Ultimate sacrifice?

Detail of a portrait of Thomas Hutchinson by Edward Truman. (Massachusetts Historical Society)

Which individual made the single greatest sacrifice, other than death, for their cause?


In 1774, Philadelphia importer Robert Morris was arguably the wealthiest man in America. He could have sat out the war in relative luxury or certainly even, as some merchants did, made a profit during the war. Instead, hearing the call to patriotism, Morris signed on to boycott British goods and the action financially hurt him. But Morris continued to monetarily support the new nation and “The Cause” using his incredibly shrewd business savvy. There were countless times throughout the conflict when he was called upon to shore up American finances at critical times. Morris utilized every business and personal contact he had, and very often used his own money. By war’s end, Morris himself was in personal financial trouble. To make some quick cash, he invested in land speculation. The bottom fell out, and Morris was arrested while his family lost everything. He spent his last years in debtor’s prison.

John L. Smith, Jr.


Buried deep within the context of the overall war are the subtle nuances relating to the regional and local conflicts also taking place.  Attorney Charles Phelps (1717-1789), a Massachusetts settler living in the southern New Hampshire Grants, is one of those who made unbelievable personal sacrifices during the war aimed at preserving the integrity of New York’s interests in the area while under exceedingly difficult circumstances.  At the same time, he fended off the threatening attacks and outrageous actions of rebels within the Grants (Ethan Allen and company) seeking to wrest that lawful control away as they acted in direct defiance of the Continental Congress.  Phelps’ extant papers reveal an incredibly tenacious, spirited individual wholly devoted to the law and constitutional principles, but eventually suffering the indignity of having his impressive library (the largest in the Grants) forcibly taken from him and distributed to rebel lawyers, while also losing all of his land and fleeing; but certainly with his dignity intact.

Gary Shattuck


General Nathanael Greene was as ambitious as any other general officer, but in 1778 he reluctantly agreed to become the quartermaster general, the veritable graveyard of ambition. It was obviously a selfless decision, as he disappeared behind the curtain in the hope of streamlining the supply service and making the Continental army a better fighting force.

-John Ferling


The tragic post war life of Light Horse Harry Lee comes to mind.  As Charles Royster notes, his brilliance in battle was nearly singular.  Fighting in the vicious, bloody south, he eventually broke under the strain and could never come to terms with a peaceful, post war America that had no use for his military talents, the only sort he possessed.

Alec D. Rogers


Typically, people extol American Patriots as making the heroic, ultimate sacrifice for their country.  However, in attempting to remain within the British Empire, American Loyalists sacrificed much of their fortunes and completely lost their ability to live and purse happiness in their native land.

One of the best examples of loyalist sacrifice is Beverley Robinson, a wealthy New Yorker and loyalist who lost his extensive land holdings and political stature.  Robinson led a loyalist regiment, participated in the treason of Benedict Arnold and attempted to turn Ethan Allen.  After the war, Robinson sailed to England with the British Army and unsuccessfully sought to recover his New York estate.  Although Robinson received partial compensation from the British government for his property losses, he lived an unremarkable and unhappy life in exile.

Gene Procknow


Elizabeth Lichtenstein Johnston, a Georgian Loyalist, is symbolic of the struggles women were forced to endure throughout the Revolution, as they dodged a civil war whilst trying desperately to provide for their families. Johnston was separated from her father, who was forced to flee after being branded a Tory by his more radical neighbours. She later fled to Savannah, survived a siege, married William Martin Johnston, a loyal officer, at the age of fifteen, and had ten children whilst a refugee in Savannah, Charleston, St. Augustine, Edinburgh, Jamaica and Nova Scotia. (Seven would survive beyond infancy.) She would never see her home again.

Nicolas Bell-Romero


I deeply sympathize with families who were split, Patriot versus Tory, and allowed their political beliefs to divide their families permanently.  The most famous example was Benjamin Franklin refusing to have anything to do with his only surviving child, William Franklin, the last Royal governor of New Jersey and a prominent Tory who moved to England after the war.

 As an author focusing on kidnapping attempts, I also admire the sacrifices of the war-time governor of New Jersey, William Livingston, who was probably targeted for kidnapping more than any other Patriot leader.  He avoided the attempts by constantly staying at different houses in the state throughout the war.  The multiple attempts to capture Governor Livingston must have worn him down. In August of 1782, a friend of his suggested that the two meet at Livingston’s house.  “Your seeing me at my own house is impracticable,” the governor complained, “as I have not for some years past been able to live under my own roof, on account of the” of the attempts to kidnap.  General Washington summed up the sacrifice that Patriot leaders had to bear. In a February 2, 1778, letter to Governor Livingston, the commander-in-chief wrote that the threat of kidnapping was “a tax, however severe, which all those must pay who are called to eminent stations of trust” to serve their country.

