The Northern Front
On the green in Lexington back in 1775, Captain John Parker is supposed to have told his men that if the British meant war, “let it begin here.” But an accident, not a deliberate act, started the shooting that grey morning, letting slip the dogs of war, and no matter how the combatants struggled to direct the contest, the war generated a momentum of its own. A rattle of musketry in an obscure corner of the British Empire had led to a world at war by 1778. In the years ahead the fighting would roar up and down the New England coast and the Hudson Highlands, far off into the western wilds, and all over the south. The conflict would test the British Navy on the high seas on both sides of the Atlantic, in the West Indies, and all the way to the shores of the Indian subcontinent. The provincial war had drawn the French empire into the fighting, and Spain and Holland would soon follow. Even the neutrals would hardly be neutral. In far-off Russia, Empress Catherine would draw Denmark, Sweden, and the Baltic states into the League of Armed Neutrality. In principle the league was committed to free navigation and free trade on the high seas; in practice, it would be a check to British power everywhere.
In this struggle Britain would, for once, stand alone, and that meant opportunity for the American cause. In the first flush of the French alliance much was hoped for in the American camp. Perhaps the richest opportunity of the war was in the immediate aftermath of the drawn battle at Monmouth. As Clinton was retreating from the fields of Monmouth, the Comte d’Estaing’s warships were en route to America with a strong contingent of infantry. If the French had crowded on a little more sail, they might have caught Clinton’s army between Sandy Hook and Manhattan and struck a crushing blow. But d’Estaing did not appear off the Delaware Capes until 8 July, then sailed cautiously north to New York. Even then, he might have struck Lord Howe a hard blow in the harbor, for Black Dick was outnumbered and outgunned. But fearing unknown shoal waters at the harbor mouth, d’Estaing drew off to the south in the third week of July. Washington, having a naval ally at last, was eager to put them to some destructive work before the French had to sail on to the West Indies. If d’Estaing was unwilling to take the fight to the British in New York, a joint operation by land and sea might pry the British loose from their other stronghold in the north, Newport, Rhode Island. The plan was simple, straightforward, and very sound. John Sullivan was to lead a strike force of 10,000–half Continental, half militia–down from Providence and on to Tiverton where he would ferry his command to the east side of the island. While d’Estaing’s warships controlled the harbor, his transports would land 4,000 French infantrymen on the west side of the island. Sir Robert Pigot and his 3,000 redcoats would be overwhelmed in short order.
Yet the best laid plans often do go awry. Sullivan, of hot-tempered Irish blood, and d’Estaing, with prickly Gallic hauteur, quarreled almost immediately, not an auspicious beginning to the alliance. Sullivan crossed ahead of schedule on 9 August and started down the island, advancing to within a mile of Pigot’s lines and laying out his own siege lines. In the meantime, d’Estaing began disembarking his troops on Conanicut Island west of Newport, the jumping-off point for the French attack. But the French were just getting ashore when a reinforced British fleet under Howe stood up the Sound, whereupon the foot soldiers clambered back aboard, and both fleets put to sea. The combatants were still hauling and tacking and sparring for advantage when a howling storm swept in on the night of 11 August–and promptly broke up both fleets. Howe withdrew to New York and d’Estaing to Boston to refit. By the time d’Estaing’s ships were seaworthy again, his allotted time in American waters was fast running out, and he sailed for the West Indies in the first part of November.
Meanwhile, Sullivan was left high, dry, and furious, for with the departure of the French the militia half of his command did as militiamen often did: they simply hiked for home. Sullivan fell back up the island and dug in on high ground on the northern end. Pigot, a tough brigadier, now went on the offensive and sent two columns, one British, one Hessian, forward on the 28th. The Americans gave way under hard fighting at first, but the next day rallied behind John Glover’s and James Varnum’s steady Continental brigades. (Black men here as elsewhere struck a blow for American liberty; an African-American company in a Rhode Island outfit fought very well this day. By war’s end nearly fifteen percent of the Continental Line were black.) When Sullivan learned that Clinton and Howe were in motion to Newport, now with 5,000 fresh fighting men, he withdrew in the dark, ferried his command over to Tiverton, and started them up the road to rejoin Washington and the rest of the army. The ever unlucky Sullivan was perhaps lucky simply to have avoided disaster. A rich opportunity had come to nothing–except to create mutual mistrust and antagonism among the allies. Indeed, so vitriolic was Sullivan’s denunciation of d’Estaing and his countrymen, that Lafayette–liaison and peace-maker–for a time thought seriously of challenging the Irishman to a duel (though in truth he was as dismayed as Sullivan at d’Estaing’s departure). And the brief French stay in Boston only produced more hostility. As far as the French were concerned, the Americans were no better than “Tartar hordes”; to the Americans the French were effete snobs. The intensity of this mutual animosity actually produced street brawls between the soldiers and sailors of both parties, which no less a personage than John Hancock had to step in to quell. The French and the Americans were a long way from being brothers-in-arms.
