A couple of weeks ago, I covered the British as they sent General Howe back to London, following a big party in Philadelphia. A couple of weeks after Howe departed, another ship, the Trident, arrived in Philadelphia from London on June 6, 1778. It carried a group of peace commissioners. The three commissioners, led by the Earl of Carlisle, arrived with substantial bargaining power from London to at long last bring this rebellion to an end.
Britain Gets Conciliatory
Over the winter of 1777-78, following news of the capture of Burgoyne’s Army at Saratoga, political leaders in London feared that perhaps they really had underestimated the military capacity of the Americans. Perhaps a political compromise could resolve this matter.
Many British leaders believed that speed was of the essence. London was already receiving word that France was seriously considering entry into the war through a military alliance with the United States. Britain’s bargaining power would be much greater before that happened.
Parliament, however, went on recess in December, shortly after word of the defeat at Saratoga arrived in London and would not meet again for six weeks. Members debated taking a shorter recess to deal with events that were quickly developing into war with France. The members, however, voted to retain their extended recess and put off any decisions until the following year.
When Parliament returned on January 20, 1778, the North Ministry was ready to get to work. In the Taxation of the Colonies Act of 1778, Parliament repealed the tea tax. It also disclaimed the Declaratory Act which had maintained Parliament’s right to tax the colonies. Going forward, Parliament would only levy tariffs related to the regulation of trade, and never to raise revenue. This is exactly what the patriot leaders had been demanding about a decade earlier. The bill also repealed the Massachusetts Government Act. This was the 1774 law that altered Massachusetts’ colonial charter to reduce the colonists’ power of self-government. It was one of the main reasons that colonists had taken up arms at Lexington and Concord in 1775.
The ministry also got Parliament’s approval to send a Commission to America to make further concessions. If London could give into the demands that had originally started the war, perhaps they could reach a political settlement before France entered the war.
The man behind the push for a peace commission was William Eden. Eden was the son of a Baronet, though since he was not the first born, he would not inherit a title. William did, however, get a top notch education and trained to be a lawyer.
His career soon veered into government service in the areas of diplomacy and trade. In 1772, at the age of 27, he received an appointment to serve as Undersecretary of State in the North Ministry. This was due to family connections. He was related to Solicitor General Alexander Wedderburn. Two years later, Eden won a seat in the House of Commons, but also retained his position as Undersecretary of State.
Two years after that, in 1776, he took a third position as a Lord of Trade. This position on the Board of Trade was one of those honorary jobs that paid £1000 per year but did not require the salary holder to show up for work. It was the ministry’s way of rewarding members of parliament for political loyalty.
Eden, however, took the unusual step of showing for meetings of the Board of Trade, and taking an active role in debate. Through his government positions, he also created for himself an informal job of intelligence officer. Eden began making contacts and sending agents all over Europe to obtain intelligence of interest to the ministry. One of his agents was Paul Wentworth, who I’ve mentioned before went to Paris to keep tabs on the American Commissioners. It was through Eden’s intelligence network that the North Ministry received word that France was seriously considering entering the war in early 1777.
Eden was no radical Whig. In Parliament he had supported taxation of the colonies before the war. He also supported the use of a large military force to put down the rebellion.
But with war with France imminent, Eden became a vocal proponent of a peace commission, and not one of those BS commissions that had gone before with the power to do nothing, other than to forgive the Americans for their treason. This commission had to make real concessions and as quickly as possible.
During Parliament’s winter recess, Eden put together the proposals for legislative changes and for the creation of a Peace Commission. He got Prime Minister Lord North’s approval, as well as that of the conservative Attorney General Lord Thurlow.
Parliament began debate on the conciliatory laws and authorization for the peace commission in mid-February, shortly after it returned. By early March, both the House of Commons and House of Lords had approved the bills and the commission. The relatively speedy approval of the plan, after about three weeks, should not belie the fact that it was quite controversial within Parliament. Many conservative Tories thought that the ministry was essentially giving up on the war after the setback at Saratoga and was surrendering to all the colonial demands.
At the same time, radical Whigs thought that the reforms and the commission did not go far enough. Leader of the opposition, Lord Rockingham, recommended during debates that the Commission be empowered to grant independence to the United States. Rockingham and his faction believed that these were the only conditions that would end the war immediately. This would allow Britain to negotiate a favorable trading relationship with the US and might successfully short circuit a war with France. Even if France still did go to war with Britain, the US would not be France’s ally.
The radicals were even calling for Lord North’s resignation. They felt that the Americans needed new leadership to accept the real change in policy. The call for American independence began with a few radicals. But, as Parliamentary debate continued, the war with France began, the pro-independence movement in Parliament continued to grow to the point where a majority might support it. Conservatives had to convince the dying William Pitt, Lord Chatham to return to the House of Lords to make a final speech in favor of holding onto the colonies. He called the independence of America the dismemberment of the monarchy. Chatham would die a few weeks after this speech, but it was effective in forestalling any continued debate over recognizing American independence.
Even as Parliamentary debate on the commission was getting started in February, Lord North sought to have Eden serve on the peace commission that would go to America. Eden, however, was not so crazy about the idea. He feared that he would lose his lucrative government positions. He preferred to stay in London. Instead, he requested an appointment to the King’s Privy Council.
The King nixed that idea, but did agree to Eden’s request for £1000 pounds to pay for his duties as a commissioner. The ministry also agreed that he could continue to hold his position as Undersecretary of State and on the Board of Trade while he was away. Eden also got Lord North’s promise that North would not resign while he was in America trying to negotiate a peace, and that the ministry would support a major military operation in America in order to help convince the Americans to accept a negotiated end to the war..
So with all that, Eden was on board. The Ministry then looked for other commissioners. Eden did not think he should head the commission. His positions in favor of colonial taxation and the use of Native Americans to help suppress the rebellion might make him an unpopular in the eyes of Americans.
Instead, the head of the commission went to Frederick Howard, 5th Earl of Carlisle. Lord Carlisle was 29 years old at the time and a member of the House of Lords. He had done little of note in the government. However, he was a childhood friend of Eden from when the two attended Eton together years earlier. His title made it appropriate for him to lead the Commission, and Eden thought that they would work well together and that Carlisle would rely on Eden’s advice.
Parliament’s third commissioner was Richard Jackson. As a member of parliament, Jackson tended to be a radical Whig. Congress chose him as a commissioner because they thought that he would be popular with the Americans. Jackson had served as a colonial agent before the war, and was good friends with Benjamin Franklin. Eden, however, thought that Jackson was too radical. He had spoken in favor of recognizing American independence. That was farther than Eden wanted to go, and farther than the Commission was authorized to go.
Instead, Eden arranged for Jackson to be replaced on the Commission by George Johnstone, a Scottish member of Parliament who had been Royal Governor of West Florida and was by this time in his fifties. Both Johnstone and Eden seemed in agreement and believed they would work together well. Johnstone was not, however, on the best terms with Secretary of State Lord Germain. The two men had fought a duel against each other in 1770 after Johnstone had questioned Germain’s honor.
Also added to the commission were Admiral Sir Richard Howe and General William Howe. Recall that the Howe Brothers had been appointed as peace commissioners two years earlier, but not given authority to make any political concessions. It was thought that the Commission needed to work in concert with the military commanders to put pressure on the Americans to accept the negotiated peace. The ministry had already accepted General Howe’s offer to resign and had recalled him to London. However, this was not yet public knowledge and not revealed explicitly to the Commission. Instead, the ministry gave the commission the authority to swap Howe’s seat with the new North American Commander, General Sir Henry Clinton, if appropriate.
Commission goes to America
With all the details worked out, the commission finally set sail from London on April 12, 1778, bound for New York. By this time, of course, officials had wasted four precious months since the commission’s initial conception. In that time, Britain and France had gone to war, and Americans had become aware of their new alliance.
Before the commissioners even reached New York, they encountered a British naval vessel in mid-passage. The captain informed them that Admiral Howe and General Clinton had both gone to Philadelphia. The commissioners changed course and headed straight to Philadelphia. They would need to confer with Clinton and Howe before they could begin any real negotiations.
When the commissioners arrived in Philadelphia on June 6, they were surprised to learn that General Howe had already left for London, and even more surprised to learn that General Clinton was preparing to evacuate Philadelphia. This was the first that the commissioners were hearing about the evacuation plans.
