siege of Charleston, South Carolina.   Around this time, Major André began corresponding with the increasingly disillusioned Major General Benedict Arnold — who was deeply in debt and accused of fraudulent behavior.

The treason of Benedict Arnold remains one of the most perplexing events in the American Revolutionary War.  Historians have been trying to understand his motivations for years, and everyone seems to have their own theory.  Possibly no theory makes better sense than one posed by novelist W. D. Wetherall: Benedict Arnold married the wrong person.

When Arnold assumed command of West Point, André talked him into surrendering the post to the British.  In exchange, General Clinton agreed to pay Arnold £20,000 (approximately £3.62 million in 2021).  André proceeded to an area just outside West Point aboard the sloop of war HMS Vulture on 20 September 1780 to visit with Arnold and cement the arrangement.  Two American privates, John Peterson and Moses Sherwood discovered a Vulture on 21 September.  The two men began firing on Vulture with their long rifles.  When they had expended their ammunition, the men went for reinforcements at Fort Lafayette, situated near Verplanck’s Point.  They reported to Colonel James Livingston.

Meanwhile, André and Arnold at the Smith House (now called Treason House) in West Haverstraw, New York.  On the morning of 22 September, Peterson and Sherwood began firing again on Vulture, forcing her to withdraw down the river.  The ship’s movement stranded André ashore.

To aid André’s escape through U.S. lines, General Arnold provided him with civilian clothing and a travel passport in the name of John Anderson.  André bore six documents in his stocking, prepared in Arnold’s hand, that instructed the British on how to seize the fortification.

André continued in safety until around 9 a.m. on 23 September, when he came near Tarrytown.  Entering the town, militiamen John Paulding, Isaac Van Wart, and David Williams stopped André.  Assuming that the three men were British, André identified himself and ordered these men to assist him — and they did; they arrested André after identifying themselves as Continental soldiers.  André then changed his story, attempting to convince the militia that he was a Continental officer.  They weren’t buying into that story, nor accepting at face value his passport, either.  The soldiers searched André and discovered the hidden documents.  Only one of the men, Paulding, could read.  Paulding decided to deliver André to his headquarters at Sand Hill.

Eventually, André admitted his true identity, and post commandant Lieutenant Colonel John Jameson decided to send André to his superior, General Arnold.  But before André could be sent on his way, Major Benjamin Tallmadge, head of Continental Army intelligence, arrived and persuaded Jameson to hold off.  Jameson dispatched the seized documents to General Washington’s headquarters — but while he understood the allegation well enough, Jameson could not be convinced that his general (Arnold) was a traitor.  He insisted on sending a dispatch to Arnold.

General Arnold received Jameson’s note while at breakfast with his officers, made an excuse to leave the room, and was not seen again.  The note gave Arnold time to escape to the British.  Washington arrived at West Point an hour later and was distressed to find the fortifications in such neglect.  It was part of Arnold’s plan to turn West Point over to the British.

Some hours later, Washington received the explanatory information from Maj. Tallmadge and immediately sent men to arrest Arnold, but it was too late.  According to Tallmadge, he and André conversed during the latter’s captivity and transport.  Major André wanted to know how he should expect General Washington to treat him as a prisoner of war.  Tallmadge had been a classmate of Nathan Hale and still smarted from the British Army’s execution of Hale.  Tallmadge promised André a similar fate.

General Washington convened a board of senior officers to investigate the matter. Major General Nathanael Greene served as a presiding officer; members included Lord Stirling, Arthur St. Clair, Lafayette, Robert Howe, Samuel Parsons, James Clinton, Henry Knox, John Glover, John Paterson, Edward Hand, Jedediah Huntington, John Stark, Friedrich von Steuben, and Judge Advocate John Laurance. Lafayette cried at André’s execution.

Major André’s defense was that he was attempting to entice an enemy officer. He did not try to pass the blame to General Arnold, assured the court that he did not plan to be behind American lines and did not wish to be there, and asserted that as a prisoner of war, he was entitled to attempt escape in civilian clothing. On 29 September, the court found André guilty of spying and ordered him to suffer death. General Clinton did almost everything to save Major André — almost — but he would not agree to exchange Arnold for André (even though he despised Arnold). Major André appealed to General Washington to allow him to be executed by firing squad rather than by hanging, but Washington’s rules of war prescribed death by hanging — and that’s how Major André met his fate on 2 October 1780. The young man was well-remembered by his American captors. Witnesses recalled that Major André placed the noose around his own neck.[2]


  1. French, A.  General Gages Informers, 1932.
  2. Haywood, M. D.  Governor William Tryon and his Administration in the Province of North Carolina.  Raleigh, 1903.
  3. MacLean, M.  Ann Bates — A History of American Women.  Womenhistoryblog, 2011.
  4. McBurney, C. M.  Spies in Revolutionary Rhode Island.  South Carolina History, 2014.
  5. Nash, J. R.  Spies: A narrative encyclopedia of dirty deeds and double-dealing.  Evans & Company, 1997.
  6. Nathan, A. G. The Gentleman Spy: The True Story of the British Officer Who Might Have Presented the American Revolution.  Sedgewick & Jackson, 1970.
  7. Nelson, P.  William Tryon and the Course of Empire: A Life in British Imperial Service. University of North Carolina Press, 1990.
  8. Nagy, J. A.  Dr. Benjamin Church: Spy — A Case of Espionage on the Eve of the American Revolution, 2013.
  9. Randall, W. S.  Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor.  New York: William Morrow, 1990


[1] In the 16th and 17th centuries, Huguenots were French Calvinists.  As protestants, they were persecuted by the pro-Catholic French government.  The smart Huguenots fled France for their safety.  The less-bright stayed around to see what would happen.

[2] For an eyewitness account of André’s death, see Thatcher, James.  The American Revolution: From the Commencement to the Disbanding of the American Army Given in the Form of a Daily Journal, with the Exact Dates of all the Important Events; Also, a Biographical Sketch of the Most Prominent Generals.

Posted in British Colonies, Colonial America, History, New York, Spies & such | 3 Comments

The One You Never Suspect

Experts on spycraft tell us that the best spy is the one you never suspect.  I would argue that it’s the one who never gets caught.  I asked the question, “Who were the best spies during the American Revolution?”  Among the answers provided was Nathan Hale.  He was very likely the worst spy in the history of the world.  He lasted all of fifteen minutes in his spy craft before being discovered.  Well, okay — maybe a bit longer than that.

Once the Revolution had begun in 1775, Nathan Hale joined a Connecticut militia and, within only five months, was elected first lieutenant.  The unit participated in the siege of Boston, but Hale remained behind (some suggest) because he was unsure of whether he wanted to get into the fight.  Others claim that he had a teaching contract that conflicted with his unit’s operations.  In early July Hale received an inspiring letter from his classmate Benjamin Tallmadge urging his involvement.  Within a few months, Hale had made the transition to Knowlton’s Rangers, the first “intelligence service” organized by the Americans.  After the British had defeated the Americans on Long Island, General Washington was desperate to determine the location of the imminent British invasion of Manhattan.  To that end, Washington called for a spy behind enemy lines and the man who stepped forward as the only volunteer was Nathan Hale, on 8 September 1776.

Four days later, Hale disguised himself as a Dutch school teacher and pretended to look for work.  Unfortunately, Hale carried in his possession his recent college graduation certificate with his real name inscribed — so the “assumed name” idea was quickly awash.  But while undercover, the British seized Manhattan on 15 September.  The “great New York fire erupted” on 21 September, thought to have been the work of the Americans to keep the city from falling into British hands.  Americans under Washington denied any part of the fire, but in its aftermath, British authorities detained 200 colonists for questioning.

What we know of these events was penned by a British Loyalist by the name of Consider Tiffany, a Connecticut shopkeeper.  In this account, Major Robert Rogers (Queen’s Rangers) remembered seeing Nathan Hale in a tavern and recognized him.  After luring Hale into betraying his allegiance by pretending to be a patriot himself, Rogers apprehended Hale near Flushing Bay in Queens.  Another story suggests that Nathan was betrayed by a Loyalist cousin named Samuel Hale.

The British harbored no good feelings toward spies.  They were “illegal combatants” and the punishment for spying was death.  Everyone, including Nathan Hale, knew the punishment was rather final.  At General William Howe’s headquarters in Manhattan, Hale was questioned by the provost marshal (Captain Cunningham) and most of what Hale had to say was defeated by the evidence on his person.  Hale spent the night in a bedroom in Howe’s headquarters.  It was his final night.  According to British major Frederick MacKensie, Hale “ … behaved with great composure and resolution, saying he thought it the duty of every good officer to obey any orders given to him by his commander-in-chief and desired the spectators to be at all times prepared to meet death in whatever shape it may appear.”

On the morning of 22 September, Hale was marched along the Post Road to Artillery Park — where he was hanged.  There is a question about whether Hale actually uttered the famous words credited to him, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”  We wonder about this because there was no first-hand testimony that Hale ever said any such thing.

In any case, the 21-year-old came to his untimely end, and it didn’t take long for the British to “find him out.”  Hence, if our standard for good spies is the one who is never caught, then we must conclude that Lieutenant Hale was not a good spy.

Mrs. Ann Bates, on the other hand, had a much better career.  The British spy network included women, one of whom was Ann Bates — who may have been a near-perfect secret agent.  Recall that women in the 1770s were generally regarded as simple-minded housekeepers and baby-makers.  Bates knew this well enough to play that card as a British Loyalist.

Historians believe that Ms. Bates was born in 1748 in Pennsylvania.  She was married to Joseph Bates (a British artilleryman) and worked as a school teacher in Philadelphia.  To augment their meager income, Mrs. Bates kept bees, tended sheep, and ran a small goods store.  She was first discovered by a British spy named John Craig.  After sounding her out to determine her loyalty, Craig introduced her to his superior in New York, Major Duncan Drummond.  When General Clinton withdrew his forces from Philadelphia in 1778, Joseph and Ann Bates accompanied him.

New York City wasn’t a safe place for British loyalists.  Patriot harassment was common, along with beatings, tarring’s, and destroying personal property.  Ann Bates didn’t experience any problems with patriots in the city because she maintained a very low profile and projected someone who was simply a “typical woman.”  She was respectable, a good housewife, and insofar as her neighbors were concerned, an American patriot.  After General Clinton assigned Major John André to his intelligence staff, Ann Bates began working under his direction.  She was cool under pressure, meticulous in her duties, and clever.  Her contemporaries referred to her as Mrs. Barnes — and she was judged by historians as a great spy.  As a woman, she was able to go unnoticed through and around American army camps.  When in hiding, she disguised herself as a peddler and often frequented General Washington’s own campsites selling campsite pots and pans.

Ann Bates, whose husband was an artillerist, was familiar with field guns and thus able to provide the British with information about Continental’s weapons, their materials, and placement strategies.  One mission that she failed at achieving was the recruitment of American soldiers as British spies.  She instead began listening to the conversations of Continental soldiers and was able to glean valuable information from their grumbling and whining.  It was from a whining session among American soldiers that Bates learned about Washington’s Rhode Island campaign.

