My Weekly Reader 8 February 2019.

Although Henry Lee III (1756-1818) was connected to a host of great landowners and political leaders of the Virginia Tidewater, read a great deal as a young man, and attended Princeton, he seems to have been about half horse: Lee loved to ride and was a superb horseman.[1]  Naturally, he joined the cavalry of the Continental Army in 1776.  In April 1778, Lee gained command of “Lee’s Legion,” a mixed force of infantry and cavalry employed in harassing British lines of communication and supply in New Jersey and New York.  He won several small-scale victories.  In September 1778, Lee ambushed and annihilated a smaller force of Hessians at the Battle of Edgar’s Lane; in August 1779 he commanded a successful raid on a British fort at Paulus Hook, New Jersey.

When the British shifted their main effort to the Carolinas in 1780, Lee’s Legion rode south.  Here Lee had much greater scope for the cut-and-thrust type of war to which he was so well suited.  The British offensive began well, with the capture of Charleston, South Carolina (and a large force of American forces ordered to hold an indefensible position) in May 1780, and then a crushing defeat of the American army at Camden in August 1780.  The British now hoped to raise a large force of American volunteers from among the Loyalists who had been terrorized into submission for the past two years.  A march by British troops through the Carolinas would show their command of the region.  Large numbers of Loyalists began to be recruited in Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina.  Along the way, small forts would guard lines of supply and provide rallying-points for Loyalists.  In February 1781, Lee’s Legion greatly discouraged the Loyalists with a surprise attack on Loyalist militia in North Carolina.[2]  In March 1781, the British won a costly victory over a larger American army at Guilford Court House.  The British commander, Lord Cornwallis, then divided his army.  He led most of them toward Wilmington, North Carolina in search of supplies.  The rest, mostly Loyalist troops, he left in South Carolina under the command of Lord Rawdon.

Rather than follow Cornwallis north, the Americans began to re-conquer South Carolina.  Lee’s Legion played an important part in this campaign.  Although Rawdon won a victory at Hobkirk’s Hill in April 1781, he soon found his lines of supply under heavy attack by Lee and by partisans under Francis Marion and Thomas Sumter.  In May 1781 a series of smaller British posts fell to Lee and the others.  Only Ninety-Six, stubbornly defended by Loyalist troops during May and June, defied the Patriot forces.  Rawdon had little choice to fall back to Camden, and then toward the coast.  In September 1781, Lee’s Legion fought with the rest of the American army at Eutaw Springs, where it suffered another defeat at the hands of a smaller British force.  But then news came of the British surrender at Yorktown in October 1781.

Lee had a fitful postwar political career as a devoted Federalist.  (He’s the one who described Washington as “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”)  In contrast, the management of his business affairs failed to command from him the same attention as had his military operations.  He went bankrupt, spent a year in debtors prison, and wandered the Caribbean for a time before returning to die in Virginia.

His son, Robert Edward Lee, commanded the Army of Northern Virginia.

[1] There is a new biography by Ryan Cole, Light-Horse Harry Lee (2019).

[2] Commonly known as the “Pyle Massacre.”

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My Weekly Reader 6 February 2019.

When the War of the American Revolution began, the rebellious colonies had no real army with which to fight it.  The colonists had long relied up militias made up of part-time soldiers.  For the most part, these militias had been dedicated to local defense against Indian attacks.  The militia units from the frontiers had more experience than did the militias from the eastern territories.  They all lacked training, discipline, equipment, and—often—competent officers.

Still, a bunch of them had “seen the elephant” up close.  George Washington had a couple of experiences in the back-country, then had a memorable experience with General Edward Braddock’s catastrophic attempt to capture Fort Duquesne.  Daniel Morgan (1736-1802) had been a teamster—no very exalted position–on that expedition.[1]  Morgan differed greatly from Washington.  He was a poor-boy immigrant from New Jersey to the Shenandoah Valley.  He arrived with nothing but muscle-power, but there was great need of that on the 18th Century frontier.  He began to accumulate property: first a team of horses, then a farm, and later slaves.  Braddock’s expedition offered him his first taste of war.  It left him unimpressed with British military leadership and also deeply bitter toward British rule after he was severely flogged for smacking one of his officers.  Soon, Morgan became an officer in the Virginia militia and experienced at war with the Indians.

