Vehicle of the Revolution

The Relationship Between the Continental Army and the Militia During the American War of Independence


Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary has five entries for the definition of revolution: the first three deal with physics and celestial bodies; definition four states “a total or radical change;” and definition five is “a fundamental change in political organization…the overthrow or renunciation of one government or ruler and the substitution of another, by the governed.”   Inherent to all of revolutions of the political change-type characterized by definition five is the use of violence by both revolutionaries and the existing government, often taking place on a large scale.  This violence becomes the means by which the ideas of the revolution are transferred in to actions – the actual revolution itself.  Using terms from physics as a metaphor (in keeping with Webster’s first three definitions or revolution), the ideas espoused by revolutionaries (liberty, free trade, independence, etc.) represent the potential energy of the revolution, generating tension between the movement and the existing political structure.  When released, this tension becomes kinetic energy – energy in motion, or the action of the revolution – involving the violence necessary to overcome the resistance of forceful objection posed by the political establishment.  But unlike other expressions of violence involving large groups such as bread riots, pogroms, and lynching, which are shorter in span and more anarchical in nature, the violence of revolution (if it is to be successful) is directed, controlled, and sustained over a longer period of time and against determined opposition.  To achieve this, revolutions utilize military structure to provide the necessary means of organization and control; the kinetic energy of revolutionary violence is guided toward the realization of the revolutionary goal.  An army, then, can be considered a vehicle of revolution, giving leaders a structural mode, enabling them to drive the course of revolutionary violence toward independence.  Such was the function of the Continental Army during the American Revolution.

Subordination of the new military establishment to Congress was the crucial factor in enabling American revolutionaries to sustain and control the progress of the American Revolution, which, of course after 1776 defined its success solely on the achievement of independence.  As long as the British maintained a military presence within the new United States, independence could not be realized.  So long as the Americans were able to resist the British military, they would be actively pursuing independence.  This resistance could have been accomplished without a standing army, of course, and the American Revolution did have a substantial, and effective, guerrilla aspect to it, especially on the frontiers and in the South, but as Don Higginbotham, citing the German General von Clausewitz, notes in War and Society, while “rarely indeed are orthodox forces ever successful against guerrillas” partisan action alone “seldom brings about total victory in war.”  Thus for the Americans to realize success, “the final blow” would have to be “delivered by large, well-organized armies working in smooth harmony.”  Higginbotham points out that this turned out to be the case when “French and American forces in cooperation with the French fleet trapped Cornwallis at Yorktown and hammered him into submission.”[1] Yet even with the realization that an army was necessary for victory, many scholars of the American Revolution consider the adoption of a regular army to be a great leap on the part of the revolutionaries given “the ingrained Anglo-American distrust of the military,” and their favoring of a yeoman militia over the danger of a standing army.[2] Don Higginbotham suggests that this glorification of the militia may be more a product of rhetoric and idealism than true practice of the time.  He states “that militia reflected the ‘country’ (or classical republican) ideology which was appealing to the revolutionists [and early American historians]” while “standing armies mirrored the ‘court’ (or Walpolian consolidated-mercantilist) ideology.”[3] The fact is, however, the colonies were keeping semiprofessional forces at the ready even in the early 1700s.  Following Queen Anne’s War, for example, “Massachusetts maintained a small, permanent military establishment, which occupied frontier posts in Maine and garrisoned Castle William,” and Connecticut had “switched from militia drafts and other compulsory steps to enlistment bounties as early as 1710.”[4]  Both instances demonstrate an acceptance of regular military practice, rather than absolute distrust.  In 1756, a young colonel Washington sought the recognition of British authorities, insisting to Lord Loudoun that the Virginia Regiment (which Washington commanded) “were not militia – for which they [the provincial officers], like Washington, had great contempt – at the same time they argued for regular status.”[5]

This is not to dispel the fact that many revolutionaries who took up the cause included a distrust of standing armies (like the one the British were maintaining in Boston and New York) in their list of grievances and as a motivation behind the revolt.  Charles Royster emphasizes in A Revolutionary People at War that for many Americans the concept of a regular army ran counter to their concepts and ideas of virtue and liberty.  Jonathan Rossie cites the 1775 writings of “Caractacus” which were printed in a Philadelphia newspaper and “not only condemned regular armies but also a paid militia – by accepting pay, a militiaman was transformed into a mercenary.”  The acceptance of pay would erode the principles and warp the loyalties of the fighting man, so the contention went, thus a “standing army would subvert and ultimately destroy the very liberties it was meant to protect.”  “Caractacus” extolled the benefits of a ready militia “capable of responding at a moment’s notice to any move of the enemy,” vigilant and virtuous, the militia embodied the ideal union of citizen and soldier.[6]

But were the two, militia and Continental, so dramatically different?  Were the militia truly composed of yeoman farmers while the Continental Army was drawn from the dregs of society, ready to follow any general promising enough pay and trounce upon the very liberty revolutionaries were fighting for?  Royster acknowledges that through “careful collation of enlistment rolls and civil records, scholars are drawing composite pictures of” the class of men who filled the ranks of the regular army.  He draws particularly upon the work of Edward Papenfuse and Gregory Stiverson, “General Smallwood’s Recruits: The Peacetime Career of the Revolutionary War Private,” which examines the muster rolls of recruits in Maryland in 1782.  They conclude that the majority of the men in their study “enlisted in the army not because of a sense of duty or patriotism, but because Maryland society offered few other opportunities for employment.”[7]  Taking exception with this premise, Royster contends that “able-bodied young men who sought their own material well-being above all else had alternatives better than service in the Continental Army,” among which were privateering and farm labor.  Faced with the threat of death or disfigurement by combat or disease, Royster asserts, “the distinguishing feature of the [regular] recruits was their willingness” to serve in the army.[8]  John Resch, in Suffering Soldiers, concurs with Royster and disputes the conclusions of “most historians” that “Continental soldiers came largely from society’s poor, propertyless, transient, and marginalized,” taking particular exception with the “forceful” position of historian Charles Neimeyer that the majority of regulars were “low class.”  Resch bases his contrarian position upon his study of the Revolutionary soldiers from Petersborough, New Hampshire, “Continental and non-Continental.”  “Rather than being segregated by class,” he contends, “enlistments from Petersborough throughout the war represented a cross section of the town’s society.”[9] Essentially both Royster and Resch, and to some extent Richard LaCrosse in Revolutionary Rangers, suggest that the men who joined the ranks of the Continental Army, though serving for pay, demonstrated just as much patriotism as the state militiamen who mustered for only brief periods.  The advantage for the militia was that once the operations concluded, they were able to go back to their homes and resume their employment.  Those regular soldiers serving longer enlistments followed the enemy as the war progressed southward through the states, leaving homes and the ability to earn money outside of the military behind.

