Continental Army winters at Morristown, New Jersey
On this day in history, December 1, 1779, the Continental Army establishes winter headquarters at Morristown, New Jersey. George Washington's army had suffered some serious defeats in the month's leading up to what would turn out to be the harshest winter of the 18th century, even worse than the winter at Valley Forge in 1777-1778. In June, the disastrous Penobscot Expedition in Maine had resulted in the loss of 43 American ships and nearly 500 men killed, wounded or captured. Lieutenant Colonel Paul Revere, who was an officer in the Massachusetts militia, lost his appointment over his role in the failed mission. In October, the Americans had failed to retake the city of Savannah. Washington's army had failed to make any serious headway against the British since the victory at Saratoga in 1777.
George Washington made his headquarters at the home of Theodosia Ford, a wealthy widow with four children. Theodosia's husband, Colonel Jacob Ford, Jr. had died shortly after contracting pneumonia at the Battle of Princeton. Jacob and his father owned extensive iron mines and foundries and other businesses. George Washington, with his wife Martha, and several aides and servants stayed at the home. Visitors to the house included the Marquis de Lafayette, Benedict Arnold, French Ambassador the Chevalier de la Lucerne and Generals John Stark, Henry Knox, Israel Putnam and Anthony Wayne. The Ford home is still standing today and is part of the National Park Service's Morristown National Historical Park.
The Continental Army troops stayed in Jockey Hollow nearby the Ford mansion. The encampment sat on a high point, 31 miles west of New York City, where the British army was located. The elevation made it easy to detect any movements of the redcoats. Abundant forests provided logs with which 1,000 log cabins were built for 10,000-13,000 soldiers. As many as twelve soldiers were crowded in each cabin, which had dirt floors. Soldiers made their own beds, chairs and tables. Nearly 600 acres of timber were cut down to make the cabins and provide wood for furniture.
The winter turned out to be the worst of the century. George Washington wrote that, "The oldest people now living in this Country do not remember so hard a Winter as the one we are now emerging from. In a word, the severity of the frost exceeded anything of the kind that had ever been experienced in this climate before." Snow began falling in October, but the bitter cold was the worst part. It was so cold that countless animals froze to death. Indians and soldiers alike avoided the area in the spring because of the smell of rotting flesh everywhere. Disease and food shortages were rampant. Many soldiers deserted.
George Washington's true genius is shown in circumstances like these. Many leaders would not have been able to hold the army together, but Washington encouraged the troops to stay on and fight for freedom. The revealing part... is that they followed him. The war would rage on for another two years.
The Revolutionary War effectively ended 234 years ago on 17 October 1781
An historic photo view of the house of Augustine Moore, known as the Moore House at Yorktown, Virginia.
This photo is by William Henry Jackson and published in 1903 by the Detroit Publishing Co. On the morning of October 17, 1781, British General Thomas Cornwallis proposed a truce for the purpose of negotiating terms for surrender of the British troops under his command at Yorktown, Virginia. This would bring an end to the Siege of Yorktown which had been ongoing since September 28, 1781 and effectively end the last major military engagement of the Revolutionary War. Cornwallis suggested that those that would negotiate the terms of surrender would meet at the Moore House which was located on neutral ground. The meeting of negotiations was held in the Moore House on October 18, with the formal surrender taking place on October 19, 1781. Rather than surrender in person to General George Washington whom he considered to be his inferior, General Cornwallis claimed illness and sent his sword by another officer. The house received considerable damage during the Civil War and even had some of the wood removed to be used as firewood. In 1881, during the Centennial Celebration of the Siege of Yorktown, the house was somewhat repaired. During the years of 1931 to 1934, the National Park Service restored the house to its appearance at the time of the Revolutionary War. The restored home is maintained by the National Park Service as an important feature of the Yorktown Battlefield which is part of the Colonial National Historical Park.
Battle of Germantown
On this day in history, October 4, 1777, the Battle of Germantown is a loss by the Americans. Rather than a psychological loss to the patriots, the battle proves that the Americans can stand up against Great Britain and even encourages European leaders to believe that Great Britain can be defeated.