While traveling near White Plains, New York, American soldiers detained Ann Bates on unspecified suspicions but released her the next morning without any substantial interrogations.  Once she’d returned to the city, she provided her superiors with significant intelligence of Washington’s army.  Thanks to Bates’ careful observations, the British learned that General Washington’s army had far fewer field cannons than they imagined.  Bates’ boss, Duncan Drummond, was impressed with Bates’ attention to detail.

During one mission, a British deserter recognized Ann Bates for who she really was and sounded the alarm.  It was only her cool demeanor that saved her; in disguise, she moved from one British safe house to another until she could make her way back to New York City.  To get there, she traveled through New Jersey — a safe route that enabled her to stay at various Tory safe houses.  Her safe house route was similar to one utilized by escaping British POWs.  In this one instance, Bates was anxious to return to her home in the city and it may have made her a little careless.

On 26 September 1778, a Saturday, Bates was in the process of observing an American headquarters when someone noticed her and turned her in.  An officer took her to the general commanding, Charles Scott.  Scott interrogated Bates.  Ann explained that her husband was a soldier in the Center Divisions and was en route back to her home.  Eventually, Scott released Ann Bates — who doesn’t appreciate a veteran’s wife?  The episode did rattle Bates, however, and she returned to New York City as quickly as her legs would carry her.  After delivering information to Drummond, he escorted her to Long Island where she could relax and not run the risk of bumping into American soldiers.  A few days later, Drummond introduced her to an American officer — a general named Benedict Arnold.

Between October 1778 and August 1779, General Clinton’s spy network underwent important changes.  Clinton and Drummond had a substantial disagreement, Drummond refused to acquiesce to Clinton’s preferences, so, Clinton sent Drummond back to England.  General Clinton assigned Major John André to Drummond’s replacement.  Historians do not believe there was much interaction between André and Bates.

General Henry Clinton was American-born in Newfoundland. His father served as a British Admiral and the governor of Newfoundland.  These family ties may explain why General Clinton received an appointment to serve as Governor of New York.  Clinton first learned of the American rebellion while traveling with Generals Burgoyne and Howe — among whom competition was keen for the King’s favor.  Clinton’s first attempt to capture Charleston (South Carolina) ended in failure (1776), which was somewhat offset by his successes in New York and Long Island.  Clinton was subsequently advanced to Lieutenant General.

The British plan was to divide (and conquer) the American colonies.  King George III gave overall command of the northern campaign to Burgoyne (prompting Clinton to tender his resignation).  Rather than accept his resignation, King George gave Clinton a knighthood.  Ultimately, Burgoyne failed to achieve victory and Clinton replaced Howe as Commander-in-Chief of British North America.  In 1780, Clinton appointed General Cornwallis to command the southern invasion.

Joseph Bates, serving in Cornwallis’ army, traveled to Charleston with his wife Ann.  After their arrival, Ann Bates met several times with Colonel Nisbet Balfour, who asked for her assistance in setting up an espionage network in South Carolina.  Balfour, one of Cornwallis’s most trusted officers, received severe combat wounds during the Battle of Bunker Hill.  He played an active role during the battles of Elizabethtown, Brandywine, and Germantown.  Balfour was later advanced to Major General with service in France.  Despite Balfour’s intent to establish a spy network, Cornwallis abandoned the effort when he realized that nothing was going to save him from defeat at Yorktown.

On 6 March 1781, Joseph and Ann Bates sailed for England.  Ann’s participation in the war as a spy placed a strain on her marriage, prompting Joseph and Ann to separate soon after arriving back in England.  We do not know what became of Joseph, but Ann always maintained pride in her accomplishments as one of Clinton’s spies.  In 1785, Ann submitted a petition for a pension from the British government.  We know the government granted her a pension, but beyond that, there is no further record of Ann Bates.  We know she was born in 1748, and we know she was still alive in 1785 — but as with all the very best spies, there is much we never knew about Ann — or ever will. 


  1. Baker, M. A.  Spies of Revolutionary Connecticut: Benedict Arnold to Nathan Hale.  History Press, 2014.
  2. French, A.  General Gages Informers, 1932.
  3. Haywood, M. D.  Governor William Tryon and his Administration in the Province of North Carolina.  Raleigh, 1903.
  4. MacLean, M.  Ann Bates — A History of American Women.  Womenhistoryblog, 2011.
  5. McBurney, C. M.  Spies in Revolutionary Rhode Island.  South Carolina History, 2014.
  6. Nash, J. R.  Spies: A narrative encyclopedia of dirty deeds and double-dealing.  Evans & Company, 1997.
  7. Nathan, A. G. The Gentleman Spy: The True Story of the British Officer Who Might Have Presented the American Revolution.  Sedgewick & Jackson, 1970.
  8. Nelson, P.  William Tryon and the Course of Empire: A Life in British Imperial Service. University of North Carolina Press, 1990.
  9. Nagy, J. A.  Dr. Benjamin Church: Spy — A Case of Espionage on the Eve of the American Revolution, 2013.
  10. Randall, W. S.  Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor.  New York: William Morrow, 1990
Posted in British Colonies, British Generals, Colonial America, History, New York, Pennsylvania, Revolution, Society, Spies & such | 2 Comments

Gentleman Johnny


For many years, British military officers purchased their promotions.  A young man who wanted to join the military as an officer paid for the privilege of serving in the army.[1]  The system that existed in the United Kingdom before 1871 for obtaining a commission in the army, and for subsequent promotion, was the purchase of commissions.  This practice applied only to the army.  There were several reasons for such a system, none of which had to do with creating and maintaining a military force able to kick ass and take names.

To understand this system, we must first understand British society in the 17th through 19th centuries.  It was very structured; everyone had their place.  At the bottom, are those belonging to the cottage or labor class, and husbandmen.  Yeomen were small farmers who had land and earned a comfortable income from it.  Above the yeomen were landed gentry — and above them (or perhaps more-or-less equal) were the professional class (doctors, lawyers, judges, politicians).  Above gentry came the aristocracy, which includes peers and royals (although a member of the gentry or professional class could also become peers.

The underclassman could enlist in the army without much of an effort; usually, a recruitment NCO would find an inebriated fellow, buy him a few drams of grog, off him a sovereign, and that was about all there was to join the army.  The next morning our inebriated enlistee would awaken in a barracks somewhere.  He would likely remain with that regiment for the next nine years.

Officers’ commissions were something else entirely.

In the British Isles, the right to inherit fell upon the oldest son (even if he was third born behind two older sisters).  Second sons inherited nothing.  Still, they were sons and their fathers did try to do something for them, such as send them to medical school (if they were so inclined), or study law, or serve in the military.  To serve in the military, the father obtained an officer’s commission for his son(s) by purchasing them.  Only wealthy people could afford the officer’s commission.

Earlier, I hinted at “several reasons” for the system that permitted men to purchase their commissions.  These reasons included:

  • The purchase price served as collateral against abuse of authority, negligence, or incompetence.  The government could cashier a dopey officer — and if they did, the dope would forfeit the cost of his commission.
  • Only the “best sort” of person could become an officer.  Uncouth fellows need not apply.
  • An officer whose wealth or connections allowed him to purchase a commission was less likely to pillage or loot … which doesn’t look nice to third-party observers.
  • Honorably separated or retired officers could build on their military network to sustain a certain standard of living — the doors were opened for government ministry appointments and seats in the House of Commons.  

An example of the cost of commissions in 1837 (and their modern-day equivalents) are:  (a) Ensign or coronet, infantry commission, £450 (£44,000);  cavalry commission £840 (£81,000).  These prices would vary by regiment because some regiments were “more desirable” than others.  Down the road, a lieutenant colonel who desired to retire would sell his commission and use those proceeds as his retirement income.  A cavalry lieutenant colonel could expect to sell his commission (in 2022 British pounds sterling) for £579,000.

The interesting part of this story is that a captain did not have to demonstrate knowledge or competence in field command before being promoted to major.  As a consequence, the British Army had more than its fair share of incompetent officers.  Lucky was the young infantry captain who, because of his seniority as a captain within his regiment, and the fact that there were no field officers in the command, actually served as a regimental commander before advancing to field rank.  But even this was no bar to incompetence.  More than a few field and general officers demonstrated gross incompetence — which caused unnecessary death and injury to the men serving in the ranks.  There was no better example of this condition than the Crimean War.  The British government finally abolished the purchase of commissions in 1871 — after which British officer promotions became competency and merit-based.

John Burgoyne

General Burgoyne

One of these gentlemen aristocrats was John Burgoyne (1722 – 1792).  He was a career military officer, dramatist, and member of parliament.  During the Seven Year’s War, he served in the Portugal Campaign of 1762.  He was a combat officer long before he served in North America.  Of course, in those days, it was possible to be a combat officer, demonstrate incompetence, retain your commission and achieve a new assignment (and promotion) if the price was right.  He may have been a better playwright than a general — an evaluation better left to a thespian.

Burgoyne’s father was an army captain (d. 1768); his grandfather (also named John) was Third Baronet of Sherbourne, Warwickshire.  There may have been some shenanigans with respect to our subject because the testament of his godfather, Robert Benson (Lord Bingley) specified that if Benson’s daughters left no issue, then John Burgoyne would inherit his estate.

Burgoyne, like many of his military cohorts, was educated at the Westminster School.  He was an athletic youngster and one who made several important life-long friends — people who would later aid Burgoyne in his life’s pursuits, James Smith-Stanley (1716 – 1771) (Lord Strange) being one of them.[2]  In 1737, John Burgoyne purchased his commission in the Horse Guards regiment (cavalry) where, since his duties were light, he was allowed to prance about in polite society and came away with the nickname, “Gentleman Johnny.”  It was also during this time that John Burgoyne ran up a large number of debts from gambling and other foolishness.  In 1741, he sold his commission to pay off his debts — because true gentlemen had better control over their debts.

With the outbreak of the War of Austrian Succession, Burgoyne applied for a commission as coronet in the 1st Royal Dragoons (a newly created and therefore “free” commission).  He was promoted to lieutenant in 1747 and soon after managed to afford a captaincy.  At the end of the war in 1748, Burgoyne was released from active service and went on half-pay.[3]


Through his school chum, James Smith-Stanley, John Burgoyne came to know James’ sister, Charlotte Stanley, a daughter of Edward Stanley, Lord Derby — one of Britain’s leading politicians.  Burgoyne asked Lord Derby for his daughter’s hand in marriage and Derby refused.  Burgoyne, the playboy, may not have been what Lord Derby wanted for his daughter.  So Lord Derby was not a happy person when Burgoyne and Charlotte eloped and married without his permission in the spring of 1751.  Enraged, Derby disenfranchised Charlotte.  Unable to support Charlotte according to her custom, Burgoyne again sold his commission for £2,700.

In the fall of 1751, Burgoyne and his bride traveled through France and Italy.  In France, Burgoyne befriended Étienne François, Marquis de Stainville, Duc de Choiseul.  Étienne (Stephen) was a military officer, diplomat, and statesman during the Seven Years’ War.  François served as Foreign Minister, directing French policy during the war.

In late 1754, Burgoyne’s wife gave birth to a daughter — whom they named Charlotte Elizabeth (their only child).  Burgoyne returned to Great Britain in 1755 and with James’ assistance, Lord Derby accepted his daughter and son-in-law into the family.  Burgoyne benefitted from this attention to his professional life.

