What’s the funniest thing you’ve come across in researching this period?
In Paris, while negotiating the treaty with France, Ben Franklin stopped for a bite to eat in a popular cafe. On the other side of the room he saw Edward Gibbon, member of Parliament and author of the already famous Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Ben had known him in London and sent over a note, inviting him to his table. Gibbon replied he could have nothing to do with a man who was a traitor to his king. Ben coolly replied that he was sorry to learn this. He was eager to give him background information for his next book, The Decline and Fall of the British Empire. In 24 hours the story was all over Paris and the flabbergasted Gibbon retreated to London.
In 1779 Henry Laurens, having just stepped down in a huff as President of Congress, was in a foul mood. He engaged in some lively “school-boy jarrings” (his own term) with North Carolina’s John Penn, whom he mocked by singing a little ditty — “Poor little Penny, poor little Penny, sing tantara rara” — on the floor of Congress. Shortly after, he launched into a dispute with Charles Thomson, Secretary of Congress, whom he criticized for taking poor notes and for giving him only one (not two) copies of the latest official Journal. When Thomson descended from the platform at the head of the chamber to confront the former President, Laurens said he “had a good mind to kick him,” whereupon Thomson “doubled his fist and said you dare not.” Politics then and politics now, same as it ever was.
History is full of humor, some of it truly funny, some of the shake your head in disbelief variety. One anecdote I found while searching through U.S. pension applications in the National Archives and Record Administration was contained in the paperwork of New Jersey Militiaman Christopher Vanarsdall. Vanarsdall related the usual tours of mundane guard duty and service until he recalled his company’s celebration of the end of the war. In Vanarsdall’s own words: “In the year 1781 he was frequently called out and served some times two or three weeks and some times less. In this situation we continued from 81 untill the Surrender of [Corn]Wallis at Little York in Va, when he was called upon hearing the good news to notify the men in the district to meet at Sommersett old Court-house to rejoice. We all met and burnt all the tar barrels we could get, he well recollects that Capt. [Cornelius] Lott got so drunk that he was unable to stand up, he laid down and beat yankee doodle with his elbows.” Now that is a party!
The wacky story of the bogus shell company “Roderigue Hortalez & Company,” created in 1776 to secretly funnel French military supplies to America. The story involves Silas Deane, the secret American emissary to France, who eluded assassins and went about creating the phony company with the help of Caron de Beaumarchais, a sometimes watch-maker and the opera playwright who wrote The Barber of Seville. But it seemed Beaumarchais was also a French secret agent who was trying to catch Chevalier d’Eon, a cross-dressing French dragoon captain and one of King Louis XVI’s secret spies. But although d’Eon was also blackmailing King Louis XVI, he was called upon to help Deane and Beaumarchais create the dummy company and begin arms shipments to America through the neutral Dutch island of St. Eustatius. If this was a film plot, it would be turned down by Hollywood as ridiculous.
Reportedly, Abraham Lincoln recounted a story about Colonel and Green Mountain Boy Ethan Allen at a dinner party in Britain. As a way to get Allen’s goat, the British host placed a portrait of George Washington in the privy. After Allen returned from the “necessary” and did not mention anything, the host inquired as to what Allen thought about a picture of the lofty Washington in a lowly outhouse. Allen replied, “Washington’s picture is most appropriately placed as it scares the shit out of Englishmen!” Characteristically and almost certainly, Lincoln manufactured this witty, but tall tale.
Who knows if this is the funniest thing, but I can’t resist this odd little entry from Captain Elihu Marshall’s diary, located at the Society of the Cincinnati Library, dated July 6, 1779: “about 8 oclock an uncommonly black heavy cloud arose in the east with heavy claps of thunder, followd by a Severe Shower of rain & hail, Some of the hail stones were as big as hens Eggs. I collected some Desolved & made Grogg of them. it was fine & cold.” I yearn for the day that I can sample some grog made from hailstones.
John Adams was about as uptight as one could get when he made his first trip abroad as an American diplomat in 1778. Shortly after arriving in Bordeaux, Adams attended a large dinner that he found memorable chiefly because of the “surprising and shocking” behavior of the women in attendance. What had they done? Horrors, they talked about SEX. An embarrassed Adams stammered and stuttered in amazement. Nothing of this sort occurred in Boston, at least not in the circles with which he was familiar.
Did fun loving Gouverneur Morris really attempt to kick George Washington in the commander’s posterior? Perhaps more stupid than funny. When Gouverneur was the American ambassador to France in the early 1790s, a Revolutionary crowd in Paris surrounded his carriage one day. Fearing the mob might seize him as an aristocrat, he threw open the carriage door and held high his wooden leg, shouting that he had lost his limb while fighting for liberty in America. Did he suffer the loss of that limb in 1780 while living in Philadelphia because he got his leg tangled up in the tackle of misbehaving carriage horses; or was it the dire necessity of exiting from a second story bedroom when the merchant husband of a beautiful young wife unexpectedly returned home one afternoon? No doubt Gouverneur was shouting for liberty, his own, when he jumped out that window, if this version of the story represents what actually happened. Likely, though, we’ll never know.
