Most Misunderstood Event?

Which one event of the Revolution is incorrectly interpreted most often? Explain.


The battle of Saratoga. There is a group who are determined to prove Horatio Gates deserves most of the credit. I don’t agree. I have a low opinion of “Granny” Gates. His flight to the rear at Camden (after demonstrating his total lack of military judgment) proves he was an empty uniform.

Thomas Fleming


So frequently I see claims that Benedict Arnold inflicted such damage to the British fleet at Valcour Island he turned the invasion away and saved the day for the Patriots. The truth is much less exciting. Schuyler and Arnold engaged in a war of delay and ship building of fleets that caused Carleton to delay his movements until after the time for campaigning had ended for the year. The battle itself provided the British general with something of a message in terms of resolve and defiance but had little impact on the outcome of the 1776 invasion of New York.

Wayne Lynch


It seems the most commonly misinterpreted event is an aspect of Paul Revere’s ride. Thanks to Longfellow’s epic poem of wrong facts, nearly all parts of Revere’s ride are misunderstood. But it seems like the “one if by land, two if by sea” lantern part is still popularly embedded in rock out there. Most people still think that Revere, after rowing himself across the Charles River, waited in Charlestown for the lantern signal from the Old North Church, before riding off on his solitary midnight ride.

In actuality, Revere was told of the British plan by Dr. Warren, and Revere arranged for three of his friends to shine the two lanterns in the church belfry. So, Revere already knew of the lantern signal before two friends rowed him across the river. Revere wanted his Charlestown contacts to know the plan to send other riders, and in case Revere couldn’t cross.

John L. Smith, Jr.


The Battle of Monmouth is probably the most misunderstood event of the Revolutionary War. For many historians, General Charles Lee became the villain of the piece, but I think his actions were defensible. Lee began the engagement with a slight numerical superiority, but when General Henry Clinton rushed in reinforcements, the advantage shifted to the British. Lee did what almost any prudent commander would have done under the circumstances. He began an orderly retreat. His objective was to take up a defensive position on favorable terrain. Once Washington relieved Lee of command, he chose to do exactly what Lee was planning to do. Alas, the engagement ended with Lee’s career in tatters. Most historians, as almost always has been the case, have sided with Washington, portraying Lee as flawed commander and Washington as the savior. Lee blundered egregiously after the battle, but not during it.

John Ferling


The Continental Congress not only made a military but a principled mistake when it ordered the invasion of Canada in 1775. Most historians focus on the epic and ill fated nature of the invasion including: Benedict Arnold’s heroic journey through the Maine wilderness, the death of General Richard Montgomery at the walls of Quebec and the sickly, disorganized retreat in the face of an overwhelming British counterattack.

However, many scholars gloss over fact that Congress launched an unwanted annexation of another colony that was generally satisfied with British rule. The French Canadian populace generally regarded the Americans as invaders and did not provide material support, especially after the failed attack on Quebec. With more than a bit of hubris, American writers assume that the United States had a right to invade Canada due to the presence of British forces.

Gene Procknow


Lots of people misunderstand the Quartering Act. They think the royal government wanted to force civilians to house soldiers in their homes (and, in the most salacious interpretations, their daughters’ beds). In fact, the army wanted all its enlisted men in large barracks so the sergeants could watch over them. Otherwise, the army’s desertion problem would have been even worse.

The Quartering Act (passed in 1765 and then expanded in 1774) required local governments to provide barracks for soldiers and firewood. In the 1760s New York and Boston resisted those unfunded mandates. The 1774 law therefore empowered magistrates to commandeer buildings, starting with public structures and working down to “uninhabited” private buildings—but that last provision was never enforced in peacetime.

J. L. Bell


The matching bookends of the Revolution: “The shot heard ’round the world” at Lexington (although Emerson’s quote referenced Concord, of course) and the alleged final battle at Yorktown. Although Lexington/Concord and Yorktown were undoubtedly signature events, they did not denote the beginning and the ending of the Revolution. The British advance on Lexington and Concord was a counter-revolution military offensive; the actual revolution (by definition, the forcible overthrow of political and military British authority) had already occurred throughout all of Massachusetts. After Yorktown, King George III vowed to continue the war and Washington urged Congress to step up its defenses. More Americans were killed in battles following Yorktown than died in the first year of combat, which included Lexington/Concord, Bunker Hill, and Quebec. At fault here is the classic narrative demand to place neat beginnings and endings on the jumble of history.