Thinking to create harmony in the Franco-American alliance, Lafayette proposed a combined operation against Canada, but Washington would have no more north-country misadventures. The commander-in-chief was intent on bottling up the enemy in New York, and in the spring of 1779 Lord George Germain was doing his best to spur the cautious Clinton into action. Clinton knew what he wanted to do: draw Washington into a general engagement and win a decisive victory. It had been the extent of British strategy all along. But Howe, despite tactical victories, had not done so at the height of his powers. Now Clinton’s force would be diminished by the 8,000 troops committed to St. Lucia and Florida. Still, Washington’s army, now in a long arc around New York, might be drawn out by a British drive up the Hudson. Clinton moved at the end of May with 6,000 Regulars. He may well have flirted with the idea of driving all the way to the American fortress at West Point, but for the moment he would be satisfied with the swift seizure of two posts about 35 miles upriver, Stony Point on the west bank and Verplanck’s Point on the opposite shore. Both fell easily to the British on 31 May. Washington for the moment simply shifted troops north to West Point, a post he absolutely could not afford to lose, and pondered his next move.
There was a great deal to consider. With the French fleet gone, the British were once more free to raid the New England coast, and the coastal towns of Connecticut now felt the hard hand of war. On the frontier the British and their Indian allies were on the warpath all over the map: in the Mohawk Valley of New York, the Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania, all over the vast wilderness from Lake Erie to the Mississippi River. Before too much longer the British would be in motion southward as well, in an expedition against Savannah. With so much to do and so little to do it with, the commander-in-chief came to a hard decision, putting first things first. And as far as he could see, protecting his camp at Middlebrook, securing his stores and supplies at Trenton and Easton, and pinning Clinton down on the lower Hudson were first things. Thus, just six weeks after Clinton seized Stony Point, Washington struck a counterblow, a midnight attack on 15 July. If Washington lacked the resources to do much against British depredations on the coast and the frontier, he had an excellent instrument at hand to strike at Stony Point. Washington at the end of ’78 had persuaded Congress to provide one company of light infantry for each battalion in the army. By the middle of June he had organized these light infantry companies into a strike force four-regiments strong under the command of Anthony Wayne, a proven fighter.
They marched down from Fort Montgomery under cover of darkness on 14 July and formed up in three columns near midnight. Wayne intended to carry the place by storm and solely at the point of the bayonet. At midnight he pushed his three wings forward: Colonel Richard Butler on the left and Wayne on the right would carry the business end of the battle; Major Hardy Murfree’s men, the only men with loaded muskets, would demonstrate against the center. Each attacking party would be guided by a “forlorn hope” of twenty men and an officer, followed by 150 axemen to clear away obstructions on their way to the British positions. For all their secrecy the American approach was betrayed by the noise of their own splashing across the mire that led to the rocky ground above. A spattering of picket fire broke out, and then crashing volleys and grapeshot from the heights. But the whole body of attackers was now rushing forward with one determined will. Wayne went down in the firing with his skull grazed by a musket ball, but his men drove on, a heaving, panting, vengeful mass pouring over the parapet and among the defenders. Almost at the same time, Butler’s men on the left were over the walls, and everywhere there was bloody work with the bayonet. In just a half-hour the redcoats called for quarter and Wayne was carried into the fort, bleeding but buoyant, with his victory and his vengeance for Paoli. The redcoats suffered heavily: 63 killed, another 70 wounded, and more than 500 prisoners. Except for one man who escaped downriver, the victory was complete, all at a cost of 15 dead and 83 wounded on the American side. Although in the end, an effort against Verplanck’s Point came to nothing and Washington decided Stony Point could not be held indefinitely, the storming of Stony Point was an important blow. It demonstrated the very real skill and spirit of American troops, and it sent a pointed message to Sir Henry Clinton: reach your arm too far from your stronghold in New York and you might find it cut off. The offensive into New Jersey he had been planning remained on the table.