Back in London, Lord Germain had assured the commissioners that the military would engage in an offensive to encourage the Americans to enter negotiations. Germain had said nothing about evacuation Philadelphia, even though he had sent orders to General Clinton to do just that more than a month before the commissioners left London.
Eden angrily wrote Germain about having the commission undercut by the evacuation and by Germain’s decision to not bother to mention that fact to the commissioners before they left. Germain’s pathetic response was that Eden was supposed to be an intelligence agent who knew all the government secrets, so he should have known about that.
The commissioners attempted to get General Clinton to delay the evacuation, but Clinton had direct orders from London and was concerned that a French fleet might trap the British in Philadelphia if he delayed.
Despite the weakened negotiating position, the commission was able to offer an impressive set of concessions. Parliament had authorized the commission to void any law passed since the Seven Years War that the Americans found objectionable. The Commission could offer the Americans representation in Parliament, or in the alternative, recognize the Continental Congress as the legitimate representative body of the colonies within the British Empire. It could guarantee that Parliament would never again attempt to levy taxes on the colonies and that it would never again alter a colonial charter, except at the request of the colonial legislature. Further, the commissioners could offer rewards to American leaders who helped to end the war and bring about peace. There was discussion, for example, of making George Washington a duke.
On June 13, a week after the commission’s arrival in Philadelphia the commissioners sent a message to the Continental Congress in York, essentially saying that they just wanted the war to end and that they were willing to discuss pretty much any and all the demands that the colonies had articulated as reasons for the war and independence. General Washington did not permit the messenger to go to Congress, but did allow the message to be delivered.
If the Carlisle Commission had arrived two years earlier with these same concessions, they probably would have been met with celebration by the colonies. It almost certainly would have ended the hostilities and the calls for independence. But this was 1778, not 1776. The Americans had been through too much and had come too far to negotiate a return to colonial status.
The bottom line was that Americans were committed to full independence by this time and would accept nothing less. Once that happened they were happy to discuss trade relationships or other friendly intercourse between the two separate countries. In other words, we can be friends, but we are just not into you in that way. The time for any political compromise was over.
By July, after the British evacuated Philadelphia, a topic I will cover in more detail in an upcoming episode, the Commission saw there was no real chance of success. The commission made one desperate attempt from New York on July 11 explicitly saying that Britain was open to any concession short of complete independence and that British forces could not evacuate North America due to the war with France. This message reached Congress but received no response.
The commission tried to reach out directly to the people issuing public proclamations of the concessions that they were willing to make. If they thought that there was some silent majority ready for peace and that only the radicals in Congress would show resistance, they would be quickly disappointed. Patriots around the country held public burnings of the conciliatory bills, making clear they were not interested in anything less than complete independence. Attempts to get loyalists talking about a negotiated peace only stirred up patriots to publish more pamphlets about the importance of independence.
Lord Carlisle wrote to his wife that the arrival of the French fleet “makes every hope of success in our business ridiculous.” Eden wrote to Lord Wedderburn that had he known of the decision to evacuate Philadelphia, he never even would have come to America. Britain could not negotiate from a position of strength, and the commission only looked weak and craven. He wanted to return home, but officials in London urged him to stay with the commission, which had moved to New York, and was continuing its efforts. Many believe the ministry wanted him to stay, not because they believed there was any chance of success, but because they did not want him to return to Parliament and join the opposition.
To make matters worse, Commissioner George Johnstone attempted to bribe three members of Congress, Francis Dana, Joseph Reed, and Robert Morris. The delegates all reported the attempted bribery and Congress declared that no patriot could have any communications with such a dishonorable character without bringing their own reputation into question.
The other members of the Commission had to distance themselves from Johnstone and said they had no knowledge of what he had been doing. Johnstone had to resign from the commission and return to England. There, he returned to Parliament and continued with his successful political career in support of the ministry.
By the end of August, the commission released another pronouncement that further attempts at conciliation were futile and that if the Americans wanted to resume discussions, they would have to initiate the talks. Back in London the King had received initial reports of the failure to start talks in June and told Lord North: “The Present accounts from America put a stop to all negotiations. Further concession is a joke.”
End of the Commission
In October, the Commission issued one last proclamation making an offer to any individuals or states that might want to seek a peace with Britain and return to the empire. The proclamation went on to emphasize the dangers to the Americans in allying themselves with their traditional enemy of France. That resulted in Lafayette challenging Eden to a duel. Eden declined, noting that bad mouthing an enemy during a time of war is not dishonorable.
The proclamation also threatened that the war would become even more harsh as Britain took off the gloves in this all-out war against France and those who allied themselves with it. Eden had suggested privately that military leaders send in guerilla units into the continent to engage in continuing acts of destruction and devastation in order to convince the people to demand a peaceful resolution. That, of course, never happened.
The only thing the Commission managed to do was restore trade privileges to loyalists living in New York City or Newport, Rhode Island, the only two areas within the United States where Britain still had a significant military presence.
By the end of 1778, the Commission had given up completely and returned to England. The commissioners continued to try to convince the ministry to apply more military pressure to North America, but by that time, the ministry was focused on other concerns with France. The commission finally disbanded on June 1, 1779.
Next week, the British Army packs up and evacuates Philadelphia.
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For the past few weeks, I’ve been focusing on Philadelphia where the British occupation has been winding down. As the British prepared for the 1778 spring fighting season, they conducted a number of raids around Philadelphia. This week, I want to explore a few other small raids in New England, which took place around the same time.
This will also give me an opportunity to cover the British occupation of Newport, RI. The British Army held Newport for nearly three years.
You may recall from back in Episode 119, that the British landed an army at Newport, Rhode Island for the purpose of setting up a saltwater port for the fleet. General Henry Clinton captured Aquidneck Island, where Newport is located, and did little else before leaving for London. His second in command, Lord Percy, also only stuck around a short time after that before he also left for London.
That left Major General Richard Prescott in command. You may recall from Episode 147 that the local patriots kidnapped General Prescott from his home on the island and later traded him for Continental Major General Charles Lee. By the spring of 1778, Prescott had been exchanged and had returned to Newport. However, the more senior Major General Robert Pigot who had been sent to take command after Prescott’s kidnapping, remained in command of the British army at Newport.
General Robert Pigot has been a big part of the war since the beginning. However, I don’t think I’ve mentioned much about his background. Pigot’s family history is a bit unusual for a top British officer. His family was French. Robert’s grandfather migrated to England, likely to escape the increasing persecution of the Protestant Huguenots in Catholic France.
France had tolerated Protestant for several decades when King Henry IV issued the Edict of Nantes in the late 1500s. Henry IV had been a Protestant himself, but converted to Catholicism for the purely political reason of securing the crown of France. He famously said “Paris is worth a mass.”
After Henry’s death, France, under Henry’s son Louis XIII, grew increasingly hostile towards its Protestant population. Internal Huguenot rebellions led to inevitable crackdowns and many fleeing the country. Henry’s grandson, Louis XIV, eventually revoked the edict entirely in 1685, forcing French Protestants pretty much to either convert to Catholicism or leave the country. Most chose the latter. For them, Paris was not worth a mass.
Sir Robert Pigot
So at some point in the 1600’s Pigot’s grandfather moved the family to England, settling in Shropshire on the Welsh border. Pigot’s father, Richard Pigot, moved to London and settled in Westminster.
Although he was without title, Richard Pigot was rather wealthy and well-connected. His wife became a lady’s maid to Queen Caroline, wife of George II. The couple had three sons and a daughter. Robert was the second son, meaning he was not in line to inherit the family wealth. So, as was common practice at the time. Dad bought Robert a commission in the army.
Robert Pigot served in the War of Austrian Succession. It is not clear what he did during the Seven Years War. However, he was a captain when it started. By the time that war was over, he had risen to lieutenant colonel. During this same time, Pigot won election to Parliament. Men from good families often went to Parliament to help with their advancement in the army. Pigot was not known for taking any controversial positions or even speaking much on the Commons floor. He seemed to use his position to ingratiate himself with the crown and the ministry.