Ray Raphael


I think this has to be the entry of the French into a military alliance with the United States. The entry was the deciding factor of the war. Without the French the Americans could not have won what they did if they even won anything at all. Why the French entered is really the problem. They did not enter because of the American victory in the Saratoga campaign. Saratoga accelerated their entry into the conflict mainly because the Americans (Franklin) were able to push the French into thinking the Americans might reconcile with the British as the result of the British defeat at Saratoga. The French had been trying to convince Spain to enter into the conflict with them on the side of the Americans since at least mid-1777 as they rearmed their navy. If the victory at Saratoga had a real impact, it was in convincing King Louis XVI that the Americans could win and it ended his hesitation which allowed his ministers to move forward rapidly with the decision to enter the war.

Jimmy Dick


The Wyoming Massacre. Most laypeople don’t understand the social complexities that led to the event; it is not as simple as ‘Indians slaughtered people’, though that is often how it is presented.

Thomas Verenna


Depends upon what audience one might be addressing, and there are many candidates for most misunderstood event.  One that stands out with college students is the difference between July 2 and July 4, 1776, assuming they know these dates, which can’t always be assumed.  July 2, Congress actually declared independence, with New York abstaining; July 4, Congress approved the Declaration of Independence after much haggling over details of language.

James Kirby Martin


Certainly the “Worcester Revolution” of 1774, when Massachusetts citizens renounced British rule. Although just one link in the long chain of events leading to American independence that began in 1763, this peaceful defiance was a critical act that defined subsequent events. Only recently has it begun to receive the acclaim that it deserves.

Don N. Hagist


I’ll revert here to the event I’ve written about frequently, the Waxhaws “Massacre” of May 29, 1780. Despite the preponderance of documentary evidence refuting the later massacre accounts, people still cling to the massacre myth. I guess it’s just too good a story to let go of it.

Jim Piecuch


\\\ Featured image at top: Siege of Yorktown (1781) painting by Auguste Couder depicting Washington and Rochambeau giving instructions. Current location: Palace of Versailles

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  • JL Bell,

    Incidentally, the last part of the Act was actually utilized by the Continentals during the beginning of the war and in some localities to house POW’s and wounded soldiers in the vacant homes of Tories who had left to find sanctuary in places occupied by the British (which I’m sure you already know). Continental soldiers nearly destroyed the homes of New Yorkers during their defense of Long Island and Brooklyn heights.

    • Yes, I’ve read complaints from American homeowners about American troops quartered in their homes during the siege of Boston. In contrast, there are no equivalent complaints about British troops inside Boston before the war; instead, the town as a whole complained about troops living in barracks.

      Both the Quartering Act and the U.S. of A.’s Third Amendment limit military housing only in peacetime. Once war breaks out, all our houses can be used.

  • Id have to add that the Valley Forge winter is the most misinterpretted. Yes it was tough and very difficult, but out of it marched a fairly cohesive army that held its own at Monmouth. The winter of 1779/1780 at Jockey Hollow, however, was the winter from hell. It was worse weather wise than Valley Forge and worse as far as food went- so much so that it led to the mutiny of nearly the entire Pennsylvania Line and later the Jersey Line! Out of those encampments marched an army that had lost some of its confidence. Why Valley Forge is always credited as the “difficult winter” i think its because as a whole, we dont want to admit that there were active and very dangerous mutinies that nearly tore the cause apart; that doesnt fit into our idea of our “glorious revolution” and so Jockey Hollow is ignored.

  • How about Benedict Arnold’s action at West Point? Look at it from his perspective in late summer, 1780: he was heavily in debt, Continental money was worthless, the Continental Army was getting kicked around in the South, Washington’s army in the North was achieving nothing. The war was at a standstill and even the French alliance had produced little in the way of tangible results. It is with hindsight we see Arnold’s action as treason, but – at the time – it was logical.
    And p.s. How many times do we have to repeat that no one called Horatio Gates “granny?” : )

    • Your reference to Arnold and his purported “treason” reminded me that I wanted to address this at some point, so now seems as good a time as any.

      Treason was a term loosely applied to many actions at the time of the Revolution and is one that was aimed at civilians. For members of the military, the appropriate term is “mutiny” as provided in the June 30, 1775 Rules and Regulations applicable to the new army:

      So, in the interest of accuracy, we need to drop the term “treason” and insert “mutiny” when referring to Arnold. Yes, I know that the soldiers of the time called it treason, but from a legal perspective it was mutiny.