The Seven Years’ War

A month after the outbreak of hostilities, John Burgoyne purchased a commission in the 11th Dragoons.  In 1758 he advanced to captain and lieutenant colonel in the Coldstream Guards — suggesting that he purchased both commissions (having by-passed major).[4]  In that year, he participated in several expeditions against the French coastal regions.  During this time, Burgoyne was instrumental in the formation of the British Light Cavalry while serving under Colonel George Augustus Eliott, the former aide-de-camp to King George II, as Commander of the 1st Light Horse Brigade.  Burgoyne was a unique military officer in the sense that he encouraged his subordinates to use their initiative and independent action.

In 1761, Burgoyne sat in the House of Commons (representing Midhurst), and in 1762, he participated in the Portugal Campaign as a brigadier general.  Burgoyne distinguished himself by leading his cavalry in the capture of Valencia de Alcantara and of Vila Velha de Ródão.

In 1768, Burgoyne sat again in the parliament.  As a politician, Burgoyne was outspoken concerning his criticism of Robert Clive (Lord Clive) whose military service (and wealth) originated from his investments in India.  In 1772, Burgoyne demanded an investigation of the management and operation of the East India Company, alleging widespread corruption.

The War in America

In 1774, Parliament appointed Major General Burgoyne to command Boston a few weeks after the first shots of the war had been fired at Lexington and Concord.  He commanded the garrison during the siege, while General William Howe and General Henry Clinton directed the action at Bunker and Breed’s hills.  Burgoyne, always looking for opportunities to advance himself, Burgoyne grew frustrated with the confusing command relationship in the colonies and returned to England.

Major General Carleton received notice of the start of the rebellion in May 1775, soon followed by the news of the rebel capture of Fort Ticonderoga and Fort Crown Point — and the raid on Fort Saint-Jean.  As he had previously sent two of his regular army regiments to Boston, his remaining force numbered only around 800 regulars in Quebec.  His attempts to raise a provincial militia met with only limited success because few ethnic French or resident English were interested in joining.  Area Indians were interested in joining the militia, but Carleton worried about the optics of Indians attacking whites on behalf of the Crown.

During the summer of 1775, General Carleton directed the preparation of provincial defenses around Fort Saint-Jean.  In September, the American Continentals began an invasion of Canada and besieged the fort.  When the fort fell in November, Carleton was forced to withdraw from Montreal to Quebec City.

In December 1775, the Continental siege of Quebec was broken off by the arrival of British reinforcements under the command of John Burgoyne, who assumed the role of Carleton’s deputy.  Carleton subsequently launched a counter-offensive.  Consequently, Carleton was promoted to General-in-Chief of North America in 1776.  In April, Carleton directed the British blockade on the Richelieu River and directed the fight for Valcour Island on Lake Champlain against a naval force commanded by Benedict Arnold.  The British, with a significantly superior fleet, won a decisive victory, destroying or capturing most of the rebel fleet — but the delay in the overall battle plan prevented Carleton from capturing Fort Ticonderoga that year.  Consequently, John Burgoyne — the subordinate — was highly critical of Carleton, the superior.  His reports to King George III were intended to convince him that the North American fiasco was all Carleton’s fault.

In the following year, King George gave command of the British forces charged with gaining control of Lake Champlain and the Hudson River Valley to John Burgoyne.

The Battle plan, largely of his own creation, was for Burgoyne and his force to cross Lake Champlain from Quebec — capture Ticonderoga, advance on Albany, and after combining forces with General William Howe, divide New England away from the middle and southern colonies.  By isolating New England, Burgoyne believed that Great Britain would prevail over the revolutionaries.

From the beginning, Burgoyne had more self-confidence than he deserved.  He believed that he was putting together an overwhelming powerhouse whose success would propel him into national prominence.  Before departing from England, the arrogant ass wagered a friend £10 that he would return victorious within a year.  Experienced voices urged caution and suggested that employing similar strategies to the previous year’s campaign was foolish.

The foundation of Burgoyne’s plan was his belief that an aggressive thrust from Quebec would be substantially aided by the movements of two other large British forces (under Howe and Clinton) who would support his advance.  However, Lord George Germain (Secretary of State for North America) dispatched muddled instructions to Burgoyne, Howe, and Clinton.

Burgoyne’s Disaster

As a result of Germain’s miscommunication, Burgoyne ended up conducting the campaign single-handedly.  He wasn’t aware of that, of course, because he was still convinced that he was God’s gift to the British military command.  His troop footprint in Quebec was 7,000 men.  Burgoyne was also convinced that he could rely on large numbers of Native Americans and Loyalists to help him execute the battle plan.  Burgoyne figured that even if the area of operations was not as pro-British as he hoped, it was largely an underpopulated area in any case.  He did not believe that an enemy force would threaten his attack force.

Initially, Burgoyne’s campaign was successful.  He gained possession of Fort Ticonderoga (which prompted his promotion to lieutenant general) and of Fort Edward, but moving onward, he broke off communications with Quebec.  In his arrogance, he didn’t anticipate being hemmed in by Horatio Gates.  His several attempts to break through the American’s lines were repulsed.  A Continental bullet found Burgoyne’s aide, Sir Frances Clerke.  Two days later, Burgoyne surrendered his entire army of 5,800 men — a turning point in the American Revolution.  With Burgoyne’s defeat, the French were encouraged to enter the war on the side of the Americans.

Burgoyne would not agree to an unconditional surrender, but he would agree to a convention where his men would agree to surrender their arms, return to Europe, and pledge not to return to North America.  The military agreed to the convention, but the Continental Congress repudiated it — imprisoning the remaining members of Burgoyne’s army in Massachusetts and Virginia. Dishonorably, the Americans mistreated their British prisoners — but in their minds, it was merely payback for the treatment of American prisoners of the British.

General Burgoyne’s End

The British people were not at all pleased with “Gentleman Johnny.”  For many years, it was Burgoyne’s defeat.  It wasn’t until many years later that historians began to look more closely at Germain.  It was Lord Germain who failed to ensure everyone understood the chain of command.

Looking back in time is something that scholars and historians do seeking clarity.  Nevertheless, the Burgoyne debate continues.  Some argue that Burgoyne is a classic example of incompetent British leadership, an aristocrat without a clue, and a man who should never have been advanced beyond lieutenant.  Others point to the fact that (according to some troops), his men loved their general.  Still, others characterize Burgoyne as a clown in uniform.

Back in London, Burgoyne concentrated on his pay writing activities.  He is credited with writing several plays, as follows:

  • The Maid of the Oaks (1774)
  • The Camp (1778)
  • The Lord of the Manor (1780)
  • The Heiress (1786)
  • Richard Coeur de Lion

Previously to his embarrassing defeat by the American rabble, John Burgoyne had been a Tory supporter of the government of Lord North, but following his return from Saratoga, he began to associate with the so-called Rockingham Whigs, a splinter group.  When the Rockingham group returned to power in 1782, Burgoyne was restored to his rank of lieutenant general, honored with the colonelcy of the King’s Own Royal Regiment, made Commander-in-Chief in Ireland, and appointed to the Privy Council.  By 1783, however, Burgoyne had begun to withdraw from public life.  “Gentleman Johnny” died unexpectedly at his home in Mayfair on 4 August 1792.


  1. Bruce, A. P. C.  The Purchase System in the British Army, 1660-1871.  Royal Historical Society, London, 1980.
  2. Farwell, B.  Queen Victoria’s Little Wars.  Wordsworth Military Library Press, 1973.
  3. Huddleston, F. J.  Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne, Misadventures of an English General in the Revolution. Bobbs-Merrill, 1927.
  4. Watt, G. K.  The British Campaign of 1777, Volume II: The Burgoyne Expedition, Burgoyne’s Native and Loyalist Auxiliaries.  Global Heritage Press, 2013.


[1] The British Navy has always been a single, national organization.  First organized by Alfred the Great, the naval force was responsible for defending the realm; the land forces, on the other hand, were provided by the shires.  These units didn’t belong to the king; they belonged to the peer who organized them.  Thus, the Navy was a Royal Force, and the army was not.  Subsequently, the term “Royal” has been bestowed on certain regiments of the British Army (for distinguished service), which entitles them to wear blue facings on the collar and cuff, but the army is not by itself a royal organization.   

[2] James Smith-Stanley was the eldest child of Edward Stanley, 11th Earl of Derby.  Edward and James both styled themselves as Lord Strange, but neither deserved the title.  James predeceased his father, so Edward’s grandson inherited the title Earl of Derby.

[3] When British military officers retired or were separated from active service, they entered a pay status referred to as half-pay.  This was for men like Burgoyne, a retainer pay in inactive service or reserve status in the event of another conflict.  

[4] The Coldstream Guards is the oldest continually serving regular regiment in the British military.   

Posted in American Frontier, American Indians, British Canada, British Colonies, British Generals, Colonial America, History, Massachusetts, New England, New York, Northwest Territory, Revolution | Leave a comment

A New England Man


In 1755, British colonists had a full plate: French soldiers and their Indian allies were killing British settlers, parliament was finding ways to increase everyone’s taxes, and the British monarch, who couldn’t speak English, was mentally ill.  Amazingly, there was still room on the colonist’s plate for a pissing contest between New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and the Vermont Republic.  British settlers were, at a minimum, antagonistic.

England’s first attempt at North American colonization occurred at the Popham Colony (1607), which failed after only 14 months.  Still, the initial success of the Plymouth Colony (1620 – 1691) encouraged the establishment of the New Hampshire Colony and Massachusetts Bay Colony.  Dissenters from Massachusetts Bay founded the colonies at Providence, Connecticut, and New Haven.  All of these were formed by Puritans, separatists, or other agitators seeking freedom of religion and personal liberty for themselves while (except for Providence) denying the same to others.  This pattern continued to define Anglo policies toward native Americans, and African Negroes were transported to the colonies in chains.  This “Puritan” lack of religious tolerance and humanity can still be seen today in some modern “protestant” groups.

The initial New Hampshire settlement included a series of grants made by the English Crown to Captain John Mason (and others) during the 1620s.  A fishing and trading settlement was established in 1623, and in 1629 the name New Hampshire (after the English county) was applied to a grant for a region between the Merrimack and Piscataqua rivers.  New Hampshire’s main settlements included Dover, Portsmouth, Exeter, and Hampton.

Between 1641 – 1679, the region of New Hampshire fell under the administrative control of the Province of Massachusetts.  During that time, numerous religious and territorial disputes evolved until 1679, when New Hampshire became a separate royal province.  Even then, bitter, and often deadly feuds emerged between settlers in Massachusetts and the Province of New York over part of the New Hampshire grant, particularly in the land and territory that eventually became the Vermont Republic.[1]  A string of feuds continued almost to the beginning of the American Revolution — a problem properly blamed on New Hampshire governor Benning Wentworth.[2]

When Wentworth retired as royal governor of New Hampshire in the summer of 1767, he was one of the wealthiest men in New England.  Wentworth’s long career as a colonial viceroy, astute administration, and capacity for acting in his self-interest helped define the word corruption for all time.  New Hampshire gained from both Wentworth’s ability — and his lack of scruples.  The geography, settlement patterns, and policies within the colony derive from Wentworth’s point of view about politics, war, and economic development — all of which led directly to the creation of a place called Vermont.

