My Weekly Reader 30 October 2020.

            The Twentieth Century might well be called “The Century of Monsters.”  Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, and Mao Zedong wielded absolute power over great states.[1]  They used that power to murderous ends from a combination of ideological fervor and personal pathology.  Hitler and now Stalin have been the subjects of an abundant biographies, each one seeking to understand what they did and why they did it. 

            Ronald Suny, an experienced and admired historian of the Soviet Union has added a first installment on his own biography of Stalin.[2]  It covers the years from Stalin’s 1878 birth in a remote backwater of the Tsarist Empire to the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in 1917.  The isolated, inhuman, psychopathic dictator is hard to recognize in his greener days.  Yes, he had a drunken, violent father.  He also had a loving mother.  Yes, he grew up in poverty and a society where the central government disdained his peripheral culture.  So did many Europeans. 

            In another time and place, perhaps he would have been something different.[3]  But he was born into a Russian Empire facing grave difficulties under bad leadership.  The Tsar-Liberator Alexander II had ended serfdom on terms disadvantageous to the freed people; he had sought to reform the law courts; he had begun the process of teaching Russians how to govern themselves at the lowest levels.  For all of these reforms he had been much hated and finally murdered.  His successors had embarked on a rapid industrialization that filled cities with unhappy toilers and a growing middle class.  However, the rulers had clamped down on reforms while mercilessly hunting dissenters and fostering anti-Semitism.  Defeat by Japan in 1905 wrenched political concessions from Tsar Nicholas II.  He soon repented this weakness.  

            Stalin came of age politically in this seething cauldron of unrest.  He encountered Marxism during a brief passage through a seminary run on much the same lines as the Russian state.  He encountered Lenin in books well before he met the man who led the extreme faction of Russia’s fragmented Marxist movement.  For Lenin, Stalin organized strikes (which often turned violent), robbed banks, and did time in Siberian prison camps.  For himself, Stalin schemed against other Bolsheviks closer to the center of power.[4]  It became a life-long trait. 

            The First World War created a final crisis for the Tsarist regime.  Calling up millions of peasants for military service (along with their draft animals) created a terrible food crisis in 1915 and 1916.  Incompetent management of both the war and the economic mobilization to support it cost the government the last shreds of credibility with the mass of Russians. 

            Stalin played only a mid-rank role in the Revolution that followed.  Food riots broke out in the capital city, Saint Petersburg, in February 1917.  These triggered a revolt against the whole regime that flashed across the empire.  The first victors were the established political parties: conventional bourgeois liberal parties and the moderate wing of the Social Democratic party.  The Bolsheviks found their real base of power for the subsequent October Revolution in the industrial workers.  Only then would Lenin—and Stalin—be on the road to dictatorship. 


[1] Vladimir Lenin and Benito Mussolini sought absolute power, but resistance from powerful forces in their own countries clapped a stopper on their tricks before they could reach the heights of their successors. 

[2] Ronald G. Suny, Stalin: Passage to Revolution (2020).  Reviewed by Joshua Rubinstein, WSJ, 29 October 2020. 

[3] Although it is hard to say what else he might have been.  A book reviewer?  “Eugen Onegin.  BAM!  BAM!”

[4] There has long been a suspicion that he worked as a police agent to thin out the competition. 

My Weekly Reader 21 October 2020.

Featured

            The Constitution reared up from a foundation of compromises.  Among these compromises was the toleration of slavery by states where it had little to no importance.  Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3 of the Constitution required the return of any fugitive from “service or labor” to her/his master from another state into which s/he had fled.  In sum, the Union mattered more than did slavery or the enslaved people.  A law, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, defined the legal mechanisms for returning fugitives.  However, as opposition to slavery increased in the North, local governments and private citizens often refused to co-operate or even obstructed the slave-catchers operating among them.  Therefore, another compromise, the Compromise of 1850, introduced a much more rigorous Fugitive Slave Act.  The new Act further inflamed Northern opinion.  

            Northern opinion divided more than this brief sketch suggests.  Anti-Black racism ran neck and neck with abolitionism in many places.  Many parts of the North valued their economic connections to the South and to slavery.[1]  Competition between political parties sometimes diverged from principled stands on issues.  All these forces came together in New York City before the Civil War.[2] 

            The city’s government dangled as a puppet of Tammany Hall, the Democratic Party organization.  Tammany pols played on the hostility to Blacks felt by the (predominantly Irish) immigrants they were organizing to vote early and often.  Judges and prosecutors had often crawled out of the same swamp.  New York City policemen sometimes moon-lighted as slave-catchers.  Businessmen who wanted to accommodate Southern customers turned a blind eye to it all. 

