Only the Interesting Parts of American History 1776-1785
1776 in American History
Great Fire of New York
Almost immediately after the British captured New York City, a gigantic fire broke out that completely ravaged it. Stopping a fire is hard enough with running water, an organized fire brigade, and giant hoses, so the British, who had none of these, had a pretty rough time. By the time the fire stopped raging, a third of the city had burned down. The exact cause of the fire was never determined, but the British strongly believed that it was started by the Patriots who had just lost the city. General Washington had actually floated the idea of burning down the city when the British captured it, but it was turned down. The Patriots placed the blame on the British however, reasoning that they had set fire to their own city as an excuse to loot it. Though this was likely not the case, burning down your newly captured stronghold just so it can be pillaged seems like a pretty dumb thing to do, British loyalists who fought the fire did help themselves to contents of houses that had not perished, so the notion is plausible.
Because so much of the cities infrastructure had burned down, the British had to utilize what was left to quarter their troops and deal with the wounded. Some of the residents of the city were kicked out of their houses so that they could be given to British officers. Those lucky enough to not be evicted were given British soldiers as mandatory house guests. Additionally, all of the churches in the city that were not affiliated with the church of England were turned into barracks, infirmaries, and prisons, which I’m sure the city’s religious residents were thrilled about.
Nathan Hale, Possibly the Worst Spy Ever, is Executed
Nathan hale was born in Connecticut (which I just realized I have been spelling wrong in my head my entire life) in 1755. After graduating from Yale at the age of 18, he joined the Connecticut militia to fight for American independence from the British and he was quickly promoted to 1st lieutenant. At this point in the war, New York City was in the hands of the Americans, but it was clear that the British were going to make a move to capture it. In order to find out the details of the imminent British invasion General Washington needed a spy, and Hale volunteered to be sent behind enemy lines, to Long Island.
Being a spy was incredibly risky and punishable by death, so Hale was clearly very brave. With that said, he was an absolutely god awful spy and he makes Inspector Clouseau look like James Bond. His entire ordeal is essentially “How to not be a spy 101.”
Firstly, Hale had several characteristics that should have disqualified from the mission off the bat. Surely, spies are supposed to blend in but Hale very much stood out physically. He was of above average height, very handsome, and also had a very notable facial scar from a gunpowder explosion on his cheek. If that wasn’t enough, Hale stood a very high chance of being recognized by the enemy, considering Long Island was a hotspot for loyalists from Connecticut, which was where Hale was from. Among these Connecticut Loyalists was Hales very own cousin. To make matters even worse, Hale’s superiors did not bother to train him, and he had no codewords or ciphers.
Before Hale could even complete his mission, the British invaded the city. Instead of aborting it, however, Hale decided to stay and poke around by not so subtly asking Long Island residents about their loyalties. While conducting his espionage Hale spent his time drinking at a tavern, where he raised the suspicion of a British officer. The officer cozied up to Hale by pretending to be a fellow patriot spy, and easily got Hale to give up his true identity. The officer told Hale that he could help recruit more spies, and that Hale should join him for dinner at his house the next evening to discuss it. Believing the officer to be a friend, Hale accepted the invitation. At dinner, Hale spilled the beans about his entire plot and was promptly arrested. When Hale was searched, the soldiers found explicit spy documents as well as his Yale diploma, which had his real name on it, hidden in his sock. This was deemed enough evidence to declare him a spy, and Hale was hanged the next morning.
1777 in American History
Valley Forge Campout Begins
Established in 1742, 18 miles northwest of Philadelphia, the Mount Joy Iron Forge was an idyllic industrial village that found itself in the middle of the Revolutionary War. The ideologically pacifist Quaker residents of Valley Forge wanted nothing to do with the War, so when the Continental General Thomas Mifflin came by their quiet little mountain town in the summer of 1777 asking to store army supplies there, they politely declined, not wanting to inspire the ire of the British. Naturally, he went ahead and did it anyway, and sure enough, the British soon came, captured the supplies, and burned the village down. Unfortunately for the poor Quakers, this was only the beginning of Vally Forge’s involvement in the War. Shortly after the arson the British captured Philadelphia, which the Continental Army very much wanted back. Valley Forge, with its high terrain and proximity to Philadelphia, was selected by General Washington as the perfect spot to quarter his troops for the winter. Starting on December 19th, 1777, Washington and his 12,000 person army (along with plenty of woman, children, and slaves, naturally) bunkered down at Valley Forge.
