Dear Mr. History:
I’m familiar with General John Glover and believe he is an unsung hero (except for Billias’s book over 50 years ago). From his exploits as the first privateer to holding off the flanking force at Pell’s Point and managing the boat lifts from Brooklyn and crossing the Delaware, among other efforts, he should be in the pantheon of Revolutionary commanders. Is this an oversight? Sincerely, Glover Undercover.
You’re definitely on to something. Glover totally deserves fame for the exploits you mentioned. Even the National Park Service has called him an “overlooked hero.” And according to the author Howard Fast, Glover may actually be the victim of a historical conspiracy. I thought that was only a term that I made up in high school to explain my lousy grades, but apparently some believe that such a thing truly exists.
As you probably know, Howard Fast was one of America’s most prolific writers, with dozens of works to his credit. His 1971 non-fiction book, The Crossing, tells the story of Washington’s attack on Trenton in stirring style and features Glover as a major character. In the notes to the book, Fast claims that Glover’s story was “obscure” until the 1960 publication of the book you referred to, General John Glover and His Marblehead Mariners, by historian George Billias. Fast said the cause of this obscurity was that Glover was extremely unpopular with Washington’s staff and especially Gen. Henry Knox. Fast posited that a group of self-appointed custodians of Revolutionary legacies, based from Knox’s hometown of Boston, “eclipsed and indeed to some extent read out of history” Glover’s story, because of the animosities he developed during the war.
Fast’s position is certainly interesting, and I wonder if it’s plausible that a small group could so effectively squelch the exploits of a Revolutionary hero with high rank. Let’s review Glover’s military career to see how well he fits into that pantheon of commanders you mentioned.
John Glover was a merchant, ship owner, and militia colonel from Marblehead, Massachusetts, when the Revolution opened in April 1775. At 43, he was a little on the short side but extremely energetic, and he ran his regiment with strict, shipboard-like discipline. Glover’s regiment joined the colonial army outside Boston and he was reputed as “the most finely dressed officer” in the army, armed with a pair of silver pistols and a Scottish broadsword. Glover also well-equipped his men with proper muskets and bayonets. Many of his men were sailors from Marblehead and other fishing towns who understood the value of working as a crew. When Washington took command of the army in July, he noted the Marbleheaders as one of the few orderly regiments. In cooperation with Washington, Glover also outfitted seven of his own ships as privateers to harass British shipping. “Washington Cruisers,” as this little fleet became known, were the forerunners of the U.S. Navy.
In January 1776 the Continental Congress officially designated Glover’s Marbleheaders as the 14th Continental Regiment. They remained at Boston through the spring and moved with the army to New York City in the early summer. In August, Glover’s soldiers applied their nautical skills to ferrying Continental troops from Manhattan to Brooklyn Heights. However the Redcoats famously routed the Americans and pushed them back to Long Island’s west shore. Escape back across the East River to Manhattan was the army’s only hope to avoid destruction, and Washington called on Glover’s sailors again to ferry his soldiers to safety. At the end of August, Glover and his men amazingly pulled off the movement over the course of one night and saved the Continental Army.
Washington then focused on the defense of Manhattan and its surrounding area. In October, Glover’s 14th Continental was one of three Massachusetts regiments posted near Eastchester. British commander Gen. William Howe landed 4,000 troops at Pelham near Pell’s Point on October 18, intending to trap the American forces on Manhattan. Glover and the other regiments, a total of about 750 men, blocked Howe’s way. Outnumbered 5 to 1, Glover placed his men behind a series of stone walls with orders to stand and fire as the British approached, then withdraw to the next wall. The tactic was deadly in its effectiveness at this battle of Pell’s Point. Glover’s defense slowed Howe’s advance to a crawl and bought Washington enough time to evacuate Manhattan. It was the second time Glover saved the Continental Army.
For the remainder of 1776 Glover and his Marbleheaders fought well in the battles for New York and in the Continental Army’s retreat across New Jersey. In late December, Washington planned to attack the Hessian garrison at Trenton. The first step to achieve success was to get 2,400 soldiers across the Delaware River in on Christmas night so the attack could begin at dawn. Washington turned to Glover’s regiment again, along with some local boatmen, to perform this vital, though unglamorous, task. The ferrying of the soldiers, artillery, and horses across the ice-choked Delaware in 30-foot Durham boats in a snowstorm is perhaps one of Glover’s most famous feats. This was the third time his men came through for Washington when he desperately needed success. The Marbleheaders also joined the attack and swept into Trenton along the east bank of the Delaware. Though their muskets and cartridges were soaked and useless, they overwhelmed the Hessian defenders and cut off the enemy retreat across the Assunpink Creek. At Trenton, Glover and his Marbleheaders proved themselves to be great soldiers as well as great mariners.
At Washington’s recommendation, Congress promoted Glover to brigadier general in February 1777. He declined the offer at first; his 14th Regiment was disbanding with their expiring enlistments, and Glover intended to return home to care for his businesses, wife, and eight children. But Washington convinced him to accept the promotion, and Glover took command of a brigade comprised of four Massachusetts regiments at Peekskill, New York.