The exploits of Patriot scout Enoch Gilmer prior to Kings Mountain. William Chronicle recommended Gilmer for the job on the grounds that he was, basically, a natural born charlatan. Sent out in advance of the Whig column, he enjoyed a rather pleasant interlude with two Tory ladies after he disingenuously declared himself for the King. Gilmer waxed bold, kissed both women, and then sat down to enjoy a meal. The touching scene ended abruptly when Chronicle and William Campbell burst through the door, the latter exclaiming “We have got you – you d–d rascal!” Campbell threw a noose around Gilmer’s neck, at which the women burst into tears. Gilmer, naturally, blubbered uncontrollably. He was grimly dragged away to his “execution”, and was released out of sight of the cabin. He disclosed that one of the women had revealed the location of Patrick Ferguson’s camp. In a notable understatement, Chronicle observed that Gilmer was “a shrewd, cunning fellow.”
The Connecticut Historical Society holds a recruitment notice that can be viewed as laughable—or optimistic, naïve, even deceitful. The broadside (ca 1775) invites all “brave, healthy, able bodied, and well disposed young men” to join General Washington’s troops for the “defense of the liberties and independence of the United States against the hostile designs of foreign enemies.” Recruits are assured they will be “spending a few happy years in viewing the different parts of this beautiful continent” while receiving an “annual and fully sufficient supply of good and handsome clothing (and) a daily allowance of a large and ample ration of provisions.” Those who answered the call would be awarded a bounty of twelve dollars as well as “sixty dollars a year in gold and silver money,” and could anticipate, the notice states, returning home with “pockets full of money” and a “head covered with laurels.” If only this had been true.
Sometimes it is the sheer absurdity of a situation that, while even tragic, still prompts a smirk when you visualize it. Take this newspaper article from the July 29, 1776 edition of the Pennsylvania Packet, quoting an “Extract of a letter from the Camp at Elizabeth-Town, dated July 25 … Yesterday a rifle-man crossed the river [to Staten Island], and when within 15 yards of the enemy’s outposts, desired them to surrender; at that instant he received a ball thro’ his head which killed him on the spot.”
The thinly veiled sarcasm in many letters between important individuals. I’ve often found myself smiling (you can’t laugh out loud in an archive or research library) when I come across correspondence that damns with faint praise, or accepts an excuse for failure and then points out other options that might have succeeded. I still remember the first such letter I found, when I was researching the Stamp Act in New Hampshire. Royal governor Benning Wentworth wrote to the British minister for the colonies and conceded that there had been some mob actions in New Hampshire that he hadn’t been able to control. He then noted how these paled compared to events in Massachusetts, stated that he would not trouble the minister with a detailed account of them, and then went on to describe the troubles in the neighboring colony at excruciating length. It was classic finger-pointing after denying any intention to do so, and helped humanize a person from the distant past.
The court-martial of Captain Jacob Ashmead of the 2nd Pennsylvania Regiment and the Light Infantry Brigade for his behavior at Stony Point on 16 July 1779. On 11 August Ashmead was tried for “Being drunk in the time of the assault on Stony-Point … and behaving ridiculously and unbecoming an officer at the head of his company.” He was also tried for “disobeying the General’s orders by frequently huzzaing during the approach to the enemy’s works, to the prejudice of good order and military discipline & tending to promote confusion among the troops at that critical juncture.” The court acquitted Ashmead of the first charge but found him guilty of the second. However they believed his breach of orders “did not proceed from a Willful or Designed Disobedience of Orders but from an involuntary impulse of the Mind, owing to Inadvertency.” They sentenced him to be reprimanded by Washington, who informed the army that “Captain Ashmead’s conduct was certainly very reprehensible and of such a nature as has a tendency to defeat the most important and best concerted enterprises.”
In October 1775, the Americans under Brig. Gen. Richard Montgomery, slowly making their way toward Quebec City via Lake Champlain, captured Ft. Chambly in modern Canada. Montgomery’s boss, Maj. Gen. Schuyler, forwarded the list of spoils taken to Washington (outside Boston), last of which was “Royal Fusileers, 83. Accoutrements, 83.” (Referring to the prisoners of war taken). Washington’s reply to Schuyler included one of Washington’s few recorded laughs: “We laugh at his Idea of Classing the Royal Fuzileers with the [War] Stores: Does he [Montgomery] consider them as Inanimates or as Treasure?” Reading this made George laugh, but also made me laugh.
