A People's History
of the American Revolution

Page Smith

[Part 3 of 4]


The Second Continental Congress / 1

The Second Continental Congress was faced with the fact of a country at war. It had to take on all the responsibilities of a national government in a time of severe crisis, and it had to do so with powers entirely inadequate to the task. [p. 543]

The first matter before Congress turned out to be a prickly one. The Massachusetts Provincial Congress had turned its attention to the problem of framing a constitution, and Massachusetts wished to have the sanction of Congress to proceed with this task. …John Adams noted that the enterprise would be a demanding one; the opportunity facing the Colonies was unique. The people of America, people of "more intelligence, curiosity, and enterprise" than history could show, must all be consulted. The framers of the new constitutions must be attentive to the "wisest writers and invite the people to erect the whole building with their own hands, upon the broadest foundations." This could be done "only by conventions of representatives chosen by the people of the several colonies," and Congress should recommend "to the people of every colony to call such conventions … and set up governments of their own, under their own authority, for the people were the source of all authority and of all power." [p. 545]

Adams' speech was one of the milestones of the Revolutionary era. …The method that Adams proposed - the calling of constitutional conventions - came to be the course that was followed, in fact, by most colonies when they finally took up the task. Adams' insistence that the people were the legitimate source of all governmental power and must be involved as directly as possible in the framing of constitutions was an idea that had long been voiced by liberal thinkers. Now the idea of government by the people was to have a trial. In other words, "the people" had never, at least in modern times, been involved in the drafting and approval of a constitution. In fact, no such thing as a written constitution governing a nation existed in the world, if we except the rather unique case of the Swiss Confederation. [p. 545]

This making of constitutions, which culminated in the Federal Constitution, was the most striking intellectual venture in American history. [p. 545]

Adams' nomination of Washington was seconded by Sam Adams, Peyton Randolph, perhaps displaying some envy of his fellow Virginian, argued that New England already had a perfectly good general in Artemas Ward. …On June 15, the Virginian was nominated and unanimously elected commander in chief of the Continental Army at Cambridge. Congress at the same time took the army officially under its wing. John Adams wrote to his wife two days later that "the modest, the virtuous, the amiable, generous, and brave George Washington, Esquire," had been appointed commander in chief, an appointment that would have "a great effect in cementing and securing the union of these colonies," which "the liberties of America depend upon, in a great degree." [p. 548] Because the myth-making popular mind worked its own irresistible way with the idealized Washington, it has been difficult for historians to make much headway in peeling off those layers of pious wrapping. What is plain enough is that he is no longer a functioning generation. And this is not simply because "the true George Washington" has been obscured by the mythical George Washington, but rather because that quality of self-control that his contemporaries so much admired, is seen today as a classic form of the "repression" that has produced the "up-tight" American society. [p. 552]

Officers in every army and in every time have been, to the civilian mind, inordinately sensitive about matters of rank. The most evident reason is not that military men are more petty than their civilian counterparts, but that rank is to the army officer corps what oil is to the wheels of a machine; it makes the whole thing work. An army is arranged and sorted out by rank. The soldier thus becomes conditioned to a close and indeed not infrequently feverish attention to who outranks whom. [p. 555]

…it is almost invariably a mistake to try to fight a new war with veterans of the old, especially if those veterans are getting on in years. For one thing, military technology changes rapidly, and tactics with it. One of the besetting sins of the military mind is rigidity. That is because human beings love routine, and where that routine has the effect of governing almost all their actions and confirming their self-esteem, most ultimately become enslaved by it. In addition, age produces its own rigidities that compound those that typically accompany military life. Perhaps even more important, age, sadly and inevitably, brings a diminution of physical strength, energy, endurance (although that goes last), and agility. Decisions made by tired and ailing men are usually bad decisions. There is a direct correlation between physical robustness and military efficiency. [p. 556]

