Sunday, January 26, 2020

Episode 133: The Peekskill Raid

Last week I went over all the confusion in London over who planned to attack what and where in 1777.  This week the British start moving out of winter quarters and begin their first tentative action for spring 1777.

Hudson River Valley

As I hope I’ve stressed enough times by now, British military leaders had long held that the key to victory was cutting off New England from the rest of America by taking control of the Hudson River Valley between Quebec and New York City.  By the end of 1776, the British had a large army in Quebec and an even larger one in New York City.

That the two armies had not created this link so far was due primarily to the heroic efforts of General Benedict Arnold.  Remember, just after Lexington and Concord, Arnold scraped together an army, and along with Ethan Allen, captured Fort Ticonderoga.  This deny the British that important launching off point into the Hudson Valley.  Arnold then attempted to take Quebec.  The Continental Army’s lack of resources and a scrappy last minute defense by Scottish immigrants in Canada prevented Arnold from taking that stronghold before British reinforcements arrived.

British map of Peekskill area 1777
(from Wikiwand)
Even after the British deployed an overwhelming force in Quebec and pushed the patriots out of Canada, Arnold still managed to control Lake Champlain with a small fleet, effectively preventing the British from retaking Fort Ticonderoga throughout 1776.

To protect the Hudson valley, the Continentals focused on securing Fort Ticonderoga to prevent an invasion from Quebec toward New York.  Well, focused on securing the fort may be an overstatement.  Everyone thought it was an important fort to hold, but after General Arnold left in late 1776, the defensive plan for holding the fort to was, in hindsight, a clearly wrong-headed approach.  That’s a topic for a future episode.  For now, I’ll just say that the Continentals tried to improve the fort’s defenses, but did nothing like Arnold had done to prevent the British from reaching the fort at all.  The intent, though, was to hold the British at Ticonderoga and prevent them from moving into the Hudson Valley from the north.

On the southern end, the Continentals did little to prevent British General William Howe from continuing to move up the Hudson River after his victory at White Plains, NY.  In part, this was because Howe was not in any hurry to move upstate in late fall when the wilderness in winter would probably do more harm to his soldiers than the Continentals or the militia could.

Besides, General Washington had retreated back through New Jersey toward Philadelphia.  In the fall of 1776, it made much more sense for General Howe to chase Washington rather than venture further upriver where American General Charles Lee commanded a large force to oppose them.

Recall that after Howe’s British and Germans pushed the Continental Army out of New York City, Washington had deployed an army to the north under Lee’s command, while Washington led the forces who retreated toward Pennsylvania.  As Washington’s army dissolved, he begged Lee to move south and join forces with him.  Lee kept putting him off, until the British captured Lee in December.  At that point, the remainder of Lee's Northern Army moved south to assist Washington with his counter-attack that began at Trenton.

As Washington fought to take back most of New Jersey over the rest of the winter, there was not much of anyone to defend the Hudson Valley.  General Arnold was off sulking and contemplating resignation because Congress had promoted several junior officers over him.  General Phillip Schuyler still served as the commander of the region, but his political fighting with General Horatio Gates had left the command a complete mess.  Their attention focused on Fort Ticonderoga, which the British would have to take before moving south, not an attack from the south into the Hudson Valley.

General Howe’s army controlled the land for miles surrounding New York City.  He was fighting with the Continentals in New Jersey over the winter, but had successfully captured Providence, Rhode Island without a fight and felt confident that he could move British ships up the Hudson River whenever he wanted.

So with spring approaching, it was time to consider the 1777 offensives.  By this time, Lee was a prisoner of war, and the remainder of his forces had joined Washington in New Jersey.  As I discussed in detail last week, in the spring of 1777, Britain planned once again to push into New York, from Canada, this time with General Johnny Burgoyne in charge.

General William Howe
(from Wikimedia)
Howe was more interested, at this point, in taking Philadelphia.  He did not think he had enough troops to do that and mount a full scale invasion of the Hudson Valley.  Therefore, he had no intention of doing the latter. As I said last week, such a move would only contribute to Burgoyne’s glory by supporting his primary offensive from Canada.  As commander of North American forces, Howe was not terribly interested in playing a support role for a subordinate. While a full scale invasion of the Hudson Valley from the south was not a serious consideration, the British did want to begin to test the resolve of the Continental and militia forces in the area.

Washington, of course, would want to oppose any British movements. But at this point, he was not quite sure what the British might do next.  They had a force in Rhode Island that might move up through New England.  Washington had recaptured most of New Jersey over the winter.  It was quite likely that Howe would try to take back the State and continue his offensive into Pennsylvania.  From there he could capture Philadelphia.

So while the Americans, hoped to prevent a British incursion into upstate New York, coming up with the soldiers to defend that area was a big problem.  Washington kept the bulk of his troops in New Jersey, to prevent a move on Philadelphia, with the other significant force further north at Lake Champlain and Fort Ticonderoga, preparing to oppose the British push from Canada.


The Continentals had created a supply depot at Peekskill, New York, about 20 miles north of White Plains, along the Hudson River.  Area mills produced leather, wood, flour, and gunpowder.  Local slaughterhouses also provided meat for the Continental army and patriot militia.  Washington thought the area would prove a good location for supplies, since it was in between the two expected British invasion zones that were likely for 1777.  If the British attacked the northern army at Fort Ticonderoga, the supplies could be taken north to the soldiers defending upstate New York.  If the British launched another attack across New Jersey in pursuit of Philadelphia, the supplies could be moved south to support that army.

The Continentals had not built any serious defenses at Peekskill itself.  Until February 1777, General William Heath of Massachusetts had commanded from Peekskill.  However, after his disappointing raid on Fort Independence, which I discussed back in Episode 128, Washington had written him a rather scolding letter.  Heath requested and received a leave of absence.  He returned to Boston and shortly took over there after General Artemas Ward finally retired.

Alexander McDougall
(from find-a-grave)
The Peekskill command then fell to General Alexander McDougall.  You may recall that McDougall had been an active member of the Sons of Liberty in New York City, and played a role in the pre-war battle of Golden Hill.  That was where British soldiers and the Sons of Liberty had a street riot over the city’s liberty pole, see Episode 32.  McDougall had received a general’s commission in the Continental army.  We last heard from him in Episode 112 when he was serving under Washington at the Battle of White Plains.  At Peekskill, he commanded the area with a force of 250 soldiers, most of whom appeared to be local militia.