Christian M. McBurney


Thomas Hutchinson (1711-1780), the next-to-last Governor of Massachusetts Province.  A wealthy and successful merchant and politician from an old Massachusetts family, he was always dedicated to the colony’s welfare.  Hutchinson had the misfortune of attempting to govern Massachusetts at a time when it was changing faster than he could, in ways he did not understand.  Because he considered himself an Englishman and thought the colony’s best interests resided in good relations with London, Hutchinson was a staunch loyalist, even while arguing to authorities in London against policies he thought would harm Massachusetts.  His political straddle could not satisfy the populists among whom he lived and who looted his house over the Stamp Act.  He eventually left his beloved colony for England, had his substantial wealth in America confiscated and his reputation ruined by the victorious Americans, wiping out a family’s lifetime of service to Massachusetts.

Eric Sterner


This is way outside the box: Dragging Canoe of the Cherokees. He defied his own father, Attakulla Kulla, as well as officials of the British Indian Department to lead Cherokee militants in an attack on the southern colonies in 1776. When the attack failed, and Cherokee towns were devastated, Dragging Canoe refused to concede defeat and instead moved north and west, continuing the fight despite repeated raids that burned the towns of his followers. Even after the peace treaty, he continued to resist until his death. To sacrifice family, homeland, material possessions including, repeatedly, his own home(s) shows an incredible level of commitment to his understanding of his people’s cause.

Jim Piecuch


I don’t know the name, but it would be the wealthiest Loyalist who was forced to flee to Canada, forfeiting extensive land holdings and all of the improvements thereon, as well as business interests and other capital, not to mention their community connections and regional heritage. Standing with what they believed to be the rule of law, they became refugees; while some made appeals and received some amount of compensation from the British government, some lost everything.

Don N. Hagist


Robert Morris sacrificed a great deal of, and often, his entire fortune. He put his own credit up to account for the entire United States.

Michael J. F. Sheehan


My nomination for the person(s) who paid the ultimate sacrifice in the Revolution (other than death) goes to the residents of Machias, Maine in 1775.  Located on the coast of downeast Maine, these hardy inhabitants of Massachusetts dared to reject an offer for desperately needed provisions from a Tory merchant in return for lumber desired by the British army in Boston in the summer of 1775.  These bold settlers of Maine chose to adhere to the continental prohibition of trade with Boston and instead, seized the provision laden ships and British escort vessel, the Margaretta, knowing full well that such action would provoke the full might of the British navy upon them.   The much easier choice was to relent to British intimidation and trade the firewood and lumber for food and other provisions.  But they stood their ground and the result was one of the first naval engagements (some say THE first) of the Revolutionary War in Machias Bay.

Several months later, the residents of Falmouth (modern-day Portland, Maine) paid the price of Machias’s actions when their town was torched by a British naval force in retaliation for the seizure of the Margaretta.    They offered no resistance and instead, tried to bargain with the British, for which they lost their whole town.

Michael Cecere


While we often remember the names of the generals and the politicians of the Revolutionary War period, we often forget about the common enlisted soldier, specifically the American soldier.  These are the men who made the single greatest sacrifice of the war.

Every soldier’s experience is his own unique story.  We sometimes forget this.  Often the main provider of their families, they left them behind to fend for themselves while they ensured the uncertainties of being a soldier, never knowing if they were going to return home.  They are the ones who suffered the hardships of campaign life, huddled around campfires in the dead of winter, went without food or pay for extended amounts of time.  Risked the horrid conditions of imprisonment for undetermined amounts of time.  Saw the horrors of combat firsthand.  Saw friends and family killed or wounded in battle.  Or even suffering from one of the many painful diseases of the period.

Today we often see statues or buildings named only after generals or politicians of the period.  Very few to the common or individual enlisted soldier.  Their gravestones are often their only statues, if they still exist or are even readable.  Very few compiled memoirs after the war and for the most part their personal stories and experiences are gone.  The greatest sacrifice was risking everything for a cause you believe in and being forgotten.

Matthew Reardon


Any of the wretchedly tormented souls held aboard a prison ship. Today’s question mentions thinking “outside the box”; captives on such ships were basically confined inside a box…dark, cramped, hot (or cold), filthy, stagnant, and disease ridden.  Did American propagandists make hay out of such ghastly conditions? Perhaps. But those fortunate enough to have survived such a horrific experience could likely share a perspective that is simply incomprehensible to those of us accustomed to the comforts of the 21st century.