It is important to note that only in rare instances did the American’s face their enemy with a force composed solely of either militia or Continental troops.  A few notable victories such as Bennington and King’s Mountain stand out as examples of militia only successes, but the majority of campaigns fought by the American army required the contributions of both elements.  Don Higginbotham notes, that “in Washington’s view, the Continentals and militia had separate, although mutually supportive roles to play.”[10]  The militia were best at hit-and-run tactics, and though there were times when they were required to support the Continental line in formal engagements, “performing against redcoats in open combat” (a function in which, Higginbotham notes, the “militia were at their worst”), the “amateur” soldiers proved extremely successful at denying extensive British and loyalist areas of control and creating a generally hostile environment which forced the British to receive substantial amounts of their “supplies and provisions…from the mother country.”[11]  The Continental line would provide continuity to the war effort, following the British as the war moved from theater to theater.  As Higginbotham writes, “the presence of the Continental Army intact offered Americans a symbol of unity” creating a “national feeling” and presenting “a sign of conventional military strength” to the new country and the rest of the world, “where patriots hoped to get tangible support.”[12]  Militia participation, not surprisingly, would increase and decrease with the threat posed by the enemy in a particular region.  Here John Resch’s study of the Petersborough soldiers provides a convincing illustration of the wax and wane of localized participation in the Revolution.  After the initial wave of enlistments at the outbreak of war in 1775, the Petersborough “contribution to the war effort dropped substantially in 1776 following American defeats in Canada and British evacuation of Boston.”[13]  The following year, in which Burgoyne invaded New York, saw the “highest proportion of Petersborough men at any period of the war” under arms, bolstering the militia at Bennington and Saratoga.  In the subsequent years, as enemy action progressed further south, the participation of Petersborough men likewise decreased.  This increase and decrease in participation by militia demonstrates its part in the “mutually supportive roles” of the militia and regular army, as noted above.


Consider the physics metaphor I introduced at the beginning of this essay.  If the violence required for the revolution were transformed into a roller-coaster car, converting potential energy at the top of the coaster into kinetic energy (the action of the revolution) then guiding the violence of the revolutionary effort would be accomplished by the rails of the roller-coaster (the regular army providing the necessary continuity).  The rails of a roller coaster can not stand alone, so vertical girders lend elevation and stability for the guiding rails, just as the militia contributed reinforcement to the Continental line and secured the area of military operations from British domination.





In comparing the contributions of the militia and the Continental line to the outcome of the American Revolution, it is easy for historians to place more credit upon one over the other.  Higginbotham offers a sagacious caution that while “the pendulum has swung back toward a more favorable image of the militia and their contributions to American Independence…we may wish to halt its movement before it swings too far, before it denies Washington’s Continentals their just desserts.”[14]  I would contend that the two are elements of the whole.  The army of the American Revolution was comprised of both Continental regulars and militia units, directing the energy of the revolution through the crucial violence necessary to affect a break from England, both serving “mutually supportive roles” as a vehicle of the revolution.



[1] Don Higginbotham, War and Society in Revolutionary America: The Wider Dimensions of Conflict (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1988), 149-150.

[2] Rossie, Politics of Command, 213

[3] Higginbotham, War and Society, 36

[4] Ibid., 28-29

[5] Ibid., 33

[6] Rossie, Politics of Command, 63

[7] Edward Papenfuse and Gregory Stiverson, “General Smallwood’s Recruits,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Ser., XXX (1973), 117-132

[8] Charles Royster, A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army and American Character, 1775-1783 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1979), 268

[9] John Resch, Suffering Soldiers: Revolutionary War Veterans, Moral Sentiment, and Political Culture in the Early Republic (Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press, 1999), 9-10

[10] Higginbotham, War and Society, 115

[11] Ibid., 118-119

[12] Ibid., 115

[13] Resch, Suffering Soldiers, 25

[14] Higginbotham, War and Society, 123


Reflections on Washington’s Inauguration


April 30, 2014, marks the 225th anniversary of the inauguration of George Washington as President of the United States.

Characteristically, Washington entered the highest office with humility, even trepidation.  “No event could have filled me with greater anxieties,” he admitted in his inaugural address, than having been “summoned by my Country, whose voice I can never hear but with veneration and love, from a retreat which I had chosen with the fondest predilection,” to become president. [i]

But when the Articles of Confederation were scrapped and the Republic was essentially reestablished under the Constitution in 1789, there had been little question as to who the first national executive would be.  Only Washington had the reputation, indeed the gravitas, to set the nation upon its new course, and this was reflected in the fact that the electoral college had voted unanimously for Washington – a feat as yet, and most likely never, to be repeated.