McDougall’s small independent command at Peekskill kept a check on British incursions up the Hudson River. Over the winter, Washington deployed a few New England regiments there to be used as reserve reinforcements either in upstate New York or in New Jersey as needed.

There was no notion the Americans would launch a full blown offensive against British controlled New York City.  The Continentals focused on trying to resist whatever spring offensive the British might execute.

New Yorkers had attempted to block British ships from moving up river by placing a chain across the Hudson at Fort Montgomery, also under McDougall’s command.  This chain was a few miles further upriver from Peekskill, so it would not play a role in this raid.  In any event, it was not going to prove very effective.  It actually broke once on its own during the winter and had to be repaired.  When the British actually did move upriver later in 1777, they had no problem disabling the chain and continuing on their way.  I mention this only to note that the Americans were at least concerned about the British moving up the Hudson and cutting off New England from the middle and southern states, even if they did not garrison large numbers of soldiers in the area.

The Raid

As soon as the ice melt made river travel safe again, the British moved up the Hudson river.  In March, Colonel John Bird took a fleet of 12 ships transporting over 500 soldiers up river to Peekskill.  On March 23, the British landed at Lent’s cove, about a mile and a half south of Peekskill.  They deployed about 500 British regulars and at least two cannon unopposed.

The British force set fire to houses near where they landed.  They also used their cannon against a number of structures in the small village.  The initial goal seemed to be to terrorize the local citizenry.

The American General McDougall realized that he was outnumbered by about two to one.  He pulled his soldiers out of Peekskill and back to a hill known as Fort Hill behind the town. As he pulled out of town, McDougall set fire to some of his own supplies in order to deny them to the enemy.  The only way he could win would be to provoke the British into attempting a charge up a hill where the outnumbered Americans would have the better entrenched position.

British Colonel Bird, however, was not terribly interested in confronting the Continentals.  His troops took control of Peekskill and continued what the Americans had started, destroying the food, supplies, and equipment left in the town.

The two sides did fire on each other with their cannon, killing one or two on either side with an occasional lucky shot.  But the British were not intent on driving off Americans.  They were there to destroy the supply depot, which they did.  They burned the mills, workhouses, barracks and storage houses in and around the town.  They carried away some materials, but given the limited space on the ships, they destroyed most of what they found.

George Clinton
(from Wikimedia)
Even though the British did not seem to be preparing to take the hill, the cannon fire was enough for McDougall and the Americans to retreat back another two miles or so to Gallows Hill, where they were out of range of the British cannon.  Meanwhile New York General George Clinton put out a call for militia in the region to muster. By the way George Clinton was a distant cousin of British General Henry Clinton. He was mostly a politician who would soon become Governor of New York and would eventually serve as Vice President under Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. At this time though he was a New York militia general.

It would take time to get the word out to local militia and for them to muster.  This sparsely populated region could not muster within hours like other regions.  There were smaller numbers of soldiers ready to go a few miles upriver at Forts Montgomery and Independence.

Fort Montgomery was the larger fort several miles upriver. The Continental officers at Fort Montgomery did not want to send large numbers of men from their fort. If they took the fort garrison to Peekskill, the British could climb aboard ship again, sail upriver and capture the fort defended by only a skeleton crew. The Continentals wanted to wait for militia to arrive and occupy the fort before sending any soldiers to Peekskill.

Fort Independence was closer to Peekskill.  It was not much of a fort.  It had only been built a few months earlier, just north of the town.  Just to avoid confusion, this is not the same Fort Independence near New York City occupied by the British and which General Heath failed to capture.  This is a totally different fort in a different place with the same name. To make things even more confusing some primary documents refer to Fort Independence as Fort Constitution. 

Fort Independence was not only closer to Peekskill, it was not a terribly well built fort that the patriots needed to occupy and defend.  General McDougall ordered the commander Lieutenant Colonel Marinus Willet to leave just a handful of soldiers and to bring as much as he could from the 3rd New York Regiment.  Willet did not wait for reinforcements.  He set out almost as soon as he got the message with about 80 soldiers from his regiment, expecting more to follow later..

Several hundred New York militia had heeded the call and began marching directly toward Peekskill to join the battle.  However, most of them would not arrive in time to fight.

The day following the British landing, the regulars deployed an advance line about a mile northeast of Peekskill to prevent the Americans from moving forward on them while they occupied the town.  Willet and his militia from Fort Independence arrived that morning, joining the McDougall’s men on Gallows Hill.

Marinus Willett
(from Wikimedia)
From the hill, McDougall and Willet could observe the British plundering the area around Peekskill, burning farms and supplies.  Willet noted that about 200 of the British were far enough separated from the main force that they might be attacked.  He encouraged McDougall to order a strike on this separated force.

McDougall sent a small group against the British left flank to distract them, while another force under the command of Willet tried to sneak up on the enemy’s right flank and attack them.  They lost the element of surprise when inexperienced New York militia got nervous and fired on the enemy from too far away to do any damage.  They only alerted the British to their position and gave them more time to react.

Realizing they had lost the element of surprise, Willet gave the order to fix bayonets in preparation of a charge on the British lines.  Before they could charge though, the British retreated back to their main lines, telling Colonel Bird that “the woods were full of rebel soldiers.”  The British lost 13 killed or wounded in the skirmish.  The Americans reported two killed and four or five wounded. By this time it was dusk.  The British could not tell whether there would be a larger attack.  They remained on alert for a night attack that never came.

Overnight Colonel Bird prepared to withdraw his troops back to their ships. The British had destroyed the American supplies, which had been their objective.  Rather than wait to see if the enemy could collect more militia from the area and mount a larger attack, the British simply packed up and left.  That was probably the right decision.  Over the next few days, hundreds more New York patriot militia would descend on the area, ready to contest the British.

Continental General McDougall indicated in his reports that the British left sooner than they would have liked.  There was still a fair amount of supplies that they had not destroyed.  The Continentals recovered a portion of their supplies and regained control of the area.


So in the end, both sides claimed victory.  The British fleet moved back downstream to report a successful raid.  The American leaders reported successfully chasing off the British after two days.