The Battle of Germantown was part of the Philadelphia Campaign, which saw Philadelphia captured by the British on September 26. The Continental Army had suffered defeats trying to protect the city at the Battles of Brandywine and Paoli. After successfully entering the capital, British General William Howe divided his forces, leaving 3,400 in the city and placing the rest of his 9,000 troops north of the city.
George Washington decided to take advantage of Howe's splitting his troops by attacking him at the small town of Germantown, which today is part of Philadelphia, but then was some distance north of the city. Washington planned to attack in the early morning hours of October 4 with four columns of soldiers approaching from different routes.
Generals John Sullivan and Nathanael Greene led the two center columns of Continental soldiers, while the two outer columns were made up of militia from various states. The battle began when Sullivan's column ran into British sentries around 5 am on October 4. The fighting began in heavy fog and the British soldiers were finally overwhelmed and pushed back.
Some of these retreating soldiers holed up in the mansion of Pennsylvania's Chief Justice, Benjamin Chew, which was called Cliveden. Washington decided to attack the house, which turned out to be a disastrous move. An entire brigade was brought to deal with the 120 soldiers in the house, but the defenders managed to hold their ground, inflicting heavy casualties on their American attackers. The stone walls of the house were impervious to American cannon-fire. Valuable time and lives were wasted trying to take the house.
Everything that could have gone wrong went wrong at this point. Heavy fog caused some Americans to take the wrong roads; two American brigades fired on each other in the fog; Sullivan's men who pushed past the Chew mansion were unnerved from the cannon fire coming from behind them. In the fog and confusion, the British began making progress from various directions and the Americans began to retreat, with one entire American regiment surrounded and captured.
152 Americans were killed in the Battle of Germantown, including 57 in the attack on the Chew house. Another 1000 were wounded or captured. The British lost 71 dead, with 450 wounded or captured. In spite of the loss at Germantown, the battle had the effect of raising American prospects in the war.
European powers were encouraged by the battle. The Americans had suffered some devastating defeats recently, but they still had the courage to face the British. Frederick the Great of Prussia, who was regarded as the top military mind of the age, noted that if these untrained Americans could put up such a fight against the British, just imagine what they could do once they were trained.
The Battle of Germantown, along with the American victory at Saratoga, encouraged France to join the war on the American side, turning the American Revolution into a worldwide war. This stretched the British forces out so thin, as they defended their interests globally, that they could not successfully defend the American colonies, eventually forcing them to capitulate to American demands.
The Battle of Charlotte
On this day in history, September 26, 1780, the Battle of Charlotte reveals to British General Charles Cornwallis that he will not have an easy time taking over North Carolina. After the British captured most of Georgia in 1779 and South Carolina in 1780, Cornwallis hoped mopping up the remnants of the Continental Army which had escaped to North Carolina would be an easy task.
Various small groups of Continentals and militia harassed Cornwallis' movements from behind and before. Colonel William R. Davie had successfully attacked a Loyalist camp adjacent to Cornwallis' main army at the Battle of Wahab's Plantation on September 20th. He and 150 troops skirmished again with Cornwallis' troops on the evening of September 25th and withdrew to Charlotte around midnight. Ordered to guard the city and slow down the British advance, Davie placed his men strategically around the small town.
Charlotte at the time consisted of about 20 houses with two intersecting main streets. The Mecklenberg County Courthouse sat at the intersection. The courthouse featured 8 pillars facing to the south with a low wall connecting them. Behind the wall was a common area where an outdoor market was held. Davie posted part of his men behind this wall, part to the north of the courthouse and the rest behind some nearby houses. He also posted two lines of cavalry to the east and west of the courthouse.
As the British army approached, Cornwallis sent the American Legion to scout out the area. The Legion's commander, Banastre Tarleton, was ill, so command was given to Major George Hanger instead. Hanger had been ordered to move into the town cautiously because Cornwallis expected militia were close by. Instead, Hanger charged into town at full force and the Legion came under a hail of gunfire. When the first line of militia began to withdraw, Hanger mistook this as a retreat and charged all the harder, coming under crossfire from the men behind the houses.
