Sunday, October 31, 2021

ARP223 Stono Ferry


We last left the southern theater in Episode 220 when the British Army reached the gates of Charleston, SC and had nearly bluffed the Americans into surrendering.   The British commander at Savannah, Gen. Augustine Prevost had only sent the army into South Carolina as a feint to get the Continentals led by Benjamin Lincoln, to pull back out of Georgia, and to collect some forage.  But the failure of the Americans to mount a united defense, had led the British all the way to Charleston.  Once there, they were outnumbered and lacked the necessary artillery to reduce the city walls.  As a result, they had no choice but to withdraw before General Lincoln could arrive.

British Withdrawal From Charleston

General Prevost had to abandon the short-lived siege of Charleston in May 1779, but did not return to Savannah right away.  Instead, the British moved to a defensive position on two coastal islands John’s Island and James Island in the Atlantic Ocean, just a few miles from Charleston.  From there, the British began moving soldiers along a series of coastal islands back toward the main garrison at Savannah.  

Death of Col. Owen Roberts
By avoiding the mainland, the British prevented the main Continental Army under Benjamin Lincoln from surrounding them and forcing a surrender.  The Americans did not have sufficient ship transports to make use of their numerical advantage against the islands.

The British spent much of the next month transporting captured food, mostly rice and beef, back to Savannah to replenish supplies for the garrison.  After all, that had been the main purpose of the foraging expedition that had ended up threatened Charleston.  

General Prevost wrote to Secretary of State George Germain in London about his foray into South Carolina and how they had almost captured Charleston but for the lack of troops.  Prevost’s main concern was that he would never be able to hold territory in South Carolina unless he received reinforcements.  

The ministry had counted on raising several battalions of loyalists in the Georgia and South Carolina backcountry.  Led by a few regiments of British regulars, this loyalist army would hold Georgia, and provide the numbers needed to recapture South Carolina.

General Prevost reported that attempts to recruit loyalists in Georgia had been a failure.  During the brief British occupation of Augusta, they had sent out the word for loyalists to rally to the King’s standard.  They had managed to recruit only about 400 men, only 300 of which actually showed up for duty.  After the Continentals recaptured Augusta, any loyalists who might have been considering enlistment had reason to fear.  They saw the British were not committed to holding territory.  If they enlisted in a loyalist regiment, and then the British left, they could be executed as traitors.  At the very least, they could be imprisoned or expelled from the state and have their property confiscated.  Few men were willing to rely on the chances that the British would remain and would prevail.

Similarly, London had counted on more support from the local Indian tribes. Creek and Seminole warriors had been heavily lobbied by British agents.  London had bestowed gifts and made promises of land to tribes that assisted in retaking territory from the rebels.  Very few warriors turned out.  They had been burned so many times by going to war with the colonists, only to be forced to cede even more land and move further west.  Like the loyalists, native tribes had no faith that the regular army was committed to holding the southern colonies.  They were not ready to be used as pawns and then sold out when the British found it convenient to do so.  As a result, only a little more than 100 warriors ever turned out, and nearly half of those went home after the foraging expedition in South Carolina ended.

Despite the lack of recruits, Secretary of State Germain, back in London, took the news that Charleston had almost been taken with so few troops as good news.  To him, it indicated that South Carolinians were not prepared to defend their state and that a slightly larger force could probably take Charleston very soon.  Instead of sending reinforcements, Germain told Prevost what he told all the generals in America who all pleaded for reinforcements.  They would have to make do with what they had, and what they had should be more than enough.

One group that did turn out for the British was one that they did not particularly want.  Around 3000 slaves took advantage of the British presence to escape their plantations and fall in with the British Army.  In a few cases, the escaped slaves provided valuable intelligence about the area, or where their masters had hidden valuables.  Some volunteered to serve as scouts for the army.

The British, however, were not looking to emancipate slaves or recruit slaves into a loyalist army.  They saw the slaves as an annoyance, more mouths to feed, that did not provide much to the effort.  Lieutenant Colonel Mark Prevost, who was the second in command to his older brother General Prevost, reported that the army treated the escaped slaves roughly in an attempt to discourage them from following the army.  Most of the slaves remained anyway, knowing that their fate would be far worse if they were recaptured by their former masters. 

For almost all the slaves, there was no good outcome.  Many hundreds huddled together in camps on islands near the British force.  Hundreds of them died as diseases spread through the camps.  The British did end up transporting many of the escapees back to Georgia. But they had no intention of setting them free.  The slaves were mostly sold to loyalist masters in Georgia.  Others were shipped to the West Indies to work on island plantations.

If the British had hoped to encourage South Carolina loyalists to turn out for the British cause, their actions did not encourage it.  The few native warriors who did join with the British were blamed for their cruel and barbaric behavior against plantations.  The regular soldiers themselves, also plundered any locals they encountered, friend and foe alike.  Stories abounded of British soldiers looting valuables from homes, even forcing ladies to turn over their wedding rings.  Stories of rapes also spread terror among the locals.

Although the British officers occasionally punished plunderers or rapists with lashings, it seemed to do little to deter the practice.  Locals saw the British army as threatening plunderers, not liberators.  

Lincoln Tries to Resign

British plundering throughout most of the state, other than the coastal islands, had been halted by the return of the Continental Army under General Benjamin Lincoln.  The Continental move into Georgia had opened up the British opportunity in South Carolina, and Lincoln’s failure to move back into South Carolina had given the British access to Charleston.

Benjamin Lincoln

South Carolina’s political leaders had savaged Lincoln for his failure to block the British incursion in the first place.  Added to his problems was the fact that most of his militia and state forces would see their enlistments expire in July or August. Most of these men were from Virginia or North Carolina and were eager to return home.  Lincoln faced the all too common threat that his army would evaporate before they could subdue the enemy.

Even before the incursion into South Carolina, Lincoln had written to Congress, asking to be relieved of command.  The New England general found the southern climate bad for his health and the level of local support beyond frustrating.  

Lincoln finally received permission from Congress to leave his command and return north.  He informed South Carolina Governor John Rutledge of his decision to resign and that General William Moultrie would assume command.  In his letter to Moultrie, Lincoln noted all of the “unkind declarations” made about him from Charleston and that he had clearly lost the confidence of the people.  The general figured that since no one seemed to respect his leadership, the best thing he could do was step away and let another leader try his chances.

Lincoln was shocked when both Governor Rutledge and General Moultrie urged him to stay.  Both men believed that the commander’s departure would crush the army’s morale.  Lincoln also learned that the French fleet under Admiral d’Estaing with over 4000 soldiers planned to provide support to South Carolina around the end of the summer.  With the support of Rutledge and Moultrie, and word of French reinforcements, Lincoln chose to remain in command.

Stono Ferry

In late May, Lincoln moved his army to within a half mile of the British camp on Johns Island.  Only the Stono River separated the island from the mainland.  The British had actually posted the bulk of their troops on the mainland side of the river.  The island side was too swampy, and the mainland side had made it easier to conduct foraging raids.  The British position, however, meant that not only was the river not an effective defensive barrier, it also would have made any British retreat in the face of an enemy attack nearly impossible. Prevost had dug in entrenchments so that the British forces were prepared to repel any assault.  But he really had not plan for retreat if the assault succeeded.

On May 24, American advance guard clashed with a small group of British defenders still on James Island.  The Americans managed to drive the British to the west, onto Johns Island.   From there, the Americans crossed over to James Island where they could reach the British rear.

British position at Stono Ferry
By May 30, the Americans were in position.  General Pulaski began skirmishing with the British to test their defenses.  The British force had a total of about 2200 men, with the bulk of them at the defenses at Stono Ferry.  Although Lincoln had more soldiers overall, he did not have that many in position and available to assault the British defenses.

Lincoln concluded the British as too well entrenched.  He did not trust his relatively untested army of mostly militia to charge into those entrenchments and eject the British defenders.  The British had set up three lines of redoubts protected by artillery, and erected abatis to discourage any attack.  Lincoln ordered Pulaski to pull back.  Instead the two armies simply stared at each other for about two weeks.  

General Prevost had never intended to remain in South Carolina.  He was looking for the easiest and safest way to return to Savannah.  The general scouted the islands to his south, mapping out the best path back to Georgia.  He left his brother, Colonel Mark Prevost, in command of the rearguard at Stono Ferry, which constituted the bulk of the British forces.

On June 16, General Prevost ordered his brother to take about half of the force at Stono Ferry, using boats they had captured, moved down the Stono River toward Savannah.  The younger Prevost complied, leaving a smaller rearguard of about 800 men at Stono Ferry to cover the withdrawal.  That rearguard fell to the command of Lieutenant Colonel John Maitland.