The fighting at Peekskill was not a terribly significant battle by itself, more of a skirmish.  There were less than a thousand troops engaged on both sides combined.  Casualties were minimal, and the amount of damage to Continental supplies was annoying but not fatal to any larger strategic plan.  In fact, far more significant for American supplies, the same month of this raid, a ship arrived from France full of equipment for the Americans.

The Peekskill raid proved more of a test by the British to see the resolve of New Yorkers further upriver to challenge their movements.  If the British wanted to control more territory further up river, they would have to come in much larger numbers to overwhelm the enemy.  Following the raid, the British did not attempt another raid all summer.

They did send one small fleet in April.  But as it turned out, that was only sent as a distraction to try to get the Americans to deploy more forces to the Hudson Valley while the British launched a real raid on Danbury Connecticut.  The Danbury raid will be the topic of a future episode.  The launch of a few troop transports on that occasion up the Hudson River turned out to be nothing.  It would not be until October that they would attempt another serious move up the Hudson.

The raid also should have been a warning to the British.  General Burgoyne based his invasion of the Hudson Valley on the premise that a majority of the citizenry would turn out in loyal support of the British as they made their way from Canada to New York City.  This raid proved that there was no evidence of a loyalist majority waiting to show itself, quite the opposite.  Perhaps the British thought a larger force would bring out the loyalists, as it had in New Jersey during the earlier invasion there.  If so, it was a fatal error that,  as we will see in future episodes, put Britain on the road to defeat.

- - -

Next Episode 134 the Battle of Bound Brook

Previous Episode 132 Britain Adjusts its War Plans

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Further Reading


Sheehan, Michael J. F. “An American Perspective on the Peekskill Raid” Journal of the American Revolution, May 13, 2015:

Attack on Peekskill, N. Y. – British account of the Attack on Peekskill

Van Cortlandtville Skirmish of March 1777

The Van Cortlandville Skirmish of March 1777:

Letter from Gen. McDougall to Gen. Washington March 29, 1777:

Letter from Ann Hawkes Hay to Gen. Washington March 23, 1777:

Letter from Colonel Henry Beekman Livingston Gen. Washington March 29, 1777:

Letter from George Washington to William Heath, Feb. 3, 1777:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Clinton, George Public papers of George Clinton: first Governor of New York, 1777-1795, 1801-1804, Vol. 1,  New York: Wynkoop Hallenbeck Crawford Co.1900.

Kemble, Stephen The Kemble Papers, New York Historical Society, 1884:

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Champagne, Roger J Alexander McDougall and the American Revolution in New York,
NY State American Revolution Bicentennial Comm. 1975.

Diamant, Lincoln Chaining the Hudson: Fight for the River in the American Revolution, Carol Publishing Group, 1989 (book recommendation of the week).

Logusz, Michael O. With Musket & Tomahawk: The West Point-Hudson Valley Campaign in the Wilderness War of 1777, Carrell Books, 2016.

MacDougall, William L. American Revolutionary: a Biography of General Alexander McDougall, Greenwood Press, 1977.

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Episode 132: Britain Adjusts its War Plans

General William Howe had hoped to end his 1776 campaign with the subjugation of New Jersey in December.  With that, he expected the remainder of the Continental Army would dissolve and he could focus on granting pardons to everyone who swore loyalty to the King.  Of course, General Washington had other ideas, fighting the battles of Trenton and Princeton and keeping up the Forage War across New Jersey for most of the winter.  This kept the Continental Army and the counter-offensive alive for at least another year.

Howe left the skirmishing in New Jersey to his subordinates.  Howe himself, spent the winter in New York enjoying one party after another and his mistress, Betsy Loring.  His professional focus remained on the inevitable campaign that would begin again in the spring of 1777.

More Shock and Awe

Even before Washington counter-attacked at Trenton, indeed even before Howe had completed pushing the army out of White Plains New York, Howe had begun writing Secretary of State Lord George Germain and others in London calling for more reinforcements.  Remember, Howe had begun the New York campaign a combined Army and Navy force of about 42,000 men, not even counting the 8000 or so stationed in and around Quebec.

General William Howe
(from Wikimedia)
With about 10,000 sailors and marines, only about 32,000 of the British and German forces in New York were army.  Over the course of the campaign, he had lost nearly nine thousand soldiers as prisoners or through desertions or death. Most deaths coming from disease.  Howe would need more reinforcements for the 1777 campaign.

Remember, when preparing for the 1776 campaign, officials had decided to deploy an overwhelming force in order to crush this rebellion.  In 1775 the entire British army worldwide consisted of only about 50,000 soldiers.  Sending 40,000 to New York and Quebec had been quite a burden.  They did so in the hope that they could end this war quickly, rather than having an expensive drawn out effort lasting many years.

Howe’s letters to Lord Germain in the fall of 1776 informed him that there was no way the campaign would end that year and that they needed to send many more reinforcements in order to crush patriot moral and force a surrender.  This had to frustrate Germain.  Howe also said he found that he could raise almost no Tory regiments from among the locals, meaning they would need more from recruits Britain or mercenaries from Europe.

By late November, about the time General Lord Cornwallis was chasing the rapidly disintegrating Continental Army across New Jersey, Howe provided more specifics on his planned campaign for 1777.  He would deploy one army of about 10,000 men from Providence, Rhode Island, marching through New England toward Boston.  He would launch another army of 10,000 men up the Hudson river toward Albany, presumably linking up with forces from Quebec and cutting off New England from the colonies to the south.  Another army of 8000 would occupy New Jersey and create a threat against Philadelphia, thus preventing Washington from moving troops to deploy against the other two armies.  Finally, he would maintain a force of around 5000 in and around New York City to defend his base of operations there.  Once Howe has subdued New York and New England early in the season, he would then capture Philadelphia and begin moving south to subdue the southern colonies.

To accomplish all of this he would need another 15,000 soldiers.  Again, his hope seemed to be that overwhelming force would get the patriots to surrender without even having to fight a major bloody battle.

Howe wrote about all of these plans even before Washington had launched his attacks against Trenton and Princeton, capturing about 1400 prisoners and putting almost all of New Jersey back in contention.

