Friday, January 8, 2010

Seven Myths Surrounding The American Revolution

The January 2010 edition of the Smithsonian magazine [page 48] has a very interesting article on myths of the American Revolution. I’d like to briefly highlight their report, as I found it quite interesting!

The author of the article, titled “Myths of the American Revolution” is John Ferling [with fantastic illustrations by Joe Ciardiello]. Ferling covers 7 myths that I’m sure nearly everyone will recognize.


The British government was under the Prime Minister Frederick, Lord North, when the Revolution arose. It was roughly believed he had acted in haste. It came to be “understood” that the nation’s political leaders had failed to fully understand the challenge under which they took.

The truth is, the British cabinet first considered using military force as early as January 1774, when word of the Boston Tea Party reached London. Contrary to popular belief, Lord North’s government did not respond impulsively to the news. The prime minister and his cabinet engaged in lengthy debates throughout the early part of 1774 on whether on or not coercive action would lead to war.

By March, North’s government had opted for “punitive measures” that fell slightly short of declaring war. Parliament enacted the Coercive Acts – also known as the Intolerable Acts. They also sent Gen. Thomas Gage, commander of the British Army to America, as governor over all. Politicians in London took the counsel of Gage when he stated that the colonists could “be lyons whilst we are lambs but if we take the resolute part they will be very meek.”

England, of course, miscalculated hugely.

In September of 1774 the colonists convened the very first Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Members of that congress voted to embargo British taxes as well as the Coercive Acts. News reached London in December, and another round of lengthy debate ensued.

North’s government could only agree completely on one point: the Americans posed little threat or challenge in the event of war. After all, they had neither an army nor a navy; few were experienced officers. Britain on the other hand possessed a professional army and the world’s greatest navy. They also knew that the colonists had a history of arguing among themselves, being unable to reach any real definitive decision making. During the French and Indian Wars [1754-63] Brig. Gen. James Wolfe had described the colonists as “cowardly dogs”. Henry Ellis, the governor of Georgia, nearly stated the same thing at the same time with his statement that the colonists were a “poor species of fighting men” given to “a want of bravery”.

After the Continental Congress convened, King George III told his ministers that “blows must decide” whether the colonists would “submit or triumph”.

North’s government agreed they could not back down. Confident that Britain’s might would win out, and the colonists collapse after just one or two small skirmishes, they chose war.

The Earl of Dartmouth ordered General Gage to use “a vigorous Exertion of ….Force”.

We know, of course, the might of the American colonists when push came to shove!


To be sure, the initial rally to arms was, indeed, impressive! Ferling states: “When the British Army marched out of Boston on April 19, 1775, messengers on horseback, including Boston silversmith Paul Revere, fanned out across New England to raise the alarm. Summoned by the feverish pealing of church bells, militia-men from countless hamlets hurried toward Concord, Massachusetts, where the British regulars planned to destroy a rebel arsenal. Thousands of militiamen arrived in time to fight; 89 men from 23 towns in Massachusetts were killed or wounded on that first day of war, April 19, 1755. By the next morning, Massachusetts had 12 regiments in the field. Connecticut soon mobilized a force of 6,000, one-quarter of its military-age men. Within a week, 16,000 mean from the four New England colonies formed a siege army outside British-occupied Boston. In June, the Continental Congress took over the New England army, creating a national force, the Continental Army. Thereafter, men throughout America took up arms. It seemed to the British regulars that every able-bodied American male had become a soldier.”

However, it didn’t take the colonists long to discovery how difficult and dangerous military service could be! And so enthusiasm fell off. Gen. George Washington referred to those that stayed home in the safety that surrounded there as staying in their “Chimney Corner”. Early on Washington was afraid that a volunteer army would not meet the rigorous needs. He was correct. As 1776 progressed, many colonies had to begin to entice enlistees with offers of cash bounties, clothing, blankets, and extended furloughs or even shorter than normal enlistments [which were just one year terms].

The following year, Congress mandated a three-year term of enlistment, or the duration of the conflict, offers of cash and land bounties became an absolute necessity to get enlistees. Slick-tongued recruiters were engaged to get young men enlisted. In April 1777, Congress recommended a draft. By the end of 1778, most states were “conscripting men when Congress’ voluntary enlistment quotas were not met”.

Beginning in 1778, the New England states enlisted African-Americans, a practice that was strictly forbidden by Congress. Ultimately, over 5,000 blacks bore arms for the United States, or roughly 5 percent of the total number of men who served in the Continental Army. Ferling wrote, “In 1781, Baron Ludwig von Closen, a veteran officer in the French Army, remarked that the ‘best [regiment] under arms’ in the Continental Army was one in which 75 percent of the soldiers were African-Americans.”