The Prevost brothers had left Colonel Maitland in a tricky situation.  The defenders were facing Americans on both sides, with militia forces in front of them on the mainland, and Continentals on Johns Island behind them.  Maitland had his own regiment, the 71st, with about 350 British regulars.  He also had a Hessian regiment with another 200 men, as well as around 250 local loyalists who had marched with the British army from Savannah into South Carolina.  He had only one boat, capable of transporting about twenty men at a time.

On the evening of June 19, a spy informed General Lincoln that the British were withdrawing from their position at Stono Ferry, and that only around 600 men remained.  With this intelligence, Lincoln held a council of war, where the consensus was to attack before the remainder of the enemy army could escape.

That same night, the Americans assembled the bulk of their 3000 man combined force and moved into position to attack the British rearguard still at Stono Ferry.  By the morning of June 20th, Lincoln had his army in position.  General Isaac Huger commanded the American left, which included several brigades of Continentals.  General Jethro Sumner, a veteran of the Philadelphia Campaign, who had only received his Continental commission as brigadier a few months earlier, commanded the right wing.  His command consisted mostly of the Carolina militia and state regulars, who had finally accepted the idea of operating under Continental command.  In reserve, Lincoln held the Virginia militia under Colonel David Mason.  Supporting all of them was a single artillery regiment with eight field guns.

The Americans would have to cross about a half mile of open field, then push their way through abatis before assaulting the three British redoubts.  The British also had six field guns to deter the attack.

Lincoln had planned for the militia wing to strike first.  He hoped the British defenders would move to reinforce that side. Then, the Continentals would hit the weakened flank.  But the militia got tangled in the underbrush and the Continentals engaged with the British pickets first.  Colonel Maitland heard the attack and assumed it was another American probe against his defenses.  He sent out two companies of regulars to dispatch the attackers.  Those companies soon realized they were facing more than a probe.  About half of them were killed or wounded as the remainder fled back to their defensive positions.

Lincoln had ordered his troops to storm the enemy position and use the bayonet.  But about sixty yards out, the American advance faltered. The Americans paused to fire and would not advance.  Since the Americans were in an open field and the British were behind earthworks, the American position was untenable.  Lincoln personally rode into the front line and encouraged the men forward, but they could not be persuaded to charge into the British redoubts.  

Lincoln then brought up artillery to blast the redoubts, but British counter fire from artillery took their attention.  The two artillery batteries fired on each other from about only sixty yards, for about a half hour, leading to terrible casualties on both sides.  At one point the British artillery was nearly out of ammunition.  Captain James Moncrief then led a charge against the American canon, seized its ammunition, and brought it back into the British lines to resupply his artillery.

At the same time, the militia on the American right managed to untangle themselves and assault the enemy lines.  Maitland had deployed his Hessians on his far left flank.  That regiment took the bulk of the American Assault.  The South Carolina militia charged the Hessian redoubt, even though most of the attackers did not have bayonets.  They managed to force the Hessians to abandon the redoubt and run away.  Maitland, seeing this, sent in his reserves to retake the Hessian redoubt and push back the Americans.

Lincoln, still focused on pushing the American left, did not realize that the American right had overrun a redoubt.  If he had, he might have pushed the right to renew its attack and overrun forces that were now weakened.  Instead, Lincoln saw his forces being decimated and ordered a withdrawal.

As the Americans began to pull back. The British moved out of their defenses to pursue the retreating Americans.  Seeing this, Lincoln sent in his reserve force of Virginia militia. The sight of American reinforcements halted the British counter attack, as the men retreated back to their defensive redoubts.

The Americans reported losses of 34 killed 112 wounded, and 9 missing.  The British reported 26 killed, 103 wounded, and 1 missing.  The most prominent American killed was Colonel Owen Roberts, who commanded the artillery.  One relatively inconsequential death was that of sixteen year old militia private Hugh Jackson, who succumbed to heat exhaustion several days after the battle.  Hugh’s younger brother, 13 year old Andrew Jackson served as a messenger during the battle and survived.  His brother’s death, however, was one of several events that gave the future President a life-long hatred of the British.

On June 23, three days after the battle, the British pulled out of Stono Ferry and moved down the coast.  The British moved to Beaufort on Port Royal Island about 40 miles closer to Savannah. There, an 800 man force, again under the command of Colonel Maitland, maintained a launching point for the next invasion of South Carolina.  General Lincoln moved his Continentals to Sheldon, South Carolina, about fifteen miles north of the British position at Beaufort.

Gov. James Wright

Several weeks after the battle, in July, Royal Governor James Wright returned to Savannah, along with Lieutenant Governor John Graham and Chief Justice Anthony Stokes. The purpose of their return was to restore crown rule in Georgia.  

Gov. James Wright

Wright had come to Georgia as a teenager in 1730, two years before it formally received colonial status, when his father was appointed Chief Justice of the new colony.  Wright had served as governor since 1760 and had owned more than 25,000 acres and 500 slaves before the revolution had forced him out of the colony in 1776. 

For the next two and a half years, Wright had lobbied the ministry to retake Georgia, assuring them that most Georgians would rally and support crown rule.  On his return to Georgia, Wright attempted to recruit a political base that would support the King, but quickly understood what British military recruiters had already learned, that most Georgians were unwilling to commit to the royal government.  

Wright quickly changed his tune in letters to London, calling for more reinforcements of regulars to hold control of the state.  He refused to call for elections, fearing that he would get a legislature full of representatives who supported independence.  Instead, the civilian government hunkered down with the army in Savannah, controlling only a few miles around the city.  The American government still operated out of Augusta and controlled the remainder of the state.

So, even though the British military was winning battles, it simply did not have the overwhelming force that would get the populace to rally to their support.  Savannah remained yet another British outpost in hostile American territory.

- - -

Next Episode 224 St. Vincent & Granada 


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Further Reading

Websites

Bostick, Doug The Battle of Stono Ferry https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/battle-stono-ferry

Stono Ferry June 20, 1779: https://www.battlefields.org/learn/revolutionary-war/battles/stono-ferry

Stono Ferry https://www.carolana.com/SC/Revolution/revolution_stono_ferry.html

Jethro Sumner: https://www.ncpedia.org/biography/sumner-jethro

Searcy, Martha Condray. “1779: The First Year of the British Occupation of Georgia.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly, vol. 67, no. 2, 1983, pp. 168–188. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40581049

Sterner, Eric “John Rutledge of South Carolina, 1779” Journal of the American Revolution, March 25, 2021, https://allthingsliberty.com/2021/03/john-rutledge-governor-of-south-carolina-1779

“The Battle of Stono.” The South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine, vol. 5, no. 2, 1904, pp. 90–94. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27575060

Lipscomb, Terry W., and George Fenwick Jones. “A Hessian Map of the Stono Battlefield.” The South Carolina Historical Magazine, vol. 82, no. 4, 1981, pp. 371–381. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27567714

Deaton, Stan James Wright (1716-1785) https://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/government-politics/james-wright-1716-1785

Free eBooks
(from archive.org unless noted)

Barnwell, Robert Woodward Loyalism in South Carolina, 1765-1785, Duke Univ. Thesis, 1941. 

Coleman, Kenneth Governor James Wright in Georgia, 1760-1782, ERIC, 1975. 

Fortescue, J.W. A History Of The British Army, London: Macmillan And Co, Ltd, 1911. 

Harden, William “Sir James Wright: Governor of Georgia by Royal Commission, 1760-1782The Georgia Historical Quarterly, Vol 2, March 1, 1918. 

Peck, John Mason Lives of Daniel Boone and Benjamin Lincoln, Boston: C.C. Little and J. Brown, 1847. 

Jones, Charles C. The History of Georgia Vol. 2, Boston: Houghton & Mifflin Co. 1883: 

Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*

Ferling, John Winning Independence, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021.

Hall, Leslie, Land and Allegiance in Revolutionary Georgia, Univ. of Ga Press, 2001.  

Hilborn, Nat Battleground of Freedom: South Carolina in the Revolution, Sandlapper Press, 1970. 

O’Kelley, Patrick Nothing but Blood and Slaughter: Military Operations and Order of Battle of the Revolutionary War in the Carolinas - Volume One 1771-1779, Booklocker, 2004. 

Mattern, David B. Benjamin Lincoln and the American Revolution. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1998.

Piecuch, Jim Three Peoples, One King: Loyalists, Indians, and Slaves in the Revolutionary South, 1775-1782, Columbia: Univ. of South Carolina Press, 2008. 

Russell, David Lee. The American Revolution in the Southern Colonies. McFarland & Company, 2000. 

Wilson, David K. The Southern Strategy: Britain’s Conquest of South Carolina and Georgia 1775-1780, Univ. of S.C. Press, 2005. 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.