Following the revitalization of the patriots after those victories, Howe conceded that he would have to fight a decisive battle to defeat the rebels, something he had not really tried to do in 1776.

No Reinforcements

Sir George Germain, Lord
Sackville (from Wikimedia)
Howe had hoped for more reinforcements to shock and awe the patriots into surrender.  It seems, though, that the only people shocked were officials back in London who saw no good justification for spending more money to raise and deploy another 15,000 reinforcements.  Germain told Howe that he was not getting anywhere near that number of soldiers.  First Germain thought 15,000 was excessive because 7800 soldiers should give Howe the 35,000 total he said he required.  A few years later, at a Parliamentary inquiry over the events of 1777, Howe testified that Germain’s numbers only made sense if Howe counted his soldiers who were disabled on sick leave and those who had been captured as available for duty.

Even beyond that dispute, Germain further determined that the ministry simply was not willing to pay for an army of 35,000 to put in Howe’s command.  He ended up sending about 2300 reinforcements for Howe’s 1777 campaign.  Howe needed to find a way to win this war with the already massive force under his command, a force that far outnumbered anything the Continentals had put in the field.

Focus on New York

Like every commander at time, Howe had subordinates who did not think he was up to the job, that they could do a much better job, and were not afraid to say that to anyone back in London who would listen.

General John Burgoyne had left Canada in December 1776 after the northern army had taken Crown Point following the battle of Valcour Island, and then retreated back to Canada without attacking Fort Ticonderoga.  Commanding General Guy Carlton’s caution in not taking Ticonderoga that winter had upset many officers, including Burgoyne.  So Burgoyne’s personal mission in London focused more on bad mouthing Carleton rather than Howe, but he of course made clear that he had better ideas than all the commanders in North America.

In February 1777, Burgoyne drafted a memorandum: Thoughts for Conducting the War from the Side of Canada where he described in detail how he would lead an army of 8000 regulars, 2000 Canadian militia, and 1000 Indians (or “savages” as he called them) down from Canada, capturing Fort Ticonderoga.  A diversionary force would leave from Montreal and move down Lake Ontario toward the Mohawk River.  The main force would move from Quebec, down Lake George to capture Crown Point and Ticonderoga.  Ultimately, the force would continue on to Albany, where the northern army would either link up with Howe’s forces moving up from New York City, or at least establish communications with New York City via the Hudson River.

General John Burgoyne
(from Wikimedia)
This was not an original idea.  It was very similar to what Carleton had proposed and failed to do the year before.  It was also what military planners had suggested from the very beginning, as a strategy to cut off troublesome New England from the rest of the continent.

Burgoyne, with his detailed plan, successfully lobbied to lead the campaign himself.  Lord Germain, Lord North, and King George all agreed that Burgoyne was best for the job.  The King even weighed in with very specific Remarks on the conduct of the War from Canada  about Burgoyne’s plan.  The main concern was that London did not want to send more expensive reinforcements to Canada, and also that they wanted a sufficient force in Canada to protect it from another invasion.  As a result, they shaved Burgoyne’s request to send a force of 11,000 down to about 7200 regulars and Hessians, with around 3800 remaining in Canada.

With Burgoyne’s acceptance of the reduced numbers, he left London near the end of March so that he could be back in Quebec by early May.  He needed to get moving if he would have time to organize his troops, obtain the necessary supplies, and begin his campaign by some time in June.

This left leaders with two uncomfortable problems.  First, giving Burgoyne command of the northern army invading New York would be a slight against General Carlton, who was senior to Burgoyne and the current commander of the northern army in Canada.  Some historians indicate this was an issue of personal animosity between Germain and Carleton.  If there was any ill will between the two men, there certainly was also good objective reasoning not to put Carleton in charge.  Carleton’s inability to secure Ticonderoga, despite marching right up to its walls the year before did not exactly enhance his reputation as an aggressive fighter to officials in London.

General Sir Guy Carleton
(from Wikimedia)
The administration was clearly frustrated with the slow pace of events in America, and laid the blame on Howe and Carleton.  Giving an independent command to an aggressive fighting general like Burgoyne might be just the thing to bring the rebellion to a faster conclusion.

No one, however, wanted to disgrace or attack Carleton.  Instead, they used the argument that whoever led the expedition would have to link up with Howe’s army and come under Howe’s command.  They wanted Carleton to retain his independent command of Canada.  After all, he also was the Governor of Canada.  So, Carlton had to remain in Canada while Burgoyne led the bulk of the northern army into New York.

Regardless, Carlton would take this action as a slight against his leadership abilities.  Sure enough, when Carlton received word of Burgoyne’s assignment, he immediately sent word that he wished to be recalled to London.  But there would be no time for him to fight or challenge the orders once received.  He had to go along with it.  The Ministry kept Carlton in Canada.  He would remain there, discontented, until the summer of 1778.

The second ego bruised was that of General Henry Clinton, who had been seeking an independent command of his own and expressed continued frustration at serving under Howe.  Before Burgoyne arrived in London, Lord Germain and others had already been considering a similar plan to Burgoyne’s, with the intention of giving command of the force to General Clinton.  As second in seniority to Howe, and given the fact that he had been frustrated with Howe’s refusal to take his strategic advice the year before, Clinton would be the obvious leader.  Howe had actually assumed Clinton would get the northern command and had requested that London send Burgoyne back to America to become Howe’s second in command.

General Sir Henry Clinton
(from Wikimedia)
But with the decision to give the command to Burgoyne, the administration had to find a way to appease Clinton.  To make things even more uncomfortable, Clinton was already on his way to London.  As I mentioned back in Episode 119, Clinton had secured Rhode Island for Howe, after being left out of the entire New Jersey campaign.  Frustrated, he boarded a ship for London in January and arrived in March, just after the administration had handed the New York expedition to Burgoyne.  Even before hearing of this latest slight to his honor, Clinton had planned to resign his commission.  He felt everyone held him responsible for the failure to take Charleston, South Carolina back in the spring of 1776, and that he was getting dumped into unimportant posts where he could do little to restore his reputation.

The ministry did not want Clinton to resign, but they also did not seem to want to give him any important command either.  Instead, they opted to stroke his ego.  The King honored him with a Knight of the Bath for his services, promoted him to Lieutenant General, and let him address Parliament.  After giving him all that, Germain told him he had to go back to New York and babysit New York City while Burgoyne invaded New York and Howe took his army to on its spring campaign.