When an old order is in the process of being sloughed off and before a new order has taken form, there is a period of extreme vulnerability, a period that can slide quickly into anarchy if some guiding or controlling principal or person (preferably both) does not emerge. This was the case with the American colonies after Lexington. [p. 558]

Congress, in Adams' opinion, should encourage every colony to set up its own government, then "confederate together like an indissoluble Band, for mutual defence, and open our Ports to all Nations immediately. …But the colonies are not yet ripe for it." And so Congress dragged on from day to day, doing too late and under duress and timidly what it should have done boldly and expeditiously months before. [p. 559]

Congress … sent appeals for support to the British West Indian Islands, to Ireland, to the Canadians, and, finally, to the Six Nations, the most powerful and warlike confederation of Indian tribes in the New World. It was critically important to try to insure the neutrality of the Iroquois, whose alliance with the British had been traditional and whose assistance had been a vital factor in the French and Indian War. [p. 562]

As John Adams put it: "when 50 or 60 Men have a Constitution to form for a great Empire at the same time that they have a Country of fifteen hundred miles extent to fortify, Millions to arm and train, a Naval Power to begin, an extensive Commerce to regulate, numerous Tribes of Indians to negotiate with, a standing Army of Twenty seven Thousand Men to raise, pay, victual and officer, I really shall pity those 50 or 60 Men." [p. 563]

>Washington Makes an Army / 2

When Washington assumed command of the troops at Cambridge, he immediately undertook the staggering labor of creating a Continental Army. This turned out to be the most crucial enterprise of the period from the Boston Tea Party to the framing of the Federal Constitution in 1787. Upon its success or failure rested, quite literally, the future of the United States - not so much in the matter of a collection of soldiers who could fight the British to a standstill, but in the existence of a "continental" entity, in this case an army, which would represent in simple, practical terms the fact that there was a reality that transcended the particular individual colonies, a reality that could be called America. [p. 564]

One of the first problems Washington tackled, and one of the thorniest that faced him, was the relation between officers and men. In the simple democracy of the militia company, officers and men mixed without distinction, called each other by their first names, and, on the men's part, obeyed or disobeyed orders pretty much as they chose. Under such circumstances discipline was negligible. [p. 567]

From the beginning, Washington was keenly aware of the strength of local loyalties and prejudices among troops from different colonies. He repeatedly reminded the soldiers that they were members of the army of "the United Provinces of North America, and it is to be hoped that all distinctions of colonies will be laid aside…" [p. 568]

The colonists had, as individuals, followed the issues and arguments with a remarkably sophisticated understanding and had, as individuals, made up their minds how they meant to respond. They could not see why they should not continue to do so. The mere fact that they carried a gun and marched off with their friends and relatives to fight the British surely did not mean that they were expected to surrender the right of individual judgment. But that, of course, was exactly what it did mean, and it was small wonder that the "lack of a proper subordination" - which had so offended "upper class" Tories and amused and irritated British travelers in the colonies - should have created a perpetual dilemma for those among their fellow countrymen who had the responsibility of leading them in camp and in battle. [p. 571]

As something created to fight the British, the army was, in purely military terms, a failure. After the colonists had been formed, at enormous cost and effort, into a more or less conventional army, they never again were as successful in any engagement with the British as they had been when they extemporized their tactics at Concord and at Bunker Hill. If a general of far more imagination and originality than George Washington had taken command of the army at Cambridge, he might have said, in effect: "There is no point trying to teach all these contentious individuals to behave like conventional soldiers. It is entirely against their temperament, their mode of life, their 'native genius.' Clearly the thing to do is to encourage the development of those tactics that they have already discovered instinctively: constant harassment by militiamen who constitute no organized 'army' but slip out to harass and raid, to wear down the British by ceaseless minor forays, and then disappear into 'those endless forests, which,' as a contemptuous Britisher wrote, 'they are too lazy to cut down.'" [p. 573]

Such a strategy might have succeeded far better than a strategy that called for the creation of a Continental Army modeled along a conventional line. But it would not have answered the purpose of providing a foundation for the eventual United States. [p. 574]

