In which we see that the American Revolution was really won—in part by not being lost—in New York (city and state)
—So where are we going today, Mr. K?
To New York, Ethan. Crucible of the American Revolution.
Crucial moment, or place where different elements merge to form something new.
—Cool. And when are we going?
—No, I mean when in New York’s history are we going?
Ah, yes. I like that. Today we’re going to 176-77.
—We’re going to cover two years in one class period?
Well, more like a 14 months. Hey, that’s time travel.
—Actually, that’s pretty slow. We were doing centuries at a time in the first few days of class.
That’s true, Jonah. Sometimes I get a little tired of traveling at such high speeds. But that’s the thing with a survey course. Can’t spend too much time in one place. Gotta keep moving.
—Dontcha ever wish you could slow down, just live someplace for a while?
Of course. And I do. That’s what’s nice about reading history. I usually make an annual trip to visit Abraham Lincoln, for example. Great guy to spend time with. You really should make a trip. There are a lot of books that can take you there very inexpensively.
—I hear the food is terrible in the 1800s.
Well, maybe. I don’t go for the cuisine. Anyway, kids, we land in the summer of 1776. Congress is meeting in Philadelphia. But as I mentioned to you in the last class, here on Staten Island, the largest invasion force that this side of the planet has ever seen is preparing to invade Manhattan, something George Washington and his new Continental Army is trying to stop.
—Hey, whatever happened to the Minutemen?
They’re still around, Adam, mostly in Massachusetts. But here’s the thing: they’re volunteers. Fighting for their homes. To really defeat the British, you need a professional army—guys who are required to stick around for a couple years rather than a few weeks, who are required to travel, and who have the training and discipline to stick it out for the long haul. In 1775, the Second Continental Congress authorized the creation of such a force, which was named the Continental Army. The next question was who should lead it. Which wasn't all that hard to figure out. George Washington, who had fought in the French and Indian War, was one of the few revolutionaries with any real military experience. He was nominated for the job by John Adams, who thought it would send an important message to have a Virginian lead an army that was still mostly New Englanders. (Adams experienced pangs of jealousy over this idea of his for the rest of his life.) So Washington headed up to Massachusetts to take over in 1775.
You may remember that after the of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill, the British decided to pull out of Massachusetts. Washington had to try and determine where the Brits would show up next. His guess was New York: it had a deep harbor that would make it an excellent staging ground for a naval landing, and a strategic location more or less in the middle of the colonies. Washington was right. But in a way that didn’t matter, because he only had about as half as many troops as the British did, and at the Battle of Brooklyn on August 27th, 1776 the Continental army was surrounded by land and hemmed in by sea. Game over.
—But it wasn’t. Why not?
Luck. In the form of the weather. That night turned out to be exceptionally foggy. So foggy that Washington could ferry his troops across the East River and make it to Manhattan without being detected. In a way, you could argue that the Revolution was won there because the Revolution wasn’t lost there. Had British General William Howe and his naval commander Richard Clinton bagged the Continental Army on Long Island, the war would have been over. End of story.
—So where did Washington go then?
The army retreated up the island, which was a dangerous place for him to stay, since it could get trapped there. So after making a brief stand uptown, Washington ceded the city to the British, which they’d control for the rest of the war. Washington retreated into Westchester. He crossed the Hudson River into New Jersey and retreated some more. In fact, he kept retreating until he got to Pennsylvania, at which point it was winter and the general assumption was that major military operations were over for the year.
—How did he win the Revolution if all he ever did was retreat?
Well, one way of answering that question, Sadie, is to say that he won because he retreated. Washington knew that as long as he had an army, he had a Revolution. The British knew that, too. They wanted to maneuver the Continental Army into a decisive battle, and Washington’s grand strategy amounted to not allowing that to happen.
—So he was smart.
Yes. But that’s not to say this was an easy or painless experience for Washington, his army, or the Patriot cause. Remember that while all this retreating is going on, the Second Continental Congress is meeting. Washington is on the run when the Declaration of Independence is approved. Which, by the way, is no big deal.
—No big deal. This is where we’re supposed to disagree with you.
No, not really, Emily. The Congress had all kinds of things to worry about in the summer of 1776: raising money, forging alliances (two sides of the same coin), managing resources, and the like. The Founders all sat on multiple committees. The Declaration was considered necessary, but not an especially prestigious task. Thomas Jefferson was assigned it, with help from Adams and Franklin, among others, in part because he was known to be a good writer. But also because he was not a really big name among the heavyweight Virginia delegation who were in Philly. We all know he did a good job. But he himself didn’t consider it among his most important accomplishments until much later in his life. We can and should talk more about this. But what I want to emphasize now is that when, in the final line of that document, the Founders pledged “our lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor,” it was by no means certain that the Revolution would survive. And if it didn’t they well knew their heads would be in a noose.