Sunday, October 24, 2021

AR-SP13 Live from Quakertown


I recorded this podcast live and on-site at Liberty & Co. in Quakertown, Pennsylvania.  Tyson Frantz and I discussed some of the local history of Quakertown and Bucks County.  We discussed the Walking Purchase, the Liberty Bell's movement during the war, the Doan Gang, and Fries Rebellion.

We also discussed the podcast's origins and my plans for the future of the podcast.  It as a great conversation, and an enjoyable discussion.

For more on Liberty and Co., go to libertyand.co.  Liberty & Co always offers free delivery on all orders.  They donate a portion of all profits to the Museum of the American Revolution, and you can get an additional discount by using the coupon code "AmRev" at checkout.

- - -

 Contact me via email at mtroy.history@gmail.com

 Follow the podcast on Twitter @AmRevPodcast

 Join the Facebook group, American Revolution   Podcast: https://www.facebook.com/groups/132651894048271

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American Revolution Podcast Merch!

T-shirts, hoodies, mugs, pillows, totes, notebooks, wall art, and more.  Get your favorite American Revolution logo today.  Help support this podcast.  http://tee.pub/lic/AmRevPodcast


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. You may also donate via Venmo (@Michael-Troy-20), Zelle, or popmoney (send to mtroy1@yahoo.com)


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Sunday, October 17, 2021

ARP222 Congress 1779: Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems


We last looked in on the Continental Congress in Episodes 205 and 206 while delegates were still fighting over what to do about the Silas Deane investigation, and the fact that they had no money for any new offensives.  In fact, even keeping the army fed and clothed remained an ongoing challenge.  Henry Laurens of South Carolina had given up the President’s chair to John Jay of New York.  George Washington had travelled to Philadelphia late December, 1778, mostly to convince Congress not to try to invade Quebec again.  The army simply did not have the resources for such a campaign.  At the end of January, 1779, Washington returned to the Continental winter camp in New Jersey.

French Navy, No Help

In February, Congress celebrated the first anniversary of the French Alliance with French Minister Gérard.  Leaders held a banquet and drank toasts to each other’s country.  Congress hoped the alliance would turn the tide of the war, but a year into the alliance, there still seemed to be no end in sight for the war.  It also wasn’t clear exactly what the French were willing to do.  

John Jay

Admiral d’Estaing had come to America with his fleet in early summer 1778.  He avoided landing in Philadelphia in order to face the British fleet in New York.  There, the French determined that the waters were too shallow and left New York without a fight.  They next moved up to Newport Rhode Island, where they prepared to assist the Continentals with an attack on the British garrison.  Again though, the French left without a fight.  This time, a storm damaged the fleet and word of a British relief fleet led d’Estaing to sail for Boston and put in for repairs.  The French spent the winter in Boston before heading down to the West Indies to fight with the British over some islands.  So in terms of actual assistance, a year into the alliance, the Americans had received only broken promises of support from the French army and navy.

Congress debated requesting that the French fleet come back to America in early 1779 to assist with the defense of Charleston, South Carolina and the recapture of Savannah, Georgia.  Debate on the topic broke down over whether Congress should pay France for use of the fleet, and if so, how they could come up with the money.  While France and America still celebrated their alliance, the costs of the war were still very much a point of contention.

Conrad Alexandre Gérard

The Silas Deane hearings (see Episode 193), still unresolved, raised the question about whether the US was already heavily in debt to France for the aid provided early in the war. Commissioner Deane had reported that those crucial supplies were provided on credit, while Commissioner Arthur Lee was telling delegates that they were gifts.  French Minister Gérard had met with Congress to make clear that they were loans and that America would have to repay those costs at some point.  So it seemed rather presumptuous to tell France that Congress was not going to make those payments, and that, by the way, could France please send its navy to the Carolinas, at its own expense, instead of fighting for valuable sugar islands in the West Indies?

Delegates tried to see if Gérard was open to the idea anyway.  Gérard made clear that French resources had to be focused on the West Indies and that France was not in a position to lend the use of its navy to America for a different project. In the end, delegates withdrew their requests and hoped to have the Continental Army fight the southern war on its own.

Defining victory

Good news arrived in February, 1779 in the form of rumors that Spain was getting ready to join the war.  Spain’s entry would force Britain to go even deeper into debt and spread its resources even thinner as it contested with another major power for real estate around the world.  

With the hopeful expectation of word of Spain’s entry, Minister Gérard tried to get Congress to commit to their terms for ending the war.  This led to lots of questions.  Would Britain return Georgia and other areas it still held? Would the northwest territory be part of British Canada, or the independent United States? What about the Floridas? or navigation of the Mississippi River?  Especially with Spain possibly entering the war, those former Spanish colonies became even more of a question.  Congress needed to be ready to send a peace delegation to negotiate a treaty, and to tell its negotiators what terms were essential to the treaty and which were negotiable.

Congress formed a committee to make preliminary recommendations about peace terms.  The committee included Samuel Adams of Massachusetts, Gouverneur Morris of New York, John Witherspoon of New Jersey, Mariwether Smith of Virginia, and Thomas Burke of North Carolina.

Beyond complete independence, the committee recognized six non-negotiable factors that had to be in any peace treaty:

  1. It set specific boundaries of the United States, including the area between the coastal states and the Mississippi River,
  2. evacuation of British forces from all US land,
  3. full navigation of the Mississippi river to the southernmost point of US territory,
  4. free commerce with a port below that territory to provide access to the ocean,
  5. fishing rights off the coast of Newfoundland,
  6. The cession of Nova Scotia to the US.

The Committee also came up with negotiable terms, including reparations for the harm done by the war, and the return of property taken by the British Army, including slaves.

Continental Congress
Congress spent months debating these terms, even though France was eager to get some decisions as quickly as possible.  New England delegates pushed for what proved to be one of the most contentious terms, the right to fish off the coast of Newfoundland.  Fishing rights off the coast of a foreign power seemed rather presumptuous, and a term that Britain would be unlikely to concede.  At the same time, New England leaders argued that they had traditional fishing rights in those waters, and that the New England economy depended on their continuation.  The debate boiled down to whether the US was willing to continue the war, with the ensuing casualties and debts, simply to acquire fishing rights.  New England said yes.  Other states were not so sure.

Southern delegates pushed hard for navigation of the Mississippi River. New England did not really want to continue the war over that issue, and voted it down.  Delegates were particularly concerned that US demands on the Mississippi might risk securing an alliance with Spain, which also claimed control of the river.  Because the northern states would not fight for the Mississippi, Southern states were not inclined to fight over New England’s fishing rights.  The debate dragged on over the course of the summer and into September. Finally the Congress settled on terms that included both the navigation of the Mississippi River and fishing rights off Newfoundland.   But the debates over the terms divided Congress for most of the year.

Dollar Collapses

Congress’ real problem, the one that impacted everything else, was its continuing problem with money.  Congress had no authority to impose any taxes at all.  The only way it could raise any money for the war effort, or anything else, was to ask the states for it.  If the states didn’t pay, there was not much of anything Congress could do, except ask again.

Congress’ inability to tax only compounded a problem that had existed for decades.  The British mercantile system pretty much assured that most specie, that is gold and silver, flowed from the colonies to England.  There was a constant shortage of hard money in America.  Most of the money that was there came from smugglers doing business with Spanish colonies.  The Spanish silver dollar, not the British pound, was the currency of choice throughout the Americas, regardless of which European power controlled any given colony.

So the colonies had started the war with almost no hard currency, and the Continental Congress had no way to collect what little there was.  Governments typically relied on debt to pay for a war.  The Continental Congress had no credit history.  It had no method for collecting money to pay off any debts it incurred.  There was also no guarantee that the Congress would even exist in a few years when it came time to pay off those debts.  As a result, few lenders were interested.  A few countries fronted some money, primarily out of a desire to make Britain suffer through the war, and not necessarily out of any guarantees that the money would ever be repaid.  Foreign loans were few and far between.  Loans received in Europe were immediately spent there on supplies for the war.

Continental three dollar bill

The Continental Congress had gotten through the first three years of war by issuing paper money, the Continental dollar.  Paper currency had no inherent value beyond the holder’s trust that the Congress would someday redeem the paper for Spanish silver dollars.  I’m going to start throwing out some numbers. It’s important to keep in mind that there was a wide range of colonial and other currencies in use in America.  The Continental dollar was supposed to be pegged to the Spanish silver dollar, one for one.  Because it was paper, it was always going to trade at a discount, but the amount of discount would vary depending on the recipient’s expectation of the chances of ever being able to redeem that paper for silver.

A Spanish dollar was roughly the equivalent of one-fourth of a British pound sterling.  When we start talking about these numbers, remember that the average colonial unskilled laborer lived on about 30 to 50 pounds per year, or less than 200 Spanish dollars.  The King ran all the basic functions of the British government on a budget of 800,000 pounds sterling, or about 3.2 million dollars per year.  So, a dollar went much further then than it would today.  

