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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.