If Only We Had a Primary Source: Stories of the American Revolution

The 8-cent stamp of Sybil Ludington, part of the "Contributors to the Cause" series issued in 1975 to commemorate the 1976 Bicentennial. (US Government)

There are many myths associated with the American Revolution, and at JAR we do our best to set the record straight on as many as we can. There are, however, stories for which there is simply no evidence either way: we cannot say they’re false, but we also have no evidence that they’re true. With this in mind, we asked our contributors about their own favorite unsubstantiated tales:

There are many stories about the American Revolution and founding era that have no primary sources to verify them, but which are widely repeated as fact. Which one would like to discover a primary source to substantiate?

In other words, which story do you wish you could prove was true?

Lars D. H. Hedbor
The late-night ride of sixteen-year-old Sybil Ludington to call out the militia to defend Danbury, Connecticut, against the British in the spring of 1777 has obvious parallels to Paul Revere’s ride (which is, itself, deeply mythologized). The claim that Ludington was a teenage girl, taking on risks as large or larger than Revere’s group, resonates deeply, particularly for its emphasis on nontraditional contributors to the Revolution’s success. Ludington’s ride was memorialized with a US postage stamp in the Bicentennial celebrations of the 1970s, despite the fact that the ride wasn’t written about until 1880 by an author who could offer no contemporaneous evidence for it. There is plenty of documentation of women making remarkable contributions to the Revolution, but it would be wonderful to be able to definitively prove that this determined girl played an outsized and dramatic role in our fight for independence.

Jason Yonce
It’s a bit arcane but the goings-on at the Indian Queen lodge, Philadelphia, during the Constitutional Convention come to mind. Many of the framers stayed there during the convention. There have been notable historians who have made fantastic claims of backroom deals which on deeper analysis are rather tenuous. Manessah Cutler wrote the most vivid recollections but he was not a framer and claimed to have seen Alexander Hamilton at a time when Hamilton had already left the convention. There were more than a few changes of alliances and votes that hinted at undocumented compromises but we lack concrete evidence. It’s probably silly to expect an outright confession but it would unlock so much fascinating detail if we knew more about what went on after hours.

Ken Daigler
For those few of us who study Revolutionary Era intelligence operations and their impact on the conflict, John Honeyman is the obvious choice. He is widely accepted as a spy for Washington in the late 1776 early 1777 period, but evidence of his activities are virtually undocumented. Rather it is a rich and comprehensive oral tradition, subsequently copied down, which spreads his story. That he existed can be documented, as can some relationship to Washington. But his actual role and contributions cannot be. I, and another Intelligence historian and CIA officer, G.J.A. O’Toole, believe in him because his legend has details and practices included which would be unknown to a “civilian.” Historian David Hackett Fisher takes the most objective approach, stating there is insufficient documentation on which to make a decision. Other historians and writers have a variety of opinions. Someday, in some house attic or basement in the middle colonies, let’s hope a series of papers will turn up to finally provide evidence of this man’s bravery and commitment to the cause, and his contribution to Washington’s victory at Trenton.

Charlie Dewey
Sybil Ludington’s ride would be one of the most courageous feats of the war if it actually happened. It is said that on April 26, 1777, Ludington rode through the night from Putnam County, New York, to Danbury, Connecticut, warning local militiamen of an impending attack. The distance she covered would have been more than Paul Revere and even more impressive because Ludington was sixteen-years-old at the time. Crown forces ransacked and burned Danbury the following day, though Ludington’s actions supposedly limited the destruction. The first mention of the ride, however, appears in an account written by historian Martha Lamb in 1880 with no primary sources to corroborate it.

Geoff Smock
It has been passed down to us that, upon being told that George Washington was going to resign his commission, King George III exclaimed, “Why, if he does that, he’ll be the greatest man in the world!” In my view, the most revolutionary aspect of the American Revolution was George Washington’s repeated insistence upon surrendering the office and power he had, and could have easily kept, each time he had the opportunity. This defied hundreds of years of western history previous to him, and would embarrass future leaders like Napoleon for years more to come. George III’s quote—if only we could corroborate it based on more than hearsay years after it was said to have been uttered—would encapsulate this novelty perfectly.

