Sunday, February 20, 2022

ARP239 Winter at Morristown

Last week, I covered the court martial of Benedict Arnold, which took place during the Continental Army’s winter encampment at Morristown, New Jersey.  This week, I want to cover that winter encampment itself.

By the end of November 1779, the Continental Army had completed the fighting season for the year.  For most of the year, Washington had remained near West Point in New York.  This gave him the greatest flexibility to pivot into upstate New York if the Sullivan Campaign had run into trouble, to move into New England if British forces at Newport, Rhode Island went on the offensive, or the ability to move south into New Jersey if the main British force opted to move in that direction from New York city.  As it turned out, the British did not do much of anything that year but protect what they had.  In fact, in October, the British abandoned its long-held position in Newport and concentrated its forces in and around New York City.  We’ll cover the reasons for that decision next week when we look at the British plans for 1780.

Moving to Morristown

The evacuation of Rhode Island greatly reduced the threat that the British might try something in New England beyond the nuisance coastal raids.  It permitted Washington to focus the Continental Army on New York City.  With that in mind, he moved the bulk of his army to the area around Morristown, New Jersey.

This was not the first time the army visited Morristown.  In early 1777, after the battles of Trenton and Princeton, the army had encamped at Morristown.  At that time, the army was much smaller, but had still left its mark on the area.  A great many soldiers and civilians had died of smallpox that winter.  In 1779, the army was much larger, but had at least been inoculated for smallpox.

Washington kept his army in the mountains, so that they could keep a better eye on the British in New York City, and also so that they would have the high ground should the British try to attack.  The winter camp at Morristown was about twenty miles north of the prior winter camp at Middlebrook.  Part of the reason for this change was to put the army about one day’s march closer to West Point, should the British launch an attack there.  Another likely reason for the change was that the army had wiped out the resources, including firewood, around Middletown, and needed an area that had the resources needed for the men.  

The main encampment near Morristown came on a wooded property known as Jockey Hollow.  It was owned by Henry Wick, a captain of cavalry in the local militia and a known patriot.  Adjoining his land was that of Peter Kemble.  

Kemble was an older man in his seventies, but was also a known loyalist.  Kemble had been the head of the Provincial legislature when the war began, and left politics when the assembly was dissolved in 1776.  His son, Lieutenant Colonel Steven Kemble, was the deputy adjutant general for the British army.  Col. Kemble had also been the head of army intelligence, although he had recently ceded that position to Major John Andre.  Another son, William, was a British naval captain.  Another, Samuel, was the Collector of the Port of New York in British-occupied New York City.  A fourth son, Robert, served as a commissary officer in the British army. One of Peter’s daughters, Margaret Kemble, was married to General Thomas Gage, the British commander of North America at the outset of the war.

With so much of the family fighting with the loyalists, you might ask why Kemble was not thrown in jail and his land seized outright.  Peter had wisely signed over his lands to another son, Richard Kemble, who at least nominally supported the patriot cause.  Peter also was friends with George Washington from before the war, a connection that may have helped shield him from attacks by patriots.

Israel Putnam’s Stroke

Although there were no major battles that winter, Washington lost his most senior general.  Israel Putnam was one of the most active and inspiring officers when the Continental Army formed in 1775.  He passed over several more senior Connecticut officers to become part of the founding class of Continental major generals, along with Artemas Ward, Charles Lee, and Philip Schuyler. By late 1779, Ward and Schuyler had resigned their commissions, and Lee had been suspended from service, and would resign before his suspension ended. 

Israel Putnam

That left General Putnam as the senior major general in the Continental Army, ahead of Horatio Gates, William Heath, Nathaniel Greene, and Benedict Arnold.  That said, over the course of the war, Putnam had not exactly proven his merit to General Washington.  As a result, he had been given less critical independent commands where combat was not likely.  In late 1779, Putnam was in command of the Maryland line, which was stationed about two miles south of West Point in New York.  He was working with Washington and others to build up the defenses at West Point.

His last real combat was an inadvertent encounter while he was in Connecticut recruiting in early 1779.  When General Tryon had led British forces against Connecticut coastal towns, Putnam rallied some militia to challenge them and ended up making his famous escape from capture by riding down a steep hill (see Episode 211).  