Robert’s older brother George Pigot had gone to work for the East India Company as a young man and by the 1750s had served as the Governor and Commander in Chief of Madras. George returned to England where he purchased a large estate for £100,000, which was a considerable fortune at the time. Consider that the King ran the entire government at the time for £800,000 annually. George also obtained a Baronetcy, which greatly improved the family’s standing in British society. After Robert served for a few years in Parliament, he received a commission as Warden of the Mint. This was one of those honorary jobs that did not require much work, but paid well. It was a reward from the king given to politically loyal officials
When things started to heat up in America, Robert received a promotion to brigadier general and shipped out to Boston in 1774. He remained in Boston during Lexington and Concord, but commanded a division at Bunker Hill. He was one of the few officers to survive that battle unscathed, despite being recognized for conspicuous bravery during the assaults on the American position.
Pigot moved with the army, first to Halifax, then to the invasion of New York. He commanded General Howe’s second brigade at the Battle of Long Island in 1776. After that, he remained in New York until after the Americans kidnapped Major General Prescott.
The year 1777 was a notable one for Pigot. His older brother George died. Although George had several children, they were illegitimate. As a result, Robert and his brother Hugh, who was a naval officer, and their sister, inherited the family fortune. As Robert was the next oldest, he also inherited George’s baronetcy. That same year, he took command of the Rhode Island occupation at Newport after General Prescott’s kidnapping, and also received promotion to major general.
A question for me was how Pigot retained command at Rhode Island after the return of Major General Prescott. Remember, Prescott had been kidnapped to be exchanged for Major General Charles Lee. If Pigot just got promoted to major general, how did he outrank Prescot? Well, it turns out that Prescott was not a real major general at the time of his kidnapping. He was a “major general in America.” He got his full promotion to major general right after Pigot, so Pigot was the more senior.
The size of the British Army in Newport is not well recorded. Sir Henry Clinton had initially captured Newport with an army of six or seven thousand British and Hessian soldiers. But almost immediately afterward, General Howe began transferring much of the army back to his command in New York. That was one of the reasons that Clinton and Lord Percy abandoned the command in early 1777. My best guess is that by early 1778, the occupation army had dwindled to between two and three thousand soldiers.
For this reason, the British did not attempt to occupy more of Rhode Island beyond Aquidneck Island, where Newport is located. The water created a natural defensive barrier for the British and was an impediment to taking and holding more territory on the mainland.
Other than the kidnapping in the summer of 1777, the British occupation at Newport had remained relatively quiet. The British held Aquidneck Island. The British Navy had spent the prior two winters there, keeping the bulk of the Continental Navy bottled up and using Newport as a base for ship repairs and for other naval missions. The naval presence also discouraged any large-scale patriot assaults on the island. For the most part, the British remained on Aquidneck Island and the waters around it, while the patriots kept a watch on them from the mainland.
Gen. Joseph Spencer
Command of the Continental forces around Aquidneck came under the command of Major General Joseph Spencer. I haven’t said much about General Spencer. He had been a colonial militia officer for many years, with combat experience during the French and Indian War, as well as earlier conflicts. He was also an outspoken patriot in the years leading up to the Revolution and an active member of the colonial government. Remember, Connecticut as a colony had an elected governor, so from early on, Connecticut officials were all on board with the patriot cause.
By the time war broke out, the sixty year old Spencer was a general in the Connecticut militia. He led a group of militia to the Siege of Boston, days after Lexington and Concord. When the Continental Congress took control of the army in July 1775, they made Israel Putnam the major general from Connecticut and granted Spencer a commission as brigadier. Spencer had been Putnam’s superior in the Connecticut army, so Spencer was understandably miffed at this reversal. He ended up returning to Connecticut without even speaking to the new commander, George Washington.
Eventually, his friends convinced him to return and accept his position as a brigadier in the new Continental Army. He rode back to Boston, and served for the remainder of the siege, then moving with the rest of the army to New York in the summer of 1776. In August of that year, Congress promoted him, along with three others, to major general. Despite this promotion, Washington never seemed to rely on General Spencer for anything important. He did not trust him with an independent command or even a critical leadership role, during the New York campaign.
At the end of the year, Spencer did finally get an independent command in Providence. After the British captured Newport, Spencer had the responsibility of contesting their control of Rhode Island. General Spencer did almost nothing for nearly a year. He did not have many Continentals under his command, but could have made use of the New England militia to do something.
After nearly a year of occupation, in September of 1777, Spencer planned an amphibious assault on Aquidneck Island. The soldiers had boarded their boats and prepared to cross over to the island, when at the last minute, Spencer called off the assault. Spencer believed that the British had found out about the surprise attack and were prepared to challenge the amphibious assault on the beaches. Spencer decided this made the attack an unacceptable risk. He called off the attack and stood down the army.
The Continental Congress found this last minute cancelation to be unacceptable and censured the general. Spencer called for a court of inquiry and was eventually exonerated. But the general, now in his sixties, had had enough of all this, and resigned his commission over the incident.
Gen. John Sullivan
Over the winter of 1777-78 Washington was at Valley Forge and fighting for his own position during the Conway Cabal. Spencer’s fight with Congress took place during this same time. Washington, with the consent of Congress, sent General John Sullivan to command the Continental troops in Rhode Island while Spencer tried to clear his name in York. His loss of command may have been why Spencer submitted his resignation that spring..
Sullivan, the new commander, had his own issues. Congress was still unhappy with Sullivan’s performance at the battle of Brandywine. Sullivan had just survived his own court martial over that and other issues. Washington, however, still had confidence in Sullivan and recommended this independent command in a less critical theater to see what Sullivan could do.
The new commander had the same lack of manpower that the old one had. Sullivan took command in the spring of 1778 and was still getting a feel for the situation. One positive note for the patriots was that the bulk of the British Navy around Aquidneck Island left in March, headed for Philadelphia. That left the British camp around Newport more vulnerable to attack.
At the beginning of May, Sullivan reported to Washington that the British had about 3600 soldiers on Aquidneck Island. This is almost certainly an over estimate, perhaps almost double the actual amount. But based on Sullivan’s estimate, he did not think he had the manpower necessary to take any offensive actions against Aquidneck Island.
Sullivan nevertheless began amassing supplies nearby so that he would be prepared for an opportunity to attack Newport if one arose. The Continentals stored a fleet of small boats, as well as ammunition and other supplies in and around Warren, Rhode Island, about ten miles north of Aquidneck Island.
Raid on Warren & Bristol
The British commander, General Pigot, received intelligence about the American stockpiles from local loyalist spies. He ordered a raid to destroy whatever the Americans were planning.
On the night of May 24, 1778, a detachment of five hundred British and Hessian soldiers under the command of Lieutenant Colonel James Campbell climbed into a fleet of whaleboats. The soldiers rowed several miles north, through the water, to the mainland, during the night. By the next morning, the force was ashore and ready to march.
Campbell divided the soldiers into groups. One group marched along the bank of the Kickemuit River on a search and destroy mission. The soldiers found a small fleet of 70 boats stored by the Continentals, burning or otherwise destroying most of them. They also found a larger sloop, which they tried to destroy but which was later repaired and recovered. The soldiers located and destroyed other stored military supplies, as well as a corn mill.
The other detachment moved overland, directly to the town of Warren, expecting to find local resistance from the militia. The Rhode Island militia under the command of Colonel Archibald Clary had about 300 soldiers assembled to challenge the raiding party. Since the British had divided their force, the Americans may have slightly outnumbered the British. Colonel Clary, however, listened to rumors that the force was much larger. His soldiers retreated from town before the British even arrived.
Unopposed, the British set fire to the town’s powder magazine. The powder explosion destroyed six nearby houses, as well as the town’s meeting house. The British also found and destroyed five field cannons abandoned by the local militia. Having completed their work, the force turned around and marched back to the south toward Bristol, joining up with the other half of the raiding party. Around this same time, a British naval vessel also managed to surprise an American row galley, the Spitfire. The British captured the vessel, along with the crew of about 16 men, and took it back to Aquidneck Island.
Further to the north, in Providence, Continental Colonel William Barton got word of the British raid. This was the same Colonel Barton who led the raid a year earlier to kidnap British General Richard Prescott. Following that successful raid, the Continental Congress had commissioned Barton as a colonel in the Continental Army, but gave him no specific command. Barton assembled about two hundred local militia. As they marched from Providence toward Warren, they encountered the other 300 retreating Connecticut militia under Colonel Clary, turned them around and marched the combined force of about 500 militia toward the British raiding party. General Sullivan took more time to organize a larger force, but never reached the battle before the British departed.