A Spanish silver dollar in the late 18th century was probably worth very roughly the equivalent about $1000 US today.  When you also consider that the entire population of the United States at this time was about 1/100th of what it is today, that means that any American government debt incurred, would essentially be the equivalent of $1 in the 18th Century to $100,000 today.

Congress began spending rather aggressively at the outset of the war.  In 1775, Congress emitted about $6 million in Continental dollars (equivalent of about $600 billion in debt today).  In 1776, it emitted another 19 million.  By 1777, members realized that flooding the economy with paper money was causing problems, and emitted only 13 million.  Then, in 1778, with inflation taking its toll and out of a desperation to keep the war going, Congress nearly doubled the total amount of paper dollars on the market, emitting $64 million.  It had about $100 million in paper notes in the economy, and still had no way of paying them back. 

Even so, in 1779, Congress began emitting even larger amounts of paper, over about $100 million in that year alone, bringing the total to about $200 million in debt (or $20 trillion in a modern equivalent).  Even for people who believe that the Continentals would eventually win, it was hard to see a way that they might ever be able to pay off this enormous debt.  The value of the Continental dollar plummeted.  Inflation ran rampant.  Congress ordered paper dollars be accepted at face value, so the cost of everything rose.  In 1776, a bushel of wheat cost 40 shillings.  By the spring of 1779, that same bushel cost 150 shillings.  As Congress pumped out more dollars over 1779, the value plummeted even further. By the end of the year that same bushel would cost over 1000 shillings.

Anyone still fortunate enough to have any gold or silver, hoarded it as the only thing that retained its value.  The term not worth a Continental dollar came into use as the money became worthless.  A blank piece of paper was worth more than it was after Congress turned that piece of paper into a $1 piece of currency.  Piling onto this crisis, the British counterfeited Continental dollars and distributed even more of them.

By May 1779 Congress tried to focus on the currency crisis. Members devoted three days each week to that issue alone.  Congress attempted to place tax quotas on the states, totaling $60 million in 1779 alone.  States would have to impose heavy taxes on their citizens, then turn over the paper to the Continental Congress for destruction.  Hopefully, that would reduce the amount of paper in circulation and restore some of the value of the remaining money.

Having decided to dump this burden on the states, Congress then needed to figure out a way to get the states to go along.  States could not be forced to pay, and each state inevitably complained that its proportion of the tax burden was too high.  The Congress still had not come to any consensus on how to distribute the tax burden fairly.  Would it be based on population? would the population include slaves? Would it be based on the economic ability of the state?  Even Congress’ President John Jay voted against the bill, because of the controversy over whether Vermont was still considered part of New York, and therefore part of its tax base. In June, delegate Richard Henry Lee wrote “The inundation of money appears to have overflowed virtue, and I fear will bury the liberty of America in the same grave.

Given the state of financial crisis, President Jay finally agreed to draft a letter to be sent to the states along with their tax quotas.  Jay appealed to their patriotism and the need to continue the war effort.  That would simply be impossible without the tax plan.

In addition to the tax effort, Congress once again appealed to France and Spain for additional loans.  It offered generous interest rates and appealed to the friendly nations of Europe to help finance the war against Britain. 

Half-Pay Pensions

The primary expense for Congress was running the war.  While many leaders at the outset of the war counted on public-spirited officers to step up and nobly volunteer their lives to the cause, that call had been wearing thin for years.  

Continental officers had families to feed.  Unlike Washington, many of them did not have plantations that continued to function in their absence to support themselves, and their wives and children.  As the war entered its fifth year in the spring of 1779, many officers had been away from home for much of that time.  The paper money they received as pay was increasingly worthless.  

Continentals in Camp
Officers had already had to put down several mutinies, or at least grumblings that could turn into mutinies, from the soldiers.  The army was starving, wearing tatters, and often exposed to the elements.  They saw their civilian counterparts going about their business, prospering on farms, and building a future for themselves.  In 1778, word of the French alliance had caused some of these hard feelings to subside, but mostly because so many hoped that the alliance would help to bring about an end to the war.  By 1779, it became clear that the prospect of an end in sight for the war seemed even more elusive.

Not only the soldiers, but also the officers, had been growing increasingly restless.  Even if they could put up with the day-to-day sufferings, many realized that they were losing the best years of their lives to the war, and would be unable to build up any security for their old age.  Washington had delivered their request that officers receive half-pay for life in exchange for their continued service, a benefit that British officers enjoyed.  Congress did not want to commit to those costs, and approved only half-pay for seven years following the end of the war.

In May, delegates Gouverneur Morris and William Carmichael renewed the proposal to grant half-pay for life, but the committee voted it down.  A few weeks later, in June, the Congress received a memorial from the Continental officers indicating that the half-pay for life provision had to be passed, or the army might fold.  Pennsylvania and Maryland already passed provisions at the state level.

A new delegate from Pennsylvania, John Armstrong, had been a general in the Continental Army and had also been a commander of the Pennsylvania state army before coming to Congress.  He was a strong advocate for more military benefits and supported the measure.  In late June, he wrote to friends at his surprise at how many delegates opposed pension benefits for the officers who were still suffering in the field to defend them.

The opposition, led by John Dickinson, still called for greater use of militia and less demand on a professional army that had to be compensated better.  Dickinson had recently returned to Congress after leaving shortly after the vote for Independence, which he had opposed.  

In July, the committee finally approved a measure granting officers half-pay for life.  The opposition, however, pushed the matter to the various state governments.  The Continental Congress did not have the money and had no prospect of ever getting this money to make good on this promise. The states raised the taxes.  They should have the obligation of officer pensions.  So once again, Congress refused to commit to the idea of providing life pensions for army officers.

Looking for Waste, Fraud, and Abuse

With the continuing money problems, Congress looked for someone to blame.  Some delegates proclaimed that the army was spending too much money.  Quartermasters and commissaries were paying too much for the items they purchased.  

Rather than accepting that these departments had to pay more because of the inflation caused by all the paper money, delegates believed that the overspending by these departments was the cause of the inflation.  It formed committees to look into the purchasing practices of the army and to find new ways to economize.

Of course, this had no chance of working.  The actions only caused many quartermaster and commissary officers to offer their resignations.  Among them was Nathanael Greene, whom Washington had pressured into taking charge of the army’s quartermaster department.  Greene had already offered his resignation in the spring, recognizing both the impossibility of equipping an army using worthless paper dollars, and also the willingness of Congress to make him into the fall guy for any failures.

Congress refused the resignations and passed a resolution expressing confidence in those leading the quartermaster corps, even while continuing its investigations.  Various committees continued to look at the matter, but did nothing to resolve the problem.  

The truth is there was nothing they could do unless Congress had the power to levy taxes.  Since the states refused to consider that, the problem would only fester for another year, while the leadership struggled to keep officers and men from getting disgusted and simply going home.  The money problem was only getting worse, and Congress could not find a solution.

Next week, the British make another push into South Carolina, at the battle of Stono Ferry.

- - -

Next Episode 223 Stono Ferry 

Previous Episode 221 Collier-Mathew Raids 

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Further Reading

Websites

Wilson, Megan "A Damned Set of Rascals" The Continental Army vs. The Continental Congress: Tensions Among revolutionaries, LSU Master’s Thesis, 2012: https://digitalcommons.lsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2199&context=gradschool_theses

Grubb, Farley The Continental Dollar: Initial Design, Ideal Performance, and the Credibility of Congressional Commitment, 2013: https://www.eh.net/eha/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Grubb.pdf

Grubb, Farley. “The Continental Dollar: How Much Was Really Issued?” The Journal of Economic History, vol. 68, no. 1, 2008, pp. 283–291. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40056783

Grubb, Farley. “State Redemption of the Continental Dollar, 1779–90.” The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 69, no. 1, 2012, pp. 147–180. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.5309/willmaryquar.69.1.0147

Grubb, Farley “The Continental Dollar: What Happened to It after 1779?” https://www.nber.org/papers/w13770

Inflation in the American Revolution: https://mises.org/library/inflation-and-american-revolution

Free eBooks
(from archive.org unless noted)

Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, vol. 12, US Govt. Printing Office, 1904. 

Pellew, George John Jay, New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Co. 1890. 

Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*

Burnett, Edmund Cody, The Continental Congress, Macmillan Co. 1941 

Montross, Lynn The Reluctant Rebels, Harper & Brothers, 1950. 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.


Thursday, October 14, 2021

AR-SP12 Nathaniel Philbrick - Travels with George

My guest today is Nathaniel Philbrick, an award winning author of multiple history books of nonfiction.  His most recent books include Bunker Hill, Valiant Ambition - which looks at the relationship between George Washington and Benedict Arnold, and In the Hurricane’s Eye, which covers the Yorktown campaign and the end of the war.

