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Monday, September 28, 2015

Siege of Charleston 1780

In the spring of 1780 through Guilford Courthouse in spring 1781, General Cornwallis' objective was to destroy the American army in the South, and the American plan was to harry the British, distract and essentially bleed them to death and, if possible, engage them decisively.  The British began well here, in Charleston, but their numbers would diminish through attrition whereas the Americans had seemingly endless men from which to draw.  Matters were not helped by Clinton's take it or leave it declaration on his departure from South Carolina for New York, pushing otherwise neutral persons as much towards the American as the British side, and escalating the bloody civil war in South Carolina.

Having failed early in the war to take Charleston under General Clinton, his second effort was successful.  The British fleet and troops arrived on February 10, 1780.  Together with and Lord Rawdon, he commanded 14,000 men and 90 ships.  General Benjamin Lincoln commanded 5,000 men.  Following a siege of about six weeks, Lincoln surrendered.  Here is Marion Square, where Lincoln surrendered.

The plaque tells us: "The British capture of Charleston in May 1780 was one of the worst defeats of the Revolution.  On March 30-31 Gen. Henry Clinton's British, Hessian, and Loyalist force crossed the Ashley River north of Charleston.  On April 1, Clinton advanced against the American defenses near this site, held by Gen. Benjamin Lincoln's Continentals and militia.  The 42-day siege would be the longest of the war. As Gen. Charles Cornwallis closed off Lincoln's escape routes on the Cooper River, Clinton advanced his siege lines and bombarded Charleston.  On May 12, 1780, in front of the American works near this spot, Lincoln surrendered the city and his force of 6,000 men, after what one British officer called "a gallant defense." The British occupied Charleston for more than 2 1/2 years, evacuating Dec. 14, 1782." Astute observers will recall that Yorktown was taken on  October 19, 1781, so for over a year, the British remained in control of the city.

People often think of Yorktown as the end of the war.  Cornwallis surrendered 8,000 soldiers.  Recall that the Americans surrendered some 2,800 soldiers at Fort Washington, New York, early in the war.  In Charleston, we are struck by just how little traditional military victories actually mattered in the end to the political solution.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Bennington, Stark and Warner

The Battle of Bennington, on August 16, 1777, occurred in Hoosick, New York, although the storehouse that was the subject of the raid was just across the border in the recently "independent" Vermont.  Burgoyne was advancing on Albany, and by early August 1777 Burgoyne knew Howe was not moving northward to meet up with him.  Burgoyne needed supplies.  He sent a predominantly Hessian force, with Indian components, led by Colonel Friedrich Baum to procure the supplies.  Burgoyne's intelligence was flawed, and he was unaware that Colonel John Stark had become Major General John Stark, and had nearly 1500 militia at Bennington.

The hilltop where the battle occurred gives a real sense of why the Hessians thought they had a defensible position, and what the Americans had to overcome.  This is a view looking north

The American victory Bennington was significant because it further weakened Burgoyne's already finite force; he lost 15% of his men at Bennington.  Beyond this, of course, was the failure to obtain the necessary supplies.  He continued to move deeper into hostile territory, and into the cataclysm that was Saratoga. 

Bennington is the story of two of the great commanders of the Revolution, John Stark and Seth Warner.  Both were veterans of prior battles, and fought throughout the Revolution.  Warner never made general; he ended his career as a colonel and died in 1784 at the age of 41 in poverty. 

The battles of the Revolution, unlike those of the American Civil War, generally had far fewer casualties, and yet the stakes were certainly as high as in any war.  These small battles and these small victories resonated far beyond their superficial aspects.  Burgoyne sent this force to obtain supplies for his main force that was suffering from attrition.  The effort not only failed, but further depleted Burgoynes' forces.  To whatever measurable extent this depletion affected the result at the battles of Freeman's Farm and Bemis Heights, collectively known as the Battle of Saratoga, the efforts of Stark and Warner contributed not only to that victory, but also to the consequential decision of the French to formally enter the war.  

Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Battle of Johnstown

The Battle of Johnstown was among the last of the major land battles in the northern theater of the Revolution, and occurring on October 25, 1781, together with the American-French victory at Yorktown on October 19, 1781, essentially ended the real military action of the war.  Here is a segment of the battlefield as marked just north of the Johnstown Hall, itself a few miles from downtown Johnstown.

Together with Major John Ross, Colonel Marinus Willett led over 400 militia against a combined enemy force of over 700 Regulars, Iroquois and Rangers under Major John Ross and Captain Walter Butler.  At this point in the war, the Mohawk Valley was the scene of raids with more of an in terrorem purpose than seizure of land or military advantage.  Although often portrayed as an American victory, it may well have been darkness that saved the Americans and caused the British to withdraw for strategic reasons.  Howard Peckham reports 13 Americans killed, 23 wounded and 5 missing, with the British side incurring 7 killed, some 40 wounded and 50 missing.  

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Stone Arabia and the Emptiness of Death

     On October 19, 1780, one of the more brutal battles in the war in the Mohawk Valley in New York State occurred here, at Stone Arabia.

     The Mohawk Valley is a beautiful, haunting place.  I've been through there a few times in photographing Revolutionary War sites for my book.  On this day I had been to Johnstown and the remarkable spot of Fort Plain.  From that hill, exhibits point you to the many battles, like this one, that were part of the combined British/Loyalist/Indian raids on towns in the region.  The British success here at Stone Arabia preceded the defeat of the British at Klock's field later in the day.  Meanwhile Colonel John Brown, veteran of Ticonderoga and the Quebec campaign, was killed here as he and his force faced overwhelming numbers.  He was 36 years old.  The British burned the town of Stone Arabia.  A year later the Americans were victorious at the Battle of Johnstown, coinciding with the British surrender at Yorktown, and the war essentially ended, although it sputtered on for two more years.

     There is no easy place to park apart from the dirt "shoulder" on the road, being careful not to slide into the ditch.  It is also hard to image the brutal nature of the fight in looking at this placid landscape.  Brown was another of those virtually unknown officers of the Revolution who fought up and down the East Coast, and dying in these fields in skirmishes, raids and battles that ultimately proved so meaningless to the end result.  The raids in the Mohawk Valley essentially ended with Johnstown, but the major action in the war had long since shifted to the South.  One cannot help but think of those who are dying in Iraq or Afghanistan as part of hit and run raids that to not ultimately affect the result in a war, but nonetheless remain part of its brutality.