John Adams also gave an interesting analysis of the differences between Southerners and New Englanders. "Gentlemen in other colonies have large plantations of slaves, and the common people among them are very ignorant and very poor. These gentlemen are accustomed, habituated to higher notions of themselves, and the distinction between them and the common people, than we are. I dread the consequences of this dissimilitude of character, and without the utmost caution on both sides, and the most considerate forbearance with one another, and prudent condescension on both sides, they will certainly be fatal. … [pp. 575-576]

The conventional army of the eighteenth-century was a product of the new industrial age, which depended for its efficiency on treating people like interchangeable parts. Every soldier was, ideally, like every other soldier, just as every factory worker was to be, in time, like every other factory worker. [pp. 577-578]

In order to lay a proper foundation for what was to become a continental nation, Washington had to remodel his army as a conventional army rather than as congeries of friends and neighbors fighting against a common foe. However, in doing so he had to destroy a portion of that community-based individualism that had provided, in the deepest sense, the morale to oppose the awesome power of Great Britain. [p. 578]

…out of the drawing together and the rough fashioning of the Continental Army came the discipline, order, and unity that made a nation possible. Thus the question of Washington's genius as a military commander, while an interesting question in itself, is, strictly speaking, beside the point. Having molded an army by the most Herculean efforts, by indomitable patience, by tact, by moral suasion, Washington had simply to keep it in existence to ultimately triumph. That he had created it and was able, in the face of every discouragement, to preserve the army was the seed of the new order. Congress existed for no other purpose than to supply it (rather badly), to facilitate its operations, to secure allies to aid it. [p. 579]

Only half of Washington's problems involved discipline, re-enlistments, and now modeling the army. The other half had to do with items almost as important as soldiers - money, provisions, and powder. [p. 581]

Clinton, Burgoyne, and Howe concerted their efforts to persuade Gage to move his small army from Boston to New York. …From New York, the British could move to Pennsylvania and Virginia or, probably more profitably, up the Hudson River, destroy the American forces on Lake Champlain, and establish contact with the Canadians and the Indians of the Northwest. [p. 583]

Ticonderoga / 3

In the immediate aftermath of Lexington and Concord, some of the more militant New Englanders cast about for the means of striking a blow against British military might. Fort Ticonderoga, at the lower end of Lake Champlain, was held by a small garrison of British soldiers - some forty-eight men, among whom were a number of invalids. [p. 584]

What made Ticonderoga an especially tempting objective was that it contained a large number of heavy cannon, … [p.584]

…Ticonderoga and Crown Point in the hands of a strong British garrison would be like a dagger aimed at the heart of New England. So, offensively or defensively, politically or militarily, Ticonderoga and Crown Point were crucial to the Americans. [p. 585]

[Benedict] Arnold had also been one of the warmest Sons of Liberty in New Haven; the very day that word came of Lexington and Concord he set off at once for Cambridge to volunteer his services. [p. 586] The attackers captured some one hundred cannon of various sizes with much ammunition, and forty soldiers, many of whom bore crippling wounds from ancient campaigns. [p. 589]

After the capture of Ticonderoga, Arnold's joint leadership had been flatly rejected by the Vermont soldiers and officers. Arnold claimed it was because he tried to prevent their looting, which is not improbable. But now Arnold had a small force of which he was the legitimate commander. …Arnold caught the St. John's garrison of fourteen men by surprise. He also captured the seventy-ton armed sloop and her crew. [p. 590]

At Ticonderoga, Arnold's recruits arrived daily to augment the men that he could claim as his own. Allen meanwhile played into Arnold's hands by attempting an abortive expedition into Canada that was surprised and routed at St. John's. When Allen and a remnant of his men finally got back to Ticonderoga, they found Arnold firmly in charge. With his ascendancy assured, Arnold promptly demonstrated his very real gifts for military organization and his remarkable energy. Hearing word of an impending British attack, he strengthened Crown Point and sent off requests to Cambridge for more men and supplies. [p. 591]