The American advance under Colonels Barton and Clary caught up with the British, leading to light skirmishing. The militia did not seem to be terribly aggressive in engaging with the British and the British were focused on pulling back to their ships before a larger group of Americans arrived. Most of the fighting was from a distance, resulting in almost no casualties on either side. Colonel Barton struggled to encourage the men forward, putting himself out in front of the advancing Americans. The British shot and wounded Barton in the leg, which seemed to end any serious attempt to engage with the British any further. Barton continued to try to rally the soldiers, even while wounded, but could not convince them to assault the British in any aggressive way.
When the British returned to Bristol, they went on a rampage, burning a church and 22 houses, and looting others. They also took 69 civilian prisoners. They were able to board their whaleboats without interference. General Pigot had deployed two larger ships with cannons to provide cover. This kept the militia at a distance. The raiding party reboarded their whaleboats and was back at Aquidneck island by the evening.
Raid on Freetown
Nearly a week later, the British deployed another raiding party. On the night of May 30, Major Edmund Eyre, who had also been a part of the May 25 raid on Warren, took 100 soldiers across the bay again aboard two ships. This time, the raiders moved up the Taunton River just across the border into Massachusetts. The group landed near Freetown, once again looking to destroy patriot resources.
In this case, the main target appeared to be a sawmill that was producing lumber for the patriots. The raiding party destroyed the sawmill and about 15,000 feet of lumber. They also burned a gristmill, at least one house, and nine boats that they happened to come across.
Once again, the local militia was caught off guard. They managed to assemble about twenty-five men under the command of Captain Joseph Durfee, who had served in the Continental Army. The militia confronted the British raiding party, but did not have the numbers to hold them. The British chased the militia for a short ways. The militia crossed a bridge and took a defensive position on the far side of the bridge, behind a stone wall. The British attackers attempted to storm the bridge, but were unable to dislodge the militia from behind the stone wall. The two sides, instead, fired at each other from across the river for about ninety minutes.
With concern that more militia reinforcements might arrive, Major Eyer pulled back and began marching his British party back to their boats. Along the way, they burned at least one more house and took a civilian hostage. The American militia pursued them with harassing fire, but always keeping a distance.
The British jumped aboard their boats and rowed back out to the main ships, all the while taking fire from the shore. During the initial British landing, one of the two British ships ran aground on a sandbar. Sailors were still working to free it as the raiding party returned. As the British struggled to free the ship, named the Pigot after their commander, the Americans managed to bring an artillery battery to the shore. They opened fire on the Pigot and the ships assisting her.
The British, who had taken a few casualties ashore while skirmishing with the militia, took a few more killed and wounded from the shore battery. Eventually, they managed to free the Pigot and sailed it back to Aquidneck, but not before it suffered serious damage. The Americans did not report any casualties beyond the one elderly man taken hostage by the British. Several days later, the British freed him and he returned home.
Collectively the raids became known as the Mount Hope Bay Raids. Colonel Barton’s battle injury proved severe enough to prevent him from returning to active duty with the Continental Army. Even so, he used the raids as a rallying call to convince more militia to protect the coasts from further raids. It does not appear that the militia heeded the call to turn out in great numbers. They did, however, respond to payments to rebuild all of the boats that were destroyed and to cut more lumber to build them. Warren also established a night coastal watch and built stronger coastal defenses. Over the next few months, the Americans rebuilt a fleet of small boats to prepare for another attempt to take back Aquidneck Island.
What really got the locals motivated was when the French fleet arrived a little over two months later. That allowed General Sullivan to collect a militia army of over 10,000 men, ready to storm Aquidneck Island with the cooperation of the French. That future action will have to be the topic of a future episode.
Next week: We return to Philadelphia, where the British Carlisle Peace Commission attempts to settle this rebellion one and for all.
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Hello, and thank you for joining this special edition of the American Revolution. I had the opportunity to speak with David Price, following the release of his new book “John Haslet’s World” about the colonel who commanded the regiment known as the Delaware Blues early in the early part war. This is Price’s third book covering the ten crucial days of the war starting with Washington’s crossing of the Delaware on Christmas night, 1776.
David Price is also a historical interpreter at Washington Crossing Historic Park in Pennsylvania. He conducts guided tours at the park, as well as at Princeton Battlefield State Park in New Jersey.
I spoke with Mr. Price over a remote call to discuss the life of Colonel Haslet.
Michael Troy (MJT): David Price, thank you for joining me on the American Revolution Podcast.
David Price (DP): Thank you very much. It's a pleasure to be here.
MJT: You’re here today because you’ve written a new book about Colonel John Haslet. What prompted you to write about John Haslet? How important is he to the story of the American Revolution?
DP: Well, the genesis of this book, Mike, was my first literary effort: Rescuing the Revolution: Unsung Patriot Heroes and the Ten Crucial Days of America's War for Independence. John Haslet was one of several individuals who I profiled in that book, in a series of biographical vignettes, which focus primarily on the contributions that each of these people made to the Patriot cause during what was perhaps the ten most inspirational days in American history, and perhaps the most pivotal moment in the war for independence.
Now, why did I choose Haslet? Well, you know, his name kept popping up in various things that I was reading, most especially in David Hackett Fisher's Pulitzer Prize winning work, Washington's Crossing, which is the Bible for people like me, who are historical interpreters, or, in some cases, perhaps, hysterical interpreters, at Washington Crossing Historic Park. That's a joke, by the way. You have to read that book, and you have to have a decent command, shall we say, of the material, in order to be able to give a tour there, under the auspices of the friends group.
So the more I read about him, the more I was impressed by what he did, and, and the kind of character he displayed in the course of his revolutionary service. So around the time that I was wrapping up that book, and I guess, the germ, if you will, or a seed, I want to use the right metaphor here, had been planted, to perhaps do something a little more elaborate on Haslet.
I came across the book by Fred Walters, John Haslet: A Useful One, which, as far as I know, at least that point was the only book that had been written about him. It's a self-published work that came out, I believe, in 2005. very engaging read, I enjoyed it immensely. But it's written in the form largely, not entirely, but largely in the form of a historical novel. There's a good deal of, well frankly, fictional material and their imaginary dialogue and scenes, a lot of useful information to and proved to be very helpful to me.
My initial reaction after reading it was, well, Fred has this subject covered pretty well. And I don't need to pursue Colonel Haslet any further. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt that Haslet deserved an effort by someone to craft a more conventional account of his life, a nonfiction work about the colonel and his Delaware regiment.
Now I should add parenthetically that since his first book, Fred Walters did publish, what I gather is a more conventional work, a nonfiction account, a biography of the colonel, which I believe is entitled John Haslet’s American Journey. But it was published exclusively in a Kindle edition.
I decided to go ahead and pursue this idea of trying to write a book about Haslet, just to see, you know, when I was starting out, I was just with the mindset of well, let's see how this goes and, and what it looks like. And it was a challenge to produce something that is a book length, because as I pointed out, in the preface to the book, there's not a lot known about his pre-Revolutionary War life. We don't even know exactly when he was born. This is someone about whom, and I mentioned this too, in the preface, or in the introduction, we don't even know exactly what he looks like. There are physical descriptions of him, but there is no authentic visual representation of him by an 18th Century artist, not by anyone who was alive when he was. There are only two images that I'm aware of which we discussed in the book, one of which is the cover image from the Stanley Arthurs painting, a reversal of the image of Haslet in the Stanley Arthur's painting that hangs in the Delaware public archives building. But in any case, I just like to push ahead with the project.
So ultimately, what it became was an effort to interweave three themes. One is the Haslet biography. One is the story of his 1776 regiment, the first incarnation of the Delaware regiment, with a little bit about the post-Haslet regiment, that is the reconstituted regiment in a truncated form that was created in 1777, after his death. And then the last theme, of course, is a more general one. It's putting this all in the context of the 1776 campaign of Washington's army, the New York and the New Jersey campaign, which of course, culminates in what we call the ten crucial days campaign from December 25 1776, through January 3 1777, when Haslet is killed at the Battle of Princeton.
The other thing, I think, that was pushing me to do this was, at some point, when I was writing the second book, it occurred to me that it would be a neat idea if I could do a trilogy on the ten crucial days. I'm not aware that any other author has done that.
