What do you think was the strangest or most unconventional moment, battle or event of the Revolution?
The “Salem Alarm” occurred when Gen. Gage heard a rumor that rebel cannon were hidden in a Salem blacksmith’s shop, north of Boston. Gage sent Lt. Col. Alexander Leslie and troops on a secret nighttime sail to Salem to capture the illegal arms. They waited offshore on that Sunday, Feb. 26, 1775 until they knew the citizens would be in church. But the Salem folks knew Leslie was coming. As the troops marched through Salem, the citizens raised the drawbridge to get across to the forge, preventing crossing. Then a Monty Python-ish exchange of taunts and threats happened between Leslie and militia Capt. Felt, including Leslie shouting that they’re blocking the King’s highway. To which Felt countered that – no, the bridge was built by lot owners. A compromise of honor was agreed to in which a pretend foundry inspection happened, finding no cannon. The troops left and all was well.
The day after the battle of Monmouth, GW wrote a letter to his brother Jack, in which he described “an epiphany” – a rush of faith that God would not permit them to fail – as the British advanced in the wake of Charles Lee’s demoralizing retreat.
Maybe not “the strangest or most unconventional moment,” but Ethan Allen’s boneheaded attempt to take Montreal in September 1775 certainly rates as a potential candidate. This was not his first display of incompetence because since taking Ft. Ticonderoga the preceding May he had allowed his men to then engage in a drunken rampage of the fort, witnessed the threatened murder of Arnold by those men, lost out in the rush to take an armed sloop at St. John, and was then embarrassingly and wholly rejected (deservedly so) by the region’s settlers to become one of their officers.
Struggling to regain credibility and without approval, the discredited Allen then took 110 men (80 of them Canadians) in an effort to take Montreal, but was roundly, and predictably, defeated in the attempt and taken prisoner. He then went into British custody, staying there until his release in 1778, whereupon he returned to the Grants and turned his attention not to towards the war, but to ensuring his own personal interests, cruelly harassing unthreatening New York settlers in the region.
“Weird” has lots of means, but my Oxford Desk Dictionary defines it as “mysterious,” and therefore I would designate Patrick Ferguson’s baffling decision not to shoot General Washington – who unknowingly presented an easy target – on the Brandywine battlefield as the occurrence that is most difficult to explain during the American Revolution and its war.
I’ve always been fascinated with the story of John Andre and the strong dissent within Washington’s own military family to Washington’s decision to execute him as a spy. Why was Andre able to charm Hamilton and the other young men around Washington, but not the great man himself?
Two Patriot-led colonies fighting each other during the Revolution! Yes, New York and a breakaway region we now call Vermont militarily confronted each other in December 1781. After Yorktown reduced the threat of British invasion from Canada, New York governor George Clinton sent militia to dissolve the nascent Vermont government and to re-establish state authority in the Green Mountains.
However, Vermont “governor” Thomas Chittenden assembled his own militia forces. The two small armies met on the opposite banks of the Walloomsac River with each side claiming to be laying siege to the other. Insults and threats flew fast and furious. In a glittering uniform and full of theatrics, Ethan Allen joined the Vermonters to add his bluster. After realizing the strength and size of the Vermonter forces, the New York State militia backed down and returned home. Thus ended the “Battle” of Walloomsac or as Ethan Allen named it, the “Siege of Vallumcock”. Never again would a New York governor attempt to forcibly re-establish authority over its renegade Green Mountain counties.
It is the summer of 1783, the guns of war have fallen silent, and a private from the Continental Army is being treated in the bustling city of Philadelphia. Stripping off the soldierly rags to treat the putrefying wounds underneath, Doctor Barnabas Binney immediately made a shocking discovery: the young soldier named “Robert Shirtliff” was actually a woman named Deborah Sampson. A story made for a HBO drama series, the discovery of Sampson’s true identity – especially in a colonial world of relatively constrained gender roles – has to be the strangest moment of the entire Revolution – and that is saying something.