I love apocyrpha and the way that stories help illuminate the situations and personalities of the Revolutionary era. My favorite tale is found in Elizabeth Montgomery’s 19th century Delaware classic, Reminiscences of Wilmington. It is a story that was told by a hired man to some girls as he walked them safely home from Major Jaquett’s house:
“Well, you know how brave the Delaware men were; that officer, now I hit it, was one on ’em. Well, they were creeping softly through the swamps, and one of them creatures bellowed out, and the wind whistled through the corn, and they raly thought it was a musket-ball; then they halted—next the whole army of bull-frogs in the swamp gave a shout that rang through the corn like a volley of musket-balls. Then the kurnel ordered the men to lay down their arms and surrender, shouting aloud, ‘Sirs, we are your prisoners!'”
“What, a Delaware officer surrender to bull-frogs? Never!” “Yes, marm, I have hearn his name, too, and my father tell as how one of his kin was a sojer that was with him; telled him the officer’s name, too, and there was twelve on ’em.”
At that crisis the whole company of frogs in harmonious concert made such a terrific roar, and resounded through the marshes, that we bounded over the pathway like deers, not seeming to touch the ground, or draw a breath until we reached the bridge … [Montgomery, Reminiscences of Wilmington, pg 85.]
The militia from my county really, really loved to drink. Every time I read correspondence from the President of Pennsylvania to local county officials about the status of the militia, he is always complaining that Northampton County conscripts were constantly doing their drafted tours in taverns rather than on the frontier.
Modern people sometimes have a hard time connecting with the past. They think that the people then were somehow different from them. What is really funny is that after researching the period, you come to quickly realize that the people and the problems they face are not very different from today. For example, government bureaucracy was just as bad then as it is today. While researching my book on the New London raid, I realized that despite its importance to the American war effort, the Connecticut port did not always get the support it needed. For example, Fort Griswold was supposed to be an enclosed five bastion earthen fortification. But due to lack of funding, corners were cut and it instead became an oddly shaped oblong square fortification. This tragic mistake may have contributed to its eventual capture by British forces in 1781.
Just like being asked “what’s the funniest joke you’ve ever heard?”, it’s always hard to recall the best when asked for it. Deep research of primary sources has brought many incidents to my attention that are amusing in one way or another, some comical and some tragic: the soldier who, while being lashed for another infraction, cried out that his officer had no more honor than a pig in a potato patch; the aspiring gentleman who, after receiving a commission in one British regiment, enlisted as a private soldier in another; the hapless artillery officer who, after firing his own cannon, stepped out to see where the shot landed and walked in front of an adjacent cannon; &c. &c. &c. But my favorite is one that I’ve often repeated in articles and lectures; a British soldier of the 33rd Regiment of Foot related this charming tale that occurred in Westchester County, New York:
“In this excursion, among other plunder, we took a store of molasses, the hogsheads being rolled out and their heads knocked in, a soldier’s wife went to dip her camp-kettle in a hogshead of molasses and while she was stooping in order to fill her kettle, a soldier slipped behind her and threw her into the hogshead: when she was hauled out, a bystander threw a parcel of feathers on her, which adhering to the molasses, made her appear frightful enough. This little circumstance afforded us a good deal of amusement.”
There’s the time John Adams and Benjamin Franklin shared a bed, and a bedroom window. The time Gouverneur Morris took a bet to clap George Washington on the shoulder. The time the entire Massachusetts navy went chasing after a sea serpent. But for today, I’ll go with when Abigail Adams dined with Gen. Charles Lee to mend fences after royal authorities had published her husband’s indiscreet comments about Lee’s eccentricities, and she ended up having to shake the general’s favorite dog’s paw at the dinner table.
If one was looking for a collection to find just the absurdity of military life in the Revolution, the United Kingdom’s National Archives collection War Office, Class 71 provides a host of smiles. These are the Judge Advocate General’s Papers, the general court martial proceedings of the British Army. Even in extreme situations, there is definitely humor to be found, amongst which: a Loyalist deserter, attempting to row across the Delaware from Philadelphia, but with only one paddle, his craft doing nothing but moving in a circle for hours in the middle of the river; it was deemed to be an alcohol related incident. A Loyalist sentry at New Bridge in New Jersey, charged with shooting at imaginary rebels in the woods, also at his fellow sentries, and then attempting to desert with a jug of whiskey in his coat pocket; it was deemed to be an alcohol related incident. A Loyalist officer in Charleston on Saint Patrick’s Day beating a bagpiper over the head with his walking stick because the man refused to help him serenade women in the streets of the city at 2:00 AM; it was deemed to be, well, you know.