We discussed his latest book Travels with George: In Search of Washington and His Legacy.  Mr. Philbrick retraced the various trips that President Washington took as President, trying to shore up support for the Union.  Philbrick traveled with his wife, Melissa and their dog Dora, through New England, New York, and the southern states speaking with people intimate with the local history of each area.

We recorded our conversation, via Zoom, in late September 2021, just weeks after the release of his book.

Michael Troy (MJT)

Nathaniel Philbrick, welcome to the American Revolution. 

Nathaniel Philbrick (NP)

It's great to be with you. 

MJT  

So we're here today to talk about your latest book Travels with George, which I guess was just released a couple of weeks ago? 

NP  

Right. The week before last.

MJT  

You seem to be on a kick.  The last three or four books, you've written have all been about the American Revolution in one way or another. We've been very happy to see that. 

NP  

Well, good. I never really saw it coming. I started with Bunker Hill thinking I was going to write a book about a colonial city, undergoing the pressures of the revolution, and then move on. But once George Washington appeared, after the Battle of Bunker Hill, I was hooked

MJT  

To your book Travels with George, I guess the title is a bit of a take off on Travels with Charlie, by John Steinbeck, who you discuss a couple times in the book. The book also kind of reminded me a bit of, in some way, of Herman Melville's Moby Dick, which I guess you also have some experience with. Melville, of course, wrote a book where part of the book was telling the story of the white whale, and part of the book was about something else, about the whaling business. And you've kind of bifurcated your book in the same way where you move back and forth between the story of George Washington's trip and the story that you took traveling the country following in his footsteps. Why did you decide to take that tack when writing the book?

NP  

Yeah, well, from the beginning, after finishing In the Hurricane's Eye, that was ten years of deep dive into the American Revolution. I just wanted to write a different kind of book. I wanted to change it up. I wanted to have have some fun with it. I think historians can take themselves way too seriously. I wanted to get out of my office, see the country, follow George Washington, head out with my wife and our dog, do our John Steinbeck thing, Travels With Charlie. But I wanted this to be a different narrative challenge. Instead of a narrative that is completely within a certain time period. I wanted it to be a braided narrative, where there's Washington's journey, and there's ours in the contemporary landscape. And I also wanted it to be about history, in a way, how it's remembered, how Washington is remembered ,all of this. So yeah, I was looking to do very kind of Moby Dick-like, which is one of my favorite novels. So, I'm very pleased to see a similarity there. Because I wanted to be a hybrid from the beginning. I wanted it to be a meditation, in a way, as much as a narrative of a trip,

MJT  

Delving into George Washington a little bit here. This book takes place in the first two years of his presidency and involves the traveling that he did, away from the capital city of New York at the time, Washington famously only took on the presidency reluctantly.  He much rather would have been home at Mount Vernon. And of course, during the first couple of years of his presidency, he had quite a bit going on: setting up a new government, dealing with a number of Indian tribe problems, setting up new taxes, designing a capital city, all these things. Why did Washington think it was so important to spend months away from the capital and away from home? Just traveling around and meeting people? 

NP  

There are a couple of reasons. One of them was that, from the very beginning, he realized he was the leader of a politically-divided country. There wasn't a party system yet. That was yet to be devised. But the Constitution has divided the country into two groups: the Federalists, those who supported the Constitution, and the strong federal government and created; and the anti-Federalists who wanted the states to retain the power they had had, under the Articles of Confederation and distrusted a strong central government, particularly when it came to taxation. These thirteen former colonies had, after all, revolted from the British Empire over the issue of taxation. 

When Washington was inaugurated on April 30 1789, two states, Rhode Island and North Carolina, hadn't ratified the Constitution. They hadn't participated in his election. And then there was the matter of regional alliances, when the governor of Virginia said my country, he meant Virginia, he didn't mean the United States of America. 

Washington wanted to instill a sense of unity. And this is before mass media, before you could turn on the TV and see the president presenting an address. He had to physically get to as many Americans as possible, go on a series of road trips that would take him to the towns, villages throughout New England, throughout the deep south. And he was a southerner, but he had never been in South Carolina and Georgia. So he just went out there. And when Congress would go into recess, he'd hit the road and listen to people, talk to people, but most importantly, be there for them to see that they now had a new political system, and a president of the United States was now leading this country.

MJT  

In many ways, Washington was the one unifying force that the country had after they lost their common enemy of the British at the end of the war. There were a lot of, as you say, divisions.  People thought of their state as their country and particularly their regionalism. New Englanders did not have a lot of good feelings about southerners and vice versa. Washington, of course, was the hero of the American Revolution, having won it. I guess this trip was, in a lot of ways, playing off of his celebrity status, for lack of a better word, as a way of unifying the country?

NP  

Nathaniel Philbrick
Exactly. He was the most popular man in the world at this point. As you said he was a celebrity of an order, I don't think we can even comprehend today in terms of, when watch and walked into a room that respect immediately commanded. He was a smart guy. After eight years as commander of the Continental Army, he knew how to make an impression. He knew how to use theatrics on his behalf. And in this situation, he wasn't trying to project the image of an all-powerful general, leading his ragtag army against the strongest military force on earth type of thing. He wanted to use that charisma to create a sense of an office of the presidency that would outlive anybody. It wasn't about him. It was about creating a nation of laws an executive-led nation of laws. And so he was consciously using his celebrity to create a sense of pride and a sense of nationhood. 

One of the things he would do is, before entering a town or city, he would step out of the horse and carriage he was in most of the time, dressed in his Revolutionary War uniform mount his great big white horse, during the southern tour, it was Prescott, and right down the main thoroughfare to tremendous acclaim.  He was making an impression. This is before rock music and, and huge video screens, you know, that you see in a stadium, a political rally, Washington was doing it on his horse, making a huge impression. One of the things I wanted to explore was not just Washington's point of view, but the point of view of the people as he came to these towns. 

Judging from the evidence in terms of diaries, and newspaper accounts, and oral histories which were later preserved, he just rocked everybody's world when he came. This was something. If you were an eight year old kid watching Washington, walk down the street, it was something you never forgot. And you were telling the great grandchildren 80 years later,

MJT  

Yeah, I think prior to the development of radio and TV, people a lot less going on in their lives. So somebody coming to town was always a lot more interest back then I think. 

NP  

Yeah, yeah. the roads were just jammed with people. This didn't happen every day. And now the other thing is, it wouldn't happen again for another 30-some years.  He established this precedent.  Other presidents were reluctant to spend the time and the energy it required, because when everybody else in government was off, he was doing this. And so people came from out of the woodwork to see him come to them. 

MJT  

You mentioned a bit in your book. You say of course, he traveled in a coach for most of the trip. But when he was entering a town, he would exit the coach, get on his horse, and ride into town, kind of staging himself. And you talk a little bit about some of the details he went into, for lack of a better word, using makeup on his horse to make his white horse whiter and the black hooves blacker. And, interestingly, that he wore his uniform. Washington very famously wore a brown civilian suit for his inauguration, stressing the fact that a civilian was leading this country, not a military man. Why do you think he chose to wear his military uniform on this trip?

NP  

Very good question. I think he was going for the wow factor. He was consciously drawing on that celebrity status we talked about. And it's interesting, he would modulate it. For example, in the beginning of his New England tour, when he's on his way to the presidency, he's wearing it a lot comes to Worcester, he's in that brown suit, and the people love it, because he's clearly making: I am one of you. I am one of the people.  But when he rides into Boston with thousands of people jamming into the city, he had just reviewed the militia in Cambridge, and he's dressed as the general. 

And it's interesting because the political divisions that were there from the beginning would begin to widen. Partisanship would come in. And one of the fears the Anti-Federalists had was that Washington would create a very British-like government, a virtual monarchy. And so when he was dressing in that uniform, riding that horse with his leopard skin saddle pad, he's taking on the kind of militaristic fanfare that gets associated with a monarch. And so he was flirting with both sides. On the other side, he insisted on staying only in public taverns, not staying with his rich friends. There would be no favorites. And so contrary to that whole, I am the conquering hero, he is a man of the people staying in the Motel Sixes of his day, because these taverns were terrible food, horrible beds, and two taverns in New England, they would turn him away at night, because they didn't recognize who he was. I mean, he doesn't think much respect. And so he didn't enjoy this aspect of it, but he felt he needed to do it, because he was skirting that line between theatrics and being a humble member of the populace.

MJT  

It was a difficult situation that he was in because, as you say, he was accused of acting like a king at times.  He had to present himself as a superior man, for lack of a better word, that he was an elite. He was a leader. He was a giant among men. But he also wanted to show himself as a man of the people, a commoner.  So, as you say, he wanted to mix with the common people, but not appear as a common man himself.