So what distinguishes Haslet from anyone else in terms of his contribution to the patriot cause? Well, he created one of the elite regiments in the Continental Army in 1776. It started out as I believe, the largest regiment in the army in the early months of that year. They started recruiting in January, and by May, they were up to almost 800 men. They were fully uniformed. And I think They were perhaps the only regiment in the army that could make that claim fully uniformed, fully armed under Haslet's tutelage and that is adjutant Thomas Holland, formerly of his Britannic Majesty's army, they molded these this force into an efficient, elite fighting unit.
MJT: Before we get into the details of the Delaware Blues, I want to ask one thing. You said we don’t know much about Haslet’s pre-war life. We know that he came from Northern Ireland, right? And that he settled in Kent County, Delaware. Do we have any information about why he left Ireland, and why he settled in Delaware?
Well, he may have had personal and or political reasons for leaving Ulster when he did. His wife died, his first wife died about five years before he came to the colonies, which he did in 1757 or thereabouts. My understanding is there may have been some personal issues between him and members of the congregation. Her death may have had an emotional toll on him such that the belief’s that she died, probably died in childbirth. So he was left with a young daughter, that this may have taken a toll on him. And as such, it impacted his ability to perform his ministerial duties. And that may have led to some tension, shall we say, between the young minister and the members of his parish.
More generally, when he came to the colonies, it was in the context of this larger emigration movement, if you will, of the Scots-Irish, from Northern Ireland, to the new world during the early and mid 18th century, which was because of the harsh economic, the adverse economic conditions under which many of them lived and the restrictions, the rather onerous restrictions that have been imposed on them by British policy towards Ireland, towards the Presbyterian Church that was regarded as an unwelcome adversary, if you will, to the established Anglican Church. So I think there's a plausible argument to be made that was part of Haslet's motivation, perhaps maybe the dominant part of his motivation.
So when he came over here, I believe he was living initially with some cousins who had immigrated previous to him, in southern Pennsylvania, near the Maryland border, and started out as a preacher there. He would have been much in demand because the number of Presbyterian congregations in the area outran the number of available ministers. The supply of a latter was limited because the church insisted that their preachers be University educated. And so they weren't exactly a dime a dozen.
Haslet, who met that qualification because he had graduated with a degree in divinity from the University of Glasgow, which was then, I think it's fair to say, one of the most prestigious universities in the English-speaking world. He seems to have been perhaps disenchanted. I, you know, I'm reading something into this now, with his ministerial duties.
He abandoned those at least temporarily, to volunteer to serve as a captain with a Pennsylvania provincial regiment during the French and Indian War, the second Pennsylvania Regiment, and served with the expedition that was led by General John Forbes against Fort Duquesne, near or around the site of present day Pittsburgh in 1758.
After the war, after he’d been discharged, he returned briefly to Southern Pennsylvania. But he was living near the boundary line with what were then known as the three lower counties in Pennsylvania, which later in 1776 officially became known as Delaware. That was the unofficial name, I guess, at the time. So he had an opportunity to explore that area, the three lower counties, and over time, was drawn to Kent County, the middle of the three counties, between New Castle in the north and Sussex, in the south, and gravitated towards the Dover area, whether it was the land or the natural resources that were attractive to him, among others, or something in particular about the community, I'm not sure.
But in the early 1760s, he appears to have settled in there, and he would find a second wife, would remarry, and settle in, and establish what grew to be a large plantation, which he called Longfield. And he became by dint of his ambition, energy and entrepreneurial instincts, became a successful landowner. And he gravitated away from the ministry towards, initially becoming a physician. I use the term loosely like 21st century standards, but this was a man who continually, throughout his life, appears to have been reinventing himself. He was a minister turned militia captain, during the French and Indian War, turned physician, turned planter, then turned politician. He was elected to the Delaware colonial assembly five times, turned revolutionary activist and then ultimately turned regimental army colonel. He was a man of many talents, renaissance man, soldier, scholar, so seems to have been pretty successful at whatever he tackled.
MJT: You mentioned Haslet served in the Forbes Campaign during the French and Indian War. We also know that George Washington served as an officer on that campaign. Do you know if the two men interacted at all or got to know each other during the Forbes Campaign?
DP: I don't know that for sure, Mike. I know in the Fred Walters book, and again, there's imaginary dialogue there in a number of instances. So he has a conversation either between Haslet in Washington, then Colonel Washington, or Haslet and Hugh Mercer, who met Washington during the French and Indian War. During their service together, he became a friend of Washington's, moved to Virginia after the war, and established an apothecary practice where two of his patients were Washington's mother, Mary Ball Washington, and his stepdaughter Patsy. So there's no documented record that I'm aware of Haslet having met Washington. It's quite possible, if not likely, that he did.
I think what Haslet is probably best known for during his time with that expedition, was the letter that he wrote to a friend of his, Reverend Allison, in November 1758. When the Forbes expedition arrived at the remains of Fort Duquesne, after the French had attempted to blow the whole thing to smithereens, he provided the most full description that we have, the most complete description that we have of what the ruins of the fort, if you will, looked like at that point. And that is the first documented letter we have that was written by Haslet. The first of what was unfortunately, apparently a limited amount of correspondence that he produced. I say that because from the standpoint of just getting a better handle on him.
When you read his correspondence, you can see that this was an immensely learned man, very articulate, I'm sure he was that way, verbally, you know, as a preacher, obviously, he would have needed to be presumably, and as an officer, leading men in combat. I made the point somewhere in the book that given what he had studied as part of a rigorous curriculum at the University of Glasgow, this was someone who quite literally, could have led men into battle, in giving orders in Latin or Greek, as well as English. I don't think there would have been much occasion for him to do that, given that there was a conspicuous dearth of soldiers from ancient Greece and Rome serving with the Delaware Blues. But the point is he could have done it if he needed to. That's one of the things that's so impressive about the man. And what's so well qualified him to be an officer, both, you know, with the Pennsylvania militia during the French and Indian War, and then with the Continental Army in 1776. So I don't know the answer to your question. I don't know if he met Washington during the war. So I can't honestly tell you that he actually would have engaged with him to any extent prior to his regiment, joining up with Washington's army in Manhattan in August of 1776.
MJT: I find it interesting that Washington did have a great many contacts before the war with men who became leading figures in the Continental Army. I always wonder whether his opinion of them earlier in his life had much impact on the selection of these particular men for leadership roles during the war.
Now in this case, I don’t think Washington had much to do with Haslet becoming a colonel. He was very active in pre-war patriot activities and had a good relationship with Caesar Rodney, who was one of the Delaware delegates to the Continental Congress.
DP: Yeah, Rodney was Haslet’s friend and political ally, a political mentor. He is really the fellow who gave Haslet his jumpstart, shall we say, in the public arena, first propelling him into politics in 1770, when he recruited Haslet. They would have known each other as fellow Kent County landowners at the time, and apparently recruited Haslet to run, Rodney did, to run on his slate of candidates for the assembly 1770 and then, Haslet would be elected to four consecutive one year terms, was defeated in 74, then came back to win in 75.
As the revolutionary fervor intensified in the three lower counties in the early 1770s, they were both caught up with that, I think Haslet was the more radical of the two, perhaps because of his experience in Ireland as one of the many Scotch-Irish Presbyterians who were alienated by British rule, and kind of had a chip on their shoulder when they came over here. Notwithstanding his having fought on the side of the British during the French and Indian War. The Scots Irish ultimately comprise something like 40% of Washington's army, so they were clearly a significant force there.
MJT: I’ve always wondered how much Haslet may have influenced Rodney in the patriot cause. There was a pretty sizable Tory sentiment in lower Delaware before and during the early war. I wonder how much of Haslet’s radicalism and knowledge of British abuses had an influence on his associates before the war.
DP: Haslet, as I mentioned, he was a zealot. Caesar Rodney’s younger brother, Thomas Rodney, who was a political ally of Haslet, in fact they both, well Caesar too of course, but both the two radicals ran together on the same ticket as assembly candidates in 1774, unsuccessfully. I think the both of them influenced Rodney to a certain extent. And while he was a moderate, Caesar was, I think that gave him the ability to, shall we say, find common ground and as he sought to do with people of different political factions, which presumably was the key to his success to his high reputation among different factions, enabled him to serve as Speaker of the Delaware assembly for many years. There's no question that he was a supporter of the revolutionary cause.