Between 1689 – 1763, the people of New Hampshire played an active role in the colonial wars between Great Britain and France.  The colony’s first census occurred in 1767, reporting nearly 53,000 residents.  In 1772, the territory had five counties involved in the American Revolution.  By the end of the colonial period, the capital of New Hampshire was Portsmouth.

Before the revolution, the New Hampshire government was staunchly pro-British.  After 1775 however, the Loyalist faction in the state became one of the weakest and least effective in all of New England.  Wentworth (and his followers) were Loyalists.  His domination of politics and the economy was made possible through a carefully crafted network of family and tightly held business associations.  In 1767, a significant shift in political loyalties occurred — at a time when Wentworth’s nephew John succeeded him as governor.

Afterward, a decrease in demand for the colony’s products, its unsteady support for the English homeland, and the revolutionary madness that was taking hold throughout British America encouraged rebels to assert their extralegal control over all opposition.  Patriots successfully outmaneuvered Loyalists, who soon became trapped and helpless in the course of the war.  Most leading Loyalists followed Benning Wentworth into exile, and when British forces failed to occupy New Hampshire, there was no haven for loyalist sentiment.  Not all Loyalists were helpless, however.  More than a few served the Crown as spies, counterfeiters, and soldiers.[3]

The Green Mountain Boys

Artist’s depiction of the Green Mountain Boys

In 1770, a regional militia formed in the area between New York and the New Hampshire Grants.  They called themselves The Green Mountain Boys. The Green Mountain Boys were led by a man named Ethan Allen and members of his extended family.  Allen was instrumental in resisting the efforts of New Yorkers to gain control over the Vermont territory, over which New York had won its dispute with New Hampshire. In 1777, the New Hampshire Grants became known as the Vermont Republic.

Elements of the Green Mountain Boys served in the American Revolution, notably when Ethan Allen captured Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain (10 May 1775) and when he invaded Canada.  In early June, the Continental Congress created the Continental Army with George Washington as its designated Commander-in-Chief.  Shortly thereafter, Colonel Allen and his second in command, Seth Warner, petitioned Congress to include a ranger regiment within the Continental Army — one composed of men from the Green Mountain area of the New Hampshire Grants.

Separate from the ranger regiment, the Green Mountain Boys organization disbanded in 1776, a year before Vermont (separately from the original thirteen colonies) declared its independence from Great Britain — announcing itself as a “separate, free, and independence jurisdiction or state.”[4]    The remnants of the Green Mountain Boys reconstituted themselves as the Green Mountain Continental Rangers, initially under Ethan Allen.  When Allen accepted a commission to serve under Major General Philip Schuyler, command of the Continental Rangers passed to Colonel Seth Warner.

Colonel Seth Warner

Seth Warner (1743 – 1784) was an exceptional combat commander who occasionally commanded brigade-sized units during the American Revolutionary War.  He is best known for capturing Fort Crown Point, the Battle of Longueuil, the Siege of Quebec, and the battles of Hubbardton and Bennington.

Warner was born on the Connecticut frontier in the western area near Woodbury (now Roxbury).  He was the fourth of ten children of Dr. Benjamin Warner and Silence Hurd-Warner.  Although Warner was not directly related to Ethan Allen, both men were cousins of Remember Baker, who also served as a captain of the Green Mountain Boys.[5]  In his life, Warner was regarded as an exceptional hunter and tracker.  Although only having an elementary education, he learned about medicine from his father and became somewhat of a healer with considerable knowledge of plants and their healing properties.

Benjamin Warner purchased land in Bennington (now Vermont) in 1763, likely as part of the New Hampshire Grants scheme.  In 1765, Seth began working as a highway surveyor and was elected captain of the town’s militia company.

During the land dispute with New York, Seth joined The Green Mountain Boys (sometimes referred to as the Bennington Mob), whose principal role was defending local settlers from New Yorkers seeking to dispossess them.  Eventually, Warner became second in command to Colonel Commandant Ethan Allen but often fished his own hook.  He became an outlaw of the New York Colony after assaulting a justice of the peace as the man attempted to arrest Remember Baker.

Despite his reputation as someone only a fool would trifle with, Seth Warner was more likely than Ethan Allen to grant mercy to a New Yorker.  In one instance, Warner threatened to burn a New Yorker’s cabin for encroaching on New Hampshire land but relented.  Instead, he ordered the New Yorker to remove the roof of his cabin until he could produce a New Hampshire Land Grant title.

The Revolution

During the Ticonderoga expedition of 1775, Warner served as third in command (after Ethan Allen and James Easton).  Warner and the men he had recruited were left on the eastern shore of Lake Champlain as a rear guard while Allen and the newly arrived Colonel Benedict Arnold surprised the garrison early on 10 May.

The next day, Warner and his men captured Crown Point, 13 miles further north.  As it turned out, Fort Crown Point was a plum for the Warner detachment.  While the structure was at one time the largest British fortification in North America, on 11 May 1775, the structure was in ruins and garrisoned by only nine soldiers.  But Crown Point was a storage facility for 111 cannon — the best of which Warner transported to Ticonderoga.[6]  

Afterward, Warner accompanied Allen to St. John, Quebec — a British outpost on the Richelieu River.  Colonel Arnold had successfully raided the outpost, destroyed supplies and seized a British sloop of war, and sailed away, leaving Allen and Warner behind.  Allen attempted to hold the fort against British reinforcements but was driven off by superior numbers.

In mid-June, Allen and Warner appeared in Philadelphia to petition the Continental Congress for approval of the Green Mountain Boys to serve as a regiment in the newly forming army.  The New York assembly was asked to fund the unit because Congress had no treasury.  Understandably, New Yorkers were hesitant to sanction a body of men that had previously acted against the citizens of that colony.  Nevertheless, the New York assembly eventually agreed to fund the unit, and it fell upon New Hampshire officials to choose the regiment’s leadership.

Ultimately, New Hampshire selected Seth Warner as Lieutenant Colonel commanding the Green Mountain regiment — by a vote of 41 to 5.  Ethan Allen, who was fully expected to be named regimental colonel, could not understand how they could have rejected him after all he had done for New Hampshire.  Scholars continue to debate this question, with some believing that religious zealots punished him for his deism and others arguing that Warner was simply a steadier hand.  Subsequently, The Green Mountain Boys became known simply as Warner’s Regiment.

Fort Chateau de Longueuil

In the late summer of 1775, Major General Philip Schuyler and Brigadier General Richard Montgomery led their American forces into Canada by way of Lake Champlain.  Because the British had refortified St. John, the American assault was poorly contrived.  From his position at the Chateau de Longueuil, reinforced by several companies of New Yorkers, Warner successfully defended the fort against a large force under Governor-General Guy Carleton.  Carleton’s defeat at Fort Longueuil set into motion the American victory at Fort St. John in early November.

Subsequently, Montreal surrendered to the Americans on 13 November, and Seth Warner and his men were part of the forces that entered the city.  Montgomery soon ordered Warner’s Regiment to Quebec by canoe; it was the last British stronghold in Canada.  Warner’s difficulty was that his regiment had received no winter clothing or equipment — and besides that, many of his men were reluctant to remain in Canada through the winter.  In the end, General Montgomery somewhat grudgingly permitted the regiment to return home to reequip themselves.  Colonel Warner and his regiment were back in the New Hampshire Grants when General Montgomery was killed, and Arnold was wounded in a pre-dawn attack on Quebec.  The date was 31 December 1775.

Brigadier General David Wooster, then commanding the Americans in Montreal, wrote to Colonel Werner: “You, sir, and the Green Mountain Corps are in our neighborhood.  Let me beg of you to collect as many men as you can, five, six, or seven hundred, and if you can, and somehow or other convey into this country, and stay with us till we can have relief from the Colonies.”

Within a few days, companies from the southwest New Hampshire Grants and western Massachusetts had formed and marched north.  They crossed the length of frozen Lake Champlain to St. John, stopped at Montreal for supplies, and then proceeded eastward to Quebec — a distance of at least 400 miles.

That winter, the American army besieging Quebec was devastated by a smallpox epidemic.  Warner permitted (perhaps even encouraged) his men to inoculate against the disease.  The procedure, which at the time was controversial, went against General Arnold’s orders and subjected anyone inoculated to severe penalties.  Seth Warner’s son, Israel (present during the campaign), reported that there were no casualties within the regiment.

On 6 May 1776, three British warships arrived at Quebec — forcing the Americans to abandon their siege and withdraw from Canada.  There are no primary sources detailing Colonel Warner’s role in the withdrawal, but in a 1795 sketch of Warner’s life, pastor and newspaper editor Samuel Williams wrote, “Warner chose the most difficult part of the business, remaining always with the rear, picking up the lame and diseased, assisting and encouraging those who were the most unable to take care of themselves, and generally kept but a few miles in advance of the British, who were rapidly pursuing the retreating Americans from post to post.  By steadily pursuing this conduct, he brought off most of the invalids. With his corps of the infirm and diseased, he arrived at Ticonderoga a few days after the body of the army had taken possession of the post.”

Forming a New Regiment

On 5 July 1776, the Continental Congress resolved that “a regiment be raised out of the officers who served in Canada” with Seth Warner as colonel.  This new regiment was officially known as Warner’s Additional Regiment.

On 24 July, Warner attended a convention in Dorset, one of a series of meetings held as the New Hampshire Grants gradually formed an independent government.  Warner and all but one delegate pledged “at the risk of our Lives and fortunes to Defend, by arms, the United American States against the Hostile attempts of the British Fleets and Armies, until the present unhappy Controversy between the two Countries shall be settled.”

Recruitment for the new regiment was slow.  In September, Warner and captains Wait Hopkins and Gideon Brownson traveled to Philadelphia to petition the Continental Congress to reimburse them for expenses from the Canada campaign.  Instead, congress referred them back to the commissioners of the Northern Department, who also refused to act.  Additionally, General Phillip Schuyler would not release recruitment money until December.

In the fall, American forces on Lake Champlain at Ticonderoga and Mount Independence prepared to meet a British invasion.  After the Battle of Valcour Island in October, Warner mustered the New Hampshire Grants militia and led them toward the Lake Champlain fortifications.  General Gates wrote to Warner, “I much approve of your zeal and activity in spiriting up the Militia to come and defend their country.  They cannot be too soon here.”

In January 1777, the first men from Warner’s Additional Regiment were quartered on Mount Independence.

In May, Warner led a force of militia from Schenectady, New York, and the New Hampshire Grants on a raid into the Loyalist stronghold of Jessup’s Patent (present-day Lake Luzerne).  The hardships of that campaign formed the beginning of Warner’s failing health.

Burgoyne’s Assault

In June, Warner’s command consisted of 228 men — a very undersized regiment.  Meanwhile, British General John Burgoyne, commanding 8,000 men, and ships, threatened the Americans by sailing southward on Lake Champlain.  Warner directed his men in preparing the forts for a British attack.  In late June, Major General Arthur St. Clair ordered Colonel Warner to raise the militia of the New Hampshire Grants to counter Indian raids along Otter Creek.  He directed, “Attack and rout them — and then join me again as soon as possible.” The situation at the forts only worsened.