NP  

Right. And it's interesting. Particularly during this New England tour, there's some instances in the Southern tour when he's inland and making his way through Salisbury, North Carolina, and those kinds of places, which was really hard hit during the revolution, there's traditions of him saying "I am only a man," either Washington, saying that or a kid staring wide-eyed at him saying, "he's only a man." At first I thought, Oh, this is too good to be true. Is this a tradition to be trusted? But the sheer number of these instances, and it wasn't as if these were published in newspapers, and then broadcast around, made me realize maybe he really was saying this.  You know, sort of trying to "Yeah, I'm the big dude here, but I'm only a man" He's just constantly flirting at it. And that's the way it is, to this day, when it comes to the presidency, a president wants to have it both ways, he is a man of the people. He remembers the barbecues of his youth in Iowa or wherever.  But he also wants to project this image of a commander in charge and above the common man when it comes to that kind of ability to make decisions. And so it goes with the institution.  We do not have someone who is there because of their bloodlines, or whatever. And so it will always be a struggle. And it's just fascinating watching Washington deal with it at the very beginning of our history

MJT  

Right, he was, as you say, almost setting the tone for future presidents to come exactly what line should the president walk to show that he was a leader, but also be one of the people. 

I guess before we get too far into this, we should say exactly what trips Washington took. You cover basically four different trips, his first two years of office.  Can you just briefly go over where he went?

NP  

The first one, which really wasn't one, that didn't fit in this category, was his journey from Mount Vernon to the temporary capital in New York. And that carried much of the earmarks of what would become the tour. But it wasn't really part of that. It's just getting him to the capital and his inauguration.

It's not even six months into his presidency where he embarks on the first tour, a tour of New England.  But it's significant that he does not go through Rhode Island, which has not yet ratified the Constitution. And it's just fascinating watching him come up with his route to avoid Rhode Island, because he took different routes going north and returning south to New York. And so he avoided Rhode Island but got as far north as Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and during the harbor tour, stepped onto what's now Kittery Point, Maine.  It's then part of Massachusetts, and then would return to New York. 

About six months after that, in April of next year, he would embark on the most unique of his tours, a tour of western Long Island. And where all these other tours are all over the press. There's all these accounts of just about every second he's on the road. There's no mention whatsoever. This is completely under the radar. A lot of people said what was he doing? Well, it was only four days. And when you look at where he went, it's clear, he was visiting the sights of the people that were instrumental in the Culper Spy Ring, the nerve center of that was Setauket, New York and almost smack dab on the North Shore of Long Island, where Washington stayed in the tavern of the guy who would take the messages from New York to Setauket where they were then sailed by whaleboat to Fairfield, Connecticut, and then made their way to Washington on the Hudson. So the identities of these people were a secret, not even the families knew.  If this revolution should fail ultimately, and Great Britain came back into power of the former colonies. You didn't want it known that you had been a spy during the Revolution. And so Washington could not overtly thank these people. But clearly, that was, may have been some curiosity as well as anything just to sort of check this all out. Because he'd never seen this.

MJT  

I imagine that Washington had spent years in New Jersey and upstate New York, kind of staring at New York City and Long Island that had been occupied by the British for almost the entire war. It must have just been a pleasure to be able to walk over that land and say that it's ours again,

NP  

Right. Can you imagine? having for all those years, just the frustrations. He lost the battle of Long Island. And after that the British had the whole island in the city. And what a source of personal frustration that must have been. It's clear from some of the anecdotes that have been preserved, he was really enjoying himself during this Long Island tour. 

And then he gets back to New York, comes down with the flu.  It nearly kills, literally - it nearly killed him. He's in poor health most of that summer, but by that June, he learns that Rhode Island the last state to ratify the Constitution, is now part of the United States of America. Almost spur of the moment, he seems to have jumped on the schooner, sailed from New York to Newport and Providence. And this was kind of a gutsy move, because Rhode Island was the home of the greatest skeptics. When it came to this new government. Modern day political pundits might have branded enemy territory, Washington took the opposite course arrived in Newport. Rhode Islanders were thunderstruck Whoa, he's taking the time to do this? And he succeeded in turning the state with the biggest doubters in the nation into some of his biggest fans. 

Soon after that, the temporary capital moves to Philadelphia and Washington, by this point, the Residency Act is passed and it's his job to start planning what will become Washington, DC on the Potomac.  And he departs on his southern tour, which will be bookended by stops at what will become Washington, DC as he negotiates with the land owners and starts to survey the borders of what will be the nation's capital. And this is the longest, most ambitious tour of them all. More than, close to 2000 miles.  It would take him all the way down to Savannah, Georgia, inland to Augusta, back to Camden, South Carolina, to Charlotte to Salem, old Salem, Guilford Courthouse. And once again, as you were saying, you know how this curiosity about Long Island. This is where the Revolution had been fought in its final years, and he had never been there.

MJT  

He had been up by New York during the entire southern campaign.  He had never visited all these southern battlefields.

NP  

No, and he obviously lived and died by what happened there. And so this gave him the opportunity to actually see the sights and so can you imagine tell the former commander of the Continental Army, having the chance to to see Horatio Gates' defeat there at Camden.  The skeletons of the horses were still there. The bark of the trees is still riddled by musket balls, and all this kind of thing. And that took three months, and he eventually ended up back in Philadelphia.

MJT  

You touched on the fact that he was starting to set up Washington, DC at the time. I was struck by some of his negotiating skills with the landowners in Washington - how you said that he kind of divided up the land that they owned, and essentially took part of it for the government saying that well, the part that you'll keep will go up so much in value that you're going to win in the end. And, by the way, if you don't take this deal, I'm going to move up the road a few miles and go somewhere else,

NP  

Right. Oh, he was a real estate mogul in a way.  He already had huge swaths of land in western Virginia, western Pennsylvania that he got by dubious means, as a consequence of his service in the French and Indian War. So he knew how to barter for land. And yeah, and these landowners really never had a chance. He went down.  They came up with a deal. And then while he's in the midst of the Southern tour, he gets word that they balked, that they claim the deal is in the scope that they had never intended. So he comes back, and in a day, he has them realizing they better go back to the deal. 

The federal government hadn't come up with with any money to create this national capital, Maryland and Virginia, which bordered the Potomac, and which would profit from having a nation's capital within their territory, came up with some money. But other than that he had to rely on - this had to be a real estate deal. It never really worked financially for anyone, including Washington's friends who tried to get in on this, thinking was a get rich quick scheme. From Washington's perspective. All vectors in the country pointed to the Potomac being the location of the nation's capital. From the time the French and Indian War even his older brother actually had seen this as the destiny of this country that from the west would come trade goods down to the Potomac, to the east. And so, from his perspective, this was how it had to be. That the Potomac never became what the Erie Canal would become, does not necessarily negate the kind of idealism behind something that could very easily be perceived as a deal in his own backyard that was to his personal benefit.

MJT  

You also mentioned in the book, before he embarked on his trip to New York at the beginning of the story, he actually had to borrow money to make the trip. He was very land rich, of course, and had a lot of property. But that was kind of how tough things were for Washington before he even took this job.

NP  

Absolutely, I mean, this, you know, we have the sense of him, being the richest man in the United States, you know, that kind of thing.  He wasn't.  Yes, we had a lot of land.  But there wasn't the market to sell. He desperately wanted to sell a lot of his western lands. In fact, at one point, he had hopes that those that sale would go through, he could not only free his own enslaved workers, but those owned by Martha's deceased husband - purchase them to freedom. That was his ambition. But no, it never came through. 

Can you imagine? Here he is.  He's just been elected President of the United States, and he owes money all over Alexandria. And so he goes through the humiliating process of hitting up his friends, who actually say, well, we can't come up with that much, but I'll give you this. This is how it kind of slinks out of town, towards what will become the presidency. And this is an image of Washington, I think a lot of people don't quite perceive. He was not this all-powerful man who knew what was going to happen. He was hanging on for dear life in many aspects of his personal life and his political life.

MJT  

Washington was always one for keeping up appearances and appearing as if he was a wealthy, successful gentleman. So even when he did have money troubles, he would do his best to hide it, which is probably one reason we don't hear a lot about it. And of course, during his lifetime, people were constantly trying to hit him up for money, because they thought he was someone who could help out and he often had to say, Sorry, can't help you, don't have the cash.

NP

Oh, yeah, every college in the country wanted him to contribute. It was nonstop. One of the things that struck me in researching this is in the years before he became president, he was virtually besieged at Mount Vernon with visitors. At one point he describes it to his mother in Fredericksburg as he is the owner of a tavern. Just about everyone who is headed south or north seems to stop here.  It was a treadmill of bringing people in and out. Once again, this is not a guy who's coming down from the mountaintop and becoming lord of all he surveys. This is someone who's just been through eight years of the American Revolution.  It's kind of just rather be home and let be left alone, but there's no way you can leave behind who he has become.

