Morale Manipulation as the Central Strategic Imperative in the American Revolutionary War

Critical Thinking

August 3, 2021
by Woody Holton Also by this Author


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Most people think of wartime propaganda as atrocity stories about the enemy. But commanders also disseminate false and true information in hopes of boosting their own soldiers’ morale and sapping the enemy’s. Even more persuasive than words are actions, and manipulating morale often dictates how commanders deploy their troops. Witness the American War of Independence.

Generals’ concerns about both sides’ morale often led them to scrap retrograde movements that made sense tactically. Only a week after arriving in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to take command of the Continental troops bottling up the British in Boston, George Washington acknowledged the tactical wisdom of disengaging from the enemy and shifting his entire army several miles to the west. But that would “dispirit our own People, and Incourage the Enemy,” so he stayed put. In August 1780, as Continental troops approached Camden, South Carolina, their commander, Horatio Gates, discovered the strength of the British force occupying the town and considered moving off to avoid a confrontation. But as a subordinate later reported, Gates worried that “to have fallen back . . . would have discouraged the good men of the Country, & have given confidence to the opposite party.” So he and his soldiers forged ahead—to the disastrous Battle of Camden.[1]

British commanders were just as averse to showing the enemy their backs. On July 5, 1777, Gen. John Burgoyne’s redcoats and German auxiliaries drove the Americans out of Fort Ticonderoga and pursued them southward. Days later, the British reached Fort Anne, just fifteen miles from their intermediate objective, the Upper Hudson River. But Burgoyne had originally planned to travel south up Lake George. Some of his subordinates proposed an about-face in order to resume that much easier water route. But Burgoyne feared the “impressions which a retrograde motion is apt to make upon the minds both of enemies and friends,” so he and his men marched on.[2]

In the South during the final years of the war, Gen. Charles Cornwallis showed similar concern for public opinion. After taking his army to Wilmington, North Carolina, in April 1781 to meet supply ships, Cornwallis considered returning to his base, Charleston, South Carolina. But that would be “disgraceful,” so instead he led his troops north—ultimately to Yorktown.[3]

As a natural corollary to their reluctance to retreat, commanders often tried to give the false impression that they had forced their opponents to do so. After leading 1,200 Continental light troops south to Virginia in April 1781, Gen. Lafayette spent the next few weeks running away from Lord Cornwallis’s redcoats and Germans. But when the British headed east, Lafayette “Made it a point to Give His Lordship the Disgrace of a Retreat” by following him and thereby seeming to chase him. One of Cornwallis’s officers acknowledged that Lafayette had thus “animated the drooping spirits of the Virginians.”[4]

The imperative of projecting invincibility affected various commanders differently, pushing some toward rashness, others toward moderation, and still others toward excess caution. After the redcoats and Germans occupied Philadelphia on September 26, 1777, their commander-in-chief, William Howe, made the seemingly-reckless decision to not fortify the one land route into town, through Germantown. He explained: “works of that kind are apt to induce an opinion of inferiority.” The weak British defenses all but invited the Continentals’ nearly-successful October 4 attack on Germantown.[5]

Other British commanders’ sensitivity to public opinion steered them in the opposite direction,toward excess caution. On August 15, 1776, Gen. Henry Clinton led British troops in a successful amphibious assault at Kip’s Bay on the eastern shore of Manhattan Island, at about the latitude of today’s Empire State Building. Many at the time thought the redcoats and Germans could have marched across the narrow island, trapping hundred or even thousands of American soldiers in New York City at its southern tip. But Clinton held back, determined “to avoid even the possibility of a check,” since even a minor defeat would instantly aggravate war weariness in the mother country. “We live by victory,” Clinton explained.[6]