            Slave-owners would pay rewards for the return of run-aways, so Blacks in New York—people of color in an overwhelmingly White city–were deer in the jacklights[3] of slave-catchers.  This hunt only intensified with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which offered handsome fees to both slave-catchers and the judges who approved their transfer Southward.  Lured by the money, the slave-catchers sometimes kidnapped—and judges regularly approved the transfer of—free Blacks who were knowingly misidentified as fugitives.  Applying the term not just to New York, but to the whole of the North, one historian has labeled this the “Reverse Underground Railroad.”[4] 

            Highly publicized stories of free Blacks kidnapped into slavery appalled a growing audience of Northern Whites.  Five Black boys were kidnapped from Philadelphia in 1825, then four survivors providentially returned to tell their story of the Black “Trail of Tears” that ran from the Upper South to the new cotton lands of the Southwest.  In 1853, Solomon Northup wrote of his “12 Yeas a Slave.”  Not for nothing has Elizabeth Varon called her book on the Union troops Armies of Deliverance. 


[1] Banks financed the cotton trade and its spendthrift planters; insurers and ship-owners profited from the massive cotton exports. 

[2] Jonathan Daniel Wells, The Kidnapping Club: Wall Street, Slavery, and Resistance on the Eve of the Civil War (2020), reviewed by Harold Holzer, WSJ, 19 October 2020. 

[3] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spotlighting 

[4] Richard Bell, Stolen: Five Free Boys Kidnapped into Slavery and Their Astonishing Odyssey (2019), reviewed by David S. Reynolds, WSJ, 17 October 2019.  . 

My Weekly Reader 23 July 2019.

During and immediately following the American Revolution, the Articles of Confederation had provided a framework for governing the country.  That framework proved unsatisfactory.  The current Constitution replaced it.  While the authors of the Constitution were experienced and practical men, it remained a theoretical system.  Would it work any better than had the Articles of Confederation?  Would it be able to foster a strong sense of national identity as well as provide effective government?  Could it overcome the distrust of the many Anti-Federalist who had opposed its adoption?  Carol Berkin has argued that four crises in the 1790s worked in various ways to legitimize the new system.[1]

The Whiskey Rebellion (1791-1794).  The new federal government needed revenue, both to operate the government and to pay off the national debt.  Congress passed a tax on distilled spirits.  Farmers living on the then-Western frontier of Pennsylvania and Kentucky often distilled rye and corn into whiskey.  That whiskey could then be traded for goods to merchants who shipped the whiskey east for thirsty consumers.  Both the farmers and the distillers resisted the tax, often violently.  Talking to them didn’t work, so President Washington finally led an army of 13,000 eastern militiamen.  The army cowed the rebels and asserted federal authority (although it didn’t stop moonshining).

The Genet Affair (1793-1794).  The French monarchy had provided vital aid to the American Republic during the War for Independence.  In 1793, the French Republic wanted American aid in its war with Britain and Spain.  Many Americans took sides for or against the French Revolution.  Ambassador Edmond Genet arrived in search of aid.  Before presenting his credentials to the American government and in defiance of a recent Neutrality Proclamation, he commissioned privateers to raid enemy shipping and recruited volunteers for an invasion of Spanish Florida.  Talking to Genet didn’t work.  Washington, supported by both Hamilton and Jefferson, demanded France recall its ambassador.  Which they did, planning to guillotine him.

The XYZ Affair (1797-1798).  Recalling Genet did nothing to solve the growing Franco-American conflict.  President John Adams sent off a delegation to negotiate with the French.  Upon arrival, various French diplomats demanded bribes before negotiations could begin.  Most of the Americans went home in a huff.  The Adams administration then published the reports of the delegation, with the names of French diplomats replaced by the letters X, Y, and Z.  Many Americans became yet more hostile to France and the Adams Administration pushed through more military spending.  A naval “Quasi War” with France began.  However, Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans continued to favor the French Revolution and equated the Federalists with the old order.

