Most shocking or unexpected moment of the Revolution?
The most shocking moment unfolded slowly, not quickly. It was the shock the British got in late August and September 1781 when they realized that Washington had cleverly redistributed his forces to confront the British army in Virginia rather than attacking New York City. Washington’s deception worked so well that the British in New York were unable to arrange support or relief of Yorktown until it was much too late. The American and French move to Yorktown, all the while maintaining the impression of threatening New York, was a brilliant strategic coup that effectively ended the war. Boy, were the British surprised.
The British attack on Anthony Wayne’s division at Paoli. There the startled Americans learned that the British could make such irregular assaults. Led by General Charles Grey, they struck by night. To make sure no one awoke the sleeping Americans, Gray ordered his men to remove the flints from their muskets. They relied totally on the bayonet. They inflicted devastating casualties on Wayne’s men.
At daybreak the morning of Tuesday, March 5, 1776, British officers inside sieged Boston glanced up at the Heights of Dorchester. They were totally shocked by what they saw. At what had been sloping, rolling hills the night before were now covered with two redoubts of fascines, barrels, and hay bales. But between those fortifications were twenty cannon, all pointed down at the British ships. Hauled by Henry Knox and his horse and oxen “artillery train” from far-off Fort Ticonderoga, the all-night emplacement maneuver by Patriots was an unparalleled success.
A British “officer of distinction” likened the sudden, shocking appearance of the cannons to “the genie belonging to Aladdin’s… lamp.” British engineering officer, Archibald Robertson, called it “a most astonishing night’s work”, while General Howe was heard to say “My God, these fellows have done more work in one night than I could make my army do in three months.”
I’d have to say that few moments during the war were as shocking as when Washington received word that the trusted Benedict Arnold planned to convey West Point into the hands of the British.
The war seemed all but won when France allied with the United States early in 1778, but three years later, in early 1781, America’s chances of winning the war had shockingly dwindled. General Washington understood that if the allies did not score a decisive victory that year, the war’s outcome would probably be decided by a peace conference of European – which is to say monarchical — states. What happened between 1778 and 1781? Many things went into the astounding turnabout, but one was of crucial importance. France had gambled that a combination of its navy and the activism of America’s daring commander in chief, General Washington, would gain the victory. But in three years the French navy had failed to score a single major victory in North American waters and the daring that Washington had exhibited at Trenton, Princeton, and Germantown had vanished. As 1781 dawned, the war had stalemated and American morale was rapidly tanking.
To me the most shocking moment occurred on July 2, 1776, when Congress adopted a nearly unanimous resolution to sever ties with Britain, John Dickinson abstained from voting. This was the same fellow who stirred up colonial resistance by penning a series of impassioned broadsides widely read on both sides of the Atlantic, freeing his slaves, and writing a rousing protest song which included the rousing words:
Then join hand in hand, brave Americans all,
By uniting we stand, by dividing we fall;
In so righteous a cause let us hope to succeed,
For heaven approves of each generous deed.
All ages shall speak with amaze and applause,
Of the courage we’ll show in support of our Laws;
To die we can bear, but to serve we disdain.
For shame is to Freedom more dreadful than pain.
To his credit, he later joined the Kent County, Delaware militia, fighting as an ordinary soldier. In later years, President Thomas Jefferson recognized him as being “Among the first of the advocates for the rights of his country when assailed by Great Britain” whose “name will be consecrated in history as one of the great worthies of the revolution.
The shocking double execution of Pvt. John Reily, 2nd Virginia Regiment, at Valley Forge. Pvt. John Reily, sick of Valley Forge, tired of guard duty, walked away from camp, taking two prisoners with him. Caught and tried for desertion, Reily was sentenced to death on January 4, 1778, but the execution was postponed until January 10. Lt. Samuel Armstrong, who described Riley as “a very ignorant fellow to look at,” wrote that Reily, a Roman Catholic, was “allowed the privilege of a chaplain.” No Catholic priest was available; Reily was nevertheless “swung off.”
Sgt. Ebenezer Wild recorded that unexpectedly the rope broke and Pvt. Reily fell to the ground. The rope was doubled, the wagon again drawn from under the gallows, and Reily swung off a second time, this time hanging until dead. His body was unceremoniously dropped into a hole near the Grand Parade and covered with dirt. Then the onlookers marched away.
Bunker Hill. After ignoring Henry Clinton’s advice to land troops on Charlestown Neck and capture the Americans from the rear, the overconfident trio of Gage, Howe, and Burgoyne opted for a frontal assault to disperse the militia, whom they viewed as contemptible rabble who would not stand up to a bayonet charge by British regulars. The stout American defense and high British casualties were certainly a shock to the trio of British generals, and may have been the cause of Howe’s slowness and reluctance to attack in subsequent campaigns.
Imagine being a British soldier at the battle of Cowpens who charged through a disintegrating militia line, anticipating victory only to encounter a solid blast of musket fire from the now unhidden Delaware and Maryland Continentals! You would be in awe of the trap that you were in – so much so that you quickly lost your will to fight and surrendered en masse. This had to be shockingly unexpected and hard to fathom for British regulars who were accustomed to rolling from one victory to the next without a struggle.
Many will say Arnold’s treason, but my vote for “most unexpected moment” is that the cause was still alive at the end of 1776. The British launched the massive land/sea offensive against the American rebels that year, not really topped until the allied invasion of North Africa in 1942, but thanks to Benedict Arnold’s masterful defense of Lake Champlain and George Washington’s brilliant turnabout victory at Trenton, the cause, on the verge of death, was still breathing and alive. In many ways, the British never really recovered from these patriot actions, thus making for that rare most unexpected moment when the specter of near defeat in late 1776 held out the prospect of ultimate victory for the cause of liberty.
Certainly among the most shocking events was the discovery of Benedict Arnold’s treason. Translating such an act of betrayal to today’s world, at such a high level, is nearly incomprehensible. Much has been made, and rightfully so, of Arnold’s heroic status prior to his disaffection, but it’s appropriate to remember that his battlefield accomplishments were made possible by the common soldiers who fought, bled, and died under his command. He was willing to sell out such men, not for any long-standing adherence to Loyalist principles, but seemingly for revenge and personal profit. Arnold wasn’t just negotiating the surrender of inanimate objects – installations, supplies, artillery – but the very men who had been committed to his care. Little wonder Alexander Scammell famously likened Arnold’s conduct “black as h-ll! Heaven and earth! We were all astonished, each peeping at his next neighbor to see if any treason was hanging about him. Nay, we even descended to a critical examination of ourselves.”
While tempting to choose either Saratoga or Yorktown, those campaigns and situations developed rather slowly. For a shocking moment, I like the climax at the battle of Cowpens. Banastre’ Tarleton and the famous 71st Highlanders believed they were sweeping the Patriot forces from the field when John Eager Howard’s men turned in formation, gave a volley and charged right back at them. Instant confusion and rout for the British. Morgan had guaranteed that Cornwallis would leave turmoil and failure behind him in South Carolina while he chased Greene across North Carolina and Virginia.
While the revelations that respected Patriots Dr. Benjamin Church and Gen. Benedict Arnold were secretly working with the royal authorities were bombshells, I don’t think they were on the scale of the U.S. alliance with the French. For decades the British, including their American subjects, had used the French as foils to define what made themselves better—Protestant, parliamentarian, forward-thinking, and so on. New England was especially anti-French and anti-Catholic. And after 1778 thousands of French Catholic soldiers and sailors came streaming through New England ports to save the new republic.