Over on the American side, the propaganda imperative nearly always pushed George Washington toward recklessness. Indeed, he repeatedly proposed all-or-nothing assaults, first against Boston (which the British occupied from 1775 to 1776) and later Philadelphia (British headquarters during the winter of 1777-1778) and New York City (British-held from 1776 to the end of the war). Taking Boston, Nathanael Greene predicted in February 1776, “would damp the spirits of Great Britain, and give ours a new spring. In a word, it would put a finishing stroke to the war.” Washington agreed, and he repeatedly proposed a grand assault to his council of war. But several of his generals stubbornly maintained that, given the invaders’ control of the harbors and their “impregnable” fortifications (as even Washington once called them), the Americans should “leave it to them to give us the Advantage, by attacking Ours.”[7]

Pressure from fellow Continental generals similarly restrained Lafayette. “I Have Been Guarding Against My Own Warmth,” the marquis reassured Washington. But he qualified that calming comment by noting that if he were to “decline fighting” altogether, “the Country would think Herself given up.” Greene could have benefited from similar restraint. He feared that evacuating Fort Washington near the northern tip of Manhattan in November 1776 would spread “Discouragement” through the Continental ranks, so he left the garrison in place—at the cost of nearly 3,000 killed and captured.[8]

Commanders on both sides were especially sensitive to how their tactical decisions affected recruitment. On December 27, 1776, the day after Washington’s spectacular capture of 900 Hessian soldiers at Trenton, Col. John Cadwalader, senior officer of the Philadelphia Associators (militia), urged the commander-in-chief to attack the redcoats and Germans again. “If we can drive them from West Jersey,” Cadwalader wrote, “the Success will raise an Army by next Spring.”[9]

Commanders were equally concerned about their adversaries’ recruitment and tried to influence that as well. Barely a month after driving the African Americans who had fought valiantly at Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill out of the Continental Army, Washington learned that back in Virginia, the royal governor, Lord Dunmore, had offered freedom to any slave “able and willing to bear arms” for his king. If Dunmore’s “Ethiopian Regiment” became “formidable,” Washington warned, it would grow “like a snow Ball in rolling,” since many blacks “will be tempted to join who will be affraid to do it without.” That concern helped convince Washington’s council of war to allow free blacks—though not slaves—back into the Continental Army.[10]

The propaganda tactics discussed up to this point were double-edged, aimed both at boosting morale in the commander’s own camp and at dispiriting the enemy. But some of the propagandists’ messages more precisely focused on the enemy, Native Americans, neutrals, or the commander’s own side.

Eighteenth century army officers experimented with countless ways of intimidating their enemies, and a single weapon encapsulated their ambitions. Bayonets infamously inflicted gruesome wounds—but for that very reason, they were used less often to stab enemy troops than to panic them into retreating pell mell. Thus commanders highly favored bayonet charges, just not against opponents who seemed likely to stand their ground.[11]

At Bunker (actually Breed’s) Hill, Whigs found that they could rob the bayonet of much of its force simply by fortifying and using their firelocks to inflict up to 50 percent casualties before retreating. “The intentions of these wretches,” William Howe wrote a week after his pyrrhic victory at Breed’s Hill, “are to fortify every post in our way; wait to be attacked at every one, having their rear secure, destroying as many of us as they can before they set out to their next strong situation.”[12] Howe thus correctly predicted the outcome of the American War of Independence immediately after its first major battle.

Much of the intimidation employed during the war would be more accurately described as bluffing. On December 4, 1780, Col. William Washington (second cousin to the commander-in-chief) successfully used “Quaker cannon”—tree trunks painted black and mounted on gun carriages—to force the surrender of about 125 Loyalist troops holed up at Rugeley’s Mills, thirteen miles north of Camden, South Carolina. In June 1781, Lt. Col. John Graves Simcoe’s redcoats and Queen’s Rangers raced to capture Continental supplies cached at the confluence of Virginia’s Rivanna and James Rivers, before American soldiers could transfer them to the south side of the James. As his soldiers entered a forest, Simcoe moved the women who ordinarily marched behind them up into their ranks, considerably expanding the force’s apparent size. The Americans decamped, leaving most of their supplies to the enemy.[13]