…the seizure of Ticonderoga and Crown Point were acts of reckless aggression against His Majesty, George III. These forts belonged to the king. How could it be hoped that he would look indulgently on his colonial children in the face of such acts of provocation? A bitter debate followed, at the end of which, over the opposition of most of the New England delegates - who realized how vital Ticonderoga and Crown Point were for the safety of their region - Congress directed that they be abandoned. The desperately needed supplies might be carried off, but a careful inventory should be made so that when harmony was restored between Great Britain and her colonies, proper restitution could be made of His Majesty's property. [pp. 591-592]

When word reached the colonies that Congress intended that the forts be, in effect, returned to the British, there was an immediate shock felt throughout New York and New England. …An obvious British strategy would be to cut off New England from the rest of the colonies by a campaign from Canada down the line of the Hudson to New York. The possession of Ticonderoga would forestall such a move. …Faced with explicit resistance to its authority, Congress reluctantly gave way. The forts might be held. [p. 592]

The Invasion of Canada / 4

While Washington continued to keep watch on the British in Boston, Congress began to dream of an invasion of Canada. Benedict Arnold wrote letters to Philadelphia urging such a step. [p. 594]

Benedict Arnold, while still in command of Ticonderoga, had prepared a plan … for a campaign directed against Montreal. …The essence of Arnold's plan was speed. But speed was the one thing it was futile to expect from Congress. [p. 595]

… Schuyler's force declined daily in health and morale. It was late in August, with good weather running out, before Schuyler was ready to move northward with some thirteen hundred men and twenty days' provisions. …Schuyler received word from Washington that he was dispatching another expedition under Arnold by way of Maine to march on Quebec - with the intention of diverting Carleton and creating a modest envelopment of the small British force in Canada. [pp. 597-598]

Schuyler's illness was a great piece of good fortune for his command. …Montgomery promptly surrounded St. John's and cut it off both from the river and the roads leading to Montreal. …Ethen Allen soon became a problem for Montgomery. …Allen with 110 men … set up to seize Montreal, a city of more than 5,000 people. …[H]is attack was based on the belief that his assault would be supported by inhabitants of the city who were favorable to the American cause. The reverse happened. …Finally, with only thirty-eight men left, seven of whom were wounded, Allen surrendered. [pp. 600-601]

…Allen had been a liability from his first appearance on the scene. His poorly conceived attack on Montreal was a disaster, not simply in itself but because it rejuvenated the defenders of Montreal, who congratulated themselves on having captured the feared and famous Ethan Allen. It put a virtual end to any hope of recruiting Canadians for the American side. Finally, Allen's failure encouraged the Indians, always and understandably concerned with throwing in their lot with a winner, to rally to the British standard. [p. 602]

Arnold's March / 5

Arnold's march to Quebec became one of the great military ventures in history. Taken as an achievement of will, the expedition must always arouse the admiration of everyone who admires skill and daring carried to the limits of human endurance. [pp. 606-607]

Five or six members of the expedition faithfully kept diaries, and this among men taxed to the utmost day after day is remarkable. The diary is one of the particular achievements of the individualistic Protestant consciousness. It was not simply the pleasure of literate men with time on their hands; it was the crucial record, kept as often by simple men as grand ones, of the state of the individual's soul and the corporal embodiment of that soul, under God's care and judgment. … [pp. 608-609]

Montgomery and Arnold knew that they did not have a sufficient force to storm the defenses of [Quebec]. Yet having come so far with such extravagant hoes and endured such miseries, they could not bear to withdraw. A surprise attack seemed the only possibility. …[p. 614]

It was an astonishingly bold project, and it came within a hairsbreadth of success. In terms of conventional warfare it was more than a little insane, but the Americans were not yet committed to conventional warfare, and this extravagant venture came close enough to victory to startle the world. The measure of its failure can, indeed, be summed up in one word: "time." At every stage of the operation, a few weeks' time would have certainly made an enormous difference. Time meant, essentially, supplies. Supplies, in turn, depended on the energy and resolution of those charged with providing them. The vacillation of Congress in regard to the invasion of Canada was certainly an inhibiting factor. [p. 617]

