Thursday, May 31, 2012

Letters from the Front: Loyalist Spies in Eastern Massachusetts

"tis likely you have heard of the one Legged Spy taken up At Harwich he attempted to burn Barnstable Jail &c"

Despite the relative lowness of British fortunes in the spring of 1778, Loyalist agitation behind the lines continued. In his letter to Dr. Samuel Adams (whose letters to his wife have been featured previously), Thomas Paine of Eastham, Massachusetts (not to be confused with the famous writer) describes on-going Continental Army recruiting efforts alongside the activities of a Loyalist spy. His account, presented in full below, details the travails of a one-legged man believed to be a Loyalist agent and the reception (or lack thereof) he received from the local tory population. Eastham, located in eastern Massachusetts, retained a sizeable Loyalist population, though these dissidents from the Revolution were obviously well-intimidated by their whig neighbors, as seen by their unwillingness to harbor a spy. Our thanks go to Library Research Assistant David Swain for the following transcript.


Thursday, May 24, 2012

Letters from the Front: Consoling Burgoyne

"I am ever ready to do justice to the merit of the Gentn & soldier__ and to esteem, where esteem is due, however the idea of a public enemy may interpose__ "

In the spring of 1778, as John Burgoyne's Northern Army languished in captivity in New England, their commanding general sent a letter to George Washington. While it no longer survives, Washington's reply (presented in full below) indicates that Burgoyne's dispatch was a gesture of friendship. The British commander's April 4th response, which can be seen here, supports this conclusion. Washington's letter is significant in the way it shows the American commander espousing universal elements of eighteenth-century military culture. Though officially at war with the British, Washington nevertheless shows great compassion for Burgoyne, attempting to ease the sting of defeat with kind words and praise for Burgoyne's merit as an officer and a gentlemen. In the eighteenth century, European officers saw themselves as members of an elect club that was above the divisive nature of national politics, reflecting a military culture where officers of two different armies had more in common with one another than they did with the men under their command. While generally seen as a personification of American exceptionalism, it is important to remember that Washington did his utmost to follow the general conventions en vogue at the time.


Thursday, May 17, 2012

Letters from the Front: Languishing at Lancaster

"...none fight more for the approbation of Genl. Washington, as to publick Virtue & Love of one Country, that all my Eye, Its Honour & thanks in Genl. Orders, which I esteem of more Value than all the Gold medals & Sword"

The late winter of 1778 did not find all of Washington's Army at Valley Forge: many of the additional regiments raised from the start of the year were posted further to the west, such as at Lancaster, PA, where the men of the 16th Massachusetts Regiment (Henry Jackson's Additional Continental Regiment) languished, with a significant portion of the regiment sick in hospital. The first of a series of letters from the regiment's field commander, Major John Steel Tyler, demonstrates the renewed fighting spirit with which American troops approached the new campaign season of 1778, following on the heels of significant victories in 1777. Despite the deaths of several key officers (occasioning recommendations for replacements in Tyler's letter), the Major assured his commander that the new regiment was ready to do his name justice. Tyler's letter (presented in full below) also testifies to the personal loyalties that officers and men felt to General George Washington, which occasionally eclipsed the larger issues around which the Revolution is generally considered to have turned. Our thanks go to Library Research Assistant David Swain for tackling some particularly challenging handwriting and grammar.


Friday, May 11, 2012

Letters from the Front: Ebbing British Fortunes

"...while the French assist the Rebels with Arms, clothing & amunition they will not submit"

In January 1778, British General Robert Pigot, commanding the King's forces in Rhode Island, penned a letter to a friend in England that sheds a great deal of light on the British Army's attitude towards the war at that time. The previous campaign season had been a hard one: the defeat at Princeton on January 3, 1777, had set the year off on a mournful note, followed by frustrating defeats throughout the Jerseys as British and Hessian troops sought to gather forage and to force various mountain passes in order to close with Washington at Morristown. By June, General John Burgoyne's Army was on its way south to a rendezvous with unfortunate fate that would climax with the battles around Saratoga in the Fall. Likewise, General Sir William Howe's Army was preparing to sail for the Chesapeake, where it would eventually capture the rebel capital at Philadelphia, only to learn that their victory meant very little, particularly when set against Burgoyne's capture. Thus in January of 1778, British fortunes were at a low ebb. The remaining crown forces in America were spread throughout small enclaves ranging from Halifax, Nova Scota, to the North, down to Philadelphia in the South, barely able to control any territory in their hinterlands. American successes had brought further pressure to bear on the British Empire, as the French became more active in aiding the rebels, preparing to actively intervene with troops as well as boosting shipments of supplies. While the war would continue to rage for five more years, Pigot's letter (presented in full below) provides a poignant indication of how some officers saw the writing on the wall long before Yorktown. Our thanks to Library Research Assistant David Swain for this transcript.


Friday, May 4, 2012

Letters from the Front: Warring for Philadelphia

"...our men seeing a Body of british advance to cover the Retreat of their routed Army, & not being able thro a thick Fog to discern their Numbers, became panick Struck & fled from Victory"

While Horatio Gates' army battled Burgoyne across the the northern reaches of upstate New York, Washington's main army faced off against General Sir William Howe's forces in a struggle for control over Philadelphia. Landing at Head of Elk, Maryland, on August 25, 1777, British and German troops advanced slowly towards Philadelphia, taking the city in late September. In early October, Washington launched a counter-strike at isolated British outposts outside the city in the vicinity of Germantown. While initially succeeding, Continental forces were repulsed by British reserves, paving the way for the famous winter at Valley Forge. John Banister's letter, the full text of which is available below, provides stunning eye-witness commentary on this vital campaign, as well as a rather strong expectation of eventual American victory that few of his comrades probably shared until news of Burgoyne's defeat arrived. Our thanks go to David Library research assistant David Swain for this transcript.