Titus K. Belgard
If I had to pick only one story or topic, I would most like to see the gaps filled in regarding the design and creation of the first American flag, up to and including the involvement of Betsy Ross. The website http://www.ushistory.org/betsy/ states bluntly that the evidence connecting Ross to the first American flag “is compelling, though not conclusive.” I also wish someone would invent a way to extract and reproduce sound waves from out of the thin air because I have often been curious to know what the accents and speech patterns of the Founding Fathers sounded like.

Don N. Hagist
In 1781, a slave named James infiltrated the British lines at Yorktown and was able to convey important intelligence information to General Lafayette. Lafayette later endorsed James’s pension application, making it clear that James undertook dangerous activities to provide useful information. But we have no details of what James actually did, or what information he provided. Many stories have been written about him, saying that he became a servant to the British commander, acted as a double agent, and conveyed the most critical information that allowed the American victory at Yorktown. Not enough is known, however, to substantiate any of this. We know that James did important things, but we don’t know what those things were.

William W. Reynolds
When Lord Cornwallis surrendered his army after the Siege of Yorktown, he sent word that he would not personally attend the surrender ceremony because he was “ill.” To my knowledge there is no documentation as to the nature of his lordship’s indisposition. Most historians note that he was always able to show up when he had won, but conclude he lacked the courage to face defeat. I would like to find the previously-hidden memoir of an aide or personal servant that describes Cornwallis’s true condition when he sent Gen. Charles O’Hara in his place to surrender.

Katie Turner Getty
I would most like to find evidence that Elizabeth Burgin really did board the prison ships of Wallabout Bay with baskets of food and orchestrate mass escapes of prisoners. This particular version of her activities abounds on blogs and in history books yet there seems to be no documentary support for it. It’s clear that Burgin did help prisoners in some way. But I have yet to find a primary source that actually places her on or near the prison ships.

Steve Leet
Who were Mother Batherick of Menotomy’s six grenadiers? There is a story that on April 19, 1775, the British relief force sent out of Boston included two ammunition wagons under the care of an officer, a sergeant, and twelve men. A group of old men of Menotomy made two attacks against this baggage and the wagons were separated. Supposedly, six British “grenadiers” threw their weapons into a pond and surrendered to an elderly woman called Mother Batherick. There were British troops captured that day, but their names are known and their circumstances don’t correlate with the Menotomy story, which was first recorded in the 1800s.

Daniel M. Sivilich
One “story” that seems to be engraved in the minds of nearly every American today is the tale of Betsy Ross designing the first United States flag having thirteen stars in a circle. Yet this design seems to be contrary to a hand-engraved brass belt tip excavated at the Puckemin, New Jersey site of the 1778-1779 winter artillery cantonment. This archaeological project was basis of Dr. John Seidel’s doctoral dissertation for the University of Pennsylvania (1987). See the illustration below (photo by Don Troiani) which depicts the artillery insignia of a cannon and a flag. The flag clearly has three rows of stars in a 5-3-5 configuration. I would very much like to see more work done in this area and the general public re-educated.

Will Monk
Molly Pitcher at the Battle of Monmouth. Her grave/statue in Carlisle, Pennsylvania is impressive; it is pictured on her Wikipedia article. The actual grave nearby is much more modest.

James Kirby Martin
The most recent Benedict Arnold biographers still want to tell their readers that little Benny was a natural born hellion, thus supporting their efforts to offer reasons for his treason. But they really can’t do so these days, no matter how much they want to fictionalize the actualhistorical record.Why? There is not a scintilla of evidence to verify the bad little Benny tales. Many of these made-up stories originated in letters sent to historian Jared Sparks, at his request, who published the first Arnold biography (1836). Sparks accepted as gospel truth the tales made up by James Lanman and James Stedman, old timers who lived in Arnold’s home town, Norwich, Connecticut, and conveniently remembered Arnold as an obnoxious little laddie always defiant of authority. The problem is that no other surviving primary source material offers any verification of these 1834 Lanman/Stedman tales as presented to the public by Sparks—and repeated endlessly by other Arnold biographers thereafter. At least the historical record about Arnold’s childhood will no longer be a lesson in historical fiction, unless of course someone comes up with legitimate evidence to support the various Arnold tales. After all, do all bad little boys (and girls) go on to commit treason?