Joshua Shepherd


Nathanael Greene’s pleas on behalf of the army are well-documented.  Throughout the war, he felt obligated to pledge his personal property as a security against loans to feed and clothe the army.  On August 4th, 1783, Greene sadly wrote his wife, “Col Wadsworth informs me that all my stocks put into his hands have been lost; and that out of upwards of a thousand pounds put into his hands four years ago, I have not fifty left. …. as matters of this nature depend upon contingencies after every precaution, it hangs over my head like a heavy Cloud.  I am determined to pursue it until I bring it to a crisis.”  Greene had barely begun to pay off the huge debts in his name when he died at age forty-four.  One of his plantations was totally lost, and creditors carted off household goods from his other property, where Mrs Greene and their five children were living.  The debt was not resolved until May, 1792 when, aided by Alexander Hamilton and Anthony Wayne, the family received some financial relief. “Washington had this day approved and signed an Act for indemnifying the estate of the late General Nathanael Greene.”

Kim Burdick


In 1764, John Hancock inherited one of the largest fortunes in North America. He threw himself into mercantile business but was soon drawn to another field: politics. For over a quarter-century Hancock was almost
continuously in office, either in Massachusetts or as president of the Continental Congress. He had an excellent sense of popular opinion—he never lost an election for a post he wanted, and he died as governor in 1793. So what was Hancock’s sacrifice? It’s true that in late 1775 he supported an attack on British-held Boston even if it might destroy a lot of his property, but that never actually happened. Rather, Hancock depleted his fortune himself by spending so much attention and money on politics. Yet he left little legacy. Hancock amassed political capital but rarely spent it to sway public opinion or accomplish anything controversial. His cause was political popularity in itself.

J. L. Bell

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  • We had many who gave their lives for the cause and several families who suffered multiple losses. John Gaston of Chester County, South Carolina had nine sons who fought in the revolution. One died at Savannah and two others at Hanging Rock. A fourth son died of smallpox and his nephew, John McClure also died at Hanging Rock. As if those losses weren’t tragic enough, the old man was chased from his home by the British and made a refugee in North Carolina. Accompanied by another of his sons, old John made it to his brother’s place in Mecklenburg County. While there, Joseph overheard one of the local women admonishing her son, “Now Alexander, fight like a man and don’t be a coward.”

  • The person who sacrificed the most was Benedict Arnold: he had to live with his decision at West Point every day for the next twenty one years.

    • Arnold’s arrangement was a form of contract; quid pro quo. Not a “sacrifice”. At most you might say he believed himself “underpaid”. But then, as he thought that of most financial encounters with authorities on either side, this particular underpayment is a mater of relativity.

      The idea of “sacrifice” suggests a willing yield in support of an ideal. Knowingly giving up that which you hold to advance the cause. You could say that Arnold’s treason was the exact opposite – the unwillingness to yield fortune, fame, or ego to the American cause for independence.

      I’d suggest someone along the lines of James Armistead Lafayette. A slave who, having volunteered and approved by by his master to spy on the British in Virginia (Arnold, then Cornwallis), successfully navigated various life-threatening circumstances (capture as a runaway by Americans, hostile fire of both sides, being hanged as a spy by the British, and the smallpox epidemic amongst escaped slaves sheltering with the British) to infiltrate British lines, ingratiate himself with the two commanders, and gain the requisite knowledge. Having inserted himself successfully with the British and gaining the trust of both Arnold and Cornwallis, he could have remained there as a free man. Instead, he yielded freedom and braved the same circumstances to re-cross the lines and report back to the Americans. He risked his life and sacrificed his freedom to support the cause. He was finally emancipated January 1787, on the recommendations of both his master and the Marquis de la Fayette.

    • To me, Arnold is a reasonable answer to the question. The definition of “sacrifice” does not include any element of supporting an idea–that concept is something popularly added to the word. Sacrifice is simply the act of giving something up. Even if you want to include the concept of supporting something, Arnold’s cause can be said to be himself (who said it had to be a lofty cause). In any case, Arnold–unlike many others who gave up something but ultimately received something back–gave up everything but never gained anything back. His military value and the glory necessary to placate his ego declined precipitously, his business activities never again succeeded, and both sides of the cause considered him an outsider. He gave up one life in hopes of a better one but it never came to be–a tragedy worthy of Shakespeare. And that doesn’t include his wife’s story.