The Alien and Sedition Acts (1798-1800).  The very divisive responses to the French Revolution and to relations with France embittered political debate.  The Adams Administration pushed through four Alien and Sedition Acts.  These extended the time to earn citizenship from 5 years to 14 years, allowed the government expel “dangerous” non-citizens, and allowed prosecution of those who made false statements that were critical of the government.  Under the guise of national security, the Federalists used the new laws in overtly political ways by prosecuting Democratic-Republican journalists, and by what amounted to future voter suppression.  (Many immigrants supported Jefferson’s party.)  Democrats attacked the Sedition law by invoking the First Amendment.  The reaction against the Alien and Sedition Acts helped spark the election of Jefferson as President in 1800.

[1] Carol Berkin, A Sovereign People: The Crises of the 1790s and the Birth of American Nationalism (2017).

My Weekly Reader 3 June 2019.

After the British surrender at Yorktown in October 1781, the Revolutionary War finally ended.  It had been a long war and a hard war.  The weary nation returned to peace.

Actually, that’s not what happened.  After Yorktown, war continued in the South and on the frontier.  The war on the frontier is particularly badly understood.[1]  Now, however, the war in the South can be better understood thanks to John Buchanan.[2]

Buchanan takes up his story well before Yorktown,  Horatio Gates, the “hero of Saratoga,” led the Army in the South to disaster at Camden (August 1780).  George Washington sent Nathaniel Greene[3] to clean up the mess.  He gave him a free hand and the assistance of Daniel Morgan.  Greene and Morgan rallied what troops they could—a core of “Continentals,” a fluctuating number of state militia, and a swarm of irregulars—and began a war of attrition.  Worn down by small defeats and Pyrrhic victories, the British commander Lord Cornwallis made fatal errors.  In April 1781, he divided his forces and led one element north toward Virginia.  The rest stayed in the South to try to hold what the British had won.

Rather than follow Cornwallis northward, Greene targeted the smaller force left behind.  Between May 1781 and December 1782, Greene carried on his earlier approach to fighting the British.  He achieved much the same result.  Small defeats and Pyrrhic victories wore down the British forces.  In the end, their main forces fell back on the heavily fortified ports of Savannah and Charleston.  Here they held out until July and December 1782 respectively.

The Royal Navy had controlled the seas since the beginning of the Revolution, with the sole—catastrophic—exception of the period around the siege at Yorktown.  Had the British won the “Battle of the Capes” against the French (September 1781), then Cornwallis could have been reinforced and re-supplied.  The British would have controlled New York, the Chesapeake, Charleston, and Savannah.  Those positions could not have been taken by siege.  The bargaining for a peace treaty might have been less favorable for the Americans.

With the British confined to coastal enclaves, the main effort of the war in the South became a gory combination of civil war and race war.  Patriots and Tories fought each other with a ferocity not limited to the battlefield.  Pro-British Indians raided the frontier and the Patriots struck back in their accustomed manner by burning villages, storehouses of food, and crops in the field in order to drive their enemy far away.  African-American slaves fled to the British lines, even though savagely punished when captured in flight.  One Patriot commander later recalled the Revolution in the South Carolina Upcountry: “in no part of the South was the war fought with such asperity as in this quarter. It often sank into barbarity.”

None of this was decisive.  Yorktown had led to the opening of peace negotiations.

Over the longer term, the civil war and race war in the South may have contributed to that culture of violence that long marked the South.[4]

[1] Still, see Glenn Williams, The Year of the Hangman: George Washington’s Campaign Against the Iroquois (2006), for a skillful introduction.  See also: “Oliver Wiswell” https://waroftheworldblog.com/2017/07/27/oliver-wiswell/

[2] John Buchanan, The Road to Charleston (2019).

[3] Greene was a 38 year-old quick-learner.  His political sympathies had led him to abandon Quakerism for war.  Between 1775 and 1777, the British had helped along his learning with a bunch of hard lessons.  He profited greatly from them.

[4] See: Fox Butterfield, All God’s Children (1996).

My Weekly Reader 16 May 2019.