Morgan led a company of Virginia riflemen on Benedict Arnold’s expedition through the wilds of Maine to capture Quebec.[2]  The effort failed and many American soldiers were captured, Morgan among them.  He spent a year in British captivity before being paroled.  Upon his release in early 1777, George Washington promoted Morgan to colonel in the Continental Army and told him to raise a regiment of frontier riflemen.  Morgan led the regiment in the campaign that ended with the surrender of General John Burgoyne’s army at Saratoga (1777).  He and his men passed from this triumph to disaster in the Philadelphia campaign and wintered in Valley Forge (1777-1778).  In 1779, fed up with Congress and ts mismanagement of the army, Morgan stormed off in a huff to retirement.

Then Horatio Gates, who had commanded at Saratoga, took charge in the South.  Morgan initially declined the offer of a command.  When Gates led the army to disaster at Camden (1780), however, Morgan returned to service.  The new commander, Nathaniel Greene, put Morgan in command of a small unit.  His mission was to avoid a battle while harassing the British lines of communication.  In January 1781, Morgan disobeyed the order to avoid battle by setting a trap for a British light force under Banastre Tarleton.  The two forces collided at a pasture called the Cowpens in South Carolina on 17 January 1781.  Morgan’s adept handling of his militia led to a brilliant, small-scale victory.  The American victory had a disproportionate effect because Tarleton’s force—virtually annihilated in the fight—included much of the British light infantry.  This hampered Lord Cornwallis going forward in the Southern campaign.  It also set a pattern for a campaign of attrition that would end at Yorktown.

Plagued with ills, Morgan left the army soon after Cowpens.

[1] Don Higginbotham, Daniel Morgan: Revolutionary Rifleman (1961) is still the best biography.

[2] See Kenneth Roberts, Arundel (1936).

My Weekly Reader 19 December 2018.

What we think of as the British Empire of the Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries did not yet exist in 1763.  It was aborning, however.  Britain had defeated France in the Seven Years War (1756-1763).  Britain then took possession of French North America between the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.  British North Americans saw their long-standing hopes of expanding beyond the Appalachian Mountains fulfilled.  These hopes failed at first.  The British Empire’s managers in London saw themselves juggling a diverse American community.   British “America” contained largely Protestants, mostly of Anglo-descent; Canada contained Catholic former French subjects; and in the Wilderness, the Native Americans offered access to the riches of the fur trade.  Containing the British North Americans offered the best path to peace and prosperity, especially after Pontiac’s Rebellion (1763) showed how difficult it might be to conquer the Native Americans.

The conflict crystalized in two remarkable figures.[1]  George Croghan (1718-1782), an Irish immigrant fur trader and land speculator, had become the vastly influential deputy to Sir William Johnson, the Superintendent of Indian Affairs.  James Smith (1737-1813), a Pennsylvania farmer, had been an Indian fighter and then became  a charismatic figure.  Both had lived among the Indians, and knew their languages and culture.  Their fundamental dispute gave human faces to the essential difference between the Anglo-American colonists and the British government.  Croghan saw the path to prosperity for himself and for the Empire running through peaceful trade with the Indians.  Smith saw the path running through driving away the Indians and expanding farming settlements.

To seal the deal with the Native Americans, in February 1765 the British dispatched a huge column of gifts to a peace treaty ceremony with Pontiac in the Ohio country.  Croghan added in many of his own trade goods from a desire to revive trade after the war and Pontiac’s Rebellion.  The Pennsylvania settlers[2] saw the presents—including rum and gunpowder–as the basest form of appeasement and as likely to provoke another Indian war as to forestall one.

Smith formed many of the settlers into an impromptu militia called “The Black Boys” after their use of bunt cork to disguise their faces.  The “Black Boys” tried to stop the caravans.  The 42nd Highlanders provided the hard core of the British escort, so the rebel settlers tended to steer around them.[3]  For a time, the rebels even blockaded Fort Loudon.  The British, short of supplies, abandoned the fort in November 1765.  Then peace with the Indians came and the “Black Boys Rebellion” died down.

In “Patriot,” Mel Gibson’s character announces that “the [coming] war [with England] will be fought not on the frontier or on some distant battle-field, but here among us…”  In truth, it was fought everywhere.  The wars on the frontier played a vital role in determining the American victory.  However, the frontier fights began well ahead of the formal “Revolution.”

[1] What follows is a part of the story told by Patrick Spero, Frontier Rebels: The Fight for Independence in the American West, 1765-1776 (2018).

[2] Now in central Pennsylvania near Gettysburg, but then the far West.

[3] The 42nd had seen a good deal of service in North America, having fought at the first—disastrous—and second battles of Fort Ticonderoga, in the siege of Montreal, and in the bloody Indian fight at Bushy Run during Pontiac’s Rebellion.