Abductions in the American Revolution


August 1, 2016
by Michael Tuosto Also by this Author


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Book review: Abductions in the American Revolution: Attempts to Kidnap George Washington, Benedict Arnold and Other Military and Civilian Leaders by Christian McBurney (McFarland, April 2016)


It is always exciting when historians innovate new ways to write about the American Revolution.  The dual biographies that focus on the relationship between two Founding Fathers has been a very popular format over the last few years, but it is time for a change.  Abductions in the American Reovlution, is the most innovative look at the American Revolution I have read in a long time.  The focus is a topic, kidnapping, and the facts about the American Revolution are used to illustrate how prevalent it was during the war.  At times the reader may feel like there are a lot of names and dates they will not care to internalize, but all of the history tells a larger story and reinforces a larger lesson about kidnappings during the American Revolution and how instrumental they were to the military strategy of both sides.

The breadth of research Christian McBurney invested into this book is astounding.  There are about 641 citations of diaries, letters, newspapers, and secondary sources.  What is more impressive is that at no point while reading Abductions in the American Revolution will you feel like you are reading an academic paper or drudging through an encyclopedia.  It is Christian McBurney’s diligent research that allows him to write intricate stories about kidnappings in a way that makes the history digestible and fun.  He draws on the recollection of Maj. James Wilkinson to show the reader how much influence Lt. Col. Alexander Hamilton had over General Washington.  Hamilton convinced Washington not to move forward with a plan to kidnap General Clinton in New York because “perhaps an abler officer” would take his place. McBurney cites the 1801 written recollections of Mary Silliman, wife of Gold Selleck Silliman, when presenting the reader with a theory that General Clinton himself ordered the kidnap of Brigadier General Silliman of Connecticut.  He draws on the diary of George Washington and a letter from General St. Clair to illustrate how weather had an immense impact on history in February of 1778.  Washington wrote about a snow storm on February 8 that St. Clair believed prevented the British from orchestrating a successful kidnapping of Washington in Morristown, NJ.

One of the most fascinating scenes McBurney creates illustrates the failed kidnapping attempt on Gen. Philip Schuyler.  He takes you inside the house of Schuyler at 8:00 p.m. on August 7, 1781 by citing letters from Schuyler to George Washington and Gen. Henry Glen.  He supplements a comprehensive description of the failed attempt by citing newspapers such as the Connecticut Gazette, Massachusetts Spy, and the Providence Gazette.  The brief scene could easily have fit into a thrilling historical fiction novel.

The book focuses on raids and plans to kidnap military leaders with the rank of lieutenant colonel and above or civilian leaders who served as governors of colonies or states.  McBurney defines kidnap as “seizing an enemy leader after making plans to do so.”  The American and British forces orchestrated these raids for the purpose of removing high ranking officials from the war.  It was viewed as a virtuous act and not done with the intent to kill the target after capture.  The British in particular believed that events were driven by great men and refused to accept that the American Revolution was based on “broad-based and popular” sentiments.

The author writes about plots to kidnap King George III, George Washington, Benedict Arnold, Thomas Jefferson, Gov. William Livingston, Gen. Charles Lee and others.  My favorite story, by far, is the story of John Paul Jones’s raid on Whitehaven in England.  It’s invigorating to think that a heroic American brought the fight to the Crown.  It was even more satisfying to learn that his exploits caused insurance rates on the Irish Sea to spike by 400%.

A lot of what you will read in Abductions in the American Revolution will be new, and even if it’s not, because the focus is so unique the facts that might have seemed obscure will be highlighted.  For example, did you know that on June 28, 1776, Thomas Hickey became the first American soldier to be executed for treasonous conduct?  He was a member of George Washington’s Life Guard and he was hanged for colluding with Governor Tyron of New York.

Richard Stockton was the only signer of the Declaration of Independence taken specifically for his status as a signatory.  He was a prominent New Jersey lawyer and served as a justice on the state’s Supreme Court.  The New Jersey Volunteers, a loyalist brigade, kidnapped him and treated him very harshly.  Do not feel bad for him.  General Howe issued a proclamation on November 30, 1776 granting a pardon to anyone who swore allegiance to the King.  Richard Stockton took that oath and was released from captivity.  Just to show how worthless this man’s word was, he signed an oath of allegiance to the Continental Congress on December 22, 1777 when brought before the New Jersey Council of Safety.  Richard Stockton was the only signer of the Declaration to sign an oath of allegiance to the crown. McBurney gives his thoughts about the character and appropriate perceptions of Richard Stockton.  He says that, “The state of New Jersey should consider replacing Stockton’s statute,” which is currently in the National Statuary Hall Collection.  As a native of New Jersey, I agree.