      • Gary –
        Treason is a correct term but its prosecution is nuanced. Treason is a crime against the state, and for that reason it cannot be tried by a court martial and wasn’t included in the 18th century Articles of war. It is still not a crime subject to the current day Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). Samuel Johnson’s “An English Grammar” dictionary of 1768 defines treason as “an offence committed against the dignity and majesty of the commonwealth (divided into “high treason and petit treason; high treason includes “to levy war against the king in his realm or to adhere to his enemies by aiding them). But ample evidence exists indicating the crime of “Treason” applied to military as well as civilians; and applied to Arnold. The day after Arnold’s defection George Washington’s general orders for the army used the term repeatedly to refer to Arnolds acts:
        – “…Treason of the [dar]kest dye was yesterday discovered!…”
        – “…Happily the treason has been timely discovered to prevent the fatal misfortune…”
        – “…At the same time that the Treason is to be regretted…”
        – “Great honor is due to the American Army that this is the first instance of Treason of the kind…”
        [SOURCE: George Washington General Orders, 9/26/1780, The Writings of George Washington, 20:95]

        Please note that while the crime of “Treason” could not be tried under the Articles of War, Courts Martial could hear a case of treason under a civil statute since martial law was declared in Continental Army camps and within a certain vicinity (usually 30 miles) of Continental Army. Thus, had Benedict Arnold been captured, since his act of treason occurred at a Continental Army encampment he could have been tried for treason by a court martial under the civil statute, Since there was not yet a body of Federal law, the statute for treason would have been the one from New York.

        But there would have been no need to utilize civil law, and he could have been tried separately by court martial for crimes under the Articles of War and separatwly by a civil court for treason. The “Articles of War” would have been those passed by Congress 20 Sept 1776 (see These remained in force until the end of the century (and replaced the unworkably flawed articles of June 30, 1775 which you cited). Based on information gleaned from the documents Andre was carrying and from Andre’s words, under the 20 Sept 1776 articles Arnold would have been tried under various articles, including but not limited to:

        Section II,

        Art. 1 Whatsoever officer or soldier shall presume to use traitorous or disrespectful words against the authority of the United States in Congress assembled, or the legislature of any of the United States in which he may be quartered, if a commissioned officer, he shall be cashiered; if a non-commissioned officer or soldier, he shall suffer such punishment as shall be indicted upon him by the sentence of a court-martial.

        Art. 3. Any officer or soldier who shall begin, excite, cause or join, in any mutiny or sedition, in the troop, company or regiment to which he belongs, or in any other troop or company in the service of the United States, or in any party, post, detachment or guard, on any pretence whatsoever, shall suffer death, or such other punishment as by a court-martial shall be inflicted.
        (note the terms of art, where a “mutiny” is an act or encouragement of an act to counter or undermine the authority of command, and “sedition” is an act of “insidious perfidy” which aids the cause of the enemy. Under this article, both are equally prohibited and equally punished.)

        Art. 4. Any officer, non-commissioned officer, or soldier, who, being present at any mutiny or sedition, does not use his utmost endeavor to suppress the same, or coming to the knowledge of any intended mutiny, does not, without delay, give information thereof to his commanding officer, shall be punished by a court-martial with death, or otherwise, according to the nature of the offense.

        Section VI

        Art. 1. All officers and soldiers, who having received pay, or having been duly inlisted in the service of the United States, shall be convicted of having deserted the same, shall suffer death, or such other punishment as by a court-martial shall be inflicted.

        Art. 2. Any non-commissioned officer or soldier, who shall, without leave from his commanding officer, absent himself from his troop or company, or from any detachment with which he shall be commanded, shall, upon being convicted thereof, be punished, according to the nature of his offence, at the discretion of a court-martial.

        Art. 4. Whatsoever officer or soldier shall be convicted of having advised or persuaded any other officer or soldier to desert the service of the United States, shall suffer such punishment as shall be inflicted upon him by the sentence of a court-martial.


        Art. 1. Whatsoever commissioned officer, store-keeper, or commissary, shall be convicted at a general court-martial of having sold (without a proper order for that purpose) embezzled, misapplied, or wilfully, or through neglect, suffered any of the provisions, forage, arms, clothing, ammunition, or other military stores belonging to the United States, to be spoiled or damaged, the said officer, store-keeper, or commissary so offending, shall, at his own charge, make good the loss or damage, shall moreover forfeit all his pay, and be dismissed from the service.