Perhaps what made Washington the best choice for the office of President was that he had walked away from power once already.  Just as he had promised when appointed as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army in 1775, and having been given virtually absolute dictatorial power when the Continental Congress fled Philadelphia after its fall in 1777, Washington resigned his commission in 1783, retiring from public life.  Just months earlier, he had diffused a potential coup d’etat by the Continental officers at the army’s encampment in Newburgh, New York, reducing the young hot-heads to tears with a somewhat melodramatic demonstration – while reading a letter to the assembled officers, Washington stopped, and pulled out a pair of glasses.  “Gentlemen, you must pardon me.  I have grown gray in your service and now find myself growing blind”[ii]

George Washington is often compared with the ancient Roman general and statesman, Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus, for having willingly ceded dictatorial power that had been granted in time of crisis.  In December of 1783, Washington appeared before Congress, then sitting in Annapolis, Maryland, and resigned his commission.  It was an astonishing event.  George III, the British monarch who Washington had just defeated, is reputed to have remarked upon hearing that the American general was voluntarily retiring, “if he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”[iii]

Called back to public life again for the Constitutional Convention, and again to serve as President once that Constitution was ratified, Washington’s greatest legacy is that he continued to walk away.  Few military commanders who have won rebellions (and that is what the American Revolution was) have been able to resist the temptation to seize absolute power and set themselves up as lifelong dictators.  Despite the veneration – described as “Father of his Country” from as early as 1776, and whose birthday was a national holiday until the generic “President’s Day” was instituted in the late 1980s – Washington never wavered in his deference to civilian and Constitutional authority.  And so, at the end of his second term as President, Washington again demonstrated himself to be the greatest man in the world when he wrote in his farewell to the people of the United States:

The period for a new election of a citizen, to administer the executive government of the United States, being not far distant, and the time actually arrived, when your thoughts must be employed designating the person, who is to be clothed with that important trust, it appears to me proper, especially as it may conduce to a more distinct expression of the public voice, that I should now apprize you of the resolution I have formed, to decline being considered among the number of those out of whom a choice is to be made.[iv]


[i] Washington’s Inaugural Address of 1789, transcription from the National Archives and Records Administration,


[ii] Quoted in Minor Myers, Liberty without Anarchy, A History of the Society of the Cincinnati, p.14.


[iii] Joseph Ellis, “The Farewell, Washington’s Wisdom at the End”, in Washington Reconsidered, ed. Don Higginbotham, p.221.


[iv] Washington’s Farewell Address of 1796

The Battle of Germantown and the Grosh Family


Battle of Germantown

Battle of Germantown (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In late September, 1777, the Continental Army was headquartered near Pennypacker’s Mill in Pennsylvania, located some thirty miles northwest of Philadelphia.  The Commander-in-Chief of the American army, General George Washington, in council with his subordinate commanders on September 29, was spoiling for a fight.  Two-and-a-half weeks earlier, on September 11, the British army, commanded by General Sir William Howe, had beaten the Americans along the banks of the Brandywine Creek.  But it was the American leadership, not the soldiers, who failed at Brandywine.  Now, as the calendar turned from September to October, Washington was looking for another chance at the British and to save Philadelphia.


Morale within the ranks of the Continentals was good, despite the defeat at Brandywine.  “Notwhithstanding the misfortune of the day,” wrote Washington, “I am happy to find the troops in good spirits.”[1]  One American captain from Delaware noted:


“I saw not a dispairing look, nor did I head a dispairing word.  We had our solacing words already for each other – ‘ Come, boys, we shall do better another time’ – was sounded throughout our little army.”[2]


That time would come on October 4.  “Having received intelligence” that Howe had divided his forces, sending General Lord Cornwallis with several battalions to Philadelphia , and another three thousand troops to Elkton, Maryland, to secure the British supply line from the top of the Chesapeake Bay, Washington thought the moment was right to strike Howe’s force of “probably not more than 9,000 men” at the hamlet of Germantown.  Re-enforced by Continentals from Peekskill, and militia from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Maryland, Washington convened his second council of war of the week sometime between September 29 and October 3, where this time his general officers were “unanimously of opinion that a favorable opportunity offered to make an attack upon the troops which were at and near Germantown.”[3]


* * * *


Like all battles, the impact of the battle of Germantown would reverberate well beyond the field upon which it was fought.  Some 120 miles to the southwest, near Frederick, Maryland, John Conrad and Maria Grosh must certainly have been thinking of their sons on October 4, 1777.  The youngest of their six children, Adam Grosh, was twenty-three.  He had joined the army at the outbreak of the war, serving in the Frederick County Militia and the Maryland Flying Camp, then remaining with the Maryland Line as a regular officer in the Continental Army.  He would resign as a Major in 1780, but at Germantown, Adam was a Captain in the Maryland 7th Regiment.[4]


Michael Grosh was five years older than his bother Adam.  He was a middle child – the fourth overall in birth order, and the second of Conrad and Maria’s three sons.  Michael was also the first member of his family to be born in America, the Grosh family having emigrated from Mainz, Germany, sometime after 1745.  Like many Germans arriving in Maryland in the mid-eighteenth century, the Grosh family settled in the vicinity of Frederick Town in the western part of the province.  Michael is thought to have been a shoemaker by trade, based upon the inventory list made upon his death.  In 1770 he married the former Christiana Roemer and had two daughters, Sophia and Charlotte.


All the Grosh men were supporters of the War for Independence.  Conrad and his eldest son, Peter, gave money to the local militia in 1775.  Conrad served on the Committee of Observation for the Middle District of Frederick County, and all three of his sons served in the militia, but, as noted above, Adam went on to serve in the regular army as well.  This is consistent with the findings of John Resch in his book, Suffering Soldiers, in which he explains how families contributed to the war effort by sending younger sons or by “rotating” the burden of soldiering between fathers and various sons.  Resch’s study of the war-time activities of the citizens of Petersboro, New Hampshire, also shows how participation in the war increased or decreased according to the proximity of the events and campaigns.  In the case of the Grosh family, Adam, being the youngest son and unmarried, was more naturally drawn to the active life of a full-time soldier, while his brothers mobilized with the militia as crisis dictated.[5]


The continuing campaign around Philadelphia in 1777 constituted just such a crisis for the

William Smallwood, 1732-1792 by Charles Willso...

William Smallwood, 1732-1792 by Charles Willson Peale, from life, painted 1781-1782 Oil on canvas. H 24, W 20 in (H 61, W 50.8 cm), location: Independence NHP INDE 14148 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Americans.  Following the defeat at Brandywine, Washington dispatched Brigadier General William Smallwood and Colonel Mordecai Gist to their native Maryland to raise the militia.  By late September, Smallwood had returned with about one thousand men, which included the Maryland 34th Battalion of Militia from Frederick County and with it Second Lieutenant Michael Grosh.