Longer enlistments changed the composition of the Army, In 1775-76 Washington’s troops represented a cross-section of the free male population, but few who owned farms were willing to serve the duration. After 1777, the average Continental soldier was young, single, owning no property, poor, and in many cases a pauper. In Pennsylvania, up to one in four soldiers was a recent immigrant. “Patriotism aside, cash and land bounties offered an unprecedented chance for economic mobility for these men.”

For three-quarters of the war, few middle-class Americans bore arms in the Continental Army, although thousands did serve in militias.


Accounts ran high of shoeless soldiers leaving bloody footprints in the snow or going hungry. Unfortunately these accounts were all too accurate. Joseph Plumb Martin of Milford, Connecticut was one soldier who documented his time as a soldier. While serving with the Eighth Connecticut Continental Regiment in the fall of 1776, Martin went for days with little more to eat than a handful of chestnuts, and at one point, a portion of a roast sheep’s head. Ebenezer Wild, a Massachusetts soldier who served at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777-78, would recall that he subsisted for days on “a leg of nothing”. Dr. Albigence Waldo, a Continental Army surgeon, reported that many men survived on fire cakes (flour and water baked over coals). One soldier complained that his “Gutts are turned to Pasteboard”. At times the Army’s supply service broke down altogether, leaving misery and want.

But not always! In the winter of 1779, so much heavy clothing arrived from France that Washington had the surplus stored in local storage facilities!

While one in seven soldiers were dying from starvation at Valley Forge, Joseph Plumb Martin recalled while stationed in Downington, Pennsylvania, that he was assigned to patrols that foraged for daily provisions. “We had good provision all winter,” he wrote, adding that he had a “snug room”. In the spring after Valley Forge, he encountered one of his former officers who asked, “Where have you been this winter? Why, you are as fat as a pig!”


Our first settlers adopted the British militia system, which required all able-bodied men from 16 to 60 bear arms. Some 100,000 men served in the Continental Army, and twice as many in the militia, defending the home front, functioning as a police force and occasionally engaging the enemy. If a militia company was summoned to active duty, it general did not do so for more than 90 days.

Some felt the militia was largely ineffective, and none did more to sully their reputation that did General Washington. He insisted that a decision to “place any dependence on Militia is assuredly resting on a broken staff.”

Older on average than the Continental soldiers, with little training, few had any experience at combat. Washington stated they lacked “a brave and manly opposition” to the enemy.

Yet in 1775, militiamen fought with bravery along the Concord Road at Bunker Hill. Nearly 40 percent under Washington’s command that Christmas night victory at Trenton were militiamen. In New York state, nearly half who fought at the Saratoga campaign were militiamen. They contributed substantially to the wins at Kings Mountain, North Carolina in 1780, and at Cowpens, South Carolina in 1781.

The militia may have their shortcomings, it is true, but the war could not have been won without it. In 1781, British general, Earl Cornwallis wrote this, “I will not say much in praise of the militia, but the list of British officers and soldiers killed and wounded by them . . . proves but too fatally they are not wholly contemptible.”


On Oct. 17, 1777, British Gen. John Burgoyne surrendered 5,895 men to American forces outside Saratoga, New York. Added with the 1,300 men killed, wounded and captured, this amounted to nearly one-quarter of those serving under the British flag at that time.

Their defeat determined France to form a military alliance with the United States. Until then, France was certain, although they would be weakened, that Britain would ultimately win the war.

Even so, Saratoga was NOT the turning point of the war. The Revolutionary War was America’s longest military engagement, until Vietnam, nearly 200 years later. Wars subject to these kind of lengthy engagements are not generally turned on a single event. Ferling points out four other major events that turned the tides: the first was the fight along the Concord Road on April 19, 1775 and at Bunker Hill two months later. In the first 60 days of the war, American soldiers inflicted more than 1,500 casualties on the British army, more than three times the losses to the American. At Trenton in late December 1776, Washington achieved a great victory, destroying nearly 1,000 Hessian soldiers; a week later on January 3rd, he defeated the British at Princeton, New Jersey. “Washington’s stunning triumphs, which revived hopes of victory and permitted recruitment in 1777, were a second turning point.”

A third turning point occurred when Congress abandoned one-year enlistments and transformed the Continental Army into an army of regulars who volunteered for long service. But that change was not without criticism. Even members of the Congress spoke out against it!

The campaign that unfolded in the South during 1780 and 1781 was the final turning point of the conflict. When the British turned their strategies to the South in hopes of retaking Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia, it was the beginning of their demise. Even though casualties were heavy for the Americans, in mid-1780 organized partisan bands, composed mainly of guerilla-type fighters, struck from inside South Carolina’s swamps and forests to ambush the redcoat supply trains and patrols. In Oct. 1780, rebel militia and backcountry volunteers defeated more than 1,000 Loyalists at Kings Mountain. After that, Cornwallis found it impossible to recruit more Loyalists to join the cause.