Valley Forge had plenty of space but it lacked the infrastructure to absorb 12,000 people. To solve this problem, the Army constructed between 1300-1600 structures to serve as living quarters. Because previous encampments did not require large scale building, however, the soldiers had no idea how to build, and what they managed to cobble together sucked. One officer described the structures as “… scarcely more cheerful than dungeons.”
Living in dungeons was bad enough, but what turned out to be worse was living in dungeons in the dead of winter in Pennsylvania. The unsavory living conditions were compounded by a lack of supplies, which had a tough time making it to Valley Forge due to the harsh winter conditions and the lurking British. This meant that the soldiers lacked basic clothing like coats or even shoes, which resulted in many a amputated limb due to frostbite. As far as food, Valley Forge had little, and the soldiers were forced to subsist on “fire cake,” a crude mix of flour and water (matzah). Thankfully, no people died from starvation, but the lack of food hit the equine population of Valley Forge especially hard, resulting in the death of 15,000 horses. To top things off, diseases such as dysentery and typhoid were rampant at Valley Forge, and they caused the death of multitudes of soldiers.
Soldiers at Valley Forge were understandably pissed by their conditions, and talks of mutiny began to swell as time drew on. Though nothing to this end actually materialized, Washington did have to threaten to shoot deserters and whip those who didn’t behave.
The situation improved, however, when representatives from the Continental Congress showed up and decided that feeding and clothing their army seemed like a great idea. Despite all the disease, starvation, and death, the Army’s time at Valley Forge strangely served as an overall boon, as it gave them ample time to train. By the time the Army left Valley Forge on June 19th 1778, they were a much more formidable foe.
1778 in American History
The Very Necessary Treaty of Amity and Commerce & Treaty of Alliance are Signed
Soon after they declared independence, the Americans moved to secure allies in their fight against the British. Because France had a tumultuous relationship with the British, recently having lost a ton of North American land to them in the French and Indian War, they seemed like a good option. The French were initially interested in teaming up with the Americans when they were first approached in 1776, but backed out after the Continental Army lost a few key battles to the British. By 1778 though, the Americans shifted the tide of the war and the parties signed two separate treaties, the Treaty of Amity and Commerce and the Treaty of Alliance on February 6th, 1778.
Though interconnected, the two treaties covered different ground. The Treaty of Amity and Commerce established peace, open waters, and opened trade between the two parties without any military commitment on France’s part. This might seem like a relatively innocuous agreement, but it was actually a very risky move on the part of France. Not only were the French risking raising the ire of the British by legitimizing an enemy country, it was also a flagrant violation of a very jealous British policy that disallowed their colonies from trading with anyone but them. The French recognized the possibility that the British would attack them for treating with the Americans, so a second treaty, the Treaty of Alliance was signed as a failsafe. The Treaty of Alliance stated that if the British attacked the French as a result of the alliance America would come to their aid, and both the countries would fight against the British together. Quite considerately, the French soon notified the British of the new alliance and, sure enough, the British declared war on France just four days later. French involvement proved to be a huge boon to the American war effort, as they hooked it up with some great aid, as well helping the Continental Army win a key victory during the Siege of Yorktown a few years later.
1779 in American History
The Badass Battle of Stony Point Takes Place
Looking back at the Revolutionary War from a 21st century perspective makes it seem like an overall ragtag effort. I have read a lot about drunk, underfed, and undertrained soldiers running around with little direction. Because of this, the Battle at Stony Point, an absolute badass night time assault on the British by American Special Forces, stands out.
Located on the Hudson River and known as the “Key to the Continent,” West Point was an incredibly important American Outpost. Because British possession of West Point would allow them to cut off New England from the rest of the colonies, they moved to take it in 1779 and amassed 6000 troops for the effort. Any attempt to take West Point, however, would first require capturing the two outposts that defended it, Stony Point, and Fort Lafayette. The British were able to easily capture both posts on their way to West Point, and promptly refortified them once they did. At this point Washington realized what the British were after and moved his troops to West Point to defend an incoming attack.