        Art. 15. Any person, belonging to the forces of the United States, who shall make known the watch-word to any person who is not entitled to receive it according to the rules and discipline of war, or shall presume to give a parole or watch-word different from what he received, shall suffer death, or such other punishment as shall be ordered by the sentence of a general court-martial.

        • Jim,

          Thank you for your considered response. I still see a problem in that with the outbreak of war and severance from England there was no accepted domestic law for treason per se, precisely the problem that the Church affair posed. The Continental Congress took the issue on immediately and told the states to come up with their own treason laws and that was done in piecemeal fashion over a period of time.

          In the absence of a civil law, one looks to the military in which Arnold served and even with the 1776 Articles you cite there is not a single reference to “treason” only “mutiny,” as with the 1775 Rules I cited. I cannot read “treason” into a provision that specifically states “mutiny.” Even if Washington himself called it treason, I think it was done in a shorthand manner in a way that the common soldier would understand.

          The military recognized mutiny as a distinctive offense applicable to its situation and while some called it treason, I respectfully submit that it is not an accurate description of the offense Arnold committed. Had he done it while a civilian, then it would be a different story and treason would be the applicable appellation.

          Incidentally, I did an article a few months ago, “Plotting the Sacricide of George Washington,” describing the first execution of soldier in the nation’s history following his conviction by a court martial for mutiny which, by your reasoning, could have been treason.

          Essentially, we are talking about the same thing, but in the interest of accuracy I continue to maintain that Arnold was subject to a charge(s) of mutiny, not treason.

    • An interesting perspective, Will.
      I agree that, from Arnold’s own personal point of view, his actions may have been logical. But switching sides is still treasono… er, mutino.. oh, let’s go with traitorous, regardless of how logical it is.
      Having said that, I can see that it’s a case of history being written by the victor; if a British general has come over to the American side, he’d probably be considered a hero in the lore of the American Revolution. He would, nonetheless, be a traitor – just one that happened to choose the winning side.
      Articles in this publication have shown a few of the thousands of common soldiers who went from one side to the other – some more than once – each using the same logic as Arnold. But Arnold is the one who is remembered.

      • Yes, Don, it is academic with regard to Arnold. However it is worthwhile to consider the very real problems that this distinction between mutiny and treason meant for the Continental Congress with the Dr. Benjamin Church affair in late 1775. The lack of a treason law to prosecute a civilian presented many difficulties and was one of the first directives coming from the CC to the states telling them to draft their individual treason laws ASAP. The distinction was critical to their internal security and constituted one of the first orders of business for each of the states.

    • Arnold’s decision to switch sides might have been logical from his point of view, but it was still switching sides during wartime. And abjuring his fervent political activity up to that point.

      I think the most logical moment in the war that most authors continue to condemn as close to treason was the so-called “Conway Cabal” of late 1777 and early 1778. Washington had just lost a huge battle to Howe and, in doing so, lost the nation’s capital. Meanwhile, Gates had just overseen a major victory over Burgoyne. It would have been irresponsible for the Continental Congress not to ask whether they had the right man in the role of commander-in-chief.

  • To everyone else: I’m sorry we don’t have private communication methods to discuss this; hope you all get some benefit out of it.

    I don’t think you should go down this path. Its not supportable.

    Short response: 1) Treason WAS a civil crime in 1780 America. So its proper to label Arnold’s act as “treason”; just as Washington’s orders did the day after Arnold defected. 2) The Congressional Articles of War required the military to turn over accused officers and soldiers to civil authorities for trial; so Arnold could have been tried in a civil court. 3) Treason was not and never will be a subject of military law in the USA, but… 4) Arnold almost certainly would have been tried by court martial for a plethora of other crimes under the Articles of War (20 Sep 1776 version). The leading charge would have most likely been “Desertion”, because it was easier to prove than “Mutiny” and it was a capital offence.