The plan of attack on October 4 was to divide the American army into four columns to approach Germantown from the four main roads leading there – Manatawney or Ridge Road, Skippack Road, Limekiln Road, and Old York Road – and engage the British in a classic double-envelopment (a la the great Carthaginian general Hannibal).  It was an aggressive and complex plan, and, as noted by historian Christopher Ward in his The War of the Revolution, a flawed plan, for Washington was relying upon the militia to serve as the “crushing pincer jaws of the maneuver – Pennsylvania militia under Armstrong on the right (Manatawney Road) and Maryland and New Jersey militia under Smallwood on the left (Old York Road).  Added to the complexity of the attack was the hilly terrain and thick fog, both conditions stymied communication between, and within, the American columns.  As a result, coordination broke down from the very onset of the attack.[6]


Captain Adam Grosh and the Maryland Continentals were with General John Sullivan’s column, which moved down the Skippack Road, attacking the British center in Germantown.  But in the fog and confusion, two of his divisions – Wayne’s and Stephen’s – ended up firing upon one another.  These two divisions broke and fled in the chaos, leaving Sullivan’s own division without support.  Running low on ammunition, engaged by the enemy on the front and both flanks, Sullivan’s remaining troops also fled when, upon hearing firing taking place at a stone house to their rear, though themselves surrounded.  Sullivan’s withdrawl would leave General Nathaniel Green’s column, approaching from the Limekiln Road, unsupported as well.  Now facing the British right as well as the troops from the center who had been engaged with Sullivan, Green was forced to retreat as well.  Soon the entire American force was in full retreat “men holding up their empty cartridge boxes to show [Washington] why they ran.”[7]


As for the two columns of militia forming the “jaws of the pincers,” neither had an impact.  Armstrong’s Pennsylvanians were engaged by Hessians at the bridge at Vendeering’s Mill, far from the main battle.  As for Smallwood and the force of Maryland and New Jersey militia, they became lost en route and arrived “too late for it to do anything but join in the retreat.”[8]


The result for Washington was yet another defeat.  Philadelphia was lost to the British.  Yet the little American army was showing that it could hold its own against the most powerful military on earth.  All was not dark.  In upstate New York, at Saratoga, Horatio Gates, Benedict Arnold, Daniel Morgan and their combined force of Continentals and militia captured the entire army of General John Burgoyne.  The French court had decided, at last, that overt support of the Americans was in their interest.  Money, weapons, troops, and naval support from the French would start flowing in earnest to the former colonies.  Philadelphia, for Howe, proved to be a very hollow victory.  As Ward points out, the campaign to capture Philadelphia, “from its beginning…had been a sheer waste of time, of money, and of men.”  Thus, Sir William resigned his command and handed the responsibility for subduing the rebels to General Sir Henry Clinton, whose orders also included evacuating the American “capital” and returning to New York as the base for British operations.


* * * *


The result for the Grosh family was more personal and much more heart wrenching.  A friend of the family, Lieutenant Christian Weaver notified the family that Michael had been killed.   In 1778, Peter Grosh went before the Frederick County Orphans Court on behalf of his widowed sister-in-law to apply for a pension.  The notes from the court state that Michael Grosh, “second lieutenant under the command of Colonel Baker Johnson, died at the battle of German Town.”  The question is how?  Since he was part of the Maryland Militia, he would have been with General Smallwood’s column on October 4, and we know Smallwood never made it to the battlefield in time to join the attack.  Perhaps Michael has been detached to one of the Maryland Line units under Sullivan.  Was he with his younger brother?  Adam survived the battle and would serve for another three years.  One thinks that if he had known, Adam would have notified the family, not Christian Weaver.  More likely, Michel was killed in the action covering the American retreat, but more research is necessary.


What is certain is that just as he had been the first member of his family born in America, Michael Grosh was the first to die in America.


[1] The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series (hereafter PGW), Philander Chase, et. al, editors (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994) Volume XI, 200.

[2] Christopher Ward, The War of the Revolution (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1952), 354.

[3] PGW 393

[4] For sources on the Grosh Family, see Archives of Maryland (Bibliographic Series) MSA SC 3520-14384; MSA SC 3520-14385; MSA SC 3520-14386.

[5] John Resch, Suffering Soldiers: Revolutionary War Veterans, Moral Sentiment, and Political Culture in the Early Republic (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999), 19-35.

[6] Ward, The War of the Revolution, 364

[7] Ward, 369

[8] Ward, 370

“In the name of the Great Jehovah, and the Continental Congress”

In the weeks following the battles of Lexington and Concord, a stunned force of nine or so British regiments sat hold up in the town of Boston as a spontaneous army comprised of “country people” began fortifying and entrenching a semi-circle stretching from Roxbury to Chelsea.  Centered at Cambridge, the patriot leadership comprised of men from Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Rhode Island had the daunting task of trying to organize, direct, and most importantly, feed, the Americans massed around Boston.  Luckily the British seemed content to remain bottled up; Lt Gen. Thomas Gage and his subordinates not eager to risk a frontal attack after the hard lesson of April 19 without reinforcement.  The Americans, however, could not risk an assault either, so they settled on a siege.  “The situation was a stalemate,” writes Christopher Ward, “Boston was blockaded on the land side, but it was not properly besieged.”  A key factor hindering the American effort was a serious lack of ordinance – the patriots possessed “no more than a few large iron cannon, two or three mortars and howitzers.”[1]

The situation was concerning, and so desperate were the patriots for cannon, that when a thirty-four year old captain of the Connecticut militia, named Benedict Arnold (yes, that Benedict Arnold), informed the Committee of Safety at Cambridge that the British fort at Ticonderoga, New York, held “eighty pieces of heavy cannon, twenty brass pieces, and a dozen large mortars,” he was instantly given a colonel’s commission and orders to raise a regiment, “not to exceed 400,” to take the fort.[2]

But a funny thing happened while Arnold set out on his recruiting foray into western New England – someone else had also devised a plan to take Ticonderoga and had already set that plan in motion.  That someone else was Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys.