In August 1777, Benedict Arnold, still fighting for the American side, achieved one of the greatest propaganda coups of the war. On the sixth, British commanders Thayendanegea (Joseph Brant) and Barry St. Leger had ambushed and annihilated Nicholas Herkimer’s Continentals and Whig militiamen near the Oneida town of Oriska. The Anglo-Indian force then resumed its siege of the rebel garrison at Fort Stanwix (known to its occupants as Fort Schuyler) at the head of the Mohawk River. Arnold volunteered to command a second attempt to relieve Fort Schuyler, and on his way west, he sent a white man and at least one Iroquois to disseminate the rumor that his army was much larger and closer to the British camp than it actually was. This fake news convinced St. Leger to return to his base in Quebec.[14]

Historians generally assume that the Iroquois and Mississaugas who left with St. Leger had also been taken in, but St. Leger knew better. The native warriors had joined him primarily in expectation of plunder, only to have their own packs stolen by American troops sallying out from Fort Schuyler during the Battle of Oriskany. Refusing to make good the natives’ losses, St. Leger began an orderly withdrawal, taking along all his stores. But then, as St. Leger later reported, Iroquois headmen “artfully caused messengers to come in one after the other with accounts of the nearer approaches of the rebels.” That left the redcoats no choice but to drop everything and run, whereupon the Iroquois and Mississaugas got their plunder.[15]

Especially on the frontier, native as well as white leaders often tried to achieve their ends without violence simply by threatening it. Five years before Lexington and Concord, when the Shawnee chief Red Hawk sent British agent George Croghan a message about an upcoming meeting to discuss the natives’ principal grievance, settler encroachment on their land, he told the messenger to emphasize that there would be “Chiefs from the Southren Indians as well as from all the Western Nations to speak to him at that time.” Croghan easily discerned Red Hawk’s sub-text: the Ohio Valley (“Western”) Indians who were trying to assemble an anti-British coalition had made progress at recruiting the populous native nations south of the Ohio River. The Shawnees “seem to gaskinade or T[h]reaten,” Croghan wrote.[16]

Most of the natives who fought in the Revolutionary War sided with the British, who could thus credibly threaten, as Burgoyne did on his march south from Canada in June 1777, “to give stretch to the Indian Forces under my direction.”Less than a month later, Charles Langlade, son of an Ottawa mother and fur-trading French father, entered Burgoyne’s camp. Historians doubt that Langlade had actually served with the French and Indian fighters who wiped out Gen. Edward Braddock’s British expedition to Fort Duquesne in the July 9, 1755 Battle of the Monongahela, but he claimed he had, allowing Burgoyne to announce that his native auxiliaries would be led by “the very man who projected and executed . . . the defeat of General Braddock.”[17]

The idea of using Native Americans to intimidate the enemy proved just as enticing to Washington and other Patriot leaders.“A body of indians, joined by some of our woodsmen would probably strike no small terror into the British and foreign troops, particularly the new comers,” Washington advised a congressional committee during the Valley Forge winter of 1777-1778. The congressmen agreed that the “Novelty” of the native warriors’ “Appearance in the Field, [and] the Circumstances of Horror & Affright which attend their Attack, will have a great Effect upon the Minds of Men wholly unacquainted with such an Enemy.” Congress authorized Washington to enlist as many as 400 Oneidas and Cherokees, to be employed against not only the redcoats but also the “disaffected” Pennsylvania farmers who carried their produce into Philadelphia during the British occupation. But few Oneidas and apparently no Cherokees accepted the Continentals’ invitation.[18]

The Americans’ attempt to use indigenous warriors to terrorize the enemy did not preclude them from also trying to intimidate enemy Indians. In June 1777, Washington sent Col. Daniel Morgan’s rifle regiment to northern New York to reinforce the Continental troops blocking Burgoyne’s path to Albany. The riflemen’s primary task would not be to fight redcoats and Germans but to intimidate Native Americans, who understood the effectiveness of their weapons in forest warfare. The commander-in-chief believed the news of the riflemen’s impending arrival might in itself spark “a general Desertion among the Savages.”[19] He was right about that, and after Morgan’s soldiers arrived, one of Burgoyne’s officers reported that his few remaining native auxiliaries“appeared very shy at going out on any scouting parties.”[20] The riflemen not only deprived Burgoyne of crucial intel but also eased local militiamen’s fears of leaving their families to join Gates. And of course Morgan’s troops ended up playing a decisive role in stopping Burgoyne at the Battle of Freeman’s Farm on September 19.

When white commanders, especially on the American side, could not obtain actual native warriors, they often tried to render white soldiers more menacing by dressing them like Indians. In the wake of Patrick Henry’s famous “Give me liberty, or give me death” speech, a March 1775 Virginia convention recommended that each of the province’s infantrymen be “cloathed in a hunting Shirt” and “provided with a good Rifle if to be had . . . and also with a Tomahawk.”[21] Washington stated that widespread adoption of the hunting shirt would “carry no small terror to the enemy, who think every such person a complete marksman.”[22] In June 1777, he urged Morgan, at the time fighting under him in New Jersey, to “dress a Company or two of true Woods men in the right Indian style and let them make the Attack accompanied with screaming and yelling as the Indians do.”[23]

In addressing Americans who either had not chosen a side in the imperial dispute or wavered between the two, the typical military leader delivered a simple message: either stay neutral or support my side, because it is going to win. In May 1776, when representatives of the Iroquois confederacy travelled to Philadelphia to confer with Congress, Washington invited them to review the city militia and a Continental battalion. “The design of this,” Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush observed, “is to give the Indian ambassadors now among us an august idea of the military strength of our province.”[24]

The British appeal to neutrals was similar. William Howe and his brother Richard, who commanded his country’s naval forces in America, doubled as peace commissioners, and on November 30, 1776, the two announced that no one who swore loyalty to George III in the next sixty days would be punished as a rebel. Hundreds of New Jerseyans took the loyalty oath, and Col. Joseph Reed feared his fellow Pennsylvanians would, too.“Something must be attempted before the 60 Days expires,” he urged Washington in a December 22 letter. Keeping neutrals neutral thus helps explain Washington’s risky decision to cross the Delaware and hit Trenton three nights later. (Another motive reason to attack, as Reed noted, was to shore up the value of the Continental currency.)[25]

Commanders on both sides labored to persuade neutrals that their side could keep troops among them and the enemy could not. In March 1781, when Gen. Cornwallis marched his army to Wilmington, North Carolina, near the Atlantic coast, to re-supply, his adversary Nathanael Greene chose not to follow him but to head south to challenge the now vulnerable British outposts in backcountry South Carolina. But Greene detached a rifle corps and Henry Lee’s cavalry to follow Cornwallis on his eastward march, “lest the inhabitants of the region through which he passed might presume that [Greene’s] army had been rendered incapable of further resistance, and might flock to the royal standard.”[26]

The two sides also jockeyed for favorable attention among the still-neutral nations of the Old World. Late in January 1778, Washington correctly predicted that his adversaries would soon invade the south “in order to gain possession of the capitol of another state, which will give reputation to their arms in Europe.”[27]

The most important target of commanders’ morale influence operations was always their own side. Indeed, the imperative of boosting civilians’ as well as soldiers’ confidence in ultimate victory explains some of the Revolutionary War’s best-known offensives. American Gen. Richard Montgomery’s December 31, 1775 assault on the all-but-impregnable British fortifications at Quebec may not have made much sense tactically, but Charles Stedman, a British officer and one of the Revolutionary War’s first historians, understood Montgomery’s conviction that “it was essentially necessary that the first campaign should be closed with a brilliancy that should prevent the public ardour from experiencing any diminution.”[28] A year later, as George Washington prepared to take his army across the Delaware River to surprise the Hessian garrison in Trenton, New Jersey, he observed that “A lucky blow in this Quarter would . . . most certainly raise the spirits of the People, which are quite sunk by our late misfortunes.”[29]

Commanders’ concern for their countrymen’s morale often proved strong enough to create doubt about who was commanding whom. Why did Gen. Nathanael Greene urge Washington to strike Gen. Henry Clinton’s army from behind as it marched from Philadelphia east across New Jersey toward New York City in June 1778, as in fact the Continentals ultimately did at Monmouth? Because “People expects something from us.” A year later, “the necessity of doing something to satisfy the expectations of the people” prompted Washington to send Gen. Anthony Wayne’s light infantry to capture Stony Point on the Hudson River.[30]

One result of Native Americans’ skepticism about British as well as U.S. intentions was that white commanders in turn viewed their native allies as unreliable. The best way to retain indigenous auxiliaries seemed to be to project strength—which sometimes meant concealing bad news. On the morning of August 15, 1777, when Gen. Burgoyne learned that Lt. Col. Friedrich Baum’s livestock rustling expedition to Bennington, Vermont, was in trouble (Baum’s army would be annihilated by Whig militiamen the next day), he dispatched reinforcements under Lt. Col. Heinrich Breymann. If the mission had to be abandoned, Burgoyne told Breymann, the two lieutenant colonels were to retreat “in such a manner as to give the enemy no chance to triumph over us, and no cause for discouragement to the Indians.”[31]

Sometimes commanders went further, bolstering their associates’ confidence by deceiving them. Several leaders of the 1763-1764 Indian insurrection known as Pontiac’s Rebellion spread the word that the French, who had been relatively faithful allies of the native nations in the modern-day Midwest until ceding the entire region to Britain in the Paris peace treaty of February 10, 1763, were planning to come back. The rumor cannot be traced to its source, but its creators probably hoped that the prospect of French help would make the anti-British coalition seem more likely to succeed, which would in turn help them recruit additional warriors. A similar strategy may have been at work among the lowcountry African Americans who claimed during the spring and summer of 1775 that George III’s whole reason for going to war against his white colonists was to make them free their slaves. Given the desperate nature of slave revolts—none succeeded until Saint-Domingue/Haiti in the 1790s—there was probably no better way to convince African Americans to participate in an insurrection than to tell them it had European backing.[32]

Major defeats or pyrrhic victories risked sowing despair, and the men who commanded depressed troops did what they could to shore up their spirits. In the wake of the June 17, 1775, Battle of Bunker Hill—Britain’s bloodiest day of the war—Gen. Thomas Gage observed that the constant ringing of funeral bells was breaking his men’s spirit, so he had them silenced. When Nathanael Greene took command of the United States’ dejected southern army in December 1780, he leavened every major militia detachment with a handful of Continental soldiers in hopes of “encouraging the Militia.”[33]

Sometimes troops could not be prevented from giving way to despair. Then it became the commander’s duty to assess not just his army’s traditional casualties but the less visible damage to its morale. In November 1776, as Gen. Charles Cornwallis’s redcoats and Germans pursued the Continental Army westward across New Jersey, the normally-aggressive Washington made sure to remain beyond the enemy’s grasp, since his troops were not only outgunned and out-trained but, after their defeats at Brooklyn, White Plains, and Forts Washington and Lee, too “broken & dispirited” to put up a fight.[34]

Washington again avoided the enemy a year later, after his soldiers lost, in just two weeks, at Brandywine Creek, White Horse Tavern (the Battle of the Clouds), and Paoli (the so-called Paoli Massacre). On September 22, the Continentals would have a chance to redeem themselves: in order to reach Philadelphia, Gen. William Howe’s redcoats and Germans would have to wade the Schuylkill River, and the Continentals held the east bank. Few maneuvers are more difficult than crossing a river into direct fire. At Valley Forge, where Howe chose to ford the Schuylkill, it is, as one of his German rifle captains noted, “over eight hundred paces wide and about a half-man deep.”[35] Howe went to sleep on September 21 thinking it would take a miracle to get his army across the river without mass casualties.

During the night of September 21-22, Howe got his miracle. The Continental Army moved off to the northwest, allowing the British and Germans to cross the Schuylkill virtually unopposed. Washington later claimed that the enemy had fooled him into withdrawing from the Schuylkill crossings. He said the British and Germans had marched far to the northwest—knowing Washington would shadow them on his side of the river—before cutting back south to slip across the Schuylkill. But Howe had not actually attempted that ruse. It is possible that Washington had marched his army upriver in pursuit of a shadow: bad intelligence falsely indicating that the British were headed north. But it seems more likely that the American commander had a different reason for pulling his army out of Howe’s path.[36] Having just lost three major battles, the Americans had forgotten how to win, even from their advantageous position on the east bank of the Schuylkill. So their commander moved them out of harm’s way.

If Washington had announced his real reason for pulling his troops back, he would have further eroded their self-confidence. So instead he pretended he had been tricked. In sacrificing his own reputation to save his army’s, Washington revealed his increasingly magnanimous character—and also his willingness to do just about anything to nurture his soldiers’ morale.


[1]George Washington to Richard Henry Lee, July 10, 1775, Founders Online,; Thomas Pinckney to William Johnson, July 27, 1822,in Jim Piecuch, ed., The Battle of Camden: A Documentary History(Charleston, SC: History Press, 2006), 39.

[2]Burgoyne’s choice of route also saved him the trouble of laying siege to the American fort at the south end of Lake George. Burgoyne, A State of the Expedition from Canada, as Laid before the House of Commons, by Lieutenant-General Burgoyne, and Verified by Evidence … (London: Printed for J. Almon, 1780), 12; Christopher Ward, The War of the Revolution, ed. John Richard Alden, 2 vols. (New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2011), 1:417.

[3]Charles Cornwallis to George Germain, April 23, 1781, Cornwallis to Henry Clinton, May 20, 1781, inCorrespondence of Charles, First Marquis Cornwallis, ed. Charles Ross, 2nd ed. (London: John Murray, 1859), 1:94, 99; David Ramsay, The History of the Revolution of South-Carolina: From a British Province to an Independent State, 2 vols. (Trenton, NJ: Printed by Isaac Collins, 1785), 2:224.

[4]Lafayette also had “an Eye upon European Negotiations,” which were rumored to be starting soon. If he could give the impression that he had driven Cornwallis out of the western and central portions of the state, British negotiators would have trouble laying claim to Virginia under the principle of uti possidetis(“as you possess”), which allowed all belligerents to retain whatever territory they occupied. Banastre Tarleton, A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781, in the Southern Provinces of North America (Dublin: Printed for Colles, Exshaw, White, H. Whitestone, Burton, Byrne, Moore, Jones, and Dornin, 1787), 308; Lafayette to Washington, July 20, 1781, Founders Online; Louis Gottschalk, Lafayette in America, 1777-1783, 3 vols. in one (Chicago: University of Chicago Press for L’Esprit de Lafayette Society, 1975), 3:249.

[5]William Howe, quoted in Matthew H. Spring, With Zeal and with Bayonets Only: The British Army on Campaign in North America, 1775-1783 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008), 18-19.

[6]Clinton, quoted in Spring, With Zeal and with Bayonets Only, 25.

[7]Nathanael Greene to [Jacob Greene], February 15, 1776, in William Johnson, ed., Sketches of the Life and Correspondence of Nathanael Greene, Major General of the Armies of the United States, in the War of the Revolution, 2 vols. (Charleston: Printed for the author, by A. E. Miller, 1822), 1:53; Washington to Henry Laurens, March 7–8, 1778, Horatio Gates, quoted in council of war, February 16, 1776, editors’ note, Founders Online.

[8]Lafayette to Washington, May 24, 1781, Greene, quoted in Washington to John Hancock, November 16, 1776, Founders Online.

[9]John Cadwalader to Washington, December 27, 1776, Founders Online; David Hackett Fischer, Washington’s Crossing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 265.

[10]Dunmore, proclamation, [dated November 7, 1775 and issued November 15, 1775],; Washington to Joseph Reed, December 15, 1775, council of war, December 30, 1775, Founders Online.

[11]Spring, With Zeal and with Bayonets Only, 199.

[12]Howe to [British Adjutant General?], June 22, 24, 1775, in Henry Steele Commager and Richard B. Morris, eds., The Spirit of ’Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants, 2 vols. (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1958), 1:133; Henry Lee, Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Bradford and Inskeep, 1812), 1:49-55; Edward G. Lengel, General George Washington: A Military Life (New York: Random House, 2005), 105.

[13]John Graves Simcoe, Simcoe’s Military Journal. A History of the Operations of a Partisan Corps, Called the Queen’s Rangers, Commanded by Lieut. Col. J.G. Simcoe, during the War of the American Revolution … (New York: Bartlett & Welford, 1844), 217-23; Lafayette to Washington, June 18, 1781, Founders Online; John E. Selby, The Revolution in Virginia, 1775-1783 (Williamsburg, VA: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1988), 280.

[14]Barry St. Leger to Guy Carleton, August 27, 1777, in K. G. Davies, ed., Documents of the American Revolution, 1770-1783, 21 vols. (Shannon: Irish University Press, 1972-1981), 14:173; Jared Sparks, The Life and Treason of Benedict Arnold (Boston: Hilliard, Gray, and Co., 1835), 110-11.

[15]St. Leger to Carleton, August 27, 1777, in Davies, ed., Documents, 14:173; Sparks, Life and Treason of Benedict Arnold, 110-11; Richard M. Ketchum, Saratoga: Turning Point of America’s Revolutionary War (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1997), 334; James Kirby Martin, Benedict Arnold, Revolutionary Hero: An American Warrior Reconsidered (New York: New York University Press, 1997), 363-67.

[16]George Croghan, quoted in Woody Holton,Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia (Chapel Hill: Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, VA, by the University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 25.

[17]John Burgoyne, proclamation, June 20, 1777, in James Murray Hadden, Hadden’s Journal and Orderly Books: A Journal Kept in Canada and Upon Burgoyne’s Campaign in 1776 and 1777 (Albany: J. Munsell’s Sons, 1884), 61; Burgoyne to Germain, July 11, 1777, in Davies, ed., Documents, 14:141; Michael A. McDonnell, Masters of Empire: Great Lakes Indians and the Making of America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2015), 282-84.

[18]Washington to committee of Congress at camp, January 29, 1778, Founders Online; committee of Congress at camp to Henry Laurens, February 20, 1778, in Paul H. Smith et al., eds., Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774-1789, 25 vols. (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1976-2000), 9:144-45.

[19]Washington to George Clinton, August 16, 1777, Founders Online; Don Higginbotham, Daniel Morgan: Revolutionary Rifleman (Chapel Hill: Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture at Williamsburg, VA, by the University of North Carolina Press, 1961), 58, 61; Nathaniel Philbrick, Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution (New York: Viking, 2016), 126.

[20]British officer, quoted in Douglas Cubbison, ed., Burgoyne and the Saratoga Campaign: His Papers (Norman, OK: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 2012), 119; Notes of General Burgoyne’s Speech to the House of Commons, in Historical Manuscripts Commission, Report on the Manuscripts of Mrs. Stopford-Sackville, of Drayton House, Northamptonshire, 2 vols. (Hereford, UK: Printed for His Majesty’s Stationery Office by Mackie & Co. Ltd., 1904), 2:114; Higginbotham, Daniel Morgan, 65; Barbara Graymont, The Iroquois in the American Revolution (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1972), 154.

[21]Patrick Henry, quoted in William Wirt,Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry (Philadelphia: James Webster, 1817), 123; Virginia convention, resolutions, March 25, 23, 1775, in William J. Van Schreeven and Robert L. Scribner, eds., Revolutionary Virginia, the Road to Independence, Vol. 2 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1975), 374-76, 366-67; Maryland convention, December 8-12, 1774, in Peter Force, ed., American Archives. Fourth Series. Containing a Documentary History of the English Colonies in North America, from the King’s Message to Parliament of March 7, 1774, to the Declaration of Independence by the United States, Vol. 1(Washington, DC: M. St. Clair Clarke and Peter Force, 1837), 1032.

[22]Washington, general orders, July 24, 1776, Founders Online.

[23]This section of Washington’s draft letter does not appear in the signed version and may have been inadvertently omitted by the copyist. George Washington, orders to Daniel Morgan, June 13, 1777, along with editors’ note, Founders Online; Higginbotham, Daniel Morgan, 58.

[24]Rush diary, May 27, 1776, quoted in David Freeman Hawke, Benjamin Rush; Revolutionary Gadfly (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971), 157; Joseph Hewes to Samuel Johnston, May 26, 1776, in Smith, Letters of Delegates, 4:77–78.

[25]Reed to Washington, December 22, 1776,Founders Online.

[26]Lee, Memoirs, 1:360.

[27]Similarly, the main reason Gen. William Howe at the end of 1776 sent one army under Cornwallis into New Jersey and another under Clinton into Rhode Island was to add two provinces to the British column before going into winter quarters. Washington to the committee of Congress at camp, January 29, 1778, Founders Online; Fischer, Washington’s Crossing, 116-17.

[28]Charles Stedman, The History of the Origin, Progress, and Termination of the American War, 2 vols. (London: Printed for the author, 1794), 1:140.

[29]Washington to Jonathan Trumbull, Sr., December 14, 1776, Founders Online. A Whig victory would also pay more practical dividends. Three days before Washington crossed the Delaware, Joseph Reed, who did not know the raid was coming, warned that “something must be attempted to revive our expiring Credit give our Cause some Degree of Reputation & prevent a total Depreciation of the Continental Money.” Reed to Washington, December 22, 1776, Cadwalader to Washington, December 27, 1776, Founders Online.

[30]Greene to Washington, June 24, 1778, Washington to John Jay, July 21, 1779, Founders Online; Mark Edward Lender and Garry Wheeler Stone, Fatal Sunday: George Washington, the Monmouth Campaign, and the Politics of Battle (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016), 176.

[31]Burgoyne to [Breymann], August [15], 1777, in Memoirs, and Letters and Journals, of Major General Riedesel during His Residence in America, trans. William L. Stone, 2 vols. (Albany: J. Munsell, 1868), 1:271-72.

[32]Gregory Evans Dowd, “The French King Wakes up in Detroit: ‘Pontiac’s War’ in Rumor and History,” Ethnohistory 27:3 (Summer 1990), 254-78; Peter H. Wood, “‘Liberty is Sweet’: African-American Freedom Struggles in the Years before White Independence,” in Alfred F. Young, ed., Beyond the American Revolution: Explorations in the History of American Radicalism (DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 1993), 165, 167; William Randolph Ryan, The World of Thomas Jeremiah: Charles Town on the Eve of the American Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 54; Wim Klooster, “Slave Revolts, Royal Justice, and a Ubiquitous Rumor in the Age of Revolutions,” William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 71:3 (July 2014): 401–24. For a similar strategic deployment of rumors by African Americans after emancipation, see Steven Hahn, A Nation under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003), 152.

[33]Greene, quoted in Clyde Randolph Ferguson, “General Andrew Pickens” (Ph.D. diss., Duke University, 1960), 116; Nathaniel Philbrick, Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution (New York: Viking, 2013), 233.

[34]Washington to Charles Lee, November 21, 1776, Founders Online; Ward, War of the Revolution 1:280.

[35]September 23, 1775, in Johann von Ewald, Diary of the American War: A Hessian Journal, ed. Joseph P. Tustin (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979), 91.

[36]Washington to Hancock, September 23, 1777, Washington to Israel Putnam, September 23, 1777, Founders Online.


  • A convincing, wide-ranging analysis, Woody. An additional strategy-driving morale-booster that comes to mind is Washington’s decision to make the stealthy end-around maneuver away from the lines along the Assunpink and on the dramatic night march to Princeton, it being said that the high-risk gambit had the virtue of “avoiding the appearance of a Retreat.”

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