MJT  

One of the other real limitations, which you touched on a minute ago was the fact that even property that he owned, land and slaves and other things, were not his.  He married the widow of a wealthy man and held all that property in trust for his wife, and then her children, his stepchildren, and he was somewhat by law and certainly by honor, obliged to - he had a fiduciary duty to maximize that wealth for other people, because that was his duty.  That in some ways, limited what he could do as far as freeing slaves.  I'm not saying, he may not have done so anyway. But it was a limitation on him, on what he could do, and how he could use the property that was under his control.

NP  

Absolutely. It was a very complicated personal situation. He had married into wealth, but it wasn't his. It was all for Martha's grandchildren, once they came of age, and if it was perceived that he had recklessly overspent or abused that trust that he could be in for legal action. 

It was at Mount Vernon, thousands of acres, this huge agricultural complex, it was losing money every year. Land basically had been exhausted by tobacco farming by previous generations. Washington no longer did tobacco because it drained the soil.  He was using wheat, very scientifically-oriented agricultural practices. But still, it wasn't making money. And so yes, he had this vast endeavor that took huge amounts of energy to supervise, but it wasn't making him money. 

You add that to the fact that he's been away for eight years as commander of the Continental Army, and then he's away for another eight years of President United States in a position where he really can't manage things. He was not a great financial situation, and desperately worried in many instances about what he would do next.

MJT  

One of the other things that really surprised me about Washington, I guess I just hadn't read about before was the three brushes with death that he had the first two years of his presidency. You touched on one before, the fact that he had a really bad bout of pneumonia. He also had a tumor on his upper thigh or lower buttocks that had to be removed, a very large one that required surgery, which in those times was always dangerous, because there was no attempts at being sanitary or anything. So there's a great deal of danger of post-op infections. And then he also almost drowned while crossing a river when he began his southern tour,

NP  

And then add to the fact that he took the ferry across the Chesapeake to Annapolis, and they were caught in a thunderstorm. And the boat he was on grounded on a shoal towards the entrance in Annapolis, and they were almost beaten to death. Remember, this was a time when the roads were in terrible shape. Just getting from here to there was an ordeal and often a dangerous ordeal. 

His health was precarious. He was a man who had been, all his life, very physically active. As a teenager, he was a surveyor, traveling throughout the wilderness of the country. As a general he was crisscrossing the country constantly. And even on his plantation in the years after the revolution, he would spend six hours on horseback inspecting Mount Vernon. 

When he suddenly becomes president, he's trapped in an office all day, with the huge stresses of creating the office of the presidency. He almost immediately comes down with that tumor you mentioned, that comes very close to killing him. It's not until the fall that he has recovered and it hit him in June. And then just after his Long Island tour, he gets the flu. And they thought that was the end of it, until suddenly the fever breaks. And months later, his health is back. But as Lafayette would write him, my God, my general, do not work so hard in the cabinet. Your health is a sacred trust you hold with the American people. And so he saw, a part of him saw these tours as a way to get out of the office, get some exercise, get away from the stresses of being a precedent setting. first president of the United States.  You can look at these tours as the way that Washington saved, not only his country, but himself at a very fundamental way. 

It's an interesting story. This is not the marble man looking destiny in the face and walking with certitude to great success. This is a person who is 57 years old, when he becomes president, almost immediately has a near-fatal illness. Will have several of them in the next couple of years as he would write to someone, it's very likely this will kill me, but this will not prevent them from doing what I perceive is my duty. So this is a guy who's just trying to make it work desperately, besieged on just about every front. I think his first feat of endurance is the revolution. I mean, I don't know how we got through those eight years, given all the stresses of working with the Continental Congress, working with his French allies at some times and that did not seem to be allies. And then to do this for eight years. I just don't know how he made it through.

MJT  

He was just an amazing manager of people. In other words, he could usually get them to do what he wanted without looking like he was pushing them around. Although he wasn't afraid of bullying people either. On occasion, I think you mentioned John Hancock kind of dissed him when he visited Boston.

NP  

Yes. I think that's one of the great instances of examples of Washington, playing it very shrewdly.  He comes to Boston.  John Hancock and he had a tricky relationship. John Adams claimed that Hancock had expected that he would become commander of the Continental Army and took umbrage when Washington became the choice to lead the Continental Army.  And later, when Hancock became Governor of Massachusetts during the Revolution, Washington would write him letter after letter pleading for more troops or provisions, which Hancock not even answer. So this was a relationship a little bit fraught. 

And so when Washington is approaching Boston, is in Worcester making his way. Hancock invites Washington this day, as was mentioned on Beacon Hill, Washington, regretfully informs him that the policy is I must stay in taverns. so I have to decline. So Hancock says, Okay, well, will you come to dinner. And Washington said I'd be happy to come to dinner. 

Well, when Washington arrives in Boston, Hancock is a no show. He's not there.  His emissaries, Samuel Adams, give their apologies. But he has the gout and doesn't feel well enough. Washington takes note. He's met by this huge crowd, watches his parade, huge success and goes back to his quarters, and writes Hancock, a note saying, since I haven't seen you, I regretfully will not be coming to dinner. 

Hancock realizes that he's made a gross miscalculation. Back in the day, the governors were the powers. Now it's a different game. The point of this is Washington is instructing as well as listening to people that he, as president, ranks above a governor.  Hancock sends a note: I will be risking my life, but I will come to see me, as is my duty. And so he has two servants carry him in his gouty legs wrapped in red flannel, saying, my apologies, but it's great to have you here in Boston, and then goes back to this house and Washington says, Okay, I will come to dinner now. But message delivered.  

It's almost laughable today to think that a governor would think he outranks the president of United States, maybe not more. But the only reason that we take it for granted. That's the way it is now is because Washington turned down Hancock's dinner invitation. These are the kinds of protocols he was establishing.

//

MJT

Organizing this trip must have been difficult, because the don't seem to be a whole lot of records about exactly where he went, what he did. And a lot of it is just local history, and maybe has a dubious provenance to it. How did you go about planning this trip?

NP  

You're right, it's sketchy. We have some information, particularly when it comes to his New England tour. But when it comes to the southern tour, we have Washington's diary, and the record of all the addresses that was presented to him at each town citizen went to and his responses. But how did he go about this? 

Well, my wife and I looked at Washington's itinerary, and decided we needed to divide the two longer tours, the southern tour, which is the longest and the New England tour, in half. And it's a good thing too, because it's nowhere near what Washington went through. 

But I made a list of all the towns to visit. And I reached out to as many of the historical societies and libraries of each town as I could. And I soon was flooded with all this great information, even before we headed out. And in many instances, the local historians volunteered to show us around. And so there was a series of interviews I would have as we went along on our tour. 

And so I had to break it up. In a typical day was to go from one town to the next. We were traveling with a dog so we only stay in dog-friendly accommodations. Now sometimes you weren't really sure how far we were going to get to have to be left to the last minute. But we had a schedule, very much like Washington, where I said to someone will be meeting you at a certain time. And so we'd do that. I was taking notes all the time. I had my notebook, and then we'd get into a dog-friendly hotel in the evening.  I would, after dinner, would spend the evening typing up my notes and the next morning, we'd head out crack of dawn, much like Washington. We would spend a year and a half, not continually, following Washington, with each jaunt being about a week to ten days.  On the southern tour, because we had a dog we wanted to make sure it wasn't too hot. So we did that in late spring. And it was perfect weather. But it was a real logistical challenge. 

Luckily, I'm fairly organized, but my wife Melissa is really organized. So she was the one who really made the spreadsheets of where we would be and all this. But that said, when you go on a road trip, there's always surprises.  No matter how much you plan. The trip is really what's governing.  As Steinbeck says, you don't go on a trip. the trip takes us.  It was those surprises that really were the gold in terms of what would happen. 

Go up to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Melissa would have a Washington's diary spread out on her lap. So we would come to a place and she'd recite what Washington saw at that point, which is really kind of cool. But we get to Portsmouth, and we need a place to stay. And so she gets on VRBO, and there in Kittery Point, Maine, which Washington visited during his harbor tour, is a reference to the red cottage overlooking the stone dock that Washington stepped out on during that harbor tour when we went to Kittery Point. Oh my God! Can we stay in this place? We couldn't, but the owner was very happy to meet with us and showed us the dock. So it was a search for accommodations that brought us a real research breakthrough because Jim, who showed us around, was a direct descendant of Washington's personal secretary. The financial book of Washington's first year in the presidency was discovered on this guy's property decades earlier. So this was the kind of historical vortex who kept finding themselves in.

MJT  

Well, that's the great thing about doing this, as opposed to just going to libraries and looking at records. You stumble upon so much local history, things that are kind of known to the locals, but may not be generally known because they've never really been published in a nationally known book before.