In the 1760s and 1770s the region between New York and New Hampshire was claimed by both provinces.  Settlers possessing land grants issued by the colonial governor of New Hampshire poured into the contested area, (alternately referred to as Vermont or the Hampshire Grants) only to be challenged by landowners from New York.  The result was internecine warfare similar to the Pennsylvania-Maryland border conflict, North Carolina Regulator movement and Wyoming Valley conflict.  Self-appointed enforcers of the Hampshire Grants, the Green Mountain Boys used vigilante violence to intimidate and resist New York settlers and officials.  The man who emerged as their chieftain was a hulk of both physical presence and personality named Ethan Allen.   In 1775, Allen was commissioned a colonel by the New Hampshire militia and ordered to take Ticonderoga.

Upon learning of the expedition being undertaken by the Green Mountain Boys, Arnold, who was disposed to arrogance and ambition, left his recruiting officers in Stockbridge, taking one manservant, and raced off to find his rivals, whom he caught up with just south of Ticonderoga in Castleton.  Wearing his colonel’s uniform, complete with a bright scarlet coat, Benedict Arnold, who despite all his faults never lacked for bravery, presented his commission from the Committee of Safety and demanded to take command.  The Green Mountain Boys were unimpressed.  When the whole group met at the rendezvous point for the assault on Ticonderoga at Hand’s Cove, Allen was also unimpressed.

It must have made a sight, the tall, broad-shouldered Allen and the short, athletic Arnold – conceited hotheads both – arguing in the early morning darkness as to whose commission was superior.  In Allen’s favor was the fact that the Green Mountain Boys would be led by none but their own officers, so the compromise that was reached was perhaps the best Arnold could have gotten: he was allowed to march beside Allen at the head of the attack.

In the pre-dawn hours of May 10, the force of two hundred waited for boats to cross Lake Champlain to Ticonderoga.  Only two boats had been procured, this meant room for only eighty-three or eighty-five men (depending on the source).  Not wanting to lose the element of surprise, Allen decided to proceed with this smaller force, the rest to serve as a rear-guard under Seth Warner, the second-in-command, would ferry over later.  On the far shore, Allen formed the men in ranks and addressed them.  In his narrative published years later, he related the speech:

Friends and fellow soldiers, you have, for a number of years past, been a scourge and terror to arbitrary power. Your valour has been famed abroad, and acknowledged, as appears by the advice and orders to me (from the General Assembly of Connecticut) to surprise and take the garrison now before us. I now propose to advance before you, and in person conduct you through the wicket gate; for we must this morning either quit our pretensions to valour, or possess ourselves of this fortress in a few minutes; and, in as much as it is a desperate attempt (which none but the bravest of men dare undertake), I do not urge it on any contrary to his will. You that will undertake voluntarily, poise your firelocks.

Others that day, according to Michael Bellesiles, recalled Allen’s words that morning were simply, “Let’s go.”[4]

The plan was simple, storm the main entrance in the south wall.  Fort Ticonderoga was a decaying, crumbling ruin as a result of years of neglect.  Having featured significantly in the French and Indian War a generation earlier, by 1775 the fort was a backwater post with a skeleton garrison consisting a captain, lieutenant, some sergeants and about forty-four privates – most either old, sick, or both.  The match was lopsided from the outset.  The Americans rushed in, with Allen and Arnold trying to outpace each other to be first (Allen won).  A single sentry tried to fire, but the night had been damp and rainy, and the musket merely flashed in the pan.  He turned, running and raising the alarm, but the sleepy garrison was too surprised and gave in without a fight.

During the race into the fort, Allen had struck a second sentry with the flat of his sabre and demanded to be taken to the commanding officer.  On a set of stairs leading from “the area of the fort” to the room of the commander, Captain William Delaplace, the patriots were met by the second-in-command, Lieutenant Jocelyn Feltham.  The incredulous  Feltham demanded to know the nature of “the rioters”, as he referred to them, who were their leaders and upon whose authority they had entered the fort.   Allen is purported  to have answered that his authority came “In the name of the Great Jehovah, and the Continental Congress”  He then named his terms, that the British surrender “immediate possession of the fort and all the effects of George, the Third,” or all men, women, and children in the place would be massacred.   Moments later, after realizing that his garrison had been caught sleeping, Captain Delaplace surrendered his sword.  The Americans had taken the fort in a swift, and bloodless victory.

Allen at Ticonderoga

Ethan Allen at Ticonderoga, Percy Moran c. 1910

As a strategic site, Fort Ticonderoga had virtually no impact on the War of Independence, for either side.  Stylized as the “key to the continent” and North America’s Gibraltar, the importance the fort was psychological.  New Englanders, especially, regarded Ticonderoga as the anchor for the invasion route from Canada to New York City, but so too did the British, as evidenced by Burgoyne’s campaign of 1777.  In reality, however, possession of Ticonderoga did nothing to aid the Americans in their attempt to conquer Canada in 1775-1776, any more than the subsequent loss of the fort helped the British in 1777.

The importance of Ticonderoga was in the success of the attack by the American militia close on the heels of the battles of Lexington and Concord.  The fall of the fort helped fuel the rage militaire sweeping the colonies and emboldened ardent patriots, convincing them of the righteousness of their cause.  More significantly, taking Ticonderoga so suddenly and completely, provided the American forces with vital guns and materiel necessary for building their make-shift army.  Come the winter of 1775-1776, Henry Knox, who would become Washington’s chief artillerist, would precipitate the British withdrawal from Boston by moving the ordinance from Ticonderoga to Cambridge using sledges pulled by oxen over the snow.   The addition of true siege guns to the entrenchments around Boston left the British with no choice but to abandon their position – moving the war into its next phase.