With Clinton for the moment hemmed in at New York, Washington turned his attention to the frontiers, where fighting between American settlers and Britons, Loyalists, and their Indian allies had been sporadic and small-scale but savage. Indeed, neither Congress nor Washington could ignore the persistent and pathetic appeals from the frontiers for protection of some kind. In a sense, this conflict in the interior had nothing in particular to do with a republican revolution. It was a struggle virtually as old as European settlement in North America and is not hard to understand. At one point or another the native people recognized that if they were going to keep possession of the land and preserve their culture, they would have to fight. At the time of the Revolution, there were perhaps 200,000 native people in 85 tribes east of the Mississippi, and they had been embroiled in the whites man’s wars before, having played a part in the five imperial wars of the colonial period. They had tended to fight with the French in these struggles and for a very good reason. The Frenchman in their country was likely to be a transient, the voyageur who came only to trap or trade and went on his way. But the Englishman came with an ax and meant to stay, and as far as he was concerned, both the forest primeval and the aboriginal man were his enemies. After Great Britain’s great victory over the French in 1763, however, British policy in relation to the frontier shifted. In London statesmen, anxious about increasingly ungovernable up-country settlers, drew a line down the crest of the great Allegheny Mountain chain and prohibited new settlement to the west. This was business much easier said than done, for the Americans who lived above the fall line were restless and hungry for land. From his point of view, it was land free for the taking, providing he had the nerve to take it from the Indian and the gristle to clear it and break it to the plow. For a generation, they had been pushing through the gaps in the great mountains and into conflict with the native people. When the Revolution came, most Indians would probably have preferred to remain neutral. As a chief of the Oneida Nation in the Iroquois Confederacy said, “we love you both, old England and new.” But there were few things more difficult than maintaining neutrality while war roared all around. In the end, most Indians were willing to accept the guns, powder, and trade goods the English offered and to take up the hatchet against the Americans, whose rapacious hunger for land was their real enemy.
Although the frontiers had been aflame throughout the Revolution, the summer of 1778 was particularly destructive. In western New York Colonel John Butler, his son Walter, and Sir John Johnson had thrown parties of Loyalists and Indians against the settlements and outlying farms of the Mohawk Valley. In July John Butler in alliance with the great Mohawk chief Thayendanegea, known to the English as Joseph Brant, descended on the Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania. The result was terror, torture, and widespread destruction. In November Walter Butler and Joseph Brant returned to New York to strike the Cherry Valley settlement, which was also virtually destroyed in flame and indiscriminate slaughter. In the following summer, Washington called on John Sullivan to lead an expedition westward with two objectives: the capture of Fort Niagra, the British base of supplies on the south shore of Lake Ontario, and “the total destruction and devastation” of the Indian power. Washington committed some 2,300 of his Continentals to this venture along with another thousand under Brigadier General James Clinton. With militia picked up along the way, Sullivan would have nearly 5,000 effectives.
Sullivan moved in two columns: his own marching up the Susquehanna from Easton, Pennsylvania, and Clinton’s marching down the river from Fort Dayton on the Mohawk. In the face of so overwhelming a force, the Indians simply slipped off into the forest and fell back before the advancing enemy. By the time the two columns met at Tioga Point on the Pennsylvania border late in August, they had destroyed some fifteen Indian villages. On the 29th the British made their only really determined attempt to thwart the American campaign. Sir John Johnson, the Butlers, and Joseph Brant prepared an ambush at Newtown, near present-day Elmira, with a mixed force of Regulars, Loyalists, and Indians about a thousand strong. They waited for Sullivan’s army hidden behind a wilderness breastwork, but for once Sullivan was both lucky and skillful. His scouts discovered the ambush and Sullivan struck both flanks and routed the defenders. After Newtown, Sullivan turned north into the Finger Lake district of New York, burning everything as he went, standing crops, granaries, more than forty villages. The Long House of the Iroquois Nation was, as Washington had ordered, destroyed and devastated with a hard winter coming on. Though Sullivan would never quite reach Fort Niagara and Brant would continue to strike terror here and there on the frontiers, the Iroquois were spent as a fighting force for more than a year.