A soldier counts only if he is willing to fight; his simple existence, however well-equipped and heavily armed he may be, is otherwise of little consequence. The Americans who fought at Quebec were undoubtedly among the best soldiers who ever fought against discouraging odds. They were superbly led; they came to fight. The most notable victories in warfare have, with few exceptions, gone to those armies who forced the "breaks" by their energy and resolution. There are no defenses, however formidable, that are proof against a determined and well-led attack. [p. 618]

Distressed as Americans were at the news of the defeat and capture of Arnold's force - and above all by the death of Montgomery, which awakened memories of the tragic death of General Wolfe - they were deeply stirred by the daring of the attack. When word of Montgomery's death reached England, he was praised in Parliament by Edmund Burke and Barre and Charles James Fox as a hero. To which North replied that Montgomery was "brave, able, humane, generous; but still only a brave, able, humane and generous Rebel. …" Fox had the last word, however. He noted that all the great defenders of liberty had, in their time, been called rebels, and the members of Parliament "even owed the Constitution which enabled them to sit in that House to a rebellion," a reference to the English Civil War of 1640. [p. 619]

The fact is that Arnold's march to Quebec could not have been carried through by any other soldiers in the world. It was an achievement unique to a people whose individualism was so powerful a reality that it enabled them to overcome innumerable practical difficulties with an innate resourcefulness, and beyond that, to support the will to survive and persevere in the face of incredible hardships. Much credit must go, of course, to Arnold. That cold, hard, ambitious man was a superb leader, the type who leads by inspiring emulation, by doing first himself the most arduous and demanding tasks. [p. 619]

Although Congress had ordered printed what seemed to its members enormous quantities of money, the presses could not keep up with the demand, nor could the signers of the bills sign them fast enough. "For God's sake," Washington wrote, "hurry the signers of money, that our wants may be supplied. It is a very singular case, that their signing cannot keep pace with our demands. [p. 620]

Clinton Attacks Charles Town / 6

The British ministry had already begun to make plans for a campaign in the South, the purpose being to join forces with the large groups of Loyalists who, North was assured by Governors Tryon and Lord William Campbell, waited only for some indication of British support to rise and annihilate the their rebel persecutors. [p. 624]

As the battle approached, Charles Town had become impressively well fortified. The city's other fort, Fort Johnson, had some 380 defenders and twenty heavy cannon... [p. 630]

When eighteenth-century warships anchored to deliver sustained fire against a land installation, they put out anchors, bow and stern, on cables with springs attached to absorb the recoil of the guns and thereby prevent the anchors from dragging or the planks of the vessel from being sprung. [p. 631]

Americans interpreted the battle (if it could be called them) as a humiliating setback for the British. The campaign of which the battle was the culmination was a classic example of the difficulties of a combined land and sea operation, as well as of British dilatoriness and arrogance. From the time that Congress got wind of the intended attack on Charles Town until the time Parker's ships opened fire on Fort Sullivan, more than six months elapsed. In that interval, the South Carolina patriots had had ample time to assemble a substantial force and almost complete an excellent fort. [p. 635]

As in most military decisions made by British commanders, career considerations were prominent if not paramount. Officers almost invariably approached engagements with an eye to the effect of victory or defeat on their careers. [p. 636]

Guerrilla Warfare on the Water / 7

The war in New England continued to be a stalemate. Gage and his army sat in Boston; Washington and his troops ringed the city - and did nothing. [p. 637]