As for Ethan Allen, Ticonderoga would prove to be his finest moment of the war.  After the failed attempt to take Quebec, Allen would spend several years in British captivity, about which he would later write.  Elevated to the rank of colonel in the Continental Army, he would spend the remainder of the war in Vermont with little action.  His co-commander, Benedict Arnold would prove himself as one of the best tactical generals in the Continental Army, earning deserved fame for his actions at the battles of Saratoga.  All this, however, was changed on September 25, 1780, when Benedict Arnold became the most infamous man of the American Revolution – his name even now synonymous with the word “traitor.”

[1] Christopher Ward, The War of the Revolution, vol. I, 55-56

[2] Ward, 65

[3] Ethan Allen, A Narrative of Colonel Allen’s Captivity, Online:

[4] Michael A. Bellesiles, Revolutionary Outlaws, 117

Royster’s “A Revolutionary People at War”

A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army and American Character, 1775-1783.  By Charles Royster. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1979.


One of the essential books for any student of the American Revolution (and perhaps any scholar of exceptionally well written history) is Charles Royster’s A Revolutionary People at War.  In it, Royster gives the reader a sense of the patriotic mentalité and the development of the American national character during the eight year period of the War for Independence.  Based upon the premise that the “prevailing sentiment” of most Americans was generally favorable toward independence, Royster asks the critical question, “what was the relationship between the ideals espoused during the revolution and the actions of Americans?” (p. viii) His conclusion is that while the ideals preached by revolutionaries were lofty, their actual conduct failed to measure up, and in fact proved to be “flawed and often gravely deficient.” (p. ix)  This disconnect is best illustrated in the study of the Continental Army and the experiences of those revolutionaries who joined the army and those who did not.

American revolutionaries, argues Royster, were convinced of the righteousness of their cause and the preordination of its outcome.  Many “believed that God had chosen America to persevere and exemplify self-government for the world.” (p.5) As such, the war, in their eyes, represented the juxtaposition of British oppression, tyranny, and corruption versus American benevolence, disinterestedness (or lack of self-interest in the public arena), and virtue.

Possessed with this religious certitude, and flushed with the initial, dramatic successes at Lexington, Concord, and most especially Breed’s (Bunker) Hill, “Americans announced determination to surpass the British in military prowess as in virtue.” (p.25) Royster’s term for this initial “passion for arms” at the outset of the war is rage militaire.  This fervor which characterized the first months of the war would wane by the end of 1776, according to Royster, “never to return” with the same intensity despite the desires of revolutionary leaders to reignite the same passion through out the conflict.  And as rage militaire faded, with it faded the possibility of a short war won by popular resistance, a cornerstone to the patriots’ conviction in their righteousness and preordination of victory as the product of the virtue of their revolution.  The alternative, as Royster demonstrates, would be a dependence (reluctantly so) upon a professional, standing army. 

The creation of this standing army – the Continental Army – challenged the sensibilities of many revolutionary leaders.  Like most Americans at the time, Royster notes, “Samuel Adams was proud of the…militia and suspicious of a regular army in war as in peace.”  There was an inherent distrust of standing armies, and in a virtuous republic there would be no need for an army, as the homeland would be defended by self-sacrificing men of character and innate courage (both physical and moral).  The waning of rage militaire, and the failure to sweep the British away in a whirlwind of popular uprising, changed the minds of the revolutionaries.  “One year’s experience,” according to Royster, “convinced most American officials that they needed a standing army to fight the war.” (p.67)  He cites Adams again writing several years later in 1780 to former militia general, James Warren, “‘Would any Man in his Senses…prefer the temporary and expensive Drafts of Militia, to a permanent and well appointed Army!’” (p.37)   Royster further explains the inner conflict the decision to accept a standing army posed:

“The revolutionaries often said that freedom could not survive with out virtue.  If people were not willing to put the public good ahead of personal interest, power would pass to those who could, in the selfish free-for-all, buy or coerce the most support” (p.67)

This goes to the heart of the conflict between the ideal of virtue as the noble sacrifice of personal interest for the welfare of society, a concept held dear by the revolutionary Americans.  Virtue is a term continuously tossed around by the revolutionaries, but by the end of 1776, as Royster points out, the virtuous public had not wiped the British from the American continent.  In fact, complacency and self-interest seemed to trump sacrifice as the populace in general began to behave as if independence had already been achieved.  The establishment of a Continental army illustrated to the more fervent adherents to the patriot cause that very failure of self-sacrifice and virtue:

“A standing army – even one created to defend the country’s freedom – brought an individual’s virtue and freedom into conflict…[it] departed so far from the Americans’ ideal of personal freedom that they were unable, in conscience of in fact, to force a man to serve for as long as was needed, even while they could explain why he ought to want to do so.” (pp.67-68)

To bridge the gap created by this conflict of personal freedom subjugated for public virtue, Royster explains, revolutionaries relied on money.  But, as he demonstrates, this brings the ideology of the revolution and its participants into question:

“Suppose a man who does not want to serve in the army pays another man who will serve.  Both can claim to have done a virtuous act.  Each can accuse the other of being less virtuous, or even selfish, for evading service or for extorting a large bounty.  In fact, one man has kept his personal freedom and given up money, while the other has gained money and given up some of his personal freedom” (p.69)

In fact, this scenario does play itself out during and immediately following the War for Independence, as soldiers and officers become more professionalized over the course of the war, and a sense of pride and esprit de corps is developed.  Keenly aware of the hardships they have endured, regulars in the Continental Army come to regard themselves as the true patriots of the Revolution in whom the rage militaire was preserved.  Royster explains: “The uniqueness of the army’s revolutionary experience and in other revolutionaries’ reliance on the army lay a potential claim to superior revolutionary merit.” Revolutionaries, on the other hand, chose to regard the victory of America in the War for Independence as a victory of public virtue, a manifestation of the righteousness of the cause in which all supporters of the revolution sacrificed.  “Civilians rightly feared” the soldiers’ claim of superior merit, “perhaps because their dependence on the army entailed a strain of envy of the army’s more conspicuous communal heroism.” (p.247) 

In studying the Continental Army and its relationship to the broader American society, we find that the myth of unity in sacrifice, the Revolution as a “triumph of public virtue,” owes its creation not as much to worshipful generations of Americans who admired the Founders, rather it is the Founders themselves who molded the interpretation of their deeds for posterity.  The American Revolution, we find, is comprised of more than one vision of independence, the requirements of independence, and who is to contribute to that independence and in what degree.  Royster spends much of his book focusing on the officers and the development of an office corps of professionals.  And while the development of their professionalism naturally created a sense of esprit de corps, the desire on the part of American officers to preserve that spirit and sense of brotherhood in the form of the Society of the Cincinnati, smacked of elitism to the civilian patriots because they perceived that the officers were staking a greater claim on the revolution. 