Troops Leaving the Green
Of course, knowing Haslet as well as he did, and recognizing Haslet's organizational and leadership talents, got him involved in organizing the Delaware militia in 1775, the Kent County militia, and I think the Delaware militia as a whole. And then of course, it was Rodney, who writes to, after the Continental Congress adopted a series of resolutions, which directed each of the colonies to establish a battalion or battalions, a term that was then used interchangeably with regiment. The Congress had already resolved or ordered, if you will, that Pennsylvania establish four battalions and so, now late in 1775, they decreed it, the three lower counties should establish their own battalion separate from what Pennsylvania had done. And Rodney as the leading political figure in Delaware, writes to his friend, Haslet, and asks him if he would consider becoming colonel of this new regiment.
Haslett's response, which is written on Christmas Eve, probably about oh, maybe about two months after the birth of his last daughter, the fifth of his children. It would have been about a month after he had been re-elected to the Delaware Assembly. He agrees to serve and he writes, what I think is a very poignant letter, to Rodney accepting the command in the context of, what Haslett articulates as his deep-seated commitment to the cause of independence and to the support of the Continental Congress. So Rodney, more than anyone else, the revolutionary dynamos, I think I called them in the book, was really the person who got Haslet involved, and as you say, was a mutually influential relationship.
I relied heavily on the book that was published, I believe, by the Delaware Historical Society correspondence to and from Caesar Rodney, which has most of the letters that were written between Caesar and Haslet, especially as the campaign unfolded in 1776. And you get a sense, not just the political, but the personal connection that they had between them, Haslet was reliant on Rodney to kind of be a conduit, a go-between, to communicate between Haslet and his wife back in Delaware, and let her know what was going on with him and giving her assurance that Haslet was okay. But in some cases, shall we say, spearing the gory details, not letting her know exactly what he was having to endure in the course of his military service.
MJT: The Delaware Blues were famous for the fact that they did have a nice full set of military uniforms and military issued muskets at the beginning of the war. I’ve always wondered, how did they get that? Was it financing from the Delaware Government, the Continental Congress, or how did they get so well equipped compared to the other regiments?
DP: Well, I think it was Delaware. It was also the Continental Congress. And it was the influence of Caesar Rodney, as speaker of the Delaware assembly and as a member of the Continental Congress. So I think he had a lot to do with that, in terms of securing that financial support for the Delawares to be uniformed and to obtain arms, the muskets that they obtained, initially at least, were apparently among those that have been captured by the French, and were part of that cache of arms that they were covertly providing to the, shall we say the glorious cause, to use Washington's term in 1776. So that was how they came to be so well equipped relative to everybody else starting out.
MJT: Like most of the middle and southern colonies, Hazlet’s regiment joins the Continental army after the Siege of Boston is over. He begins the war in New York. I guess his first real taste of real combat, or at least that of his regiment, he wasn’t there, was at the Battle of Brooklyn. Right?
Yeah, and the reason he wasn't there, when the battle began, he would have arrived on the scene at some point during a fighting on August 27. I point out the book, this was one of many mistakes that Washington made at the time. This was his first major battle as commander of the Continental Army. One of his most grievous errors was that he insisted on holding a court martial the day before the battle. Actually it was started two days before the battle. It was on August 25, and then it carried over to the 26th, of a Prussian officer who would join the army, Continental Army, named Herman Zedtwitz, and who had allegedly sold secrets to the enemy. Washington was so aggrieved at that, that he insisted on holding this court martial right then and there, notwithstanding the fact that he was getting some faulty intel, I think, about the location and the intent, shall we say, the enemy's intent that could be presumed from that, of General Howe’s forces, at that point.
He had every reason to believe, I think, that a battle was imminent. And yet he insists on holding this court martial, and he insists on having, I think it was something like thirteen officers there to serve at this court martial, including Colonel Haslet, including his Lieutenant Colonel Gunning Bedford, including William Smallwood, who was the colonel the Maryland Regiment, which would fight side by side with the Delawares throughout the war. They were the so-called sister regiments, if you will, two elite units.
The court martial runs until late the day on the 26th. So they can't get across the East River to the American fortifications on Brooklyn Heights until the 27th, after the battle had begun in the early morning hours. When Haslet arrives, his men are then with the Marylanders and another. Well they started out with a Connecticut regiment and with some Pennsylvania militia who were part of this force that was commanded by Lord Stirling, aka General William Alexander from Basking Ridge, New Jersey, who were holding off, were heavily outnumbered. There were about 2000 of them to start, but their numbers dwindled as casualties mounted, and they were fighting this holding action for several hours against a force of British and Hessian regulars under the command of General James Grant, who are continuously being reinforced as the morning wore on. And so at one point, I think, Stirling's brigade is outnumbered by more than four to one.
Also, they're being hemmed in by another British force under General Cornwallis, which had been part of the famous, or infamous depending on your point of view, I guess, British flanking movement, led by General Clinton through the Jamaica Pass overnight, where they did an end run around the Americans, a pass that they had really neglected to guard. I mean, I think there were five militia officers on horseback who were guarding that whole pass. That's another mistake made by the Continental Army. And so Howe’s army arrives behind their left and center lines at about nine in the morning. And that really sets the stage for what's going to happen, for what becomes a near disaster.
Miraculously enough, most of the American troops were able to scamper back to their fortifications on Brooklyn Heights. Stirling's Regiment, they weren't really aware of what was going on in the rear so they were fighting this whole action for several hours, until it becomes apparent to Stirling that they can't hold off the enemy anymore.
This was the Delaware Blues first real military action. In this fight, according to tradition, or legend or whatever, General Washington, who has come across the East River and is in the Brooklyn fortifications and is observing the action with his spyglass says something like “what brave fellows I must this day lose.” Now I don't know if he said that, whether he was referring specifically to the Maryland regiment or the Marylanders and Delawares. You probably get a different answer about that, depending on who he talks to. But he clearly had a very high opinion of the Delawares considering how he would subsequently use them. So it's entirely plausible that he was including this in his expression of approbation.
At the moment, the pivotal moment, when General Stirling decides we can't continue to hold out, he takes part of his force, and he leads a desperation last ditch effort to hold off the British advance while the rest of his force, he orders to retreat across the Gowanus Creek, which is the only way of escaping, a creek with wide marshes on both sides. At this point, the tide is coming in. The Delawares and some of the Marylanders are able, most of them anyway, to make their escape across the creek under very difficult conditions, swimming across, and of course, they're under fire from the enemy, artillery fire, while they're doing this.
Fred Walters says something in his book. I don't know if he's relying on a specific account. But I think it's entirely imaginable that this would have happened that Colonel Haslet, having recently arrived on the battlefield would have among others gone down to the water's edge, to the Gowanus Creek to personally help rescue as many of those soldiers as he could pull them up out of a muck onto dry land, and get him to safety.
And he reports afterwards, in his account of the battle that the Delawares return, torn from shot shell. But he was not personally involved in that first battle. And yet, he was well aware by virtue of any reports, this is correspondence to Caesar Rodney after the battle, from the comments that he received from other officers. He knew that the Delawares had acquitted themselves very well in this initial encounter, and notwithstanding a disappointment at what had happened, could take justifiable pride in how they had fought and had proven that their esprit de corps wasn't just for the parade ground. It also carried over to actual combat.
MJT: That’s certainly one of the most famous moments for the Delaware Regiment in the course of the war. Eventually the survivors were able to escape across the East River to Manhattan in a near miraculous escape.
The Delawares, along with the Marylanders in that case, acted as a protective rearguard for Washington's army. Somebody had to stay in the trenches while the troops were withdrawing across the East River, which took them all night into the next morning to do and the Delaware's and the Marylanders were assigned to do that, presumably General Washington, or at his behest. And this would be the first of several instances during the 1776 campaign, when they played a role like that. So they would have been one of the last units to go across the East River to Manhattan.
MJT: It seems like Washington really did rely on them for some of the more critical actions that he needed. Quite frankly if there had not been fog that following morning, they probably would have been captured or killed by the enemy. That’s how perilous it really was.
Their next encounter with the British was, if I can pronounce it right, at Mamaroneck.