Three different charges were made by the British and they suffered heavy casualties, including Major Hanger, who was wounded. Lord Cornwallis finally sent the light infantry to the rescue and Colonel Davie ordered his men to retreat. As they escaped north of the town, the British followed them and several more casualties occurred on both sides at Sugar Creek Church north of town. In all, the Americans had about 5 killed and 6 wounded, while the British had more than 50 dead or wounded.
The Battle of Charlotte was not a consequential battle of the American Revolution. Its main significance was that it opened General Cornwallis' eyes to the fact that this war was not over, despite the victories in Georgia and South Carolina. Mecklenberg County was a hotbed of patriot sentiment in North Carolina and Colonel Davie and the local militia lived up to this reputation in the Battle of Charlotte.
Cornwallis had such a bad time in Mecklenberg County, in fact, that he later it called the area a "hornets' nest," which made the locals quite proud! The name was taken with such pride that the name was officially adopted. The city seal carries a hornet's nest, local groups have the words "hornets" or "hornets' nest" in their names, even pro-sports teams in Charlotte are still called "Hornets" to this day!
The Battle of Freeman's Farm
On this day in history, September 19, 1777, the Battle of Freeman's Farm is the first of the Battles of Saratoga which culminated in the surrender of British General John Burgoyne's army. The battles were a major turning point in the American Revolution that encouraged France and Spain to join the war on the American side.
In 1777, the British began an effort to divide New England from the middle and southern colonies. The plan was to send General Burgoyne down Lake Champlain from Quebec; Brigadier General Barry St. Leger would cut across New York from the west; and General William Howe would come from New York City up the Hudson River. The three groups would meet at Albany.
General Burgoyne left Quebec in June and reached Saratoga by mid-September, but St. Leger's force was stopped at Fort Stanwix and turned back by Benedict Arnold. General Howe took the bulk of his forces to capture Philadelphia, instead of going to meet Burgoyne, leaving Burgoyne isolated. In addition, Burgoyne lost 1,000 men at the Battle of Bennington who were supposed to bring him support. Burgoyne had trouble getting supplies and communications across the vast wilderness and most of his Indian allies abandoned him after the loss at Bennington.
The American army under General Horatio Gates had dug in at Bemis Heights, about ten miles south of Saratoga. On the morning of September 19, Burgoyne decided to attack. Benedict Arnold understood that Burgoyne would attack the American left flank and ordered his men through the wilderness to meet him.
Colonel Daniel Morgan's sharpshooters met the British near Loyalist John Freeman's farm and the battle began. Morgan's sharpshooters picked off nearly every British officer in the British vanguard, driving them back into the main British army, which began firing on their own men.
Fighting took place all day around the farm, with both sides variously winning or losing the battle. The battle finally went to the British when German Baron, Friedrich Adolf Riedesel attacked the American right flank. Darkness began to fall and the Americans retreated to their defenses at Bemis Heights.
Burgoyne won the first of the Battles of Saratoga, although it cost him 600 men, which he could not afford to lose, including most of his artillery soldiers. The Americans lost half that number. Following the Battle of Freeman's Farm, Burgoyne was faced with a perplexing decision. Should he continue the battle, or wait for reinforcements? He quickly sent word to General Henry Clinton in New York, who had been left in command there with a small force to guard the city after General Howe left for Philadelphia.
Clinton quickly sent troops up the Hudson to distract Gates and hopefully pull him away from Burgoyne. Clinton's help finally came too late though. Burgoyne went to battle again on October 7 and this time Gates' army was victorious. Burgoyne was forced into retreat and surrendered his entire army on October 17th at Saratoga.
The victory caused celebration throughout the colonies, which were especially despondent after the capture of Philadelphia in September. France and Spain joined the war officially upon seeing that the Americans could truly stand up against the British army. Their involvement forced Britain into a worldwide war that reduced British numbers in America and eventually led to their defeat at Yorktown.