—Right. I still don’t get how the Americans could they win if all Washington ever did was retreat?
They couldn’t. Remember that a minute ago I said there was a general assumption that military operations ended with the start of winter? Washington exploited that assumption. On Christmas night of 1776, Washington took his troops across the Delaware River separating Pennsylvania and New Jersey and made a successful surprise attack on the British at the Battle of Trenton. He followed it up the following week with another victory at Princeton.
—Go Georgie go!
Don’t let him hear you talk like that, Emily. General Washington can be touchy when it came to his dignity.
—Oh, so sorry. I’m mortified.
I’m sure you are. Anyway, Trenton and Princeton were two victories that showed the Continental Army could fight and win. But in another sense, they were mere pinpricks. Washington was still outnumbered. And he faced a truly frightening scenario. Even as he was down in New Jersey, trying to protect the rebel capital at Philadelphia, another British army was in Canada preparing to march down the Hudson River. If that army marched down, and the army he was facing marched up—
—The colonies would be sliced in half.
Exactly right, Adam. New England—the place where so much of this trouble originated—would be cut off from the rest of the colonies. Fortunately for the Americans, the two British forces never managed to coordinate their plans. The British commander in the north, John Burgoyne, started making his way down the Hudson. But the commander in the south, William Howe, decided to go the other way and take Philadelphia instead.
—That seems dumb. Why did he do that?
Well, a lot of people at the time would have agreed with you. Actually, it’s not entirely clear why Howe and his brother did do that. He believed, plausibly, that capturing the capital city could be a decisive blow. And also, as decisive blows go, it would be relatively painless. The Howes were trying to avoid a vicious, protracted conflict. Their brother had died with the Americans fighting the French at Fort Ticonderoga in upstate New York during the French and Indian War, and Massachusetts men who had fought alongside him had paid for a monument to honor him.
Not that the Howes were anything but consummate professionals. They conquered New York. And, after defeating Washington’s army at Germantown and Brandywine in 1777, they conquered Philadelphia too. The British figured that capturing the rebel capital would bring about a quick end to the war. But it didn’t.
Because of what happened in the north. Burgoyne kept driving south, south, south, and as he did his supply lines got longer and longer. He believed Howe would be meeting him in the middle, and by the time he realized this wasn’t going to happen, he was dangerously exposed. Meanwhile, a series of American forces converged on him from the east, west, and south. The result of these moves was the Battle of Saratoga in October of 1777, in which Burgoyne’s entire army was surrounded and had to surrender.
—Where was Washington when this happened?
He was down south shadowing Howe.
—So who led the Americans?
A general named Horatio Gates. But a lot of people at the time and ever since believe the credit really should have gone to a man named Benedict Arnold.
—Wait. Wasn’t he a traitor?
That came later. In part because he felt he didn’t get the credit he deserved at Saratoga. Arnold was wounded, physically as well as psychologically, as a result of what happened there. Later, he ended up in Philadelphia, and married a woman with Loyalist ties. She convinced him to defect. His plan to give up the American fort at West Point in 1780 was foiled—another piece of luck, because if the plot worked that key nexus of the Hudson would have again cut off New England—but Arnold got away. He ended up in England.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The key point here is that Saratoga was the turning point in the American Revolution. Unlike the surprise raid at Trenton, this was a major victory: capturing an entire army is a big deal. But the consequences of the victory weren’t only military ones. It was as a result of the battle that France decided to enter the war on the side of the Americans.
—Why didn’t they do it sooner? After all, the French hated the British, didn’t they?
Yes, and that's a fair question, Yin. But the French didn’t want to back a loser. If they were going to get into a fight with the Brits—again—they needed to feel like it was going to be worth it, literally and figuratively. Once the French saw that the Americans could hold their own and pin the British down to at least some degree, they concluded they could attack them in the Caribbean, which is where the real action was as far as they were concerned. So they pledged give the Americans financial and military assistance, and this in turn convinced the Spanish and the Dutch to get involved, too. All in all, these were much bigger problems for the British than the pesky Americans. Now the British had serious opponents.
—So that’s when the Americans began to win?
In retrospect, yes. But we’ve still got years to go.
Next: Waiting for the world to turn upside down