If you want to think about “God” in simple evolution-of-ideas terms, then the stages would run something like the following.  At first, humans believed all Nature was alive and that all living creatures possessed an “anima” (spirit, soul).[1] Later, seeking to appease these powerful natural forces, people “personified” them as “gods.”  There were many things that could go wrong or right in life, so there were many gods.  Build temples, offer sacrifices, and hope for the best.[2]  Then they refined this polytheism into each city having one particular patron god or goddess, along with the others.  That deity lived in a temple in the particular city that s/he protected.  Participation in religious rites figured as an important duty, rather than as a choice.  The deity didn’t move around.  Greek and Roman religion were merely stems from this stock, but elaborated non-religious ethical systems of great power.[3]  Animism yielded to Polytheism.

After a while, what became Western civilization diverged from this broad cultural pattern.   The Hebrews developed “ethical monotheism.”  That is they believed that only one real God existed; all the others were false gods.  That God existed everywhere in the world, rather than being bound to the confines of some runty city-state.  That God had made a “covenant” with His “chosen people.”  He would protect them if they worshipped only Him.  He didn’t settle for mere rites and offerings.  He also required adherence to a moral code of action in this world.  Then Christianity emerged from Judaism by opening the “covenant” to anyone who would profess the faith and by extending the “covenant” to include a promise of life after death.

If you want to go all sociological-psychological, then you might argue that Christianity amounted a generational revolt by young men against the old men who ran Judaism.  Alternatively, you could argue that God now wanted all of His Creation to share in the benefits and strictures of the faith he had granted first to the Jews.  Polytheism yielded to Monotheism.

Then, in the 7th Century AD, another monotheistic faith arose: Islam.  This, too, is an example of ethical monotheism.  If you want to go all sociological-psychological, then you could argue that the Prophet Muhammad borrowed much from Judaism and Christianity, and then preached his new faith to the polytheist Arabs at a critical moment in their history.  Alternatively, you could argue that God had gotten fed-up with the inability of Jews and Christians to follow His instructions.  He had sent Muhammad to call back the whole world to the benefits and strictures of the faith he had granted first to the Hebrews.

Since then, Judaism and Christianity have divided between growing secular majorities and shrinking “fundamentalist” minorities.  Islam, however, has not followed the same path.  The Koran remains the unalterable Word of Allah.

“Every schoolboy knows” the term “a willing suspension of disbelief” when approaching a work of fiction.  What might make understanding between faiths easier would be a “willing suspension of his belief” on the part of the individual.[4]

[1] For a serious, accessible, and sympathetic portrayal of this belief system, see Brian Moore, Black Robe (1985).

[2] I suppose one could think of this as either bribery by the people or extortion by the gods.  Living now in a more secular age, it appears that politicians have become the new source of manna.  Reading the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal in parallel each day, I conjecture that Democrats believe in the bribery interpretation and Republican believe in the extortion interpretation.  But what do I know?

[3] If not of universal compliance.  That’s one of the things that makes Ancient History so much fun.

[4] I stole this from Eric Ormsby, “Allah: A Biography,” WSJ, 17 January 2019.

My Weekly Reader 6 May 2019.

Surveying the current “winter of our discontent,” one cannot but wonder what turned political differences into polarization.[1]  If we take the Sixties as the starting point, then the story might run something like the following.  John F. Kennedy beat Richard Nixon in the presidential election of 1960 by a razor thin majority.  However, the Kennedy Administration pursued no divisive polices.  Abroad it remained within the mainstream of Cold War foreign policy.  At home, it kept the Civil Rights movement at arm’s length and could not muster legislative support for any other major initiatives.

The assassination of Kennedy brought Lyndon Johnson to the White House.  Johnson seized the opportunity to shift government policy at home and abroad.  Formed by his youthful encounter with poverty and injustice, and a determined supporter of the New Deal, Johnson sought to “complete” the New Deal to address the needs of a different time.  Johnson won passage of the Civil Rights Act (1964), then crushed his Republican rival in the 1964 election.  Secure in victory and backed by a powerful shift to the left in Congress, Johnson’s legislative program created the “Great Society” structures.  Many of these are with us still.[2]

Catastrophically, however, to win election, Johnson had closed off Republican charges that Democrats were soft on Communism by using the Tonkin Gulf incident (or non-cident) to begin committing American ground troops to combat roles in South Vietnam.

Furthermore, no one in Washington foresaw the huge social upheaval when the “Baby Boom” passed through the Sixties.  “Sex and drugs and rock-and-roll,” demonstrations in the streets and on campuses, and the further development of the Civil Rights movement demanded a response.  Many Democrats embraced these causes, while many Republicans reacted against them.  (In California, the backlash made Ronald Reagan—a former Goldwater supporter—governor and a polarizing national political figure.)  The Vietnam War poured fuel on the fire.  Then the Pentagon Papers (1971) and Watergate (1972-1974) created a distrust of Washington.  That distrust fed a longing for “outsiders”: Carter, Reagan, Clinton, Obama, Trump.

