Thursday, November 17, 2011

Patron's Perspective: Tracing the New Jersey Militia

Long-time Library Patron Larry Kidder has spent many years researching the life and times of the men who served in the Hunterdon County, New Jersey, Militia in our microfilm records. Over the course of his work, he has run into many challenges stemming from the nature of the source material, which was not always kept as exactly and regularly by contemporaries as historians could desire. In this installment, he takes on the particularly tricky question of tracing men who served in the militia as well as in the Continental service. Unlike the modern United States Army, the Continental Army was initially recruited for one-year enlistments from 1775 through 1777. One of the major source pools for recruits were the various county militias-- in fact, they were so important that in the second half of the war, American officials would actively draft men from the militia to serve in Continental regiments in order to meet Congressional quotas. These practices created an intricate spiderweb of documents, as well as gaps in the record, that complicate any attempt to trace a given individual's service. Thankfully, Larry provides some key insights that should smooth the path of other researchers.


"The lack of official records relating to the New Jersey militia can cause identity problems.  Since many men served at different times in both the Continental forces and the militia, it is difficult to know what the actual service of any one individual was.  Was the man said to have been in the militia also the same man who served for a time in the Continentals?  Even standard and highly regarded sources can lead one astray.  Here is one case study – Captain John Mott."

For the remainder of Larry's entry, read below the fold.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Letters from the Front: Prologue to the Retreat Across the Jerseys

"We are now, thank God, and the inertness of the Enemy, in a very tolerable secure condition"

General Charles Lee's November 2, 1776, letter came at the breathing point between the Battle of White Plains and the total collapse of American efforts to keep the British Army contained in the vicinity of New York. Following the Battle of Pell's Point, Washington withdrew the Continental Army to the small village of White Plains, near which he fought General William Howe's redcoated forces on October 28th. The British succeeded in driving Washington off the high ground near White Plains, but did not destroy or seriously maul his forces. In the aftermath of that engagement, Washington held a council of war to determine the best strategy for the upcoming winter season. As a result of that meeting, Washington divided his forces into three parts. One, under Lee's command, took post on the eastern shore of the Hudson to prevent at British attempts to invade New England. General William Heath took another detachment further up the river to guard against any attack on Albany. The final portion of the army, under Washington's personal command, took post at Fort Lee, across the North River from Fort Washington. From this relative point of security, the Continentals waited to see what the British forces would do next. As Lee's letter below demonstrates, the general lost no time in writing to Pennsylvanian Dr. Benjamin Rush, waxing eloquent on the past campaign and lodging a series of complaints about various shortcomings. See the full text of the letter below, as painstakingly transcribed by Library volunteer Andrew Dauphinee. The entire staff can attest to the difficulty of reading the good general's handwriting!


Friday, November 11, 2011

Letters from the Front: The Battle of Pell's Point

"Col Reads & Lt Col: Shepards Regiments were posted behind a Stone Wall in the Enemy’s Course undiscovered by them..."

In Jedediah Huntington's previous letter of October 15, 1776, he discussed the British Army's abortive landing at Throg's Neck, to be followed up by an advance at Pell's Point designed to turn the American flank. In this letter, dated five days later, he provides some descriptions of the latter engagement. In the course of this battle, Colonel John Glover, commander of the 14th Continental Regiment (also known as Glover's Marblehead Regiment) opposed the march of 4,000 redcoats with his small brigade of four regiments. Huntington mentions neither Glover, Glover's regiment, nor another one of the units in Glover's Brigade, the 3rd Continental Regiment. Instead, he focuses on the 13th Continental Regiment (commanded by Colonel Read of Massachusetts) and the 26th Continental Regiment (officially commanded by Col. Baldwin of Massachusetts but actually lead by Lt. Col. Shepherd). As Huntington notes, the key to the initial American success was surprise: Glover was able to shelter his men behind stone walls and ambush the British column, which eventually succeeded due to the force of numbers. While Glover was forced to retire, his defense bought Washington precious time to begin the withdrawal to White Plains, leaving a strong garrison at Fort Washington to harass the British. For the full text of the letter, please read below.


Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Letters from the Front: Mount Independence

"Our men have suffered much for want of barracks but are now getting comfortable log-houses."