      • Mike;
        Arnold “gave up” what he had established with the Americans in order to accept a better offer from the British. It was a contract, a deal, an exchange. Over at least a five month period he carefully and deliberately negotiated until the British promised the price he demanded; including British indemnification of his wartime losses, £20,000 cash, and a general’s commission (along with the prestige, emoluments, and pension that came with it). He demanded a £1,000 down payment, which the British paid. Arnold expected to be fully repaid for what he lost during the war and any property subsequently condemned by the Americans. That alone would have made him completely whole. But he went further in demanding £20,000 cash – about $11 million in today’s money (depending on calculation). Pure profit. Arnold’s defection was no “sacrifice” under any potential definition of the term, but rather a calculated deal in which Arnold intended to profit immensely. Like any business deal, it entertained some risk. That the deal took an unexpected turn does not diminish Arnold’s intent. Nor did it result in a “loss”. He still was paid £6,315 cash (around $3.4 Million converted to today’s dollars), achieved indemnification of his losses (which resulted in a lengthy settlement), a general’s commission including annual pay of £700, and a pension of £360 per year (Peggy also received a separate pension). He also eventually got substantial land grants (15,000 acres) in Ontario, Canada. Immense gains which could scarcely be considered a “sacrifice”. Arnold remains the most financially successful known defector in American history.

        Despite the deal going partially wrong, Arnold still profited tremendously from his defection. That he squandered his money and personal reputation through opulent living, bad business, and alienation of partners, neighbors and the British public is not a result of his defection, but consistent with the personal path he was on before his defection: he was a “sharp” trader, lived beyond his means throughout his life, and was simply not a “likeable” person.

        The only thing Arnold could legitimately said to have “sacrificed” would have been the facility of his leg. Occurring at a time when Arnold thought his greatest opportunities laid with the American cause, and at the peak of his military brilliance in service to the Americans, Arnold’s wounding in Canada, return to service and severe wounding of the same leg at Saratoga could truly be labelled “sacrificial”; but does not rise, for the sake of the editor’s query, to an ultimate level superior to the same battle risks accepted by hundreds of thousands of others who remained steadfast in service to their country.

        • Your comments on Arnold’s financial dealings may be true, Jim, but, all sacrifices are made for some sort of gain whether it be the salvation of mankind, posterity, personal wealth, or simply better health. Without some form of gain, there is no sacrifice–there’s just trash. Arnold had wealth, fame, and status while serving on the American side but, as you say, he saw potential increases in all those factors on the Brit side so he gave up what he had for that gain: therein lies the basis of his sacrifice.

          To go beyond the sacrifice-or-not discussion, I think you’ll agree that his story becomes tragic/ironic that the very personality traits that motivated him to make make his change–his sacrifice to some of us–led to his demise.

          • Mike;
            I don’t agree with the “sacrifice” label, and don’t think BA would either. Spending what one has in order to get something one wants is a quid-pro-quo transaction; and Arnold was, first and foremost, a business man. And what did Arnold have: he no longer believed he commanded wealth, fame, and status; that wasn’t what he was trading. Rather, Arnold offered West Point and his skills as a combatant in exchange for cold, hard cash.

            I suppose it’s a semantic debate that hovers around an interpretation of the meaning of “sacrifice”. Can one “sacrifice” to the altar of one’s own ego?

            I do agree there’s a certain irony in Arnold’s self-destruction. Had he remained loyal to the “Independence Party”, he certainly may have enjoyed a substantially different dotage. Even a month’s delay may have made a difference: once Camden Gates’ sullied reputation, Arnold’s may have risen as the real hero of Saratoga; and who knows… But, an alternative outcome is simply speculation; preempted by Arnold’s choice. I fully agree that his personality traits not only drove him over the precipice but rendered him incapable of foreseeing the inevitable post-war alienation from the popular affection he craved.

            We don’t owe Arnold an apology for condemnation of his profiteering or treason. He was best judged by those who knew him in life; who had opportunity to offer mitigating defense of his defection within the context of their own time. None did; they found him indefensible, and there are no grounds to reverse their judgement. I do think we owe Arnold an appreciation. He exhibited military acumen via accomplishments while fighting on both sides of the conflict: the march to Quebec, the Valcour battle, defense of New England and Freeman’s Farm as well as his Virginia campaign and raid of New London all evidenced sound military skill. Arnold generally was not necessarily great at detailed planning, but superb at implementation. He epitomized the old military adage that a “poor plan perfectly executed beats a perfect plan poorly executed”. The march to Quebec was decidedly short on planning yet succeeded because of Arnold’s sheer willpower. Schuyler conceived and developed the Champlain fleet, but Arnold chose the operational tactic and executed it as well, probably better, than judiciously expected. Gates settled on the defensive strategy at Saratoga, but Arnold tactically exploited Burgoyne’s attempt to probe the American left flank. At the same time Arnold’s military successes came at extreme costs – especially in blood; which was why Clinton relieved him of command after New London. We can appreciate Arnold’s military acumen without justifying his actions.

  • What about Rev. James Caldwell? An early supporter of American independence, he actively supported the revolutionary cause. As a result of his patriotism, his church and house were burned by loyalists. Then, his wife was killed. And finally, he was killed by an American sentry, leaving behind nine orphan children.

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