Royster does not draw the conclusion for the reader, but it is easy to come away with a sense that a superior claim upon revolutionary merit is deserved, especially for the common soldier, the “privates” who Roster often contrasts with the officers.  He details the suffering and depravation endured by the common soldier and marvels not at the number of mutinies that occurred, rather how few these incidents were and how quickly they were resolved, evidence of the Continental’s desire to remain in service.  The composition of the line is presented in the Appendix.  “The Continental Army consisted largely of young, poor men,” writes Royster, but he then goes on to challenge the argument posed by other historians (especially Edward Papenfuse and Gregory Stiverson) that because of their poverty, the regular soldier was motivated by economics rather than the spirit of the Revolution.  He points out that the British were offering the same, if not greater opportunity for the “dregs” of society, yet Americans did not flock to the English Army in numbers any where as great as those to the Continental Army.  He sums the experience of the regular private thus:

“Considered as a people rather than as socioeconomic entities, soldiers had as much to lose as anyone had; they chose to risk it and, in many instances, to lose it.”(p.378) 

As Royster shows, many Americans chose to partake of the benefits of independence well in advance of the actual winning of that independence, often profiting at the expense of the Continental Army.  He makes the case that the private did have a choice; army pay was not very enticing and certainly not a sure bet, if it was otherwise then there would have been little difficulty in recruiting.  There were options for men who enlisted in the ranks, and it was a serious challenge for the army to convince soldiers to enlist for longer terms (three years of for the duration of the war), but there were men who did sign up for those lengthy terms, which does support Royster’s assertion that factors other than pure  economics were at play for the lower class who typically filled the privates ranks.  In light of this, we might agree with the enthusiasm of Colonel Jean Baptist Ternant, whose response to those soldiers “who exclaimed when called upon by name, ‘for the war!’ was to “respectfully” bow, and “raising his hat,” say “‘you, Sir, are a gentleman I perceive, I am happy to make an acquaintance with you.’” (p.223)

Anyone serious about understanding the American Revolution and the War for Independence will, likewise, be happy to make an acquaintance with A Revolutionary People at War.

Daniel Morgan – America’s Frontier General

Daniel Morgan is one of the most fascinating and exciting characters of the American Revolution.  His biography by Don Higginbotham, Daniel Morgan, Revolutionary Rifleman, is the best treatment of the victor of Cowpens, whose life “sheds light on frontier conditions in colonial Virginia. (Although, the best book about the battle of Cowpens itself is, unequivocally, Lawrence Babits’, A Devil of a Whipping)

Morgan’s biography affords an opportunity to study the hit-and-run backwoods fighting that American Revolutionary soldiers knew best.  It presents a unique vantage point to view such prominent patriot military figures as Benedict Arnold, Horatio Gates, and Nathaniel Green – to see them as their subordinate, Morgan, saw them.  It gives new information about the suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion.”(p.vii)  As the 43rd brigadier general out of the 48 who attained that rank in the Continental Army, Daniel Morgan represented a the unique breed of American leaders during the War for Independence; not one of the low-country, landed elite, rather, her was a hardy-frontiersman from the edge of Anglo-American eighteenth century civilization.

Morgan was the son of Welsh immigrants who may have settled in New Jersey in the early 1700s.  Higginbotham notes that little is known for certain about the general’s background, “the size and fortunes of his family are shrouded in mystery.”(p.2) However, when he arrived in Winchester, Virginia in 1753, alone and in his late teens, with no money and little, if any, formal education, he was certainly a member of the “motley processions of people” migrating “to the back country to preserve their national traits, avoid paying high prices for land…or to acquire farms where acreage was cheap.”  Morgan, “without family or friends in the hinterland,” must have belonged among those “merely caught up in the movement [west] following the rest and trusting to luck.”(p.3)  He gained employment as a farm laborer, eventually becoming a teamster, at which he excelled, and having saved enough was able to “purchase his own team and enter the hauling business for himself.”  Pressed into service with other teamsters, Morgan hauled supplies at the outset of the French and Indian War for British Major General Edward Braddock’s ill-fated campaign against the French at Fort Duquesne, during which the raucous, young frontiersman was given 400 lashes as punishment for knocking down a British officer or non-commissioned officer.(p.4)

Whipped as a commoner, a farm hand turned teamster, know for his drinking and brawling (as demonstrated in the order books and suit papers of Frederick County, Va., cited by Higginbotham) and living for ten years with his future wife prior to actually marrying her in 1773, Daniel Morgan certainly was not a member of the Virginia gentry, although his purchase of farmland and ten slaves by the eve of the American Revolution attest to his rise from poverty toward prosperity.  But this is evidence of the enterprise and ingenuity of a self made man, working to better himself. During the French and Indian War (after his involvement in the Braddock Campaign) and Dunmore’s War, Morgan served in the Virginia Militia where, similar to his experience as a waggoneer, he demonstrated his excellence, this time as an Indian fighter and rifleman.  Morgan, his neighbors, and men of similar ilk, adept at frontier combat and living in the backwoods region of western Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania would come to form an elite corps of fighters during the American Revolution.  Experts with the Kentucky long rifle, these frontiersmen were members of a “motley crew” even more rough-and-tumble than the sailors or urban wage workers and tradesmen.  Higginbotham cites Richard Henry Lee describing these men as “known for their ‘amazing hardihood’ gained through ‘living so long in the woods.’ These veteran hunters and Indian fighters had traveled long distances with out provisions and displayed remarkable ‘dexterity’ with the rifle.”(p.19)