The British built up Stony Point after they captured it, and Washington was able to observe the fortification from West Point. Though it seemed well protected, Washington sent Captain Allen McLane over to get a closer look. Straight out of a cartoon, McLane was able to get inside the fort by dressing up as a female farmer and telling the British he was their to visit his (her?) sons. A careful inspection of the fort revealed that though it looked menacing from the outside, it was not quite as formidable on the inside. Armed with this information, Washington decided to man an offensive to wipe out the British presence at Stony Point instead of waiting for the British to come attack West Point.
The geography of Stony Point made it much easier to defend than attack. It is surrounded by the Hudson on three sides, meaning the only obvious vulnerability was from head on. Additionally, the British constructed a wooden abatis, sharpened tree branches which essentially served as Revolutionary War era barbed wire, from shore to shore, which would stymy any effort to flank it. Going around, or even reaching, the abatis at either shore would be near impossible, as it extended well into the water, further funneling any potential attackers towards the well manned center defenses. Washington, though, identified a key flaw in the British defenses: at low tide, the abatis did not extend especially far past the shoreline, meaning that with the proper conditions, it could be felled. Armed with this knowledge, Washington devised an ingenious attack that would take the British, who were surely expecting a head on aussalt, by surprise. The 1300 man Corps of Light Infantry, an elite unit comprised of some of the best soldiers in the army, was assigned to a nighttime attack. They were split into four units. Two were to flank to the southern shore and one was to flank the northern shore. The remaining unit was to attack straight on and light the place up as a diversionary tactic. This would allow the units flanking either shores, who were instructed to only attack with bayonets in order to maintain cover, to take the British by surprise. The job of actually cutting through the abatis was delegated to a 20 person “forlorn hope” armed with axes, who would lead the assault so the main units could enter the fort. The first man to enter was promised a monetary reward.
After reaching a farm a mile and a half from Stony Point, the Continental Army began marching towards their destination under the cover of darkness and began the assault at midnight. The force going straight up the middle attacked first, and the British took the bait, charging out of the fortification with half of their soldiers. Though the first unit was meant to function primarily as a diversion tactic, they were able to dispatch the attacking British and prevent them from making it back to defend the post from the primary attacks from the shores.
Within just a few minutes, the other units rushed into the post and made easy work of the remaining British, though the general leading the attack took a musket bullet to the dome (he survived.) Within just fifteen minutes, the British had surrendered and the Americans had successfully recaptured Stony Point. Though Washington abandoned the post just three short days after its capture, calling into question the strategic value of the battle, it served as a key moral boost for the Americans and showed the British that they were not messing around.
1780 in American History
John André's Luck Runs Out
Born in 1750 to wealthy parents, John André was a hotshot young British officer who quickly beguiled his way up the ranks of the British military. He entered the British army at age 20, and was promoted to lieutenant at 24. His ascent was stalled for a bit, however, when he was captured by the Americans just a year later. Being a prisoner of war was no fun for ordinary soldiers, but for officers like André, it was a walk in the park. After his capture, he promised that he would not try and escape, so he was allowed to quarter with a local family, the Copes in Lancaster, PA and allowed to move around the town as he pleased. Being the charming man that he was, the family developed a great liking for him and he gave art lessons to their son. André’s imprisonment/ vacation came to an end in 1776 when he was freed as part of a prisoner exchange. Upon his release, he presented the Commander-in-chief of the British army with a book he had written about his time as a captive/day tripper. The Commander-in-chief loved it and, impressed with André’s writing ability, naturally promoted him to the position of Captain.
André was stationed in British occupied Philadelphia during Winter of 1778-1779, where he was once again promoted, this time to adjutant general, and later head of the British Secret Service. André’s time in Philadelphia was easy living. He actually lived in Benjamin Franklin’s house at which, surprising folks that knew him as an honorable man, he looted the absolute shit out of it. Among his haul was a painting of Ben Franklin himself, which has got to be the most insulting thing to steal from a person’s house. In Philadelphia, André was a town favorite and even saw a lady named Peggy Shippen.