Howe Plans to Take Philadelphia

So with the northern army’s invasion of New York approved and ready to go, planners could consider Howe’s other suggestions, an invasion of New England and the capture of Philadelphia.  Howe’s grand program that he had proposed in the fall looked even more sketchy after Washington attacked Trenton and Princeton and took back most of New Jersey.  London still was not willing to send the reinforcements that Howe wanted.  As a result, he dropped his plans for New England.  The British outpost in Rhode Island would remain with a limited force to provide a check on New England, but the planned offensive came to nothing.

Burgoyne's proposal for 1777 (solid) and
Howe's attack path for Philadelphia (dots)
(from US History)
Instead, Howe focused on capturing Philadelphia. In his correspondence with Germain and others over the winter, Howe did not say explicitly how he planned to assault Philadelphia.  Everyone assumed he would march his army across New Jersey, cross the Delaware River at some point and assault the city.  His plan to put his entire army on ships, sail down to Maryland and assault Philadelphia from the south seems to have come later.

And this is really where things break down.  Germain and others in London assumed that Howe would provide support for Burgoyne’s invasion in New York.  An attack across New Jersey would occupy the attention of the Continental Army, thus relieving pressure on Burgoyne.  Germain also seemed to think that at some point, Howe would march northward to link up with Burgoyne’s army, either in Albany or somewhere in upstate New York.

Germain thought Howe would take Philadelphia early in the season.  Everyone in London believed that Pennsylvania harbored a great many loyalists who would rise up, as they did in New Jersey, once the King’s troops entered the colony.  Howe would take Philadelphia easily, set up a reserve force of mostly locals to hold the city, then move the bulk of his combat troops north to assist Burgoyne by late summer or early fall.

 Confusion Reigns

Overall, the war planning over the winter of 1776-77 left none of the generals completely happy.  As I mentioned,  General Carlton was mortified that Burgoyne got command of the army invading New York.  He wanted to return to London.

General Clinton also more senior to Burgoyne was similarly upset and tried to resign.  His resignation refused, he returned to New York and commanded the tiny contingent holding New York City while others engaged with the enemy.  Although he commanded a force of around 7000, almost all of them were German mercenaries or local loyalist militia.  He had almost no regulars under his command.

I mentioned in an earlier episode that General Lord Percy had returned home in early 1777 to resign as well.  The King accepted his resignation and he left the army permanently. 

General Lord Cornwallis
(from Nat. Portrait Gallery)
General Lord Cornwallis was ticked off that he was getting the blame for Washington’s successes in NJ that winter and that he could not return to London to advocate for himself.

General Howe was frustrated by London’s refusal to give him the reinforcements he needed to carry out his plans for three armies.  He could not strike at New England, nor did he have enough men to send a separate army up the Hudson River to coordinate with Burgoyne.  He had to settle for capturing Philadelphia only.

Even General Burgoyne, who got the plumb command over two more senior generals and got his plan of attack approved, only received less than two-thirds of the number of soldiers he had sought for the mission.

Having all the leading generals upset and angry at each other was bad enough.  What was worse was that no one seemed to have a sure understanding of the overall strategy for the year ahead.   Burgoyne thought that Howe or Clinton would assist with his offensive by pushing up from New York City toward his advance, or at least attacking New England to draw away some of the enemy.  Clinton did not receive any such orders.  When later urged to push up the Hudson to relieve Burgoyne, he refused to do so because it would leave New York City vulnerable to attack.

Similarly, Howe made his only goal for the year capturing Philadelphia.  There was some discussion that he might assist Burgoyne in the fall after pacifying Philadelphia.  But He never received explicit orders to do so.  Many historians put the blame on Lord Germain for this.  They point to a story just before Easter 1777, when Germain was eager to get out of London and return to his country home.  His secretary reported that he never sent explicit orders to Howe to assist Burgoyne.  Not wanting to wait in London, Germain had his staff work on the orders and send them to his home for his signature later.  But all Howe ever got was a copy of Burgoyne’s orders that indicated that Howe might be of some assistance at some point.  Howe never even started his move on Philadelphia until the end of July, and did not even enter Philadelphia until the end of September.

Howe, therefore never made any effort to send a force up the Hudson to relieve Burgoyne in the late summer when it might have helped.  But the truth is he knew what Burgoyne was doing and even if Germain gave him some discretion in how to act, it seems he should have been prepared to support Burgoyne.  Later, during a Parliamentary inquiry into the matter, Howe justified himself as follows:

Had I adopted the plan to go up the Hudson River, it would have been alleged that I had wasted the campaign with a considerable army under my command, merely to ensure the progress of the northern army, which could have taken care of itself, provided I had made a diversion in its favour by drawing off to the southward the main army under General Washington. Would not my enemies have gone further, and insinuated that, alarmed at the rapid success which the honourable General [Burgoyne] had a right to expect when Ticonderoga fell, I had enviously grasped a share of the merit which would otherwise have been all his own? and let me add, would not Ministers have told you, as they truly might, that I had acted without any orders or instructions from them?

In other words, Howe would have been criticized for sitting around New York all summer waiting to assist the northern army rather than doing something proactive like capturing Philadelphia.  Howe blamed Burgoyne for getting the reinforcements that Howe wanted for his own plans.  Howe reasoned that if Burgoyne got the soldiers, he should be capable of defeating the Americans without more help from another army.

None of the other generals would ever admit to such a thing, but all were probably waiting for Burgoyne to fail.  Burgoyne had criticized everyone else for being too cautious and for lobbying for his own command over the backs of more senior generals.  He was an upstart who was junior to all these other generals.  Further, he had no family in Parliament to support him politically if he did fail.  If Burgoyne’s aggressive offensive failed, it would show why those cautious tactics he criticized were the right strategy. As it was, everyone started the fighting season of 1777 with a different idea of how things would work.  We will see in a future episode the results of that confusion.

Next week: British test American resolve on the Hudson by raiding the town of Peekskill.