In the vast northwest territory from the southern tip of Lake Michigan to the Ohio River and beyond, the British and their Indian allies had likewise exerted a steady and savage pressure on the American frontier. The source of this pressure was Fort Detroit just north of Lake Erie’s western reach. From this base Colonel Henry Hamilton armed and supplied the Loyalist and Indian bands that raided and pillaged throughout the Illinois Country as far south as modern-day Kentucky. Hamilton was known to the Americans as the “Hair-Buyer,” and while it is not clear that he actually offered a bounty for American scalps, it appears that Hamilton did pay for them when they came in. Americans anyway supposed that doing so amounted to the same bloody transaction. Into this brutal business hiked a remarkable young frontiersman, George Rogers Clark, a Virginian just twenty-five when he conceived a bold plan to wrest the Illinois Country from the British. The plan he put before Virginia Governor Patrick Henry in 1777 called for a campaign against the lightly held British posts north of the Ohio and between the Illinois and Wabash Rivers. It might not be altogether accurate to call these British posts since the few settlements there–Cohokia, Kaskaskia, and Vincennes–were French really. The inhabitants of these places, in any case, had lived in principle under British governance since 1763, but they were hardly committed to the empire.
With a lieutenant colonel’s commission in his pocket and just 175 men at his back, Clark set out for the northwest from Pittsburg in the spring of 1778. Floating his “army” down the Ohio and then marching overland to Kaskaskia, Clark walked into the little post and accepted its surrender on the second anniversary of American independence. It had been a killing march, but he had won a tidy little victory without firing a shot. The French, learning that their conquerors were in fact allies, were only too eager to accept American rule, and soon Cohokia and Vincennes likewise capitulated. The Indians in the area Clark pacified with trade goods shipped up the Mississippi by Oliver Pollock, Virginia’s agent in New Orleans. By 1 August Clark could report to the governor that the whole of the northwest between the Illinois and the Wabash was an American province. (Virginia, looking ahead to the day when it might in peace exploit the country’s agricultural and mineral resources, was quick to claim it as Illinois County of the Commonwealth of Virginia). There was a rub, however: Hair-Buyer Hamilton was not quite prepared to concede the country. In October he set out with just 250 men from Fort Detroit, moving up the Maumee and then marching overland to the headwaters of the Wabash. By the middle of December he had picked up another 300 Indians and pushed on to Vincennes and seized the place from the terrified French on the 17th. Now it looked as if the British had a foothold from which they might advance all the way to the mouth of the Missouri on the Mississippi, perhaps open the entire river to British control.
George Rogers Clark, however, had not come a thousand miles to see the whole venture slip through his fingers. At Kaskaskia he managed to raise a pitiably small force, just 130 men and half of these French, and marched for Vincennes on 6 February 1779. It was mid-winter and the four rivers across his line of march were over their banks, but the tiny American force slogged on, half-starved and often chest-deep in the freezing black water. By 23 February, in a prodigy of human endurance, they reached Vincennes and pressed on to the little fort where Hamilton, now abandoned by his Indian allies, was making his stand. Clark had taken a half-dozen Indian prisoners en route, at least some of these with scalps on their belts. Clark now ordered them to be brought out in full view of Hamilton’s garrison, tomahawked to death, and their bodies thrown in the river. Hamilton and his men got the brutal message and surrendered the next day. Hamilton himself was shuffled off as a prisoner of war to Virginia where, under the circumstances, he was shown surprising mercy. Clark’s expedition had been boldness itself, and taking the long view, Clark and his intrepid band could well claim that they had won the vast northwest for the United States of America. (Poor Clark himself would make a sorry end, dying in debt-ridden and drunken disgrace in 1818.) In the nearer view, though, Clark never managed to seize Fort Detroit, the base of British power to the northeast, and the fighting would roar on over the prairies bitterly but indecisively until the end. The decisive campaigns would be fought far to the east. Not quite two weeks after Hamilton retook Vincennes in December, the British routed a hapless little American army and seized Savannah, Georgia. The British, having lost the initiative in the north, were about to regain it in the south.