In May 1779 an opportunity fell into André’s lap that catapulted his already stellar fortunes into cosmic proportions. Though André had since moved away from Philadelphia he still had “hoes in different area codes,” or perhaps “wenches across the trenches,” and kept in contact with the now married Peggy Shippen. If André was not initially thrilled that Shippen was married, his opinions on the matter surely changed when he found out who she was married to; as luck would have it, Shippen had married Benedict Arnold. At this time Arnold began expressing desire to switch side and, through Shippen, André was able to communicate with him and work out the terms of a deal.
Arnold was the Commander of West Point and, after some negotiation, agreed to surrender it to the British for 3.65 million in todays dollars. On the night of September 21st, 1780, André took a ship down the Hudson and met with Arnold, where André was given several documents and finalized the deal. Early in the morning André began the journey back to his ship, only to find that it had left with out him. This meant that André would have to travel on horseback through American lines to return to safety. Disguised in a continental Army uniform and carrying a fake passport, André made the trip without a problem. Shortly after he crossed into British territory, he encountered what appeared to be two British soldiers at which point he revealed his true identity so they would let him pass. Unfortunately, these soldiers were actually disguised American soldiers and they detained André. Surely thinking he could talk his way out of this pickle, André showed them his fake American passport. This failed to persuade the soldiers as they found detailed documents on how to take West Point, which he had received from Arnold, in his boot. After a trial, André was put to death.
1781 in American History
The Kind of Shitty Articles of Confederation are put into Place
Considering the context in which they were written, the particulars of the Articles of Confederation, which served as the OG United States constitution, made perfect sense. Life under British rule was growing increasingly oppressive, especially the crowns insistence on taxing the hell out of the colonies, so when the colonies decided to secede they wanted to ensure that the government they set up would not end up a tyranny. Thus, the Articles of Confederation established a central government, called the Congress of the Confederation, with very limited powers. The congress was allowed to make war and peace, conduct diplomacy with other countries, and obviously establish courts to try pirates. But that was about it. There was no executive branch and no judicial branch. Everything else was left up to the States.
This lack of a strong central government posed many problems, however. For instance, Congress was allowed to form the Continental Army without the states approval, but it did not have the power to force the states to contribute either soldiers or funding. Congress had so little power that it couldn’t even force delegates to show up and vote on important matters. This issue came to head in 1783 when the Treaty of Paris, which was to end the Revolutionary War, needed to be ratified and half the delegates didn’t even bother coming in that day.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the Articles of Confederation was that it did not allow for the congress to tax the states. If the government wanted money for some small matter, like raising an army for instance, they essentially had to just ask nicely and hope the states were willing to chip in. Unsurprisingly, this did not work very well, so the congress was forced to just print money to pay for things which led to massive depreciation of the dollar.
Eventually, it became apparent that this was all untenable and the constitution was established in 1789.
1782 in American History
The Delaware Indians Show That They ain't Nothing to Fuck With by Repelling the Crawford Expedition
At the start of the Revolutionary War, the Ohio river served as a de facto border between the American colonies and the Native Americans in Ohio. The Native Americans were worried about expansion, which the British capitalized on in 1777 by funding various raids into American territory. British involvement in the American-Indian feud proved troublesome for the Americans, and if the raids were to cease, the Americans would need to capture Detroit, the base of British operations in the area. Affairs in this area fell under the jurisdiction of General William Irvine, who petitioned Washington for help. Though Washington agreed that moving on Detroit would be a fruitful measure, he refused to supply aid in any form as Congress did not have the funds for such an endeavor. Without government aid an assault on Detroit was not realistic, but Irvine posited that the Indian efforts could be at least weakened by an attack along the Sandusky River, the source of the raids. Because Washington would not provide troops, Irvine had to rely on volunteers, of which he recruited 500 for the measure. It was a BYOHRR mission (Bring your own horses, rifles, and rations) and the volunteers would not be compensated, though they would receive a two tour exemption from the army and be allowed to plunder, providing what they looted was stolen from them by the Indians at some previous point.