- - -

Next Episode 133 Peekskill Raid

Previous Episode 131 Congress - Baltimore Edition

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American Revolution Podcast is distributed 100% free of charge. If you can chip in to help defray my costs, I'd appreciate whatever you can give.  Make a one time donation through my PayPal account.
Mike Troy

Click here to see my Patreon Page
You can support the American Revolution Podcast as a Patreon subscriber.  This is an option for people who want to make monthly pledges.  Patreon support will give you access to Podcast extras and help make the podcast a sustainable project.  Thanks again!

Further Reading:


Hargreaves, Reginald "Burgoyne and America's Destiny" American Heritage, June 1956,
Vol. 7, Issue 4.

Sir Guy Carleton:

Fleming, Thomas “The Enigma Of General Howe” American Heritage, Feb. 1964:

Burgoyne, John, Thoughts for Conducting the War from the Side of Canada (transcript):

King George, Remarks on the conduct of the War from Canada (Transcript):

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

The Detail and Conduct of the American War, under Generals Gage, Howe, Burgoyne, and Vice Admiral Lord Howe, (original reports and letters) The Royal Exchange, 1780.

Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts Report on the manuscripts of Mrs. Stopford-Sackville, of Drayton House, Northamptonshire Vol. 2, Hereford: Hereford Press, 1910
(includes Germain’s correspondence related to America).

Burgoyne, John A State of the Expedition from Canada: as laid before the House of Commons, London: J. Almon, 1780.

Donne, W. Bodham (ed) The Correspondence of King George the Third with Lord North from 1768 to 1783, Vol 1, London: John Murray, 1867.

Howe, William The Narrative of Lieut. Gen. Sir William. Howe, H. Baldwin, 1781.

Publication date 1781

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

O'Shaughnessy, Andrew The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013.

Saxon, Gerald Brown The American Secretary: The Colonial Policy of Lord George Germain, 1775-1778, Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1963.

Watson, J. Steven The Reign of George III 1760-1815, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960.

Whiteley, Peter Lord North: The Prime Minister Who Lost America, London: Hambledon Press, 1996.

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Episode 131 Continental Congress - Baltimore Edition

The last few weeks, we have covered some of the most pivotal events of the Revolution.  The massive British Army under General Howe invaded New York and New Jersey, sending the Continental Army fleeing before it.  The Continental Army then countered to retake New Jersey.  Last week we looked at events in the south over the same period as Tories in Florida with their Creek and Seminole allies seemed to have no trouble pushing into patriot-controlled Georgia.  Today we look at what the Continental Congress was doing as all these events unfolded.

Relocating Congress

As the British army moved toward Philadelphia in December 1776, the Continental Army was not able to mount much of any defense.  Many on both sides assumed the British would take Philadelphia before ending the year’s offensive.  Members of Congress, not eager to become prisoners of war, decided to leave Philadelphia.  On December 12, the Congress voted to adjourn and reconvene in Baltimore, Maryland the following week.

Fite House (from US Capitols)
In Baltimore, locals first offered Congress the Courthouse, but it was too small.  Instead Congress rented the Henry Fite House, which was actually a hotel and tavern on the western edge of town.  The three story, 14 room brick building had several rooms large enough for committee meetings.  At the time, it was the largest building in Baltimore.  Congress rented the building from Fite for three months for £60.

Overall members were not happy with Baltimore.  It was not the charming modern city that exists today. As one member put it “the town was exceedingly expensive, and exceedingly dirty, that at times members could make their way to the assembly hall only on horseback, through deep mud."  In his diary, John Adams called it “the dirtiest place in the world.” There was also a 107 year wait for Orioles tickets.

Washington Gets More Power

Putting aside the conditions in Baltimore, Congress got to work.  Remember mid-December was the low point of the patriot movement.  Everyone expected the British to take Philadelphia.  The Continental Army might be captured in the process.  If not, officers and soldiers were already deserting what they saw as a lost cause.  Congress had been reluctant to turn over much power to General Washington and the rest of the military leadership for fear of losing civilian control of the army.  Since there was no executive branch, Congress itself had to act as a department of war, trying to run everything through committees.

Washington at Trenton
Congress voted on December 27 to give Washington special powers for six months to raise his own army from the states, appoint officers, and take appropriate action against uncooperative civilians.  This was the day after Washington’s victory at Trenton, but the timing was purely coincidental.  It is not clear whether word of the victory had even reached Congress by the time of the vote.  The matter had been under debate for days prior.

This was not about handing out power to a victorious general.  Congress was effectively admitting that it was not capable of making the necessary executive decisions that had to be made decisively and quickly by the Commander in Chief.  It put a six month time limit on the powers to make sure Washington did not become a dictator.  With the army on the verge of collapse, and the only serious replacement for Washington, General Charles Lee, now a British prisoner, Congress decided it had to go all in, depending on Washington to run the army as best he saw fit.

Congress expressed concern about some recent prisoners.  Congress directed Washington to investigate and protest General Howe’s treatment of Richard Stockton, who I discussed back in Episode 118. Treatment of a captured member of the Continental Congress was an issue near and dear to the hearts of the rest of the members.  Congress also denounced British treatment of Charles Lee.  When initially captured, there were rumors that Lee would be shipped back to England and hanged as a deserter or traitor. Congress affirmed Washington’s position that if the British hanged an American general, the Americans would hang a British officer of the same rank.

By the time Congress passed this resolution though, the British were treating Lee quite well.  They allowed Lee to send for his dogs and servants.  General Howe met personally with Lee during this time.  Howe eventually got Lee to send a letter to Congress asking them to send a delegation to New York to discuss peace terms.  By mid-February though, it appeared that the Americans were back on the offensive.  Congress rejected Lee’s proposal.

Foreign Policy

Congress was not ready to consider any peace proposal if Britain did not recognize American Independence.  That position required military victory.  Washington’s minor victories in New Jersey had been a huge boost for morale, but they did not change the thinking on either side that Britain would eventually crush the rebellion unless the Americans could get a few more countries involved.

I mentioned back in Episode 115 that Congress had appointed Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Lee to work as Commissioners along with Silas Deane in France.  They needed to pull France into the war with Britain.