On October 18, 1776, Dr. Samuel Adams penned another letter to his wife Sally, covering his trip to Mount Independence from Fort Edward, New York. In theory, this crossing took place before his previous letter, but Adams likely waited to relay it due to the more exciting event of the Battle of Valcour Island. As Adams note at the end of this dispatch, it was the third he had written in the space of a week. As noted in that previous entry, Mount Independence was the site of additional American fortifications on the flank of Fort Ticonderoga, designed to guard against any British attempt to secure the Champlain corridor. The victory at Valcour Island assured the American garrison of both posts a reasonable quiet winter, since the British could not effectively conduct operations at this advanced season. As Adams notes, the garrison of Mount Independence was busying itself preparing for winter quarters, especially creating warm barracks to see the troops through the coldest months of the year. As in his other letters, Adams provides eloquent testimony to the strong ties that linked men on the front lines of the struggle with their loved ones at home. For the full text of this letter, please read below. Our thanks go out to Library volunteer Paul Davis for transcribing this document.


Friday, November 4, 2011

Letters from the Front: Flanking Maneuver at Pell's Point

"...Our Men are in good Spirits, ‘thou very ragged & dirty..."

As American forces were cautiously celebrating a Pyrrhic victory at Valcour Island, General George Washington's main army stood poised at the landward side of New York City, holding post at the main bridge over the Bronx River. Huntington, whose last dispatch was written from the same local in late September, notes little change from the army's disposition of nearly three weeks earlier. His most significant concern is that the British forces will successfully outflank the Americans, cutting them off from the mainland and placing them in an untenable position. His letter details the movement of British troops off of their respective land posts around New York City, which, somewhat ironically, was the lead up to a major action that occurred a few days after of his letter: the Battle of Pell's Point. On October 12th, British Commander Sir William Howe had landed a large force of redcoats on Throgs Neck (referred to as "Frogs Point" in Huntington's letter below) in an attempt to out-flank American forces at Harlem Heights. Finding the Neck to be an island, rather than a peninsula, Howe evacuated his men on the evening of October 18th, landing at Pell's Point early the next morning. Meanwhile, Washington had already put the army in marching order, moving towards safer positions at White Plains where his line of retreat could be secured. The skirmish that ensued at Pell's Point between Glover's 14th Continental Regiment (from Marblehead, MA) and 4,000 redcoats bought Washington the time he needed to make good his escape. In the meantime, however, Washington left 2,000 men in garrison at Fort Washington, with orders to maintain a foothold on Manhattan Island. That post would provide the ground for the next major clash of the New York Campaign. For the full text of Huntington's letter, please continue below the fold.


Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Letters from the Front: The Battle of Valcour Island

"...we heard a heavy cannonading down the lake which continued for some hours, by which we knew that our Fleet was engaged with that of the Enemy..."

By the Fall of 1776, Dr. Samuel Adams, surgeon to the 2nd Continental Regiment of Artillery, found himself at Mount Independence, the major American installation next to Fort Ticonderoga. From this position, he listened to the Battle of Valcour Island unfold to the north of his position, up Lake Champlain. The engagement pitted a scratch-built American fleet, consisting mostly of flat-bottom gondola gunboats, against a squadron of British ships, including specially-designed Royal Artillery gunboats. 

The prize at stake was control of the Lake Champlain corridor. In order to strike at rebel-held upstate New York, the British needed the freedom to sail unmolested up and down the Lake. For Americans, this body of water provided a vital buffer for frontier defense. Beyond control of Lake Champlain, the Battle of Valcour Island also had significant ramifications on the American occupation of Fort Ticonderoga and Mount Independence. Built by the French in the 1750s, Fort Ticonderoga was designed to defend against an attack from the south: while it had some batteries facing Lake Champlain, this was the weakest side of the fortifications. Mount Independence boasted an impressive array of earthwork defenses, which were, in fact, too impressive, since they required more men to defend than could easily be spared. 

The American victory at Valcour Island, one of the narrower points in Lake Champlain, delayed the trial of the Ticonderoga and Mount Independence defenses for a year, though it was achieved at a high price: the destruction of most of the American fleet. This battle was also a major feather in the cap of a man who is still well known to Americans today, but for very different reasons. His name was Benedict Arnold, commander of the American fleet on the Lake. For a more detailed contemporary perspective, see the full text of Dr. Adams' letter below. Our thanks go to Library volunteer Paul Davis for transcribing this letter.