On 1 July, Warner wrote to the leaders of the independent state (meeting at Windsor), calling for their support for men and supplies.  The next day, Warner’s men fought a skirmish outside the French Lines with the loss of one of his lieutenants.  On 3 July, Colonel Warner led 800 militia into the fortifications, driving ahead of the 40 head of cattle and numerous sheep.  Warner’s force totaled about one-fifth of the garrison.  Two days later, St. Clair decided to abandon Ticonderoga and Mount Independence with an evacuation to be completed by the evening of 6 July.  Several of Colonel Warner’s men served under Colonel Ebenezer Francis (Massachusetts) in his rear-guard maneuver.  During the withdrawal, Warner positioned himself near the rear as St. Clair’s force marched east into Vermont.  Eight hundred British regulars under Brigadier General Simon Fraser rigorously pursued them.[7]

Battle of Hubbardton

During the late afternoon of 6 July, the main body of St. Clair’s retreating force passed through the small frontier settlement of Hubbard Town (Hubbardton), some twenty miles from Mount Independence.  St. Clair directed Warner to set up his picket line, Castle Town, six miles from Hubbardton.

Warner served in command of around 1,100 of his regiment plus a handpicked body of men from Colonel Francis and Colonel Nathan Hale’s 2nd New Hampshire.  Warner also shepherded a few hundred sick, lame, and lazy stragglers.  He had those men set up camp in a small valley below the main supply route into Hubbardton, but Warner’s primary bivouac area occupied the high ground above the MSR.

General Fraser attacked Warner’s stragglers at around 0700 on 7 July and scattered them.  The shouting and rifle fire alerted the main resistance group, who were ready to engage Fraser’s force when they appeared on Monument Hill’s side.  The tactical advantage moved back and forth until German troops arrived to support the British under Major General Friedrich Adolf Riedesel.  As the combined German and British force was overwhelming, Colonel Warner was compelled to withdraw over Pittsford Ridge.  Colonel Francis was killed by rifle fire.  Overall, American forces suffered 41 killed, 96 wounded, and the loss of 234 men, mostly stragglers, taken prisoner.

British and German forces lost 60 killed with 148 wounded.  According to the standards of late 18th-century warfare, the British won the Hubbardton fight, but from a modern tactical analysis, Warner demonstrated the value of a well-organized rear guard action.  In any case, Colonel Warner’s resistance convinced Fraser to suspend his pursuit of the American’s main body.

Battle of Bennington

Following the Battle of Hubbardton, Colonel Warner assumed responsibility for the security of the frontier north of Manchester, Vermont.  General Gates ordered Warner to seize cattle and carriages and arrest Loyalists.

By early August, Major General Benjamin Lincoln (Massachusetts) and Brigadier General John Stark (New Hampshire) agreed to attack General Burgoyne’s force from the rear of his column.  Warner retained command of Vermont and Massachusetts militia units (as part of Warner’s Regiment).  Lincoln and Stark began their expedition from Bennington on 13 August.  Shortly afterward, Stark learned that a force of Loyalists from Brunswick and Canada (and their Indian allies) under Lieutenant Colonel Friedrich Baum (800 men in total) approached his route of march.  Although Stark served in overall command, Colonel Warner helped devise the American battle plan.

On the afternoon of 16 August, Vermont rangers swung around the Germans and attacked a hilltop fortification from the west.  Commanding the left wing of Stark’s aggressors, Warner attacked the Loyalist Redoubt on the east side of the Walloomsac River (a few miles from Warner’s home).  An American victory seemed assured when six-hundred German troops appeared under Lieutenant Colonel Heinrich Breymann.  Although exhausted, Vermont rangers under Warner re-energized his attack and forced the Germans into a rapid withdrawal.  Stark’s force took credit for 207 enemies killed in action and 700 taken prisoner.  Stark prepared a glowing report of Warner’s performance to General Gates.

Burgoyne’s surrender

The battle was a major strategic success for the American cause and is considered part of the turning point of the Revolutionary War.  Its effects were several: it reduced Burgoyne’s army in size by almost 1,000 men, led his Native American supporters to largely abandon him, and deprived him of much-needed supplies, such as mounts for his cavalry regiments, draft animals, and provisions, all factors that contributed to Burgoyne’s eventual defeat at Saratoga.  The victory galvanized colonial support for the independence movement and played a crucial role in bringing France into the war on the rebel side.

Seth Warner and his regiment participated in a raid upon Ticonderoga and Mount Independence.  The action is generally referred to as Brown’s Raid (after John Brown of Pittsfield, Massachusetts).  Brown was a former Continental officer who had served with Warner during the invasion of Canada.  On 18 September, American and British officials released their prisoners: 293 British and 118 Americans.

Colonel Warner continued to serve under Brigadier General Stark in operations north of Saratoga (present-day Schuylerville, New York).  The Americans crossed the Hudson River on the morning of 13 October and occupied a narrow pass between a marsh and a hill (now called) Stark’s Knob.  The Americans taking this position meant that General Burgoyne had lost his opportunity to retreat and surrender to the Americans.

After Saratoga

General Gates thought it might be a good idea to re-invade Canada, but he was alone in that thinking, and the idea came to nothing.  In March 1778, newly independent Vermont named Seth Warner as Brigadier General in the State Militia.  This move placed Warner in a difficult position within the Continental Army, but it may not have mattered because Warner’s health was getting worse by the day.  His absences from duty increased over time.  Six months later, Warner was seriously wounded in an ambush by Indians.  A month later, Loyalist Major Christopher Carleton led a series of raids along the shores of Lake Champlain, burning towns and settlements along Otter Creek in Vermont and taking members of the local militia prisoner.  His raids destroyed supplies for 12,000 American militia — enough to support a four-month field campaign.[8]  Carleton’s raid was so devastating that Warner retired from military service.

In failing health, Seth Warner returned to his home in Woodbury, where Warner died on 26 December 1784 — aged 41 years.  Warner died financially insolvent, leaving his widow destitute.  In time, the State of Vermont awarded 2,000 acres to his wife.  It was called “Warner’s Grant” and remains uninhabited.

Seth had nine siblings — three of whom were medical doctors.  Dr. John Warner was also a captain in Herrick’s Rangers during the Revolutionary War; Daniel Warner, who served with Seth, was killed during the Battle of Bennington.  His wife was Miss Esther Hurd (1748 – 1816), and the couple had four children, all of whom survived to adulthood.


  1. Peterson, J. E.  Seth Warner.  Dunmore House, 2001.
  2. Ketcham, R. M.  Saratoga: Turning Point of America’s Revolutionary War.  Holt Publishing, 1997.
  3. Littlefield, G. E.  The Centennial History of the Battle of Bennington.  Self-published, 1877.
  4. Chipman, D. and L. W. Clark.  Memoir of Colonel Seth Warner.  Middlebury, 1848.


[1] Texas was not the first independent republic to become a U.S. state.

[2] Young Wentworth was a colonial-era spoiled brat whose father coddled him throughout his formative years.  American-born, he was tossed out of Harvard and was sent to Boston to apprentice under his uncle.  He didn’t return to New Hampshire until after his father died in 1730. 

[3] The end of the war found many Loyalists in permanent exile, mostly in Atlantic Canada. More important to the new nation were the hundreds of Loyalists who remained silent during the war and were allowed to live in comparative peace.  These men formed a conservative force in the politics of the new state, some of which managed to rise to the heights of post-war politics.

[4] The Vermont Republic operated for fourteen years before petitioning the United States for admission in 1791 as the fourteenth state.

[5] Remember Baker was murdered and decapitated and his remains mutilated by Indians near the Richelieu River on 19 August 1775. 

[6] These were the guns Henry Knox later hauled to Boston during the winter of 1775/1776.

[7] General Horatio Gates relieved both Schuyler and St. Clair of their duties and ordered courts-martial alleging dereliction of duty.  A court-martial acquitted both generals but neither again served in a combat command.  

[8] Carleton (1749 – 1787) was English-born and orphaned at an early age, raised by his uncles in Canada.  He joined the British army as an ensign at the age of 12 years.  For several years, Carleton lived with the Mohawk Indians, learning their language and customs — which made him a good military leader of Indian mercenaries.  

Posted in American Frontier, American Indians, American Military, British Colonies, Colonial America, Feuds & Rivalries, Founding Fathers, History, Massachusetts, New England, New France, New Hampshire, New York, Pioneers, Politicians, Revolution, Vermont | 1 Comment

The Last General


The history of Rome inspires the imaginations of those who enjoy looking into the past.  Rome existed for around 1,100 years, beginning about 625 B.C.  That is such a long period of time that historians feel compelled to study Rome in three phases: The period of kings (625 – 510 B.C.), Republican Rome (510 – 31 B.C.), and Imperial Rome (31 B.C. – A.D. 476).

The challenge of studying early Roman history is its lack of written records.  If there are no written records — all we have to consider is legend and conjecture, taken mostly from archeological studies.  These are interesting, of course, but it isn’t history.  One of the early Roman legends surrounds the life of Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus (c. 519 – c. 430 B.C.).  We warrant to Cincinnatus what we believe is the most valuable (but seldom achieved) trait of human society: selflessness in serving the needs of the community.  We call this civic virtue.  Without getting into the politics of the day, Cincinnatus was widely known for his wisdom, his courage, his leadership, and his selflessness.  Despite his old age, he worked his small farm outside Rome.  It was enough to put food on his table.  When Rome was threatened with invasion by the Etruscans of Northern Italy, Roman officials approached Cincinnatus and asked him to assume the mantle of a dictator, which gave him complete control over the state.  After achieving victory in only sixteen days, Cincinnatus relinquished his power and returned to his farm.

This man, if he existed, was so respected by Revolutionary War Era Americans that a society was created and named in his legendary memory.  The Society of the Cincinnati is a fraternal society founded in 1783 to commemorate the American Revolutionary War — presumably because men stepped forward to serve, at great risk to themselves, and then returned to their regular lives at the end of the crisis.  Membership is restricted to the descendants of military officers who served in the Continental Army.  One of these men was John Stark — although he may never have been part of the Society of Cincinnati.

John Stark

Major General John Stark

John Stark was born in Londonderry, New Hampshire (present-day Derry) on 28 August 1728.  He was the son of Archibald Stark (1693 – 1758), an immigrant from Glasgow, Scotland.  John married Elizabeth (Molly) Page, with whom he sired eleven children.  The eldest of these offspring, Caleb Stark, served under his father in the Revolutionary War eventually reaching the rank of major, and later, served as a state senator in New Hampshire.  John Stark was one tough American pioneer.  In 1752, while hunting and trapping along the Pemigewasset River, Abenaki warriors captured Stark and a hunting companion and took them as prisoners to the Indian camp.  As part of the ritual, the Indians forced John and Amos Eastman to run a gauntlet.  Angry, Stark grabbed one of the implements away from a warrior and attacked him with it.  The chief was sufficiently impressed by Stark’s heroics that he adopted him into the tribe.  In the following year, Massachusetts authorities pay a ransom of $103 Spanish dollars for Stark’s return, but he remained partial to his Abenaki family for the rest of his life.