In July 1777, Washington assigned Glover’s brigade to the northern army under the command of Gen. Horatio Gates, defending against a British invasion from Canada commanded by Gen. John Burgoyne, in what would become known as the Saratoga Campaign. One of Gates’s officers noted that Glover’s brigade was “1,200 men clean and tidy,” when they arrived in August. At the battle of Freeman’s Farm on September 19, Glover’s brigade fought for 6 grueling hours, and he wrote two days later, “both armies seemed determined to conquer or die.” Glover’s brigade suffered over 300 casualties, “a very inconsiderable number,” he wrote, “when we consider how hot the battle was.” Glover’s Brigade fought again on October 7 at the battle of Bemis Heights, this time under the command of the fiery and not-yet-turned-traitor Brigadier General Benedict Arnold. But Glover’s biggest contribution to the Saratoga campaign was yet to come.
On October 11, Gates assumed that Burgoyne was retreating, and sent forward three brigades, including Glover’s, to gobble up what he thought was the British rear guard. A Redcoat deserter appeared out of the woods as Glover’s men advanced and told the Yankees that all of Burgoyne’s army – not just a cowed rear guard – lay ahead waiting in solid positions. Glover told the man flatly, “if you are found to be deceiving me, you shall be hung in half an hour,” but the man stood by his claim. Realizing that the Americans were headed for an ambush, Glover reported the information to Gates and the other attacking units, and probably saved the army. Burgoyne surrendered at Saratoga on October 17, and Gates gave Glover’s Brigade the honor of guarding the captured British troops on their march to captivity in Massachusetts.
But Glover was not enjoying life. His first wife Hannah died in early 1778, his businesses were failing, and Glover was extremely ill with what may have been malaria. In May 1778 he requested dismissal but Washington again convinced him to stay. A month later he took command of Ft. Arnold on the Hudson River, and in July he joined the American expedition to retake British-held Newport, Rhode Island. Glover’s brigade performed admirably but the American assault fell apart. Glover’s men once again came to the rescue by rowing the army back to the mainland.
The Newport affair was Glover’s swan song. With his wife gone, he feared greatly for the care of his children and he requested dismissal again in January 1779. This time Washington and Congress granted him a furlough for as long as he needed to care for his family. Glover returned to Massachusetts, and rejoined the army in the summer. That July, Washington sent his brigade to the coast of Connecticut to defend against British raids.
After the summer of 1779 Glover remained with the Hudson River defenses, mustering troops from Massachusetts to the main army, and finding time to re-marry. He remained in this position until the spring of 1782. His health was deteriorating and he requested dismissal a third time. Washington and Congress finally complied, and released him from duty in July. Glover returned to Marblehead, rebuilt his businesses, and served two terms in the Massachusetts Legislature and six terms as a Marblehead selectman. He was a highly honored citizen when he died January 30, 1797, at the age of 64.
Now let’s return to the reasons that Glover was overlooked. Considering that Glover was a talented and dedicated leader, who thrice pulled Washington’s Virginia ham out of the fryer, endured severe personal sacrifice, and lived an honored life in Marblehead, is it plausible that a small group of miffed intellectuals, as Howard Fast proposed, could keep such a career from the historical record?
Some evidence may challenge Fast’s position. Washington – whose lead everybody followed – greatly respected Glover. Henry Knox, who Fast named as Glover’s primary enemy, reportedly extolled the valor of the Marbleheaders at Trenton in an address to the Massachusetts Legislature. In 1805, one of the earliest chroniclers of the war, Mercy Otis Warren, named Glover as a “distinguished” and “excellent” officer, in the same context as his fellow generals the Marquis de Lafayette, Nathanael Greene, and Knox. In his history of the Revolution published in 1811, former Continental Army captain Alexander Graydon also pegged Glover as a solid commander. Glover received much favorable mention from writer Benson J. Lossing in his extremely popular “Pictorial Field Book of the Revolution,” published in 1855. And in 1901, the Daughters of the American Revolution commemorated Glover’s heroism at the battle of Pell’s Point with the placement of a metal memorial on a boulder in the Bronx’s Pelham Bay Park. “Glover’s Rock,” as it became known, is still there. Although previous generations may have under-appreciated Glover, his story was possibly not as obscure as Fast thought. Let’s also note that Fast was a victim of blacklisting in the 1950’s. While he was absolutely a great writer – Spartacus anybody? – I wonder if he projected his own feelings from being blacklisted into his opinion on Glover.
I think that other reasons besides a historical cabal may explain why Glover escaped mass attention. One explanation may be that his memoirs were not published until 1863, a year when America was a little distracted by the Civil War, and possibly full up on military heroes. Another possibility is that Glover faced stiff competition for admission into the pantheon of commanders you mentioned. Many of Glover’s more famous peers like Daniel Morgan, Anthony Wayne, and Henry Knox had outsized, colorful personalities (and Knox had an outsized waistline). Glover presents an interesting contrast – he was an able, reliable, and even inspiring leader – but he was also wracked by bad health and made it clear that he ached to return home. He was human, and oftentimes, perhaps unfortunately, people expect heroes to be larger than life.
Glover is definitely now getting his due. In addition to Billias’s excellent biography, noted historian John Ferling named him as one of the Continental officers who “excelled… outshining their opponents” in his brilliant history, Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence. Glover also gets plenty of favorable ink in David Hackett Fischer’s classic on Trenton, Washington’s Crossing and in Richard M. Ketchum’s Saratoga: Turning Point of America’s Revolutionary War. His name is in almost all the Revolutionary War histories on my bookshelf, including those where Washington is the main subject.
And now, thanks to your question, we’re digitally broadcasting about Glover in 21st century style. So while you may remain undercover, dear reader, Glover’s story will not – we’re going global.
Those that want to read more about Glover should check out the books mentioned above and A Memoir of General John Glover, of Marblehead.