Franklin in Paris
(from U. Penn)
Congress, however, did not want to rely on France alone.  Franklin had only arrived in France in late December.  Before Franklin could do much of anything, let alone get any reports back to Congress, the delegates added to Franklin’s duties by appointing him to serve as a Commissioner to the Court of Spain.  Both France and Spain had lost colonies to Britain during the Seven Years War.  Congress hoped that both countries might find this an opportune time to reclaim lost real estate while Britain was tied up in America.  Entry of any other European power into war against Britain would force London to spread its resources more thinly, and give America a better chance of holding onto its independence.

I’m going to get into Franklin’s exploits in Paris in a future episode, but for now, I want to point out that Congress was already expanding his role and attempting to get whatever European powers into a war that would improve the American odds of winning.

Congress also was not convinced that anyone could convince France to start a new war with Britain.  If they could not get France into the war, Congress at least hoped to receive more covert assistance in the form of munitions and other supplies needed to help the war effort.

Vermont Independence, Not Now

As if there was not enough going on, political leaders in the New Hampshire Grants met in a convention in the town of Westminster.  There, they drafted their own declaration of independence, calling themselves the Republic of New Connecticut.  A few months later, they would change the name to Vermont.

The declaration was especially controversial because New York still considered this territory to be part of New York.  Anxious not to annoy the New York delegation, Congress opted to ignore the declaration entirely, not approving or criticizing it.  It would not receive a delegation from the new self-proclaimed republic nor do anything else to recognize its status.  The people of Vermont would have to wait more than a decade to get any recognition.  For this reason, I’m only mentioning this in passing for now.  I will talk more about the politics of Vermont independence in a future episode.

Money Problems

A much more immediate problem for Congress was money.  Congress had been pumping out millions of dollars in paper money, which promised the bearer some day would receive hard currency.  But especially when it looked like the British might win, no one wanted to accept the Continental currency since a British victory meant there would be no entity around to make good on that paper.  Even when the Americans looked like they had a chance of victory though, continental paper continually suffered from hyper-inflation.  Congress had no plan in place to receive any hard money (gold and silver) to pay off the paper.  States would not give it the power to collect taxes.  It could only get anything from the states if the states unanimously agreed to such a plan.  Congress never seemed capable of doing that.

1st Ed. Adam Smith "Wealth of Nations"
published in 1776 but did not influence
Congress' monetary policies.
(from Great Thinkers)
On January 14th, Congress passed some recommendations for states to come up with tax money.  But for a people fighting a war over a foreign government trying to collect taxes from the states, there was a strong inclination for many states to oppose this.  Anyone ever getting anything of value in exchange for their paper currency continued to look like quite a gamble.

Congress’ only response to this was to order people to accept the money at face value in exchange for their goods.  The only time that really worked was when soldiers pointed a gun at merchants and ordered them to turn over their goods in exchange for paper, or go to jail.  As a result, few people were willing to supply the government with much of anything.

During this session, Congress approved borrowing another $13 million through the sale of loan certificates.  It also increased the interest rates from 4% to 6%.  Even with these changes, the risks were too high for most speculators.

In December and January, New England leaders met at a conference in Providence, Rhode Island to discuss the growing problems of government credit and currency acceptance.  Although over in Britain, Adam Smith had published his new book, The Wealth of Nations, no one in America seemed interested in the invisible hand of the market.  Instead, delegates recommended the establishment of mandatory prices on a wide range of commonly needed goods, and forcing merchants to accept paper money at those prices.  The Continental Congress endorsed the New England Conference’s recommendations, and also recommended that the middle and southern states hold similar conferences.

This, of course, only continued devalue the Continental dollar and created even more economic chaos across the continent.  But to be fair to Congress, they really had no choice.  Congress had no power to raise money through taxes, and little chance of obtaining that power in the foreseeable future.  States would not come up with the necessary funds to prosecute the war.  As a result, delegates saw no option other than to continue printing paper money and force people to accept it for goods and services.

Changing the Medical Corps

In addition to building a diplomatic corps and creating an economic system out of nothing, Congress also spent considerable time running military affairs.  Although they had just given Washington a great deal of authority over such things, Congress could not help but meddle in disputes that came to its attention.

Congress had appointed John Morgan as Physician-in-Chief of the Army back in October 1775.  This was right after it removed Benjamin Church on suspicion of espionage.  Dr. Morgan had been a Quaker physician in Philadelphia before the war, but had served in the French and Indian War and left his Quaker upbringing behind many years before the war even started.  He became a committed patriot and by most accounts served reasonably well as Physician-in-Chief for well over a year.  The big complaint against him was that he was unable to make medical supplies available to regimental surgeons.  But the problem there was not administrative competence.  It was that the Continental Army had no supplies, and no money to buy them.

John Morgan
(from Wikimedia)
Dr. William Shippen, also from Philadelphia, and Dr. Samuel Stringer of Albany both tried to undermine Morgan and replace him.  In the fall of 1776, Congress had decided to divide medical authority, limiting Morgan’s authority to New England and giving Shippen administrative control over the mid-Atlantic region where the Continental Army was now centered.  Stringer, put in charge of the Northern army medical staff, simply refused to obey any of Morgan’s orders.  Morgan visited Congress in an attempt to figure out why they had done this, but could not get a hearing.

Finally in January 1777, Congress decided it had had enough.  Without consulting Washington and without any hearings, Congress simply dismissed Morgan and Stringer from the army and put Shippen in charge.  Morgan, unhappy with his dismissal and unable to get a hearing, published a book over 200 pages long trying to vindicate himself and his reputation.

Morgan made it his goal in life to take down Shippen.  In late 1778, Morgan working with Dr. Benjamin Rush, a member of Congress and also a Philadelphia physician, had Shippen brought up on charges of fraud and speculation.  Among other things, they accused Shippen of speculating in the sale of goods needed by the wounded and personally profiting from their sale.  Shippen avoided conviction by one vote and continued to serve until he resigned in 1781.

Congress later exonerated Morgan of any wrongdoing, but did not reinstate him.  His army career was over for good.

Congress also made another important medical decision during this session. It recommended that all Continental soldiers receive smallpox inoculations.  This was controversial.  A safe vaccination would not be discovered until years later. The inoculation as it existed at the time often left the soldiers sick with a mild version of the disease for a couple of months, rendering them incapable of fighting or marching.  It also killed a small percentage of those inoculated. For this reason, Washington at one point had banned inoculations and even jailed some private doctors who inoculated soldiers.