The navy, like the army, was weakened by patronage and corruption, by the buying and selling of commissions, and, of course, by the wretched conditions that characterized the life of a sailor in His Majesty's Navy. Any system that depended on the press gang's seizure of men who were hardly to be distinguished from kidnapped slaves must have been cruel and inhuman beyond measure. Little or no care was taken for the health of sailors, who were crowded below decks in what were most commonly foul holds. Deaths from sickness and disease far outnumbered casualties in battle. Scurvy and dysentery were as prevalent as the common cold and made men susceptible to every kind of contagious infection. [p. p. 638]

While Washington was laboriously augmenting his little auxiliary navy, Rhode Island placed before Congress a proposal to establish a continental navy. Congress was mired down in a peculiarly complicated and frustrating debate over what action to take in regard to colonial trade. Those who still clung to the hope of reconciliation with the mother country wish to maintain nonimportation and nonexportation; to abandon it would be, in effect, to abandon the hoe (or delusion) that Britain could be forced to change her policy by economic pressures. [p. 644]

It was October, 1775, before the ships were ready to sail. Mowat decided to pass up Gloucester for the time being and headed for Falmouth. Anchoring off the town, he sent an officer ashore with a sanctimonious statement to be read to the people of the town… The citizens had two hours grace to [leave]. At the end of that time the town would be set afire. [p. 645]

The destruction of Falmouth was a capricious and vindictive act that served no important purpose and did far more to stimulate American bitterness and strengthen the patriot cause than any conceivable advantage that could have accrued to the British. If it was intended to frighten other towns into compliance, it had just the opposite effect. Efforts were made everywhere to augment the defenses of seaport towns, and additional impetus was given to the movement to build up a navy. Considerations of humanity aside, punitive actions against civilians in wartime are both foolish and cowardly; they degrade those who perform them as surely as they punish the guilty and innocent indiscriminately. [p. 646]

Dorchester Heights / 8

Impatient with the British inaction, Washington consulted his generals about the practicality of an attack on Boston by the Continental Army. …It is hard to believe that Washington, shrewd judge of military capabilities that he was, could have thought that his raw and undisciplined troops could have stormed Boston, which had been made virtually impregnable by the British. [p. 649]

…on the night of March 2, Washington opened a heavy diversionary bombardment of Boston Neck. Knox, starting from scratch, had produced a highly efficient corps of artillerymen. His achievement was the more remarkable since the colonials did not have enough powder to do much cannonading. [p. 650] While the British prepared for a re-enactment of Bunker Hill, the Americans strengthened their position until it was far more formidable than the works on Breed's Hill had ever been. …Howe began to plot his attack immediately. Plans were hastily drawn for the assault, and troops were told off to carry them out. [p.651]

Archibald Robertson, a young British engineer, spent much of the day of March 5 trying to get an audience with Howe to tell him that he thought the colonial defenses were virtually impregnable, and that an attack upon them by the modest force available to Howe could only be a disaster. …It is … possible that without the storm Howe would have attacked, but that is hard to believe. Had Howe done so, it seems as certain as anything can ever be that his troops would have been driven back and much more than decimated. If, at the same time, the American counterattack on Boston had succeeded, the British would have suffered a defeat that might have ended the war then and there. [p. 652]

The fact was that Howe had been completely outmaneuvered. Boston, of course, should never have been occupied to begin with. No military purpose had been served. Between five and ten thousand British soldiers had been immobilized for more than a year - almost half the entire British army in North America - when they would certainly have been put to better use in a dozen other places. The colonials had been given great encouragement by Bunker Hill; precious time had been given Washington to form the nucleus of an army. Congress had been allowed ample opportunity to get itself together and to begin the laborious task of supplying an army and developing agencies and instruments of self-government. The whole continent had been permitted time enough to ponder the idea of independence. Almost any disposition of British troops would have been preferable to sitting in Boston for more than sixteen months. [pp. 652-653]

As the British prepared to depart, Washington, assuming that Howe would set sail for New York and determined, if possible, to be there to intercept him, began to send off units of his army to begin the long march south, meanwhile keeping a wary eye on the British lest Howe, at the last moment, should try to catch the Americans off guard and retrieve the situation. [p. 654]

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