Cornwallis was defeated again at Cowpens and Guilford Courthouse before moving back into Virginia, where he hoped to sever supply routes linking the upper and lower South. It was a “fateful decision, as it put Cornwallis on a course that would lead that autumn to disaster at Yorktown, where he was trapped and compelled to surrender more than 8,000 men on October 19, 1781.”


Timothy Dwight, president of Yale College, stated of Washington in his eulogy, that Washington’s military greatness consisted principally of extensive, masterly plans that he grasped at every advantage. It was a view that has been held many historians ever since.

In fact, states Ferling, “Washington’s missteps revealed failings as a strategist”. Washington himself admitted to Congress in 1776 on the eve of the New York campaign that he had little experience of military on a large scale, and that he had a limited and contracted knowledge in military matters.

In Aug. 1776, Washington failed to properly reconnoiter and he attempted to defend too large an area for the size of his army. In some ways, his decision resulted in the Nov. losses of Fort Washington on Manhattan Island and Fort Lee in New Jersey. It cost the colonists one-quarter of their army’s soldiers, along with weaponry and military stores. Washington did not take blame for what had gone wrong. Instead, he advised Congress of his “want of confidence in the Generality of the Troops”.

At the Battle of Brandywine in the fall of 1777, Washington froze with indecision. He was nearly outflanked by the British army, and but for a lengthy daylight, would not have escaped.

Later, Washington was slow to grasp the significance of the war I the Southern states. This resulted in the British Army first defeating more than 5,000 soldiers of the Continental and militia armies before the tides were finally turned.

Ferling writes, “Much of the war’s decision-making was hidden from the public. Not even Congress was aware that the French, not Washington, had formulated the strategy that led to America’s triumph.” During Washington’s presidency, Thomas Paine, living in France at that time, revealed much of what occurred. In 1796 Paine published a “Letter to George Washington”, in which he claimed that most of General Washington’s supposed achievements were “fraudulent”. Paine argued that General’s Horatio Gates and Greene were more responsible than Washington for America’s victory.

While Paine elicited some truth in his statements, he failed to recognize that a great military leader need not be gifted as a tactician or strategist. Washington’s “character, judgment, industry and meticulous habits, as well as his political and diplomatic skills, set him apart from others. In the final analysis, he was the proper choice to serve as commander of the Continental Army.


Once the war was lost, some in Britain argued that it had been unwinnable from the beginning. Foreordained failure was alluring to generals and admirals who were defending their reputations. Lord North was condemned, not for losing the war, but for having dragged his country into a war where victory was impossible.

In reality, Britain might very well have won the war. The struggle for New York began in 1776 gave England an excellent chance for victory. France was not yet allied with America. Washington and his army were rank amateurs at best.

In 1777, they still might have prevailed. London had formed a plan for their Navy to sail up the Hudson River and rendezvous at Albany, and then invade New York from Canada. Their objective was to cut New England off from the other nine states by taking the Hudson. General Howe decided to move against Pennsylvania instead. He took Philadelphia, but accomplished little in doing so. Meanwhile, Burgoyne suffered defeat at Saratoga.

Twenty-four months into its southern campaign, Britain had come close to reclaiming substantial territory by restoring authority in Georgia and much of South Carolina.

The Treaty of Paris was signed on September 13, 1783, and ratified the American victory and recognized the existence of the new United States. While Britain might have won the war at any number of engagements, it did not. General Washington, addressing a gathering of soldiers at West Point, told the men that they had secured America’s “independence and sovereignty.” He stated that new nation faced “enlarged prospects of happiness”, adding “all free men can enjoy personal independence”. Ferling writes, “The passage of time would demonstrate that Washington, far from creating yet another myth surrounding the outcome of the war, had voiced the real promise of the new nation.”


Kathy said...

Very interesting. Having several Revolutionary War ancestors (as well as a couple of Loyalists) made this even more relevant to me. Thanks!

Dr. Bill (William L.) Smith said...

Thanks for sharing this. It is very good, but barely scratches the surface. In the last ten years or so there have been 20-40 or more new books on the American Revolution very well researched and written, based on many new primary resources (letters, diaries, journals) that provide new insights into the period. Every few generations review this period, but we are fortunate to be in the middle of an excellent time of study and reporting on the founding of our country.
P.S. Most of what we learned in school was homogenized myths... seems necessary, but we can learn more by doing more of our own reading, in detail for the periods and people of interest.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting, thanks for posting this. I think so much of what we know about the Revolutionary War may indeed be myth and tall tales, and TV. Remember Daniel Boone? Loved that show but I don't know how historically accurate it was...

Ruth Stephens