At the same time though, smallpox could ravage armies.  It had killed thousands of soldiers, especially in the northern army during the Quebec campaign, where I think it was decisive in the failure to secure Canada for the patriots.  Smallpox had already claimed the life of Major General John Thomas as well as the Army’s first foreign General, Frederick William, Baron de Woedtke, both of whom had succumbed to the disease months earlier.  John Adams called smallpox “ten times more terrible than Britons, Canadians and Indians, together." The decision to inoculate soldiers, with which Washington also had come to agree, would end up saving thousands of desperately needed soldiers.

Congress also created a Commissary General of American Prisoners whose job would be to provide necessities for the American POWs that the British held in New York. The thousands of prisoners, mostly captured during the New York campaign and the surrender of Fort Washington were literally starving to death aboard prison ships.  After Congress approved the position, Washington appointed Elias Boudinot to serve as Commissary General.  I plan to discuss his activities in a future episode.

Promoting Generals

Congress also took the opportunity to use the session to appoint more generals.  Although Congress had granted Washington authority to commission field officers, Congress retained for itself the authority to commission new general officers.  Early in the session, it has appointed Henry Knox as a new brigadier general and chief of artillery.  It also appointed Francis Nash general to assist with the organization and defense of the Carolinas.

Major General Lord Stirling
(from find a grave)
Toward the end of the session though, Congress decided to make some larger promotion decisions.  On February 19th, it promoted five men to major general: William Alexander (Lord Stirling), Thomas Mifflin, Arthur St. Clair, Adam Stephen, and Benjamin Lincoln.  Two days later, it promoted nine others to brigadier general.

All promotions can be controversial in the sense of who gets it and who does not.  But these appointments had a particular impact on one man: Benedict Arnold.  General Arnold had seniority over all five of the appointees to major general.  Arnold was already ticked that he had not received promotion in an earlier round back in August 1776.  But at least in that round, all those who did get promoted were senior to him, even if their service was not particularly distinguished.  Arnold, who had almost single-handedly held off a British invasion from Canada that fall, and who was one of the most senior brigadier generals in service, seemed a lock for promotion in this round.

When you got passed over for officers with less seniority, that usually was taken that the leadership did not respect you and that you should resign.  Arnold wrote to Washington, inquiring about this and indicated that he would resign.  He only held off because Washington said there must have been some mistake and that he should wait until Washington could make inquiries into what happened.

As it turned out, there was no mistake.  Congress had considered and rejected Arnold.  The main reason given was that Congress already had two major generals from Connecticut, and that before this, no State had three major generals.  Of course it did not seem to bother anyone that Virginia got its third major general in this round, in addition to the Commander in Chief.   General Adam Stephen who just got bumped up was particularly undistinguished and someone who General Washington despised.

Thomas Mifflin
(from Wikimedia)
The reality was that despite Arnold’s impressive fighting record, he did not have friends in Congress to advocate for him.  Members knew his record of fighting with superiors and with the officers under his command.  Arnold wrote out several resignations but ended up remaining at his post, mostly because Washington pleaded with him to do so and promised to work things out.

Arnold wrote back to Washington to say that he could interpret this action in no way other than Congress had lost faith in Arnold as a leader and was politely asking him to resign.  The only things that kept him from doing so immediately was that he expected Congress to send another leader to take over his command, and his desire to go to Philadelphia and seek a court martial prior to resigning.  With that he would have the opportunity to hear the criticisms against him and defend his reputation before submitting his resignation.

This dispute would linger for a few months.  In May, following Arnold’s noted leadership at the Danbury Raid, which I’ll discuss in a future episode, Congress finally decided to give him the promotion.  However, going from the most senior brigadier general to the most junior major general meant that the promotion changed nothing in terms of who could give him orders and who he could order.  So the same five men who had been promoted over him were still his senior.  So, Arnold’s grudge against Congress for being denied proper respect for his services would continue.

Return to Philadelphia

By the end of February delegates decided the Continental Army’s counter offensive in New Jersey had made Philadelphia apparently secure for the time being.  On February 27th, the delegates adjourned their Baltimore session and resumed work in Philadelphia on March 5th.

Next Week, I will look at how the British military and political leadership debated strategic war plans and prepared for the 1777 fighting season.

- - -

Next Episode 132 Britain Adjusts its War Plans

Previous Episode 130 Fort McIntosh, Ga

Click here to donate
American Revolution Podcast is distributed 100% free of charge. If you can chip in to help defray my costs, I'd appreciate whatever you can give.  Make a one time donation through my PayPal account.
Mike Troy

Click here to see my Patreon Page
You can support the American Revolution Podcast as a Patreon subscriber.  This is an option for people who want to make monthly pledges.  Patreon support will give you access to Podcast extras and help make the podcast a sustainable project.  Thanks again!

Further Reading 


Rush, Benjamin “Historical Notes of Dr. Benjamin Rush, 1777” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 27, No. 2, The Historical Society of Pennsylvania; University of Pennsylvania Press, 1903, pp. 129-150:

John Morgan:

John Morgan:

William Shippen:

Samuel Stringer:

Smallpox during the Revolutionary War:

Elias Boudinot:

Letter, Washington to Arnold, March 3, 1777:

Letter, Arnold to Washington March 11, 1777:

Procknow, Gene “Personal Honor and Promotion Among Revolutionary Generals and Congress” Journal of the American Revolution, 2018:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Journals of the Continental Congress, Vol. 6 (Oct. 9 - Dec. 31, 1776) Washington: Government Printing Office 1906.

Journals of the Continental Congress, Vol. 7 (Jan. 1 - May 21, 1777) Washington: Government Printing Office 1907.

Morgan, John A vindication of his public character in the station of director-general of the military hospitals and physician in chief to the American army, anno 1776, Boston: Powers and Willis, 1777.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Mello, Robert A. Moses Robinson and the Founding of Vermont, Vermont Historical Society, 2014.

Montross, Lynn The Reluctant Rebels, The Story of the Continental Congress 1774-1789, Harper & Bros. 1950.

Smith, Page John Adams, Doubleday and Co. 1962.

Steffen, Charles G. The Mechanics of Baltimore: Workers and Politics in the Age of Revolution, 1763-1812, Univ. of Illinois Press, 1984.

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.