    Long response, in the order stated above:
    1. There was no crime of treason under state law (citing the Benjamin Church case)
    False. Absolutely the crime of “treason” existed in 1780 and Arnold could have been tried for treason under existing law in any number of the states. Church committed his crimes in 1775, before the Declaration of Independence – while the American colonies were still part of the Britannic Commonwealth and (at least overtly) held out hope for reconciliation with their monarch. Since Church was aiding ministerial forces, he was not committing “treason” against the government. It was not until after independence was declared and the American colonies became states united into a new federated political sovereign that there was a commonwealth or nation to which citizens owed their fealty. Committing treason against the USA wasn’t possible until there was a USA. After the declaration of independence there was an absence of federal law, so the states took various actions to define law. Many did so when adopting state constitutions. In the Arnold case, since West Point is in New York, you’d look to Article XXXV of the constitution adopted by New York effective 20 April 1777. That article adopts the Common Law of England as the basis for law in New York (New Jersey did the same in their constitution of 2 July 1776, as did other states). English Common Law of the time defined the crime of treason and divided it into two categories: “High Treason” included acts of perfidy against the commonwealth or monarchy; and “Petit Treason” involved perfidious acts against others who had placed trust in the accused. Under Common Law “High Treason” could only be prosecuted by the sovereign. As previously discussed, New York adopted English Common Law which defined treason as a crime of perfidy against the commonwealth or monarch; in New York the “commonwealth was the state and “monarchy” would have simply been replaced with “government”.

    2. Arnold could not be tried under civil law.
    False. Section X of the 20 Sep 1776 Articles of War state: “Whenever any officer or soldier shall be accused of a capital crime, or of having used violence, or committed any offense against the persons or property of the good people of any of the United American States, such as is punishable by the known laws of the land, the commanding officer and officers of every regiment, troop, or party, to which the person or persons so accused shall belong, are hereby required, upon application duly made by or in behalf of the party or parties injured, to use his utmost endeavors to deliver over such accused person or persons to the civil magistrate; and likewise to be aiding and assisting to the officers of justice in apprehending and securing the person or persons so accused, in order to bring them to a trial…” Thus the Articles of War REQUIRED that accused persons by handed over for trial by civil authorities.

    3. Arnold could not be tried under the Articles of War for treason.
    True. There was no crime of “Treason” defined under the congressionally enacted Articles of War that defined. That was because “Treason” is a civil crime, not a military crime. Treason was not prosecutable under military law for the simple principle that the military ought not to be able to exonerate itself from actions contrary to the government. That remains true today. Article III of the US constitution reserves prosecution of treason to the Federal Government. Of course the US constitution was not enacted when Arnold committed his crimes in 1780, but inclusion of this Constitutional provision a relatively short time later represents the thinking of the people of the time.

    4. Arnold would have been tried for “Mutiny” under the Articles of War.
    Having shown that the correct semantic term for Arnolds Crime is “Treason” and that he could have been tried for Treason by the state, I don’t think that would have happened. I agree with your implied premise that Washington would have had him tried under the Articles of War, convicted, and the sentence carried out before handing over his corpse for civil trial. The Articles of War did not specify in what order the military – civilian trials should be held. Washington could have easily made the case (having recently tried and convicted Andre by military tribunal) that the military had better facility and information by which to try Arnold. Washington wouldn’t have turned him over to civil authorities for a protracted public trial because a court martial could have quickly convicted Arnold of several capital crimes. Washington and Congress would not have wanted to provide Arnold with a pulpit to expound upon his wrongful treatment or his opinion of the decayed revolutionary cause.
    As I posted yesterday, there were at least eight primary Articles of War which Arnold violated, and the indictment could have included all of the charges. But, the principle charge against Arnold would have been Section VI, Article 1: “Desertion”. To prove Desertion all that had to be shown was that he left his post. Desertion was a capital offense, the case against Arnold was plain with plenty of witnesses. The second charge most likely would have been Section XIII, Article 15, for providing watch-words to Andre; another capital offense to which the proving documents came from Andre’s boot and his statements before and during his trial. “Mutiny” or “Sedition” required that the accused conducted an insurrection against lawful command authorities or excite others to do so. Did Arnold rise up against his commander (Washington)? Did he incite others to do so? We might find that he did, but it would have opened the door to a lot of discussion, shades of gray, and a prolonged trial.

    Again, my apologies for consuming so much valuable space.

  • Jim,

    Thank you for this, it is a great response and I very much enjoyed your review of the law. Great stuff! And you are right, this is probably not the forum for briefing alternative points of view. So, perhaps I can be forgiven for having made my points in an abbreviated fashion without all the legalese in light of the circumstances.

    Anyway, as you write this involves semantics, something I already agreed to when I previously wrote were are essentially talking about the same thing. So, no disagreements here and, as in so many situations in life, we just interpret the terms in different ways. Hey, it would be nice to have a final arbiter to make the ultimate decision, but without that benefit, looks like a draw!

    And to all, Seasons Greetings and Merry Christmas!

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