Gen. Charles Lee was America’s most experienced and capable military leader at the outset of the Revolution.  He was British, but fled England in 1773 for America because of his attraction to Republican government and liberty, and his aversion for Monarchy.  British dragoons captured him at Widow White’s Tavern in Basking Ridge, New Jersey.  It was December of 1776 and Charles Lee was delaying joining forces with Washington in an attempt to subvert General Washington’s position as first in command of the Continental Army.  McBurney points out that had Charles Lee not been captured, he would have attempted to capture an outpost in New Jersey rather than reinforce Washington.  Once “Mad Lee” was captured, however, his successor immediately moved to reinforce Washington, who went on to capture Trenton, New Jersey.

William Barton, an officer in the Rhode Island state regiment, is credited with orchestrating a raid that “still ranks as one of the greatest in American military history.”  The successful capture of Gen. Richard Prescott from his quarters on Aquidneck Island gave the Americans the leverage they needed to rescue General Lee; by seizing an officer of the same rank, they were able to broker an exchange of General Prescott for General Lee, which took place in April of 1778.  McBurney highlights the humiliation felt by the British with an excerpt from the diary of Maj. Frederick Mackenzie: “It is certainly a most extraordinary circumstance that a general commanding a body of 4,000 men, encamped on an island surrounded by a squadron of ships of war, should be carried off from his quarters in the night by a small party of the enemy … without a shot being fired.”

The dragoons that captured General Charles Lee were led by Col. William Harcourt and the infamous Banastre Tarleton.  Tarleton also conducted a raid to try and capture Thomas Jefferson at Monticello.  Jefferson insinuated himself into the kidnapping game by instructing Gen. John Peter Muhlenberg to abduct the “American Hannibal,” Benedict Arnold.  Part of what makes Abductions in the American Revolution so fascinating is how McBurney connects all the iconic figures of the American Revolution through their efforts to kidnap each other.  He is able to educate the reader about important aspects of the war in this context.  For example, he explains that Benedict Arnold was sent to invade Virginia to ensure no Virginians could reinforce the American forces in the Carolinas.  Cornwallis was attempting to subdue the south at that time.

Christian McBurney explores how the opposing sides treated their prisoners as well.  He draws on letters between generals to illustrate how seriously both sides took this issue.  General Washington, in a letter dated March 10, 1777 told Horatio Gates that “we ought to avoid putting in practice what we have so loudly complained of, the cruel treatment of prisoners.”  It was a common practice for officers to be treated as gentlemen and to be provided comforts and freedoms not typical of prison life; when this custom was violated the threat of retaliation loomed.  The Continental Congress even passed a resolution that the doctrine of retaliation applied in American military camps.

McBurney incorporates fascinating asides throughout the book, which allows him to bring in these legends of the American Revolution who were not necessarily involved in the fighting.  The best example is the exchange between John and Abigail Adams over the doctrine of retaliation.  Abigail hoped the British “will never provoke us to retaliate against their cruelties,” but John felt that “retaliation we must practice, in some instances in order to make our barbarous foes respect in some degree the rights of humanity.”

The book includes plans for kidnappings that never came to fruition, so history enthusiasts are free to obsess about “what ifs.”  The “what ifs” of history are infinite.  McBurney provides the reader with a fascinating one: what if the George Washington approved plan to kidnap King George III’s son, Prince William Henry, had been executed?  McBurney writes that, “Washington might have thought that capturing the Prince would have forced George III to agree to peace terms … But the outrage in London might have led to a groundswell of support for continuing the war.”  Prince William Henry was visiting New York City in 1782 and there was a plan to kidnap him during his visit, a plan that was written out in detail by Col. Matthias Ogden of the 1st New Jersey Continentals and published in its entirety for the first time in Abductions in the American Revolution.

These “what ifs” are just another way that McBurney made me feel like I was reading all of this history for the first time.  At no point did I begin skimming, a technique I use when I approach facts about tired Revolutionary history.  I am looking forward to the next time Christian McBurney invents a way to look at the American Revolution.

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