These events set the pattern as policy issues have divided Americans.  Abortion, gun control, gay rights and marriage equality, forced busing for school integration and affirmative action, drug policy, taxation, and welfare all became embattled.[3]  There is something to be said on both sides of most of these issues, but now no one is listening to the other side.

What made each of these issues so bitterly divisive has been the conflict between federal and state power.  Most of the Bill of Rights was “incorporated” during the Sixties, while the Warren Court delivered a series of other decisions that rocked state preferences.  Republicans have opposed this universalizing of rights on the grounds that it amounts to an imposition of Democratic beliefs on Republicans by court decisions and executive actions.  The courts themselves are as embattled as the rest of us.  Except those who have checked out in disgust.

[1] For a contrary view to what follows, see: Kevin Kruse and Julian Zelizer, Fault Lines: A History of the United States since 1974 (2019).

[2] Julian Zelizer, “The Fierce Urgency of Now”: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society (2015).  Marvelous book.  Excellent scholarship, but written for the “intelligent general public.”

[3] The case of Roy Moore in Alabama is illustrative.  Allegations of sexual misconduct dogged Moore and caused many Republicans to sit out the election, but many other Republicans voted for Moore because his opponent supported “choice”—which is, in their minds, “baby murder.”

My Weekly Reader 24 April 2019.

Reading the Articles of Secession passed by Southern legislatures in 1860, it soon becomes evident that Southerners “knew what they fought for and loved what they knew”: Negro slavery.[1]  It has been harder to fathom for what cause the Union fought.  Was it to preserve the United States created by the Founders, regardless of emancipating the slaves?  Was it to destroy slavery, a goal not well-articulated at first, but ever more clear in the minds of Unionists as the war dragged on?  Elizabeth Varon[2] argues that Union and Emancipation were subordinate causes to the larger goal of extirpating a poisonous social system that oppressed all but a few Southerners, slave or free, and threatened to destroy the “last, best hope of earth.”  In this argument, slavery provided the solid foundation for a system that submerged in a sea of racism real conflicts between a small and powerful aristocracy and the vast majority of white Southerners.[3]  Varon argues that the Union armies were fired by a zeal that spilled over from and was enunciated in the language of the religious enthusiasm that marked mid-19th Century America.  They saw themselves as Delivering the country from mortal peril.  Thus, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”—Matthew, 6:13.  “We bring the Jubilee!”—a Biblical reference in Henry Clay Work’s “Marching Through Georgia.”  See: Leviticus, 25:8-13.  In this sense, the victorious Union armies liberated their enemies as much as they did the slaves.

Or perhaps more than they did the slaves.  Freeing blacks did not reconcile Southern whites to the Union.  They rose up in a new rebellion, often taking the form of the Ku Klux Klan.  During the decade after “the recent unpleasantness,” Northern enthusiasm for equal rights for blacks rapidly waned.  Southern whites regained control of the political system, then began to create the legal structures for imposing inferior status on blacks.  Of course, disfranchisement formed the cornerstone of this effort.  However, a host of laws also sought as much segregation of the races as possible.[4]  A group of bi-racial New Orleans civic leaders tried to stop this juggernaut as it gathered speed.  They sued to block a Louisiana law the required the separation of train passengers on the basis of race.  Eventually, in 1896, the case reached the Supreme Court of the United States.  The Court essentially adopted the position that the Constitution (and its amendments) is a living document.  As such, jurists had to interpret its meaning to adapt the Constitution to changing times.  The Court overwhelmingly endorsed the doctrine of “separate, but equal.”  Only Justice John Marshall Harlan, apparently an originalist, insisted that the 14th Amendment meant what it said.

[1] See: http://www.civil-war.net/pages/ordinances_secession.asp

[2] Elizabeth Varon, Armies of Deliverance: A New History of the Civil War (2019).

[3] This seems to me to be an extension of the argument made by Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (1975).

[4] Steve Luxenberg, Separate: The Story of Plessy v. Ferguson and America’s Journey from Slavery to Segregation (2019).

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.”

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).