Irvine appointed the retired colonel William Crawford to lead the campaign and the group left for the 175 mile journey on May 25, 1782. It became apparent early on that the volunteers were far from trained professionals and lacked basic military discipline. They burned through their rations and wasted ammunition by firing at wild animals along the way. Disembarking from camp in the mornings took forever and no one wanted to do guard duty. To make matters worse, some volunteers viewed Crawford’s leadership as wanting and decided to bounce early on.
After the eight day journey, the group arrived at their destination, an Indian village in Upper Sandusky, expecting to find some Indians to kill. The village, though, was abandoned and the American’s had no idea why. It turns out that the mission, which was supposed to be a surprise, was very much not one. Both the Indians and their British backers had learned of the plan from a captured soldier before it even began. This allowed the Indians retreat and amass forces as well as spy on the Americans from the get go.
The initial conflict took place a night later after American scouts were accosted by the Delaware Indians on the Sandusky Plains. Crawford led the main body of the army to reinforce the scouts and a battle ensued. It ended with a draw, but the American’s were able to force the Indians to retreat. The Americans held ground through the next day, expecting the Indians to shortly come back and attack. The Indians, however, were waiting for British reinforcement, which the Americans had no idea were even involved. When the reinforcements arrived the next day they again attacked the Americans, this time overwhelming them and forcing a a retreat and a full on withdrawal shortly after. That night Indian sentries caught the retreating Americans and continued the onslaught. The surviving Americans continued to fall back and reached Upper Sandusky early in the morning, where they were once again attacked by the relentless Indians. The remaining forces continued to fall back for 30 miles and made camp.
Over the course of the battle up to seventy Americans were captured, including Colonel Crawford. The captives were marched back to Delaware territory and many were scalped and killed with tomahawks on the way. Making sure no one was left out, the Indians killed five more captives upon arrival.
Though getting scalped and tomahawked to death is not a great way to go, it paled in comparison to the fate of Crawford, which a large crowd gathered to see. First, his hands were bound and he was tied to a post. Next, a fire was lit about six yards from him, he was assailed with gun power charges, and his ears were cut off. As if this was not enough, he was continuously poked with burning wood from all sides and had hot coals rained down upon him. After about two hours of this, Crawford passed out, but unfortunately the fun was not over. While unconscious, he was scalped and then revived by having hot coals poured over him by woman who wanted in on the action. Finally, he died.
Though the Indians won a decisive victory, their brutal treatment of Crawford came back to bite them. A fellow captive that had escaped after witnessing Crawford’s torture spread the tale of his fate, and it was used to raise anti-Indian sentiment among the Americans.
1783 in American History
The British had occupied New York city since August 1776, and by 1883 when the Treaty of Paris ended the war, it was an absolute mess. Crime was endemic, the streets were filthy, and most of the churches had been converted to prisons, barracks, and other facilities to suit the needs of the British. Infrastructure too had completely broken down. Schools had closed, trade had all but ceased, and government offices had shut down. Despite all this, on November 25th 1783 residents of the city could not be happier. The war was over, and it was time for the British to get the hell out of New York.
The British were set to begin evacuating at noon and they laid claim to the city up until then. One woman though, overcome with a sense of patriotism and excitement, decided to raise an American flag outside of her house in the morning. This upset a particular British officer, who stormed over and demanded that the flag be taken down. The woman answered that it was “not a rebel flag, but the flag of a free people, ” and, despite the officers insistence, refused to take it down, declaring that not even the king could make her do so. The British soldier responded by attempting to tear the flag down by himself, but he was met with several blows to the head by the woman’s broomstick and decided to retreat.
The British had made it onto their ships one by one and American troops, led by General Henry Knox, wasted no time marching back into the city. Crowds filled the streets to cheer them on and the city was in a state of absolute elation. The troops marched towards Fort George, the former British headquarters, to take down the British flag and replace it with an American one, signifying the end of British rule.
Once Fort George was reached, however, an obstacle revealed itself. In a final act of defiance, the enemy had nailed the flag to the pole and removed the ropes which raised and lowered it. On top of that, they greased up the pole so it could not even be climbed. Several attempts to shimmy up the pole failed and the Americans were at a loss. At this point, though, a brave patriot stepped up. He was a veteran and had been wounded in battle and taken as a prisoner of war. After failing to make his way up the pole like those before him, someone had the great idea of nailing pieces of wood into the pole so it could be up like a ladder. He was able to reach the top and tear down the flag and the American flag was hoisted up. The crowd went ballistic and thirteen shots were fired in celebration. The rest of the day was a giant party, with fireworks being set off and bonfires everywhere. Celebrations on the anniversary of Evacuation day took place for sometime, but tapered off during the mid 1800’s.