NP

Absolutely. Tip O'Neill have famously said, all politics is local, after this experience, all history is local. It's the local historians and librarians that really keep the flame. And as you said, they know stuff that a cursory national view of the event will inevitably miss. And so for us, that was really the cool stuff that came out of, not only hidden in the archives of remotely, but going to the places,

MJT  

I assume all this travel was done pre-pandemic, I can't imagine being able to do it today. 

NP  

We got it in just under the wire, but I was writing the book as the pandemic hit, as George Floyd getting killed by the police, you know, the social, you know, all of that happening.  All the issues, the issues that were bubbling up at that time had been latent, during our journey. But what it did, it just gave the writing process, it just felt like a red hot vector into the the soul of this country was there.  It made me feel Washington was even more relevant now than ever before. I know there are people who will say just the opposite. But I insist if we're ever going to come to terms with our country's legacy with slavery, someone like Washington, who was struggling with that legacy himself, he is more relevant than ever before, if we're going to understand, truly understand, where this nation came.

MJT  

Struggling with the issue of slavery is always a complex one. A lot of people have made note of his chasing down Ona Judge over so many years, who was an escaped slave that he just really struggled to recover and jump through a lot of hoops to bring back this escaped slave, as a way of condemning the man because he did support slavery, and he was a slave owner. But also you have to remember Ona Judge didn't belong to him, belong to his wife's family. And he felt a moral obligation to recover lost property, which is what he deemed this woman to be,

NP  

Which looks really bad. 

MJT  

Yeah. 

NP  

In one sense, is bad, but once again, with this book, I wanted to look all of that square in the face, not giving him a break on it. But he's a human being. History cannot be pigeonholed into good guys - bad guys. I don't care who you are.  Unless you're conflicted, you're not a thinking person.  That complexity is what we need to look at. And so yeah, he's a paradox. He is working on the will that will free his enslaved workers that he owns, even as he's pursuing Ona Judge, who was part of Martha's husband's estate. And how do you hold those two together? 

It doesn't look good from our vantage point today. But you've got to see it from all sides to have some appreciation. Hey, this is a guy who's a slaveholder land baron, but he believes with all his soul in the Union, the concept that led to Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, and that's the country we are part of, and Washington was at the center.

MJT  

Right. That's what I kind of look at it too. You have to judge people, not by today's standards, but more by how far they moved us forward. We don't condemn Abraham Lincoln for not supporting the women's right to vote. And we don't condemn FDR for not supporting gay marriage.   They were moving us in a direction to where we get to a better world with more civil rights, even if they did not see us all the way.

NP  

Right. And we are all victims of our own time. And it's so easy from the vantage point of the present to look back on the past and condemn it. Believe me, and 50 to 100 years, plenty of people are going to be looking at the most self-righteous of us today, saying what the heck were they thinking? They should have been doing this. We're in the fog of the present. 

This country was born in a revolution, Declaration of Independence, all people are created equal. Every generation undergoes a kind of revolution, as the terms of it are reinvented, and it's an ongoing aspirational society. But it doesn't mean it's perfect. Human nature just will not allow that to happen.  Thank goodness, because otherwise, this would be a static tableau without any kind of dynamic nature, creativity, and conflict.

MJT  

So for anyone who might plan to want to follow in your footsteps maybe and make some of these trips to various places on Washington's journey other than not setting sail during a tornado. What advice might you give them? What places to visit? What are the most interesting spots that you found?

NP  

Right yeah, maybe not sail to Newport like we did. But you have to read the book to find out what happened. 

MJT  

Yeah, that's a great story. People have to read it. 

NP  

Oh, man. My wife and I are still a little shell-shocked when it comes to going out there in stormy conditions but you got to begin in Mount Vernon. I mean, Mount Vernon, there's just no place like it. That's where our journey began and ended.  I'd recommend that.  

What I would recommend is anyone who wants to go on a road trip history-themed vacation, take a look at this book. Take a look at the maps. You can also look at my acknowledgments in which I list all the towns and the people who helped us and go for a portion or a whole leg. You could spend two weeks doing a quick New England, or you could divide it in half like we did. 

But I can't say a favorite. We loved the Long Island tour. It was just so unexpected and wonderful. The southern tour oh my gosh, you go to Hampton plantation, on your way to Charleston. Washington visited there, the owner had just built a new porch that looked on this huge live oak. And when Washington was there, the owner said, I think I'm going to have to cut down this live oak, beautiful tree, but it's right in front of our new porch. And Washington, the supposed cutter down of the cherry tree, says, No, you should leave it, the live oak that really no man can replace. And if you go there today, there is, this monster of a tree. I mean, there's just talk about entering a vortex of history. This is a living organic monument to what Washington was doing. And so those kinds of things are great. 

We went to Charleston, climbed the tower of St. Michael's Church, and you're looking at exactly the same view. Washington did 230 years earlier. Savannah, we made the mistake of arriving in the midst of a St. Patrick's Day weekend. Little did we know that Savannah, they really take St. Patrick's Day seriously.  It's the second biggest St. Patrick's Day parade in the country, second only to Chicago. And it's kind of appropriate. It was a weekend we will never forget. And yet when Washington was there, it was a big party too. Some things in Savannah had never changed. 

And so my wife and I already are nostalgic for the fun we had. It's not all fun. There's some sober lessons to be learned. But it's just a fantastic way to see this country, one town at a time.

MJT  

I noticed that picture in the back of your book was a picture of you and I assume Dora? 

NP  

Right, 

MJT  

which is yeah, she's an incredible dog. But it must have been tough traveling with a dog.

NP  

Well, Dora. Yes, Dora now is four years old, but back then was pretty much a puppy. And she's a Nova scotia duck tolling retriever, high energy, very intelligent, but she needed a couple of runs a day. And so we would break up our tours. You just had to have a Dora stop or two. But she was also a great way to sort of initiate a conversation. This red dog, and it looks kind of like a fox, with the bushy tail, a white tip tail. She was great. She was a much a part of the narrative and at some points as anybody. I'm just so glad we took her along.

MJT  

I take your wife wasn't offended by being cut out of the cover photo with Dora?.

NP  

Well, you know, at one point, she did say I've been erased from this.  And I said, do you really want? she said no, not really. I'm just thankful she came because it just made it so much more fun. I know, if you're a travel writer, you're supposed to be by yourself sitting at bars and chatting people up. But the two of us did a pretty good job of that. And Melissa's a character in it. She has a great ability to sort of poke holes into my enthusiasms and point out how I'm overstating or missing something.

MJT  

So is there anything else you want readers to take away from reading your book?

NP  

One of the things that became clear to myself was how far Washington traveled. And I don't just mean in miles and taverns and towns he went to, but how far he traveled as a man, I mean, as a human being. This is a guy who was born into the institution of slavery. He became a slave owner at age eleven, when his father inherited some enslaved workers, and goes into the revolution, which changes him. His relationship with Lafayette, who would later say, I've never would have lifted sword in the cause of the American Revolution. If I had known I was creating a land of slavery. That friendship with Lafayette persists. 

And he's changing and he's seeing things differently. You know, as we've discussed, he would not free his enslaved workers until his death. But that doesn't mean he wasn't wrestling with it. At one point during the second term, he was heard to say if slavery should ever divide this country, I will go with the northern part, which is a pretty extraordinary statement for a Virginian. Washington was able to recognize that certain assumptions we grew up with weren't right.  He wasn't able to completely escape from those assumptions. But that doesn't negate I think the extraordinary journey went on, not only as a president traveling the country, but as a human being coming to terms with what is important in this nation in the long term.

MJT  

Before I let you go. Is there anything new you're working on? Now that you've wrapped this book up?

NP  

Yeah, well, my wife and I have already gone on yet another research trip. It's going to be the California Gold Rush. I live on Nantucket Island, which was almost depopulated of able bodied men with the discovery of gold. They hopped in there old whalers that were no longer making any money, sailed around the horn, abandoned them at the Golden Gate. But I'm also fascinated with the overland aspect of it. And people also went by steam boats to the isthmus.  And California - I want to explore this phenomenon, not just the Anglo Americans, but the Asian community, Hispanic community, African American. It was an international event, and so I'm really looking forward to it. 

MJT  

Well that sounds fascinating. We certainly look forward to it. Your book though Travels with George is on sale now. I urge everyone to grab a copy. It was very interesting. Nat Philbrick, I really appreciate you appearing today on the American Revolution Podcast.

NP  

Oh, it's great to talk to you.

I’d like to thank Mr. Philbrick, once again, for taking the time to speak with me about his latest book Travels with George: In Search of George Washington and His Legacy.  See below for links to his books.

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Further Reading



by Nathaniel Philbrick


Other books by Nathaniel Philbrick: