Notes From The Frontier
Revolutionary War Victory Day: October 19
We all recognize and celebrate July 4th as the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. But the “heavy lifting”—six years of fighting the most powerful army and navy in the world to actually gain that independence—happened AFTER the signing. The true date of independence was really October 19, 1781, when the Colonial Army, with a lot of help from the French army and navy, defeated the British at the Battle of Yorktown and English Lord Cornwallis officially surrendered.
It is the “rags to riches,” against-all-odds, David vs. Goliath origin story that defines us as Americans. A rag-tag civilian army that launched our nation with that can-do spirit we hold so dear. But the reality was messy, ugly, and brutal. Many Americans tend to forget—or never knew—the true price so many paid to build our nation and the courage it took to stand up to the most imperial power on earth.
The population of the Thirteen Colonies was about 2.5 million in 1776. The Colonial Army sustained a catastrophic 37,000 deaths in the war (6,800 killed in action, about 30,000 died of starvation, freezing to death or disease, most as prisoners of war). That’s five times the casualty rate our nation suffered in WWII and the second most deadly American war per capita, after the Civil War.
The thirteen colonies—New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia—had banned together against England over growing grievances, especially taxation without representation and punitive legislation to tax the colonists further. In retaliation, each colony formed a provincial government, then a centralized Continental Congress in 1774. They voted George Washington Commanding General and he began recruiting an untrained, civilian army. They had very limited infrastructure and few supplies or munitions for their new army.
The conflict finally ignited when the British attempted to seize Patriot arsenals and they were rebuffed in the “shot heard around the world” on April 18, 1775 at Concord, Massachusetts. Battles at Concord and nearby Lexington marked the beginning of the American Revolution. Colonists quickly had to make a life-or death, all-or-nothing choice: fight for their land and freedom from Britain or be hanged for treason.
The Continental Congress had signed contracts with small textile factories, tanneries, and gunsmiths mostly in New England to supply the new army. Colonial troops were issued a navy-blue military frock with red cuffs and trim, a linen shirt, a waistcoat (vest), cotton trousers, stockings and leather shoes or boots, depending on the soldier’s rank. But these fancy duds did not last long tromping and fighting in the wilderness and many troops adopted their own drab-colored farming clothes that blended into the vegetation of the land, giving birth to camouflage tactics and guerilla warfare.
Each soldier was also issued a single-shot musket, many over five feet long with a bayonet affixed at the end of the barrel. It was a cumbersome weapon that had to be manually loaded after each shot, first with gunpowder from a powder horn poured into the pan, then more gunpowder poured into the barrel, then ramrodded down, then a rounded lead bullet, then wadding, and ramrodded down again. Depending on the skill of the soldier, loading one ball took 15 seconds to a minute. Each soldier carried a box of 25 rounds, along with flint, wadding and gunpowder. Since arms and ammunition were often hard to come by, especially in the beginning of the war before the French began supplying the colonies, guerilla tactics included robbing British soldiers and their arsenals of guns and munitions. So, many patriots carried the British-issued, 14-pound “brown Bess” musket.
One invention that arose from the volunteer militia was “patched bullets,” pre-wrapped in wadding that saved time wrapping the lead ball manually when loading a musket. Patched bullets were often wrapped at home by women as part of the war effort.
In theory, soldiers were to be issued a haversack of utensils and foodstuffs. But the reality was that much of the army had to forage and hunt for food. Hunger—even starvation—was a common condition. Commanders tried hard to keep their soldiers lubricated with rum, beer, and hard cider, which helped maintain morale.
The American Colonies were unlikely victors, to say the least. The conflict was problematic for the Colonists because the thirteen colonies stretched over a thousand miles down the eastern seaboard, and hundreds of battles and skirmishes took place over an expansive area from Saratoga to Savannah. The core of the Continental Army comprised about 80,000 full-time men paid an enormous $29 per month. An additional 135,000 troops were paid and unpaid volunteers. But, because 90% of those troops were poor farmers, recruiting was difficult during planting and harvesting time.
The British offered freedom to all African-American slaves who escaped and served for the British armed forces. George Washington, in turn, recruited about 150 black soldiers—ex-slaves and freemen—who joined the Rhode Island Regiment and fought valiantly at the Battle of the Pine Bridge near Yorktown in 1781, suffering heavy casualties.
The Revolutionary War lasted eight grueling years. Although the British had early victories at Bunker Hill (June 1775) and New York (Summer of 1776), George Washington was encouraged that his rag-tag army could fight. (Even so, at the Battle of New York, Washington’s troops were outnumbered 3:1 and the British also had a fleet of warships! Washington would lose half of his army at the disastrous battle and the British would occupy the city. Some British troops even appeared acting in Broadway plays while stationed there.)
The patriot victory at Saratoga in 1777 was a turning point because it rebuffed the British invasion from Canada and encouraged the French to enter the war in support of the Colonies. French support was crucial, not only in supplying troops on the ground, but helping to prevent British resupply, reinforcements and attacks from the sea with a strong French navy presence. The French also injected the Colonial struggle with desperately needed arms, food stuffs and heavy artillery.
The British strategy was fundamentally to cleave the colonies in two and separating New England, where patriotic resistance was strongest, from the south, where some were more sympathetic to the English. Two British victories in Savannah (1778) and Charleston (1780) gave that strategy momentum, but the British defeat at Cowpens, South Carolina (1781) threw the momentum to the Patriots.
The French navy played a crucial role in the Colonial victory at Yorktown. The Battle of the Chesapeake off the coast of Yorktown between British and French fleets resulted in a French victory. The outnumbered British fleet departed in defeat, leaving the British army on land no choice but to surrender. The French navy was also able to control the waters off Yorktown and provide siege artillery and French reinforcements which proved decisive. The British were pinned down on the Yorktown coast against the sea for 11 days, buffeted by both Colonial and French forces, which outnumbered them 2:1. With casualties very high, running out of food and arms, and no hope of reinforcements, British General Cornwallis was forced to surrender to General George Washington and French General Rochambeau.
Some hard reckoning came after the war, however. As the dead were tallied and American prisoners of war released, hidden horrors were revealed. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Edwin Burrows in his 2008 book, “Forgotten Patriots,” wrote that some 30,000 American soldiers, sailors, and noncombatants were taken prisoner and held in grim New York City warehouses and, worst still, “prison ships” moored in Wallabout Bay (near today’s Brooklyn Navy Yard). Up to 70% of ship prisoners died—some 20,000—of starvation, freezing to death, disease, or beatings, three times that of those killed in action. War hero, Ethan Allen, wrote a bestseller about his captivity and the cruelty of his captors.
One ship was especially notorious. Conditions were so bad on the Jersey, it became known as the “hell ship.” As many as 12,000 died on that ship alone. Smallpox, yellow fever, starvation, rats, and floors with a foot of excrement were rampant. The morning salutation was: “Rebels! Turn out your dead!” Some bodies were thrown overboard to wash up on a shore littered with corpses. Others were buried in shallow graves on the Brooklyn shore.
The remains of the prison ship “martyrs,” buried in the Brooklyn sand—estimated to be about 11,500 victims—were gathered in 1808 and placed in a tomb near the Brooklyn Navy Yard. In 1873, the remains were moved to a crypt at Brooklyn’s Washington Park, now known as Fort Greene Park. In 1908, a 150-foot-tall column was constructed above the burial vault in a dedication by President Taft.
The Prison Ship Martyrs Monument, as it’s called, marks “the largest single Revolutionary War grave in the country,” according to the Daughters of the American Revolution. The National Park Service is currently considering if it should be included in the national park system.
PHOTOS: (1) Famous painting of the end of the battle of Yorktown, The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, marking the end of the war, by famous American painter John Trumbull. Cornwallis surrendered to General George Washington and French General Rochambeau. Trumbull served as Washington’s aide-de-camp at Yorktown. He completed the painting in 1820. It hangs in the rotunda of the United States Capitol in Washington, D. C. (2) Leading Virginia land-owner and former commander of the Virginia Regiment in the French and Indian War, the Colonies’ First Continental Congress appointed him Commanding General of a new Continental Army, which he then began to recruit. (3) Major General Nathaneal Greene was Washington’s most gifted and trusted officer, who very successfully commanded the southern theater of the war. Although he was a Quaker and completely self-taught as a soldier, he proved an excellent strategist. Washington designated Greene as his successor as commander of the Continental Army in the event of Washington’s death. (4) Marquis de Lafayette was a young wealthy French aristocrat who was made a French officer at age 13. He sailed across the ocean to join the Colonists’ fight at age 19! He was originally rebuffed but proved himself and was made a major-general in the Continental Army. His service would prove invaluable in aiding the young army to victory. (5) Count Rochambeau was a French aristocrat and officer who served as the commander-in-chief of the French Expeditionary Force that was sent to the Colonies to help in their fight for independence against the British. He played a major role in leading the Colonies to victory. (6) Lord Charles Cornwallis, general who lead the British forces in the Battle of Yorktown and was the commanding officer during the official surrender at Yorktown that marked the end of the war. (7) Sir Henry Clinton, British Commander in chief during the American Revolution. (8) The French navy played a crucial role in the Colonial victory at Yorktown. This painting by American naval painter, Victor Zveg, called the Battle of the Chesapeake, depicts French (left) and British (right) ships in battle off the coast of Yorktown in 1781. The outnumbered British fleet departed in defeat, leaving the British army on land no choice but to surrender. The French navy was also able to control the waters off Yorktown and provide siege artillery and French reinforcements which proved decisive. (9) American Continental soldiers capture British cannon at the Battle of Yorktown that took place from September 28 – October 19, 1781. The American and French troops arrived at Yorktown on Sept. 28 and formed a semi-circle around the British troops and German mercenaries, pinning them against the ocean shore. Historic hand-colored woodcut from North Wind Picture Archives. Artist unknown. (10) The painting, “Storming of Redoubt,” by H. Charles McCarron, Jr. shows the Colonial Army attacking the “redoubt” (earthworks outside a fort or battle location) at Yorktown. (11) Graphic showing top ten battles of the American Revolution from the battles of Lexington and Concord that started the war in 1775 to the siege and battle at Yorktown in 1781, ending the war. There were hundreds of battles and skirmishes that stretched over a thousand-mile front from Saratoga to Savannah over the six years of the war. (12) The Treaty of Paris was signed on September 3, 1783 by representatives of the new United States of American and Britain. U.S representatives included John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, and Henry Laurens. (13) The Treaty of Paris document with signatures and their wax seals. In the document, Britain agreed to terms that the new U.S. was free, sovereign and independent of the British Crown, it established the Canadian border as the northern demarcation and the Mississippi River as the western boundary of the new nation, with perpetual access to the Mississippi River granted both parties, as well as other terms. (14) Patriot prisoners were kept largely on British prison ships where POWs were essentially left to rot. As many as 30,000 American soldiers died as POWs.
© 2019 NOTES FROM THE FRONTIER Posted October 19, 2019
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