1784 in American History
The Story of the Hilarious Failed State "Franklin" Begins
By the end of the Revolutionary War, the United States found themselves in great debt to several European countries that had helped them finance their war efforts. North Carolina, in an effort to help with the debt, thoughtfully offered a frontier territory under their control to the government. The only stipulation was that the United States would need to do something with the territory within two years, which they proved reluctant to do. Cast off by North Carolina and forsaken by the United States, the residents of the territory were not to happy with this arrangement. They were left to deal with the Cherokee on their own and furthermore feared that the territory might be sold off to a foreign power. A few months after ceding the territory, North Carolina got cold feet and rescinded the offer. At this point, the frontiersmen had had enough of the bullshit and decided that they should secede and form an independent state, which they did in 1784. The next year they petitioned the United States to allow them to become the 14th state, even going so far as to rename themselves “Franklin,” hoping to flatter Benjamin Franklin. Congress voted on the matter, but a two thirds majority could not be reached and the effort failed. The only option left for Franklin was to establish themselves as an independent nation, which they did in short order.
As an sovereign territory, Franklin was a ragtag establishment. They had no flag, no army, and no official currency, instead relying on a barter system. Their governor, John Sevier, was actually paid in deer hides. By 1786, North Carolina asked them to return, offering to erase their debts if they did. Franklin rejected the offer, and North Carolina responded by simply moving in. They established their own government and infrastructure along side those of Franklin, and the two existed side by side. This coexistence proved to be the calm before the storm, as conflict erupted in 1788. North Carolina ordered a sheriff, Jonathan Pugh, to seize property of Franklin’s governor on account of them never paying the tax debts. Pugh did just that, and among the seized “property” were several of the governor’s slaves, which were then hidden in a North Carolina colonel’s underground kitchen. Franklin’s governor, John Sevier, decided that he would not stand for the people he rightfully owned to be stolen, and he gathered 100 men to move on the colonel’s house to take back what was his. The clash lasted a scant ten minutes and ended with Sevier and his men retreating.
By March 1788, shit really began to hit the fan for Franklin as neighboring Cherokee began to attack them. Realizing that Franklin was in no position to defend itself, Sevier reached out to Spain for help. The United States, unwilling to have a foreign power next door put a cap on the effort in short order and arrested Sevier, though he was quickly freed by supporters from what I can only assume was a less than maximum security prison. Finally, deciding that the fun was over, Sevier turned himself in and swore allegiance to North Carolina, which immediately gave the land to the government as originally planned.
1785 in American History
Land Ordiance of 1785
The Revolutionary war left the United States cash-strapped and, because the government was not yet authorized to levy taxes, they had no obvious way to raise funds. What the government lacked in money though, they made up for in land. Lots and lots of land. This led to the Land Ordinance of 1785, which divvied up land in the Northwest Territory - land that would later become Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and part of Minnesota - so it could be sold to settlers.
Land ownership in the States had some issues. Instead of clearly demarcated boundaries, property lines tended to be delineated by rocks or streams. On top of that, land purchasers would sometimes only purchase the best plots of larger areas, thus cutting up the areas into smaller inconvenient pieces. The Land Ordinance of 1785 addressed these potential issues by carving the land into uniform and meticulous pieces called townships. Each township was 36 square miles, subdivided into 36 single square mile properties which the government sold for a minimum of $640. Out of the 36 plots in a township, five were reserved for government infrastructure like schools, and four were held on to by the government who hoped to sell them at a later time for a higher price.
Though I relied heavily on wikipedia for this post, I tried to rely on the original sources when possible. For instance, when a particular book or document was referenced, I often read it myself instead of using the wikipedia account. Additionally, I used many other websites as sources of information. So, I did use wikipedia, especially for broad outlines, but what you read is not just a summary of various wikipedia articles.