I would have to pick the antics of Joseph Bettys, a Tory who became a renowned kidnapper of patriots in upstate New York with St. Johns, Canada as his base. In the Great Kidnapping Caper of 1781, the British Secret Service at St. Johns planned for eight parties of kidnappers to attempt abducting upstate New York patriots at the same time so as to keep the element of surprise. The leader of one of the bands, Joseph Bettys, was charged with kidnapping a Patriot in Ballstown, New York. Bettys had a crush on a local young woman. Amazingly, he left his band in the lurch and went off to persuade her to run off with him, which she did. Her outraged father, even though he was a Tory, went to the local Patriot committee, called the Albany County Commissioners for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies. This alerted Patriots the entire kidnapping plot. None of them succeeded, but Bettys did successfully bring his girlfriend to Canada. Later, after succeeding in kidnapping some Patriots, Bettys was captured and hanged.
The meeting between Phillis Wheatley and George Washington sometime in March 1776. Wheatley was one of revolutionary America’s most prominent poets, who had been born in Africa and brought to the colonies as a child slave. Her owners saw something in her and provided a thorough education uncommon for women, much less a slave. She used that education to craft poetry that was noted on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1775, she wrote an ode to Washington, triggering a sensitive and praise-filled response. The meeting between a highly-educated slave already emerging as a celebrated poet and the wealthy slave-owner leading an army defending individual rights strikes me as one of the most ironic, and irreconcilable to modern minds, events of the period.
Nathanael Greene’s opening a correspondence with Horatio Gates after the former’s defeat at Hobkirk’s Hill in April 1781. As a protégé, supporter, and friend of George Washington, Greene had never manifested the least bit of sympathy for Washington’s erstwhile rival, Gates. After viewing the field at Camden where Gates came to grief, and then suffering his own defeat nearby at the hands of a smaller British army led by Lord Rawdon, Greene began writing to Gates to commiserate on their shared misfortune. This not only represented a major shift in Greene’s attitude toward someone he had previously disliked, but also indicates that Greene believed that Gates had been judged unfairly and too harshly for his 1780 defeat at Camden, something more historians of the southern campaign should keep in mind. It was definitely a highly unusual action on Greene’s part.
The “dark day” on May 19, 1780. Across New England, the skies darkened so much that candlelight was necessary at noon time; the darkness extended into New Jersey, but not as far as Pennsylvania. The cause was completely unknown at the time (it wasn’t a solar eclipse, a phenomenon that was well-understood). The best modern explanation is that smoke from forest fires in Canada met with just the right atmospheric conditions to obscure the sun on this strange night-like day.
For the weirdest moment, I’d have to put myself in the place of Col. James Livingston. In September of 1780, his unit, the 1st Canadian Regiment, were stationed at Verplank Point. Less than two miles south in Haverstraw Bay lay the HMS Vulture. It had just dropped off Maj. André to meet with Gen. Arnold. Livingston was nervous- the Vulture wasn’t raiding, firing on his post, or really doing anything; just laying at anchor. He requested ammunition from Col. Lamb at West Point to drive it off. His attack at sunrise of September 22 from Teller’s Point drove the Vulture south, and ultimately led to the capture of Andre- something Livingston would not realize until the following month. Though he was later brought to West Point for questioning in relation to the Treason, Livingston’s attack of the Vulture saved the Highlands, and to this day, he receives little credit.