John Stark’s record of service and his selflessness began long before the American Revolution.  Stark may have been emblematic of the American in 1754.  He was a farmer in New Hampshire, where people are known to speak their minds in short sentences.  Today, we might refer to these people as “rough cut.”  Or, perhaps, as folks that hold too tightly to their bibles and guns. 

During the French and Indian War, John served in the ranging company led by Robert Rogers, known as Rogers’ Rangers (along with his brother William) as a second lieutenant.  It was a valuable experience teaching him about combat and the northern frontier.  At this time, Rogers served under the command of General Jeffery Amherst, a man well-known for his hatred of the American Indian.  It may have been Amherst who instilled within Stark his deep contempt for the British army officer.  He did not believe that a king’s commission made anyone a gentleman — and in Stark’s opinion, Amherst was no gentleman.

As a member of Rogers’ ranging company, Stark would have learned how to fight in the most barbaric manner.  In all likelihood, Stark cut a few throats in that nasty business.  At the end of the Seven Year’s War, like Cincinnatus, Captain John Stark returned to his farm and his family — and there he remained until he heard of the fighting at Lexington Green.

On 23 April 1775, John Stark rejoined the militia and was commissioned a colonel commanding the First New Hampshire Regiment.  By the beginning of June, the regiment was serving with the Continental Army in Boston.  At Bunker Hill, Stark’s regiment formed the rear guard in the Army’s retreat.  He subsequently served during the ill-fated invasion of Canada, and at the Battles of Trenton and Princeton.  Afterward, he returned to New Hampshire to recruit more men for Washington’s army. When local politicians tried to use the war and Stark’s recruiting efforts to advance their own political ambitions, he resigned his commission in disgust and went home.

In 1777, King George III appointed John Burgoyne to command British forces in a campaign to gain control of Lake Champlain and the Hudson River Valley.  Burgoyne’s plan was that he would lead his force across Lake Champlain from Quebec and capture Ticonderoga, advance on Albany, New York to meet with a British force moving north from New York City under General William Howe.  The idea was to divide and isolate New England from the middle and southern colonies.  If John Burgoyne was anything at all, he was over-confident in his own generalship.  Throwing all caution to the wind, he stepped off at the head of his force of just under 6,000 troops.  Unfortunately, General Howe didn’t deliver as expected because of confusing instructions dispatched from England.

In effect, Burgoyne ended up conducting the campaign single-handedly.  Worse, he didn’t know he was all alone until well into the campaign.  He misjudged the support he could obtain from native Americans and British loyalists; he misjudged the popular support rendered to defending Albany, and he underestimated the tenacity of the men fighting under General Horatio Gates — of which John Stark was one.

General John Burgoyne

Burgoyne’s movement was slowed by poor roads and natural and man-made obstacles along his route of march.  Because his supply line was stretched thin, Burgoyne was forced to forage along the route of march, and this brought his attention to Bennington, Vermont.  Burgoyne decided to divide his army — retaining his regular force under his direct command and sending his loyalist forces, native Americans, and German mercenaries to Bennington under Lieutenant Colonel Friedrich Baum.

Baum’s movement was closely observed by the American militia, causing the Americans to withdraw toward Bennington while increasing their mass in defensive positions.  Baum sent a request to Burgoyne for reinforcements, facing as he the “uncouth militia.”  Apparently, Baum preferred an enemy accustomed to fighting in the European style.  Brigadier General John Stark, commanding those uncouth rebels, didn’t care about the European style of fighting.

Correctly anticipating Baum’s likely battle plan, Stark sent word for reinforcements from nearby American militia.  Colonel Seth Warner, a highly respected Continental regimental commander from Vermont, responded.  Likewise, loyalists began flocking to Baum.

Torrential rain fell on Walloomsac, New York, and Bennington, Vermont all day and night on 15 August 1777.  Colonel Baum hoped that the poor weather would hinder any American activity until reinforcements could arrive from General Burgoyne.  Baum kept his men busy constructing and improving a series of breastworks on a hill overlooking Walloomsac.  When the weather cleared on the following morning, one-thousand American militia assaulted Baum’s defenses (ten miles from Bennington).  To inspire his men, Colonel Stark reportedly told them, “There are your enemies, the Red Coats, and the Tories.  They are ours — or this night Molly Stark sleeps a widow.”

Unfortunately for Colonel Baum, a large number of men entering his camp proclaiming themselves British Loyalists were actually American militia, sent by General Stark to infiltrate Baum’s defenses and send word back to Stark of what they observed.

After heavy fighting, General Stark’s Americans breached the enemy’s defenses.  Stark later claimed it was “the hottest engagement I have ever witnessed, resembling a continual clap of thunder.”  For some combatants, the fight was deeply personal — pitting American patriots against their loyalist neighbor.  In this context, perhaps it may be judged as America’s first civil war battle, which turned into a desperate struggle.

Within a short period of time, the American militia had Colonel Baum and his men surrounded.  Baum was himself mortally wounded but continued to lead his German mercenaries in resisting the American assault on the knoll, where they were eventually overrun.  Many of Baum’s native and Loyalist forces fled the vicious battle site.

The fighting continued until nightfall.  Unfortunately for Colonel Baum, Burgoyne’s reinforcements arrived too late to change the course of the battle.  Baum’s force gave up 200 dead and seriously wounded and 700 or more prisoners of war.  In contrast, General Stark suffered 70 killed or wounded.

Baum’s defeat put an unbearable strain on Burgoyne’s army, which, in addition to the loss of men and materiel, prevented Burgoyne from obtaining the supplies he so badly needed.  Having lost their confidence in Burgoyne, the native American forces deserted and melted away into the New York forests — which deprived Burgoyne of his best scouts.

Stark’s victory at Bennington was a precursor of Burgoyne’s eventual defeat at Saratoga, which turned the tide of war in favor of the American patriot militia.

John Stark is acknowledged as the individual who first coined the phrase, “Live free or die; death is not the worst of evils.”  He wrote these words 136 years before they became New Hampshire’s official state motto. On 30 September 1783, the U.S. Congress promoted Stark to major general.  With the end of the Revolutionary War, General Stark resigned his commission on 3 November and returned to his farm.  He passed away at the age of 94 years — the last surviving general officer of the Revolutionary War.

Posted in American Frontier, American Indians, British Colonies, Colonial America, History, New England, New Hampshire, New York, Pioneers, Politicians, Revolution, Vermont | Leave a comment

The Adams Family

But first, a word …

History seeks order from chaos.  It is one discipline of several in the social sciences.  The study of history must confine itself to evaluating written records.  Whatever history exists before written records must be studied and evaluated by someone other than a historian — an archeologist, perhaps, or an anthropologist.

Written records tell us about individuals and societies — their actions, decisions, interactions, achievements, and failures.  History allows us to study certain patterns over time; hopefully, by learning about the past, we can have greater hope for the future.

The value of history (beyond helping us avoid past mistakes) is that it nurtures our personal and collective identity.  It helps us to answer the question, “Who are we?” Most of our stories are complex because human beings are complex.  History reveals to us the struggles of our ancestors and their achievements.  It allows us to observe the courage of those who came before, and these past achievements shape our values, which we, in turn, communicate to our children and grandchildren.

The study of history teaches us certain laudable skills.  To think as a historian is to become critical of evidence and argument.  It prompts us to demand proof; it requires that we take what we have learned and place it in a time and place context.  History demands that we learn to ask the right questions about the past, interpret answers, and be able to explain how and why certain human events came to pass.  If we are good historians, we will strive to accomplish this dispassionately — free of preconceived notions or personal biases.  Good historians are happy to allow history to speak for itself.

But what history does for us is that it nurtures our personal and collective identities.  By understanding our history, and that of our ancestors, we find our place in a large and complex world.  The story of us is often complicated — made so by our struggles, achievements, and failures.  Historians stand at the center stage where it is possible to debate such things as civilized societies, political and religious systems, leadership (or lack thereof), geography, economics, and culture.


President Ronald Reagan once told us that what we must have in our country is an informed patriotism.  He asked whether we were doing a good enough job teaching our children what America is (and I will add, what America isn’t) and what She represents in the long history of the world.  We must not forget what we did, otherwise, we will forget who we are.  “I am warning of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit.” —Ronald Reagan.

Jarrett Stepman, in his book The War on History: The Conspiracy to Rewrite America’s Past, cautions us, “America is once again at a crossroads.  Though this superpower of almost unimaginable wealth is unlikely to be brought low by a disaster, an uneasiness about our future is difficult to explain.  An all-important question has opened up a great chasm between Americans: Is the essence of our civilization — our culture, our mores, our history — fundamentally good and worth preserving, or is it rotten at its root?”

Stepman and others argue that our gravest threat is not unsustainable debt, inequality, dysfunctional government, or even foreign enemies — it is that charismatic people have convinced a third or more of our people that we must wash away our past to clear the way for a new future.  Demanding the removal of statues of Christopher Columbus and civil war personages wasn’t the goal of these Marxists — the goal was America itself.  This is a conspiracy of radicals to dismantle the pillars of our national exceptionalism and transform them into symbols of oppression, racism, and inequality — so that America becomes an irreparably flawed place.  Who can relate to an inferior place?

Part of our problem in this regard is that historians — the people who help to tell our story as Americans, have not all remained true to their profession.  Numerous problems exist, but I do not want this to become a treatise on all that I find wrong with historians.  I will simply note that some historians present opinion as fact, others tell us outright lies, and still others mislead us because they want their students to come away from the written word with a peculiar point of view.  None of this is necessary.  History is fascinating enough without elaboration or patent dishonesty.  I favor telling the story of America as it actually happened and letting the reader decide for themselves what they think about it.

Last week, I wrote about British General Thomas Gage.  Before turning to the Adams boys, I want to address further the character of King George III’s North American Commander-in-Chief.  Not all historians have been fair to General Gage — and this is undoubtedly true about the producers of videos purporting to be a true and accurate depiction of historical persons and events between 1765 – 1783.  Gage isn’t the only victim.  Videographers have also misrepresented and slandered Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton.  Neither of these British officers was a fascist or murderer.  It is one thing to tell a story in such a way as to offer sympathy to one character or another — for the sake of a story well told — and something else to shatter history so that the story becomes a lie.

General Gage became an aristocrat as an accident of his birth.  He did not choose it, although I am sure he much preferred having a family of some influence over the opposite.  His aristocratic background and his education no doubt produced an idealist.  There is nothing wrong with idealism — and his brand of commitment to principle made him a patriot in the service of his sovereign and British society.  When General Gage assumed the mantle of governance in Massachusetts, he did so as a British governor of a British people.

That Thomas Gage cared about the American colonies appears readily apparent.  His success as a military commander and a governor/colonial administrator would depend upon the success of the colonists themselves.  He would not have wanted these colonies to fail.  Not on his watch.  If he did not care about the colonists, he did care about his legacy.  But I think the evidence of history (principally Gage’s papers) shows us that he did care about the colonists.  He married a woman from New Jersey.  His children were born and raised in the American colonies.