Gregory J. W. Urwin
Between May 18 and 20, 1781, Lt. Gen. Charles, Second Earl Cornwallis, rendezvoused with British forces conducting an amphibious campaign against Virginia’s war resources. Historians have assumed that the earl’s first priority was to destroy the outnumbered Continentals and militia entrusted to Maj. Gen. Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, to defend the Old Dominion. David Ramsay’s The History of the Revolution of South-Carolina(1785) claimed that Cornwallis wrote to an unnamed party in England “that the boy could not escape him.” Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee cited Ramsay in his oft-quoted Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department (1812), although he altered the earl’s words to “the boy cannot escape me.” This letter, which purportedly fell into Rebel hands, did not appear in the period press, and has yet to surface in an archival collection, including The Cornwallis Papers, which contains copies of his outgoing correspondence. It smacks of myth.

Gene Procknow
In his self-promoting autobiography, A Narrative of Colonel Ethan Allen’s Captivity, Allen recounts demanding that the British commander surrender Fort Ticonderoga “in the name of the Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress.” Other contemporary participants remember an unremarkable, less flamboyant surrender demand. While it is unlikely that Allen uttered this bombastic challenge, the oft-repeated, brazen words created a legend and stirred the hearts of many. Finding a credible primary source to collaborate Allen’s version of the surrender dialogue would add drama and spirit to the American founding story. And perhaps, if he genuinely espoused these sentiments, there would have been a different trajectory and allegiance for the rest of Ethan Allen’s life.

Michael Cecere
Patrick Henry’s “Liberty or Death” Speech. As a Virginian, I take pride that so many of the Revolution’s leaders hail from the Old Dominion. One who I think is too often overlooked is Patrick Henry. Considered by some as the Voice of the Revolution, he is most famous for uttering the phrase, “Give Me Liberty, or Give Me Death.” It is always thrilling to hear his famous speech reenacted at the very church in Richmond in which he uttered those words. On one visit I bought a pamphlet of the entire speech and incorporated it into my history class. Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I learned that Patrick Henry’s immortal speech was actually written some forty-odd years after Henry spoke by William Wirt, a biographer of Henry, who, after corresponding with several surviving witnesses of the speech, drafted a version that he believed captured the essence of Henry’s actual words. Oh to have just one cell phone at that convention!

Rand Mirante
There are two stories (excellent ones, I think) that I’d like to see definitively pinned down with a primary source or two—perhaps by one of our readers. The first tale is that at some point during Thomas Jefferson’s five years residing in Paris, he actually encountered Banastre Tarleton on the street (the latter supposedly in the company of Mary Robinson, a.k.a. “Perdita”), and the two men exchanged pleasantries. The second is that one of the cannonballs fired into Nassau Hall during the Battle of Princeton decapitated George II (symbolically, by perforating his framed portrait at the shoulder-line).

Robert N. Fanelli
A body of lore, generally accepted as fact, grew up around the tale of the Quaker heroine, Lydia Darragh—how in 1777, she eavesdropped on British officers as they planned their attack on Whitemarsh, how she bravely slipped through enemy lines to deliver intelligence to the Americans, how her valorous action saved Washington’s army from devastating defeat. But her story only came to light in 1825, fifty years after the event. When finally published in 1894, Elias Boudinot’s journal revealed that a woman gave him the British plans “rolled up into the form of a Pipe Shank.” His account was seized upon as corroboration of Darragh’s exploit. But evidence suggests the lady he met may have been a second patriot of similar mind. I would dearly love to see the rolled-up message Boudinot received.

