March 29, 2023

To the Redoubts and Battlefields

Let’s revisit some of the Revolutionary War fights that “turned the world upside down.”

The Battle of Bunker Hill — well, actually Breed’s Hill — bolstered the colonial morale as word of the confrontation between the militia and the British forces spread from Boston to all the colonies. While General George Washington’s army was still scattered and untrained, the Second Continental Congress realized that the war had begun. Earlier, Washington had written to Governor Jonathan Trumbull of Connecticut, reminding him, “It is a matter of utmost importance to prevent the Enemy from possessing themselves of the city of New York.” Now, Washington found himself confronting the “Enemy” in New England with the threat increasing in the Middle and Southern colonies.

How does one plan to defeat the most powerful army in the world?

It’s tempting to glide over the armed conflict that would plague the colonies from 1776 to 1781 with a glib comment that the fighting ultimately culminated at Yorktown with Cornwallis’s surrender and an American victory. But to not pause to recount some of the most significant battles and governmental resistance is to dishonor the courage displayed by the patriots who joined the cause for independence. In a colonial world where the population was fairly evenly divided into thirds — 1/3 for independence, 1/3 loyalists, and 1/3 non-committed to either cause — those who joined the patriot cause did so knowing that failure was possible, and failure would result in charges of treason punishable by death.

So, let’s revisit some of the fights — well known and less remembered — that “turned the world upside down.”

Just weeks before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the Battle of Moore’s Creek pitted loyalist descendants of Scottish immigrants against patriot forces in a battle that rendered the loyalists ineffective in the Carolinas for the next three years. Never heard of Moore’s Creek? Not surprising, but that decisive event was followed by a British attempt to land its naval forces on Sullivan’s Island, near Charleston, which also failed miserably due to the rough seas and an even rougher patriot force that was armed for victory.

The British altered their military attack and decided to concentrate their forces in New England and the nearby colonies.

George Washington crossing the Delaware

In a 1776 holiday story that still inspires patriotic hearts, Washington moved his troops into New Jersey on Christmas night, launching a surprise attack against the German troops fighting for Britain at Trenton. A week later, the colonial forces would defeat the British at Princeton, fueling colonial hopes that victory might be possible.

After a winter encampment, troops from both sides were on the move by the summer of 1777. In late summer, at Fort Schuyler, the colonial forces withstood a three-week siege and ultimately repeled British forces led by Barry St. Leger. While General Burgoyne had hoped his army could secure the Mohawk Valley, his plan failed. Most students of history have little knowledge of Fort Schuyler, but the Second Continental Congress records note that colonial leader Colonel Peter Gansevoort and his garrison were “heartily commended” for their valor.

And then, in 1777, the final weeks of fighting near Saratoga altered the course of the war. The overwhelming numbers of British forces, commanded by Burgoyne, seemed destined for victory when Brigadier General Benedict Arnold suddenly appeared with a full brigade to reinforce the colonial line. The British forces were driven backwards to their earlier positions at Freeman’s Farm while the Hessian mercenaries doubled down, stubbornly continuing the fight until they were soundly defeated. Burgoyne attempted to save his forces by retreating, only to find they were surrounded by General Gates and over 20,000 colonials. On October 17, Burgoyne surrendered his troops with a signed agreement that his men would return to Great Britain with an honor pledge that they would not “serve again in North America during the war.”

Cue applause!

Not only had a major British force been defeated, but that American victory was a turning point in the fight for independence. Upon hearing the reports, the French government recognized American independence and agreed to provide military assistance.

By 1778, the fighting had spread across the contested areas. Virginian George Rogers Clark, with less than 150 men, captured several British forts in the Ohio Territory and swayed the French-speaking residents of Kaskaskia and Cahokia to support the patriots’ fight. While the Native People in present-day Illinois and Indiana continued to oppose settlement, Clark had opened the region for colonial expansion and reinforced the French alliance.

In 1780 and 1781, the fight would once again move to the South…

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