We also know that General Gage was a Whig (a British conservative).  He was also a man of the law.  Some may claim that General Gage was inflexible, but that isn’t the evidence of his treatment of certain key colonial troublemakers.  Thomas Gage never violated the law in his dealings with the likes of Samuel Adams or John Hancock.  He was far more lenient with Paul Revere than he should have been.  He might have moved to crush The Sons of Liberty but never did.  History tells us that, if anything, General Gage was perhaps “too lenient” or “too moderate” in his dealings with the rebels.  This is why he lost his job in North America.  It was the Adams family that helped send him back to England.


Samuel and John shared a common ancestor, making them second cousins.  They were both American-born.  Raised from Pilgrim stock, the boys would have been something less than Anglophiles.  Both boys were named after their fathers (Samuel and John).  Samuel Adams, Sr., belonged to a network of law-breakers (as we shall see), John Adams, Sr., was a more law-abiding man — and that is how he raised his son.  Both boys considered themselves as patriots of the American cause: independence from the United Kingdom.

But Samuel and John Adams had little else in common.  They had different personalities, and there was no family resemblance.  One was a criminal, and the other was a champion of the law.  Both could have been hung for their treason. 

Samuel Adams

Sam Adams, Jr. (1722-1803) was born and raised in Boston.  He was one of twelve children born to Samuel Adams, Sr., and Mary Fifield Adams.  Of those twelve children, only three survived into adulthood.  Sam Sr., like his parents before him, was a devout Puritan, a prosperous merchant, and a church deacon.  He was involved in local politics, promoted populist candidates, served as a justice of the peace, sat on the town council, and served in the Massachusetts legislature.  As a populist, Sam Sr. opposed royal appointees who, because of their loyalty to the Crown, worked to circumvent the Colonial Charter of 1681.  Sam and Mary raised their son to embrace many of his father’s causes and beliefs, particularly his anti-British sentiments.

Sam Jr. attended the Boston Latin School before entering Harvard in 1736.  His parents preferred that he enter the ministry, but Sam favored law and politics over religious training.  Given his childhood development, Sam’s decision to pursue the law was more of a demonstration of populism because, traditionally, Englishmen had little use for lawyers and tried to minimize their role in society.  Colonial legislatures in Massachusetts (1641), Virginia (1658), and the Carolinas (1669) passed laws that prohibited pleading in court for hire.  In the Carolinas, for example, disgruntled citizens described lawyers as “cursed hungry caterpillars whose fees eat out the very bowels of our Commonwealth.” By the 1750s, however, colonial society began acknowledging the necessity of lawyers. 

Before the explosion of lawyers in America, one might consult with a barkeep, who generally kept two law books on his shelf.  Pub clients might rent the law books, or barkeeps might read passages to customers for a fee.  Early colony courts and legislatures limited a lawyer’s ability to appear in court unless he had been admitted into a law practice by other barristers.  Admission to a law practice would signify that the lawyer was knowledgeable of the law and that his law partners were convinced of his proficiency in the law.  Until the advent of law school, most lawyers learned their trade through apprenticeships and clerkships.  It was a pathway lasting seven or more years.  Samuel Adams was not known for his patience.  He thought apprenticeships were a “dreary ramble.” Another method of legal training was the “reading of the law.”  Some candidates read extensively because they had an inquisitive nature, while others read the least amount necessary to pass their examinations — which might describe Samuel Adams.

Although, to his credit, Sam continued his study of law after graduating from Harvard in 1740.  In 1743, he published a thesis (or a treatise) arguing that resistance to authority is lawful when (or if) a commonwealth cannot be otherwise maintained.[1]  Whatever the nature of Samuel’s argument, it may have reflected his father’s involvement in the Massachusetts Land Bank Scandal (1739-1740).[2]  On more than one occasion over many years, Samuel Adams Jr. demonstrated that he was a chip off the old man’s block.

After Massachusetts officials began compiling lists of men judged guilty of illegal financial transactions and compiling a record of their assets (for confiscation), a mysterious fire destroyed the court’s records before they could be procedurally submitted for adjudication.

It was a case of arson, purely and simply — and it saved several leading citizens from imprisonment and financial ruin — Samuel Adams Jr. among them.  Sam regarded royal authority as arbitrary and destructive to the interests of the populist movement — apparently thinking that the state should exercise no power at all.  Still, one wonders how far the Ipswich men would get in their scheme had they hatched it in modern times.  It was a counterfeiting operation worthy of severe federal penalties in contemporary language.

Taxes and Smuggling

I must pause here to elaborate on a few more problematic issues affecting relationships between Great Britain and its American colonies.

A vital element of colonial trade, smuggling developed in response to the strict mercantilist policies of England in the seventeenth century.  To enhance colonial profitability and exert greater control, England passed a series of Navigation Acts that fostered illicit trade and heightened tensions with the colonies.

The earliest Navigation Acts were passed in 1651 and expanded in 1660, 1662, 1663, and 1673.  Designed to control Dutch maritime trade, these acts were only loosely enforced, leaving room for colonial merchants to circumvent the laws.  With little to hinder their activities, colonial merchants traded illegally in goods enumerated in the Navigation Acts and the corn and manufacturing laws passed in the 1660s.  Though the bulk of colonial trade was legal, colonists imported and exported tobacco, sugar, cotton, and wool at will.  Had England strictly enforced its trade laws, the economic impact on the colonies might have been disastrous.  Instead, the colonies engaged in a flourishing trade with other European countries even though such trade was forbidden under the terms of the laws.

Illicit trade between the colonists and European nations did not escape the attention of London merchants, who informed the Lords of Trade in 1676 that their businesses were failing as a result.  They warned that the Crown would suffer dramatic losses in customs revenues (estimated at £60,000 annually).  When pressed for information, colonial merchants admitted they could import goods from Europe at a cost twenty percent less than those imported from England.  Smuggling was very profitable.

In 1677, colonial customs agent Edward Randolph estimated that smuggling cost the Crown well over £100,000 per year in lost revenues.  By 1684, the Lords of Trade convinced the court to revoke the Massachusetts charter and form the royally governed Dominion of New England — an action justified in part by New England’s intentional violations of the navigation acts.

The Molasses Act of 1733 was arguably the harshest of England’s laws governing colonial trade because it provoked a substantial increase in smuggling.  The Molasses Act placed prohibitive duties on molasses and sugar shipped to the colonies from the Dutch, Spanish, and French West Indies.  Often bribing customs officials to avoid paying duties, colonial merchants smuggled in large quantities of molasses, used primarily in rum production — an integral product in what was called the triangle trade.  The Board of Trade received proof of the breach of the Molasses Act and other trade laws from various sources, but it remained extremely difficult to curb these violations.  As but one example, scholars argue that Rhode Island merchants illegally imported 85% of their molasses from the Dutch, French, and Spanish West Indies.

Over the course of the eighteenth century, the Crown passed more trade regulations intended to increase revenue from the colonies and restrict their financial autonomy.  These acts, including the Revenue (Sugar) Act of 1764, the Townshend Acts of 1767, and the Tea Act of 1773, resulted in even more smuggling.  In response, England turned to the only organization capable of combating illegal trade: the Royal Navy and British Army.

A Caustic Personality

Someone once described Sam Adams as a man who liked the sound of his voice in private company. He was loud, simple-minded, and arrogant.  Many people found him boring. Following graduation from law school, Sam had an opportunity to open up his law practice but opted instead to work as an accountant.  It was a poor career decision because Sam had no head for numbers or patience for accountancy. 

After failing as a bookkeeper, Sam joined his father in managing the family malthouse, where they produced mead and beer.[3]  When Sam Sr. died, Sam, the younger, took over the business.  A year later, Sam married his pastor’s daughter, Elizabeth Checkley.  They had seven children, the last of which caused Elizabeth’s death in 1757.  Of their seven children, only two survived into adulthood.  In 1764, Sam married Elizabeth Wells, a widow.  He sired no other children.

Sam Jr. also followed his father into politics.  While serving as the tax clerk of Boston Market, Sam was happy to draw a wage for collecting taxes but refused to assess friends whom he knew could not afford to pay.[4]  Sam’s leniency made him popular among his friends but did nothing to enhance his career.  A reasonable employer might conclude that Mr. Adams was a dishonest man.  Still, Samuel Adams’ dishonesty, if that’s what it was, may have been the effect of earlier British taxation policies.[5]   

The Royal Proclamation of 1763 and the Sugar Act of 1764 were the United Kingdom’s first two attempts to correct Robert Walpole’s unwritten policy of salutary neglect and regain fiscal control over the American colonies.  The Sugar Act was a trade regulation intended to raise revenue while curtailing smuggling.  The Act, a tax on molasses imported into the colonies from the West Indies, disproportionately affected Massachusetts, and the other New England colonies, which depended on the molasses for their rum distilleries.

Sam’s involvement in protesting the Sugar Act propelled him into the Massachusetts political spotlight.  As a member of the Town Meeting and a vocal critic of the tax, the town council asked Sam Adams to voice the council’s opposition to the act to the members of the House of Representatives.  Sam recommended that the thirteen united colonies oppose the act.

Borrowing from James Otis’[6] thoughts about taxation without representation, Adams asserted: “For if our Trade may be taxed, why not our Lands?  Why not the Produce of our Lands & everything we possess or make use of?  This we apprehend annihilates our Charter Right to govern & tax ourselves.  It strikes at our British privileges, which, as we have never forfeited them, we hold in common with our Fellow Subjects who are Natives of Britain.  If Taxes are laid upon us in any shape without our having a legal Representation where they are laid, are we not reduced from the Character of free Subjects to the miserable State of tributary Slaves?[7]

In questioning Parliament’s authority over the colonies and offering the suggestion of united opposition, Sam Adams highlighted the duality of Puritan New England’s fundamental, radical conservatism while laying an essential cornerstone for revolution.   The Town Meeting, a form of government created by Puritans (unique to the New England colonies), challenged the authority of the British Empire’s legislature.

In 1765, Parliament passed the Stamp Act, which required that most printed materials bear a revenue stamp and anyone who violated the Act to stand before an admiralty court.[8]  Unlike previous taxes, the Stamp Act was a direct tax that affected nearly all colonists.  To Sam Adams, this tax was an affront to Massachusetts’s Colonial Charter, and his opposition to it propelled him into a leadership position within the so-called Loyal Nine (precursor to The Sons of Liberty), who opposed “parliamentary tyranny.”  In September, the people of Boston elected Adams to a seat within the House of Representatives (which he held for nine years).  He almost immediately began to write resolutions defending the rights and liberties of the people of Massachusetts.  Among his writings were, “…that all acts made by any power whatever, other than the General Assembly of this Province, imposing taxes on the inhabitants, are infringements of our inherent and inalienable rights as men and British subjects, and render void the most valuable declarations of our charter.”