Organized as special rifle companies and light infantry, the method and manner of fighting employed by the frontiersmen was a uniquely American convention.  We recognize the success of their tactics in our reverence for battles such as Lexington and Concord with the celebrated “minuteman” patriots who achieved success firing on marching columns of British regulars from the cover of trees and stone walls.  The reality, however, goes much deeper than the celebrated lore, and the light unit tactics proved well suited to the North American terrain and its populace.  This was a fact understood by the British (they employed light infantry units and “rangers” in both the French and Indian War and the American Revolution) but never fully appreciated by the commanders who continued to attempt European-style, linear warfare.  Americans were more willing to embrace the lighter unit tactics, and Morgan mastered them, to become the foremost leader among Continental Officers at the use of rifle companies, which was combined with an exuberant style of leadership.  He would quickly be elevated to become a colonel in command of an elite, independent rifle corps, comprised of hardy, independent-minded frontiersmen.  In this capacity Morgan proved vital in protecting the main body of Washington’s forces in New Jersey in 1777.  Later that same year, he would play a crucial role in the defeat of British Major General John Burgoyne at Saratoga, rivaled perhaps only by the dynamic personal performance of Benedict Arnold.

In January, 1781, Daniel Morgan, now a confirmed brigadier general, promoted by the Continental Congress, secured “one of the most decisive American triumphs of the war” (and one might argue, one of America’s most decisive battles ever) against the force led by Banastre Tarleton at Cowpens, South Carolina.(p.142)  The battle is significant in that Morgan displayed one of the most artful and effective uses of both militia and Continental regular soldiers by any American general, again demonstrating the success of the American method of warfare.  Aside from being a tactical masterpiece (wherein a partisan commander with little education executed one of the classic military maneuvers, studied by commanders since antiquity – the double envelopment of the enemy’s flanks) Cowpens is also significant, and perhaps under appreciated, for its strategic importance.  The total destruction of Tarleton’s Legion, Major General Cornwallis’ elite light force, deprived the British commander of a rapid maneuvering unit to match against Morgan.  Out of necessity, Cornwallis was left with no recourse but to “strip his army of all non-essentials and employ it as a light force” destroying his “baggage, provisions, and rum” risking “the future efficiency of his army.”(p.147)  Chasing Morgan, and then Nathaniel Green’s main force, through North Carolina in to Virginia, Cornwallis would exhaust the few supplies he had and eventually become trapped at Yorktown – an oversimplification, perhaps, but the strategic consequences of the Cowpens victory significantly contributed to the ultimate defeat of Cornwallis.

Clearly Daniel Morgan was an exciting persona who played a critical role in several important battles during the American War for Independence, but what do his actions reveal about the  Revolution, or America in general?  Higginbotham presents some convincing conclusions.  As noted above, the method of fighting employed by Morgan (and other Americans), was unique and itself a revolutionary departure from the traditions of imperial European military tactics.  “The British,” writes Higginbotham, “despite the creation of light regiments under Simcoe, Tarleton, and Ferguson, were slow to understand the importance of mobile forces.  Not until too late did most royal officers realize that America was ill-suited for the conventional warfare of the Old World.”(p.210)  The abandonment of “conventional” warfare would become a common characteristic of revolution from 1776 through the present, where local insurrectionist fighters would resort to guerrilla tactics as the most effective means of wearing down the occupying forces of larger powers.  In his book, War and Society in Revolutionary America,  Higginbotham identifies Morgan as a America’s foremost guerrilla fighter, citing Clauswitz’s observation that “rarely indeed are orthodox forces ever successful against guerrillas.”(War & Society, p.149)  From the resistance led by Toussaint and Bolivar to Ho Chi Min, the partisan commander had the example of the American Revolution, the success of which Daniel Morgan significantly impacted, to refer for inspiration.

Higginbotham also maintains that Morgan, by virtue of his rise “through the officer ranks” in eighteenth century society, represents the success of the democratic ideal fostered by the young United States.  Rank in the British system was purchased for sons by families that “possessed money and influence,” and for a teamster in the backwoods of Virginia, the chance to become one of the “officer class would have been remote indeed.”(p.211) Opportunity, though of course never perfect, was vastly greater in Revolutionary America, as Higginbotham concludes: “Morgan’s advancement, to say nothing of his increasing social and economic stature and his election to Congress, forcefully testified to the democratic spirit already beginning to permeate America.”(p.211)  To be sure, many marginalized groups in America remained so: women, slaves, etc.  But many were able to profit from independence, the emancipation of many northern blacks is indicative of this, as is the advancement of common men, such as Daniel Morgan, from wage laborers to prosperous land owners.

Morgan’s example also illustrates the conservative reaction that is characteristic to all revolutions since the eighteenth century.  Lest the “democratic spirit” noted above get far out of hand, allowing too drastic a change in the social fabric, those men who were able to seize power after encouraging participation of all classes in insurrection invariably established a means of control to preserve the new social order.  In America the creation of a strong central government under the Constitution placed “firewalls on democracy” to prevent the general populace from disrupting the establishment of the founders’ sense of order.  The Federalists were the strongest advocates of the central governments power, and Morgan became an ardent Federalist, supporting, as a Congressman, bills to increase the navy, and favoring “passage of a sedition measure” which became the Alien and Sedition Act.(p.206)  He would also march an army unit into the Pennsylvania backcountry to suppress the Whisky Rebellion of 1794. And though he opposed the actions of the Pennsylvanians, whose example Morgan felt would render the Constitution “worthless if men violated federal law whenever they chose,” (p.189) the backwoods sense of fair play had not completely left the general with his rise to success, as Higginbotham relates.  Upon finding a tavern keeper charging “whiskey to soldiers at an exorbitant price,” Morgan reprimanded the man.  The tavern keeper’s “subsequent failure to reduce his charge made Morgan furious.” He broke the man’s jaw.(p.191)  Despite success as a general, a businessman, a landowner, and politician, Daniel Morgan remained a man of action from the Virginia frontier – a uniquely American mix.