John L. Smith, Jr.
I would love to discover a primary source to substantiate the words supposedly said by Samuel Adams to John Hancock “while walking alone” and upon hearing the gunshots from Lexington Green: “Oh! What a glorious morning is this!” Neither Adams nor Hancock ever authenticated those words as having been said. It was documented, possibly for the first time, in volume one of William Gordon’s 1788 landmark The History of the Rise, Progress, and Establishment of the Independence of the United States of America (p. 311). Gordon claims his account’s authenticity of the “event” comes from “personal interviews immediately after the battle.” The “event,” maybe, but not necessarily the words in question. Did he interview Adams or Hancock? It’s unsaid. David Hackett Fischer states, “The authenticity of this conversation is supported by evidence in John C. Miller’s 1936 book Sam Adams, Pioneer in Propaganda. But I couldn’t find the “evidence” in the book and besides, I consider that book pretty sketchy in some “facts” and assumptions. Anyone?

Matthew Reardon
A story which is very prevalent in Connecticut and eastern New York is that of sixteen-year-old Sybil Luddington. She has been nicknamed the “Female Paul Revere” after it was claimed by her descendants that she alerted the countryside of the British march on Danbury, Connecticut, in 1777. However, there are no primary sources or other firsthand accounts to back up any part of her story. Despite this, she’s been honored in books, television shows, on a stamp, and even has a statue in Carmel, New York. To many her story is fact, but for me, until someone finds that primary source, it remains a legend.

Tristan J. New
The extent of Benjamin Franklin’s involvement in the creation of the Pennsylvania constitution of 1776 has always been an object of speculation. The minutes of the convention that drafted the constitution indicate that Franklin was a member, but the scant records of the convention’s proceedings provide little evidence of Franklin’s influence on the document’s creation. Franklin was a noted supporter of unicameralism, so it seems natural that he would have been in favor of the state constitution’s creation of a single-chamber legislature. Further evidence of Franklin’s role in the convention would illuminate his place in creating the constitution and provide us with a clearer understanding of his place in the broader debates on governmental principles occurring throughout the newly formed states.

Philip D. Weaver
I have always wanted to find the source of the legend that Aaron Burr is credited with trying to evacuate the body of General Richard Montgomery after he was killed in action during the Quebec Assault. It has been said that he actually picked up the body—which I strongly suggest was a physical impossibility. Nevertheless, this story is told over and over again. Gore Vidal even used it in his novel Burr. Problem is, I have found no contemporary source of it ever happening. Burr was mentioned in an after-action report on how well he performed in the attack, to the anger of many other officers, but nothing else is mentioned. In fact, Donald Campbell, Montgomery’s second in command, in a letter to Montgomery’s father-in-law noted that there was no one left alive (except one mortally wounded sergeant who the British found after the assault) ahead of a shell-shocked 2nd Lt. Richard Platt of the 1st New York Regiment. Platt actually filed a Federal pension application, but made no mention of the Quebec assault at all, and instead concentrated on his later service, where he obtained a higher rank. If anyone has a source for this legend, please contact me here, through the JAR.

Jim Piecuch
I’ve often encountered the story that early in Washington’s administration, when the three were still friends, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson were discussing the new Constitution. Adams supposedly said that he would have preferred directly adopting the British constitution for the United States, if the corruption in the British system could have been removed. Hamilton allegedly replied that he agreed, but would have kept the corruption, since it greased the wheels of government. Jefferson was said to have been horrified at their remarks. If this could be documented, it would give us some valuable insight into the real opinions and political differences among the Founders.

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2 Comments

  • Excellent work, everyone. I will add this: the identity of the “widow of a doctor” who kept Hessian commander Carl von Donop ‘lodged’ at Mount Holly on December 25, 1776 has never been discovered. Some New Jersey legends claim the woman might have been Betsy Ross, but there has never been any evidence to support such a story. Whoever she was, we know from Jaeger Capt. Johann Ewald’s journal that von Donop’s ‘rendezvous’ with this mystery woman kept the mixed unit of Hessian/British troops and cavalry far enough away from Trenton (they were originally quartered in Bordentown and stretched southward to Black Horse) that they could not provide assistance to Rall the following morning. By the time news reached Mount Holly, the Continental army had already recrossed the Delaware with Hessian prisoners.Though the skirmish at Petticoat Bridge and the Battle of Iron Works Hill never receive the credit they deserve with helping Washington’s crossing on December 26, Capt. Ewald’s own words declare that the entire war may have been lost because of von Donop’s flirtations with this one woman.

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