Joining with other radicals, Sam Adams became Clerk of the House.  Thomas Cushing served as Speaker.  Combined with members such as James Otis and John Hancock, the Massachusetts House became a den of radicals (and, given their involvement in smuggling — criminals).  The New England colonies were overjoyed when Parliament repealed the Stamp Act but positively incensed when British legislators concurrently passed the Declaratory Act, reaffirming Parliament’s authority over all colonial assemblies.  In 1767, Parliament passed the Townshend Acts — an effort to disrupt rampant smuggling operations in the colonies.  Sam Adams led efforts to boycott British goods and draft a petition to the King urging his respect for the Charter Rights of Massachusetts.  Not everyone in Massachusetts agreed with the petition, however.  About a third of these people were British loyalists.

John Adams

John (1735-1826) was the son of John Adams Sr. and Susanna Boylston.  He was the eldest of three sons, born in Braintree, Massachusetts.  John Sr. was a farmer, shoemaker, and a lieutenant in the local militia.  He also served as a deacon in the family’s church and a member of the town council responsible for supervising road and school construction.  Susanna’s father was a medical doctor from Brookline, Massachusetts.

As with Samuel, John was raised in a Puritan environment, an influence that remained with him all his life.  John’s parents raised their children to exhibit unyielding good character.  As the family’s eldest son, his parents insisted that he receive a formal education, beginning at age six.  He later attended the Braintree Latin School (Latin, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic) — although not without some truancy, a distaste for his teacher, and a preference for working as a farmer.  Despite his son’s well-articulated objections, his father “commanded” that he remain in school.

While at Braintree Latin, John demonstrated that he was a keen scholar and a classicist.  John’s father wanted him to become a minister.  However, John wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, so after graduating from Braintree, he taught school in Worcester, Massachusetts.  His eventual decision conflicted with his Puritan upbringing; he decided to study law.

John Adams enrolled at Harvard in 1751, studied under James Putnam in 1756, and earned his degree in 1758.  After passing his bar examination in 1759, Adams opened a law practice.  He was most influenced by James Otis, who wrote and spoke eloquently and may have inspired Adams to take up the patriot cause.  Some historians argue that if there was one thing that ignited the American Revolution, it was the issue of writs of assistance.[9]  The Americans would tolerate many things, but an interruption to their smuggling activities and other criminal enterprises was not one of them.

John met and married Abigail Smith, a third cousin.  John sired six children, two of whom died before maturity.  Quincy was their only successful offspring. All three of their sons became lawyers; John Quincy would become the 6th President of the United States and a career member of the U. S. House of Representatives.

Charles and Thomas were failures as lawyers and as human beings; both eventually died from alcoholism.

Like Sam, John rose to prominence in Massachusetts politics after Parliament’s passage of the Stamp Act of 1766.  John’s primary objection was that the Act should not have passed without first consulting with the colonial legislatures.  Wary of exposing himself to British authorities, John wrote in opposition to the act under the alias Humphrey Ploughjogger.  He wrote four such essays, published in the Boston Gazette and republished in the London Chronicle in 1768 as Two Sentiments of America.  One thing John would not do, however, was participate in radical mob demonstrations.

After the Townshend Acts, enraged radicals committed violent acts against lawful authority.  Tax collectors and customs agents conducted their business on the premise that law-abiding citizens would fork over amounts due on demand.  Should a citizen refuse to pay, the matter went into the courts for resolution. This was a viable strategy because there were no police departments or other law enforcement mechanisms.

But officials of the crown became quite nervous about all this radical and criminal activity and sought the protection of the British military.  General Thomas Gage dispatched troops to occupy the City of Boston to provide security and ensure law and order.  On 5 March 1770, a gang of thugs descended on a lone British sentry (Private Hugh White), surrounded, and assaulted him.  Captain Thomas Preston quickly mustered seven additional troops to reinforce White, but the mob also surrounded them.  The soldiers, firing into the crowd in self-defense, killed five colonists and wounded five more.

Civil authorities quickly arrested the nine soldiers and charged them with murder.  John Adams placed his local reputation on the line by stepping forward to defend these soldiers when no one else would.  A jury acquitted Captain Preston in October (the prosecution failed to prove that the officer gave the order to fire).  The rest of the men went to trial in December.  The jury convicted the two shooters of manslaughter.[10] 

The rest of the soldiers were acquitted.

John Adams’s now-famous closing argument included these words: “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.  It is more important that innocence be protected than it is that guilt be punished, for guilt and crimes are so frequent in this world that they cannot all be punished.  But if innocence itself is brought to the bar and condemned, perhaps to die, then the citizen will say, ‘whether I do good or whether I do evil is immaterial, for innocence itself is no protection, and if such an idea as that were to take hold in the mind of the citizen — that would be the end of security whatsoever.”

Of all the founding fathers, John Adams was among the more conservative.  In 1770, he steadfastly believed that British actions toward the colonies were wrong and misguided, but he also thought rebellion and insurrection were unwarranted.  John Adams preferred a peaceful, reasoned settlement of perplexing issues.  He moved away from this position in 1772 when the British Crown assumed responsibility for paying the salaries of governors and other high officials.  This was a significant issue, for, in the colonists’ minds, any governor or judge paid by the Crown could never render an impartial decision. All judges and prosecutors are on the government’s payroll. This system, objectionable in 1772, remains in place today.


Samuel Adams left Philadelphia and returned to Boston in 1779 to attend a state constitutional convention.  The Massachusetts General Court had proposed a new constitution the previous year, but voters rejected it, so a convention was held to try again.  Adams was appointed to a three-man drafting committee with his cousin John Adams and James Bowdoin.  They drafted the Massachusetts Constitution, amended by the convention, and approved by voters in 1780.  The new constitution established a republican form of government, with annual elections and a separation of powers.  It reflected Adams’s belief that “a state is never free except when each citizen is bound by no law whatever that he has not approved of, either directly, or through his representatives  .”By modern standards, the new constitution was not in any way democratic.  In Adams’ day, free white males who owned property were allowed to vote. 

Sam Adams retired from the Continental Congress in 1781, two years before the end of the war.  His health was not good.  He was approaching his sixtieth birthday.  He wanted to return to Massachusetts to influence politics in the Commonwealth.  He never left Massachusetts again. 

John Adams was inexhaustible as a member of the Continental Congress.  He was a member of the Grand Committee — helped draft the Declaration of Independence, sat on 90 separate committees, and chaired 25 of those — an unmatched workload among his peers.  He served as Commissioner to France, Ambassador to the Dutch Republic, and participated in formulating the Treaty of Paris. He was Ambassador to Great Britain, Vice President of the United States, and Second President.

The story of two New Englanders — both men a product of their parent’s upbringing and their values, changed by circumstances that they helped to create … and both men, affected in some way by their adversary: British General Thomas Gage, who was a product of his parent’s upbringing, and their values, whose circumstances were changed by two cousins from Massachusetts.


  1. Alden, John R.  General Gage in America.  Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1948.
  2. Alexander, J. K.  Samuel Adams: America’s Revolutionary Politician.  Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002.
  3. Anderson, F.  Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766.  New York: Alfred Knopf, 2000.
  4. Ellis, J. J.  Passionate Siege: The Character and Legacy of John Adams.  New York: Norton & Company, 1993.
  5. McCullough, D.  John Adams.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.
  6. Miller, J. C.  Sam Adams: Pioneer in Propaganda.  Boston: Little Brown, 1936.


[1] Some historians claim that Sam Adams earned a magister degree (master’s) in 1743, but the earliest such degree awarded in the United States was in 1870.  Source: American Historical Association.

[2] In the first half of the 18th Century, the British colonies suffered from a shortage of money in circulation.  Local merchants had coinage, but most everyone else did not.  In 1727, the General Court of Massachusetts, in recognizing the seriousness of the issue, allowed the province to collect taxes on commodities and manufactured goods (so long as the goods were produced inside the providence).  By mid-summer 1731, the issue was unresolved, which caused provincial officials to send out an appeal to the towns for aid.  In Ipswich, city fathers debated the issue and finally decided not to offer any relief to the province at all.  By this time, the town of Ipswich had been in existence for 100 years and had, in that time, lost most of its interest in assisting the Massachusetts government in any fashion whatsoever.

However, what did evolve was a scheme to print its own money in violation of the authority of the Crown and over the objections of the governor and his council.  The scheme began as a solution to a serious issue, but it evolved into a populist movement.  If the government couldn’t solve this problem, the fathers of Ipswich could.  But printing money is a function of government, notably the British Parliament, and no one in Parliament was amused by the activities of Ipswich.  For one thing, printing illegal money was treason.  One of the schemers was Samuel Adams Sr., and when he died, his son became responsible for settling the matter.  It made Samuel Adams Jr., a somewhat less enthusiastic citizen of the United Kingdom.

[3] Mead is made from honey, water, and yeast.  Beer is made from malting, mashing, boiling, and fermenting barley, yeast, and hops. 

[4] At the conclusion of the French and Indian War in 1763, Great Britain gained control over French Canada but at the same time, doubled its national debt.  The Parliament was forced to raise revenues.  Increased revenues made it necessary to increase taxes within the American colonies.

[5] Salutary neglect was Britain’s unofficial policy, initiated by Prime Minister Robert Walpole, to relax the enforcement of strict regulations, particularly trade laws, imposed on the American colonies late in the seventeenth and early in the eighteenth centuries.  Walpole and other proponents of this approach hoped that Britain, by easing its grip on colonial trade, could focus its attention on European politics and further cement its role as a world power. Because the policy was unwritten, it went unnamed until March 22, 1775, when Edmund Burke, addressing Parliament, cited British officials’ “wise and salutary neglect” as the prime factor in the booming commercial success of the country’s North American holdings. Indeed, salutary neglect enabled the American colonies to prosper by trading with non-British entities, and then to spend that wealth on British-made goods, while at the same time providing Britain with raw materials for manufacture. But the policy had an unintended side effect: it enabled the colonies to operate independently of Britain, both economically and politically, and to forge an American identity. Some historians argue that this loose hold on the colonies, which King George III and his ministers tightened in 1760, gave them the freedom to pull away from Britain and start down the path to revolution.

[6] In 1761, James Otis (Jr.) (1725-1783) famously challenged the British government’s writs of assistance, which were search warrants designed to enforce trade and navigation laws.  Such warrants authorized customs officers to search any house for smuggled goods.  Otis raised the doctrine of natural law which emphasized the rights of citizens to be secure in their homes and property — a framework for the Bill of Rights in subsequent decades.  Otis coined the phrase, “Taxation without representation is tyranny.”

[7] From the British point of view, given the appointment of royal governors, governor’s councils, houses of representatives, or assemblies, the colonies were adequately “represented.”  What Adams (and Otis) suggested was that the colonies should only be taxed on things they agreed to pay taxes on.  This is an interesting argument, but I would guess that no one in the present IRS would agree with such a proposition.

[8] Dating back to the reign of Edward III, Admiralty Courts exercised jurisdiction over maritime contracts, torts, injuries, and offenses.  Judges were appointed and removed by England’s Lord High Admiral, and they were paid a stipend from the Crown, which called into question their impartiality in matters before the bar — that, along with removing a right to a jury trial, further inflamed the passions of the American colonists.

[9] In colonial America, writs of assistance increased tensions leading toward the Revolutionary War.  In 1760, customs officers were granted writs (search warrants), which the colonists insisted violated their rights as British subjects.

[10] Two musket balls killing five men was a remarkable achievement; it was either that, or more than two men fired into the crowd.

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