DP: Yes, you’ve got it. The battle of Mamaroneck, which I've been told is known by locals up there in Westchester County as the skirmish of Heathcote Hill, I guess battle of Mamaroneck makes it sound more impressive. It was a large-scale skirmish, I suppose you could call it. There were about 750 soldiers under Haslet’s command, mostly again, Delaware and Maryland units with some Virginians, against about 500 loyalists soldiers who were serving in what was called the Queen's American Regiment, under the command of Colonel Robert Rogers, of French and Indian War fame.
How that came about was that Haslet was ordered by the brigade commander, Lord Stirling, who was familiar with the area. He had received intel about the location of Rogers’ unit. Rogers was regarded as a real scoundrel, as a turncoat by Washington and those under him. And it was hoped that they could ambush this unit and ideally capture Rogers, I think that that was really the intent.
So he directs Haslet to lead this overnight attack, gives them some specific directions. They have local guides from Westchester County, and they march overnight to the scene, or the site, of Rogers’ encampment, which is pretty close, I think, you know, maybe a couple of miles away or not much more than that, from the main body of British troops under General William Howe. As Haslet’s men were marching down there, they realized they were fairly close to the main enemy force. So it was kind of a precarious maneuver in that sense.
They struck the loyalist unit at about four the morning. Remember, it was dark out. So it was hard to know who was what, where. There was a great deal of confusion. Some of the loyalists soldiers in order to confuse the Americans were shouting things like, “surrender you Tory dogs” so there was a lot of confusion in this fighting.
Ultimately, Haslet comes away with a, shall we say, an incomplete victory. So for all his zealotry, in the cause, it didn't supersede his sense that he needed to exercise prudent military judgment in a situation like this. So because of the confusion, and not knowing exactly how many enemy soldiers are there and where they are, he decides to order a, won’t call it a retreat, but we'll say advanced in a different direction. They come away with I believe, 36 prisoners and a substantial number of arms, at relatively few casualties. To that extent, even though it's a skirmish, it's a rare success for the patriot cause during what as you know, was an otherwise very dismal New York campaign.
Unfortunately, the luster of their success, such as it was, was tarnished by the fact that on their return to Stirling’s encampment, in the early morning hours of October 22, they run into a unit of Pennsylvania riflemen, who I guess had been similarly engaged. They had also been sent out from the brigade to launch an overnight raid against the enemy, and they apparently had been pretty successful in that. But these two units, the Delawares and the Pennsylvanians, when they come across each other. The Pennsylvanians mistake the Delaware's for enemy troops. Now whether it was because of their blue uniforms, maybe they thought they were Hessians. Whether it was because they were wearing mitre caps, which traditional accounts of the regiment have always said was the case, although that's been disputed by some military historians. And if they were wearing mitre caps, that also would have made them appear to be Hessian soldiers. In any case the Pennsylvanians fired on the Delawares. And there was an exchange of firing. Nine Delawares were killed, and six Pennsylvanians.
When Haslet gets back to camp and reports to Stirling, notwithstanding his disappointment that they didn't capture Rogers, he, according to Haslet’s account, and what's been written by others, is highly complimented by Stirling and by the rest of the command. In fact, one of Washington secretaries, Harrison, writes a dispatch or letter to I believe, was governor Trumbull of Connecticut, the same day, making note of the fact of Haslet’s raid. So obviously, this was something that the army’s command had been apprised of, in short order. And I'm sure they were appreciative of any good news they could get at that point.
MJT: It seemed like Haslet had a pretty good and conspicuous record of service in battle, and again a short time later at Chatterton’s Hill during the fighting at White Plains he was also again, a conspicuous leader. Over the New York Campaign, the Continental Congress promoted, I think, fifteen people to brigadier general, and notably Haslet was not one of them. Do you have any speculation on why that was? I’ve always wondered if it was that Delaware was not deemed large enough to justify a general from that state.
DP: Yeah, I think it was political considerations more than anything else, that politics did enter into decisions like that, to the extent that the Congress was continuously cognizant of the needs or the interests of the larger states who were going to provide most of the manpower for the army, and wanted to assure their ardent support for the cause. So I think that more than anything, was what intruded into the decision making process. Although I believe that had Haslet lived, that he would have been promoted to brigadier general, probably in 1777.
And at least according to what he writes, he does write about this in his, what we believe was his last letter, which was to Caesar Rodney on New Year's Day 1777. And he talks about his disappointment at not being promoted. He thought he had Washington support for the promotion, and he may very well have. But clearly, in his mind, he did. And he tells Rodney that he is disappointed, but he will not take any rash action until he's had a chance to meet with him and talk to him about this, which, of course, he never got the opportunity to do. And that was he was killed two years later. I think. I mean, he certainly merited it.
Segwaying from what you were saying, prior to your question, you reference White Plains, and the stand that Haslet and his men made at Chatterton’s Hill. It's almost miraculous, really, that Haslet lived as long as he did, when you consider the situations that he was in. Prior to that, he was afflicted with a serious bout of dysentery for about a month, from mid-September to mid-October. And in one of his letters to Rodney, he kind of suggests that, at one point, he was like, he didn't care whether he lived or died. Eventually he did come out of it, but it took him a while. And he was not a young man. Certainly by the standards of that time, he was almost 50 years old.
Then at Chatterton’s Hill, he almost gets the head blown off. When a British projectile hits the carriage of the cannon that he, Haslet, is helping to move on top of that wooded ridge at the time. And of course, you know, he's subject to the same risks, if you will, as his other men, aside from injury on the battlefield, disease, as I mentioned, exposure to the elements, which he claimed was, after the Battle of Long Island, how he and other members of his regiment became ill. And then, of course, he falls, falls into the Delaware River - I shouldn’t laugh about it - on the return trip, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and he's marching around on semi frozen legs for the last week of his life. That's why I say you know, I mean, it was almost miraculous that he did survive as long as he did.
MJT: He certainly went through an awful lot, and so did his men. I think the Delaware Blues had at least half their men on disability at one point during the White Plains Campaign. Disease really took its toll on everybody. But they did stick it out. Was Haslet with Charles Lee, or did he retreat across New Jersey with Washington?
DP: He came across with Washington. His unit was briefly serving under Lee after the battle of White Plains, but they came across with Washington. They were actually in New Brunswick or Brunswick, as they would have called it, when Washington's army arrived there on December 1, in the course of their retreat across 80 to 90 miles of northern and central New Jersey and four rivers. This is another instance at New Brunswick, when Haslet regiment serves as a protective force for Washington’s Army, while the main part of the army is making its escape, or its withdrawal southward. They're holding off the British, not by themselves or others. There was famously perhaps the battery commanded by then 21 year old New York artillery captain, who you might have heard of, named Alexander Hamilton. That's when he wasn't singing. Then they will act as the rearguard of Washington's army as it's retreating from Princeton down to Trenton.
Yeah, I think that you get a sense as kind of these numerical indications of what was going on with the Delaware Blues during this period. As I mentioned, they started out with close to 800 men, there appears to be a great deal of variance, shall we say, between different accounts in terms of how light or how heavy their casualties were at the Battle Long Island or Battle of Brooklyn. But there’s a regimental roll call on October 3, where 348 Delawares report present and fit for duty. Then on November 3, I believe it is 260. And then on December 22, three days before the crossing, you're down to 108, 92 privates and 16 officers.
But you get a sense that these guys were dropping like flies. I mean, some of it was due to battlefield casualties. A lot of it was due to disease, exposure to the elements, malnutrition. Some men were leaving with authorization, and some without. Some were deserting. One of Haslet's officers, Lieutenant Enoch Anderson, who produced his own account, which I made considerable use of, of his service, who was promoted to captain by Haslet. I believe on December 3. He relates how he, among some other captains, were called to Haslet's headquarters. This was after the army had retreated, across the Delaware and they're in Bucks County. They're stationed in upper Bucks County, in and around Solebury Township. This is where Stirling's regiment was encamped, in and around the site of the Thompson-Neely House which is today part of the upper section of Washington Crossing Historic Park.
And according to Anderson, Haslet called these officers in and he tells them to go to Delaware, and assist in the effort to recruit a new regiment or, technically correct, a reconstituted Regiment, because obviously, the unit's numbers are dwindling. And Haslet is aware that there's an effort being made back in Delaware to recruit more men. He had been approached in mid-November, I guess, by a two-man delegation from the Delaware Assembly, asking him to agree to continue to serve as commander of the reconstituted regiment in 1777.