I am sure there are plenty of incidents, but one that immediately comes to mind is the engagement that occurred in the winter of 1781 between Colonel John Pyle’s North Carolina Tories and Light Horse Harry Lee’s Legion. Lee, accompanied by Colonel Andrew Picken’s South Carolina militia, were on the trail of Banastre Tarleton when they encountered Pyle’s force. Realizing that Pyle and his men had mistaken Lee’s dragoons (with green coats very similar to Tarleton’s) for Tarleton’s Legion, Lee decided to play along and use this deception to capture Pyle and his men, then continue on after Tarleton. Lee instructed Pyle to make way for “Tarleton” so Pyle formed his mounted force along the road to let “Tarleton” pass. Lee and his column of green coated dragoons rode nearly the length of Pyle’s assembled men, but most of Lee’s men were unaware of Lee’s plans. In what had to be one of the oddest moments in the war, they rode past the assembled Tories baffled at what was taking place. The moment was too much for some of Lee’s men to let pass and an officer in the rear of Lee’s column halted and confronted some Tories, demanding to know who they fought for. “Why the King of course” they replied. Wrong answer! Lee’s men in the rear of the column struck, just as Lee had reached Pyle and was about to announce his real identity and demand Pyle’s surrender. Instead, fighting spread all along the column. Again, it must have been outrageous, for Lee’s men employed their sabers while many of Pyle’s men urged them to stop and insisted that they were on the same side, the King’s side. Approximately 150 Tories fell in the incident without the loss of any of Lee’s men.
The strangest battle of the Revolution might be Maj. Gen. Anthony Wayne’s assault on the Loyalist blockhouse at Bull’s Ferry, N.J., in July 1780. A group of Loyalist associators had built the blockhouse on the Hudson River shore of Bergen County to cover their woodcutting and raiding activities. Wayne, with Washington’s approval, attacked the stronghold on 21 July with two brigades, a dragoon regiment, and some Jersey militia, totaling over 1,600 men. The fort was defended by eighty-four men of the Loyal Refugee Volunteers under the command of Capt. Thomas Ward, who had deserted from the Continental Army in 1778. A one-hour artillery bombardment and several infantry assaults failed to dislodge the stalwart defenders. Fearing the arrival of British reinforcements from New York City, Wayne withdrew after suffering fifteen killed and forty-nine wounded. Ward and the defenders, who suffered 21 casualties, were lauded in New York City and even London.
To be the British commander of Fort Ticonderoga in 1775. Stationed at a fort in, practically, the middle of nowhere, and having little contact with the outside world. Then in the middle of the night have Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen show up, bang on your door, tell you there is a war going on and proclaim that now you’re their prisoner.
Henry Laurens [1724-1792], imprisoned in the Tower of London for three years, then exchanged for Cornwallis, feared being buried alive. His was the first known formal cremation in America. I was astounded to read in an unfootnoted source that after his body burned for a while, his head tumbled off the funeral pyre and rolled into the Cooper River.[i] A brief internet search has not turned up any primary documentation related to this head -will- roll incident, but it makes a good story.
[i] Jan Robbins Elder, Huguenot Heroes in America. (CreateSpace, an Amazon.com Company, 2016) 50-51.
The musical Hamilton. Who could have imagined it? A hip-hop musical about Washington’s chief of staff, a hero at Yorktown and first Secretary of the Treasury, becomes a Broadway smash hit, winner of 11 Tony Awards, and through the cast recording a cultural phenomenon. Composer, lyricist, and star Lyn-Manuel Miranda was inspired by the 800-page biography of Hamilton by Ron Chernow.
Washington, Jefferson, Burr, Angelica Schuyler, and other historical figures are played by African-Americans. Miranda is of Puerto Rican heritage.
And most surprising is that although Miranda took some liberties with historical fact, he created a work that is infused with the courage and the ideals of the Revolutionary generation. Hamilton is a masterpiece of language, music, and storytelling that is leading Americans of all ages, races, and backgrounds to a better understanding of the American Revolution and the human rights it advanced, however imperfectly.
If a historical novelist were to describe how a squat submersible wooden pod—built by an eccentric overaged college student, steered by a man cranking propellers with his hands, and lit internally by bioluminescent fungi—nearly blew up a Royal Navy flagship, readers would deem that outlandish. But it happened. And it was the start of submarine warfare.