Congress, of course, the Continental Congress at this time, is providing incentives. They realize these one-year enlistments aren't going to cut it. We got to recruit new men for a new army, so to speak, one where they will agree to serve for a longer period of time, three years or the balance of the war, whichever comes first. Washington is desperately aware of how important this is to the future of his army. He writes, as I recall, in one of his many pieces of correspondence Around this time, in December, something like “if every nerve is not strained to recruit a new army will all possible expedition, I think the game is pretty near up.”
So Haslet sends a number of officers back to Delaware. And he tells them, I will stay here with the army. You go down there. Recruit as many men as you can, as quickly as you can, and bring them back to camp. This is around the middle of December. Yeah, maybe 10 days or so before the Christmas night crossing of the Delaware. At that point. I think he hopes that he has enough men left in the regiment for at least one more good fight.
And the other thing I’d mention is that, aside from the fact that your ranks were being depleted, was that the soldiers who were still there, the hardcore unit of his army that had still stuck it out. They were, in comparison with how they appeared when they first started out in their impressive blue uniforms. Most of these soldiers at this point were in rags. They were wearing civilian clothes, pretty much anything that they could get their hands on, as, of course many other soldiers were doing too.
MJT: I think that was true of the entire army at the time. I mean, they were really a mess. I think Washington’s army dwindled down to about 2000 men before Lee’s army could join them. They were just struggling with lack of everything, both men and supplies.
I think its worse was about 10% of its original size by mid-December. And of course, that fact, plus the condition of the men, many of them didn't have winter clothes, or shoes, or stockings or blankets. And the fact that at least half of his remaining soldiers were on the verge of going home when their one year listing expired on December 31. All of that was intel that British command was getting from their spies in the American camp.
MJT: But, of course, Haslet is one of the few people who does stick it out. His regiment plays a crucial role in the ten crucial days, crossing the Delaware and participating in the first battle of Trenton.
DP: Yes, he's down to, I don’t know if I mentioned this, but you know, after the first battle, most of his men go home because they believe that their enlistments are going to be up on December 31. There’s some question as to whether or not that was, in fact, the case. But Haslet decides not to make an issue of it. He knows the sacrifices they’ve made. He knows there's a new regiment, a reconstituted regiment that's being organized down in Delaware. And these men, you know, they're not aware that Washington is planning to renew the offensive to cross back over the Delaware for the fourth time that month, on December 29, and 30th, and 31st. So they leave. And when Washington finds out about it from Haslet he's furious.
MJT: Yeah, his regiment’s pretty much gone by that point. He was down to like a couple of officers, NCO’s and about two privates.
DP: He’s down to six men, including Haslet. He tells this to Caesar Rodney in his last letter on New Year's Day. He also says Washington was in a fit of rage. He ordered that the Delaware Regiment be pursued and that the men be brought back in chains, which wasn't practical. So that was just a cathartic moment, I guess ,for him to express his frustration, which I think was peak because he knew how valuable their service had been to the cause. And so it was probably a real shock to him that they had left.
As Christopher Ward, who wrote that iconic work about the Delaware regiment back in 1941. said, these Delaware soldiers had nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to apologize for, given the service that they provided to the army, and the hardships that they had suffered and it wasn't unreasonable for them to conclude with three, four days left before they believed their enlistments expired, that it was appropriate for them to leave. And I'm sure some of them, as was the case with other Delaware soldiers who had left before that, but some of them I think probably were angling for positions in the new Regiment, and to take advantage of whatever Bennies the Congress was going to offer as incentives to serve in that regiment.
But yeah, I mean, he's down to six men, and they are the ones who will accompany him to Princeton on the overnight march on January 2, where he, this guy is almost 50 years old, the colonel on still somewhat, if not largely frozen legs from his spill in the Delaware River, marches 12 miles overnight on frozen ground and freezing temperatures to help lead the charge the next day when he will meet his fate.
MJT: Showing his usual battlefield bravery, he’s out in front, gets shot in the head and is killed, almost instantly. That was the sudden end of the budding military career of John Haslet.
DP: Washington won the battle of Princeton, basically, because he had about a four to one numerical advantage. It would be pretty hard for him to lose. He won in spite of his battle plan, not because it. He had this tendency to come up with these overly complex tactical approaches to battle. He did it at Princeton, and he was saved by the numbers, and by his own personal bravery. The unit that Haslet was serving in, he was with Mercer. Mercer’ brigade was the smallest unit in the army at that point there, but they were down to 350 men. Based on Washington's orders, they were racing ahead of the rest of the brigade, this small advanced guard of 120 men, to confront what they thought was a small British patrol leaving Princeton under Lieutenant Colonel Charles Mawhood.
Turned out they were heavily outnumbered, that is the advance brigade. And most of these 120 men, which included Mercer and Haslet, were riflemen from Pennsylvania and Maryland, which meant they didn't have bayonets, because the rifle couldn't accommodate a bayonet. So when they encountered Mawhood’s force and the British launched a bayonet charge, there was no way that that small advance guard could withstand that attack. And so at that point, Mercer falls from his horse, and he's stabbed seven times, and he’ll die 9 days later.
Haslet, tries to rally his man or come to the aid of Mercer. He takes a bullet in the head. Because of the failure to send out scouts to fully reconnoiter what was going on to get a sense of how big Mawhood’s force was, and where it was, Haslet's tiny force put themselves in a position where they were at severe risk, shall we say, and a number of very valuable, capable officers starting, of course, with Mercer and Haslet, would pay the ultimate price.
Washington recognized this in his correspondence after the battle. He realized how costly the battle had been, in terms of the many had lost and officers who would not be easily replaced. There is this long-standing legend, he shed tears over Haslett's lifeless body on the Princeton battlefield.
It was at that point, after he'd been killed, that it was found in his pocket, a written order, which Washington had given him a few days before the battle, to return to Delaware for the winter, to rest and to assist in recruiting a new regiment. So he didn't have to be at Princeton. Washington had given him express authorization to go home. But Haslet says in his letter to Rodney, two days before, he mentions this order, he says that he had to stay for a few days longer. So I think it was his intent to see the army established in its winter quarters up in Morristown, which of course, is where they went after the battle. And at that point, he would have felt that he could in good conscience, leave the army and go back to Delaware, and help recruit a new regiment.
MJT: The regiment does reconstitute and joins back up with Washington’s army without Colonel Haslet at its head. I guess, though, that’s the end of our story here because it’s the end of John Haslet’s world.
DP: Well, it's a remarkable story. I incorporate a short chapter about that in my book. I wasn't trying to emulate Christopher Ward's iconic history of the regiment, which is, in effect, a military history of war because they served in almost every major battle, except for the Saratoga campaign. But I thought it was important to have that context,
Even though they were a smaller unit, still the Delawares distinguished themselves, fighting alongside the Marylanders. As I said before, especially in the southern campaign, places like Guilford Courthouse and Eutaw springs, they really provided yeoman service. It's a remarkable story, I mean, certainly Haslet’s is and that of his regiment. But the service of the Delaware regiment throughout the war, I think it'd be hard pressed to find the unit, maybe the Marylanders, but it'd be hard pressed to find a unit that contributed more and sacrificed more in the course of the entire war for independence than the Delaware Blues.
What I've tried to do in each case is as I mentioned, these are part of a trilogy is to write about the 10 crucial days in a more focused way in the first two books, because the Haslet book goes obviously beyond that.
MJT: So, are you thinking about a fourth book now, or are you taking some time off?
DP: I am taking a break from writing a book. I wrote three books in five years. What I'm doing now is the series of blog posts on a new website that I launched, that I had created back in the summer. And so this blog post, which is under the heading “Speaking of which” on my website, which if I may interject here shamelessly dp author, that's dp as a David Price dpauthor.com, some of the blog posts on various revoir related topics. So, yeah, I have been putting a lot of effort into that.
MJT: Alright, David Price, I thank you for taking the time to speak with me. Your book again is called “John Haslet’s World.” It’s a great read, and on sale now along with your other two books. Thank you for joining the American Revolution Podcast.
DP: Thank you very much, Mike. It's been an honor to be here.
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