When the army moved into winter quarters at Morristown, General Putnam returned home to Connecticut for a few days, before heading down to New Jersey.  As he left his home in Connecticut for the ride to Morristown, the general suffered a numbness in his right arm and leg.  He attempted to shake it off and keep going.  However, it turned out to be a paralytic stroke that disabled him.  With that, Putnam’s military career came to an end.  He hoped he would recover and resume his command, but never regained full control of his body. He would live for another decade, but remained at home on his farm in Connecticut.

Log House City

After the army arrived in Morristown in late November and early December, the soldiers set about building cabins for the winter.  By this time, the army had become experienced in building winter quarters.  The cabins were built to exacting specifications, each one 14x16 feet and 6 ½ feet tall at the eaves.

Each regiment built three rows of eight houses each for its soldiers.  Each cabin housed about a dozen men, and included straw bunks and a fireplace.  Each regiment had a cleared area in front of the huts for assembly.  Huts for regimental officers were built behind the other huts, and only after the huts for enlisted men were completed.

In total, over the course of about two months, the army built about one thousand cabins, housing about 12,000-13,000 men.  The location was dubbed “Log House City” and immediately became the largest town in New Jersey, and probably the fourth or fifth largest in the United States.

Ford Mansion
Washington stayed in the home of Theodosia Ford.  The Ford Mansion was about five miles north of Jockey Hollow, and was one of the largest mansions in the area.  Ford’s husband, Jacob Ford, had been a patriot officer, who had died of pneumonia during the army’s first occupation of the area in 1777.  

Washington stayed in the home, along with five aides-de-camp and eighteen servants.  After a few weeks, Martha joined her husband as well. The Ford family squeezed into two bedrooms on the first floor, while Washington and his retinue took over the rest of the house.  

Other officers occupied area homes.  General Arthur St. Clair stayed with the Wicks.  General William Smallwood moved in with the Kembles.

The Hard Winter

The winter at Morristown is widely regarded as the hardest winter of the war.  The winters at Valley Forge and Middlebrook were quite mild by comparison.  Freezing temperatures and numerous snow storms made life difficult.  There was already snow on the ground in early December, when most of the army arrived. A series of storms in December, followed by a blizzard in early January, left more than four feet of snow on the ground.  In addition to the cold and snow, brutal winds swept through the area, making life miserable for everyone.  The soldiers, many without adequate clothing, had to build their cabins in the snow. Many were completed during or after the January blizzard, with some soldiers still living in tents and awaiting housing in February.

The Hudson River and New York Harbor froze solid.  There are reports of British soldiers traveling from Manhattan to Staten Island on horse-drawn sleighs over the ice.  Washington even considered launching a full-scale invasion of the city, having his men charge across the ice.  But the lack of supplies made that plan impossible.  Instead, his concerns turned to whether the British might use the ice to attack the Continentals.

Food and clothing shortages were nothing new for the Continental Army, but the brutal winter made things so much worse.  The snow blocked the roads, making it nearly impossible to get food to the camp.  When Martha Washington arrived in Philadelphia on December 21 in her coach, she found herself unable to continue because the snow had blocked all of the roads.  Washington had to send a sleigh to bring her the remainder of the way to Morristown.  She vowed that in future years, she would make sure to arrive earlier in the season to avoid the difficulties she had faced in reaching her husband.

On December 15, shortly after the army’s arrival, Washington wrote to the President of Congress, Samuel Huntington that the because of the lack of food “I find our prospects are infinitely worse than they have been at any period of the War, and that unless some expedient can be instantly adopted a dissolution of the army for want of subsistence is unavoidable.”  The next day, he wrote a circular letter to state leaders which said:  “The situation of the Army with respect to supplies is beyond description alarming, it has been five or six Weeks past on half allowance, and we have not three days Bread or a third allowance on hand nor anywhere within reach.”  In January, Washington wrote Huntington again, reporting that his men had gone days without food.

Soldiers’ accounts from the winter recount the men trying to survive by eating tree bark, the soles of shoes, and some unfortunate pet dogs.  Out of desperation, Washington ordered most of the army’s horses sent to Pennsylvania so that the men could eat the corn that had been provided as horse fodder. He also sent home early some soldiers whose enlistments would expire over the winter, in order to cut down on the number of mouths to feed.

Part of the frustration for the army was that there was no general food shortage in the area.  Local farms in New Jersey had a pretty good harvest the prior fall.  But because the Continental had no money, all they could provide were promissory notes that might eventually be paid in Continental currency, which was also plummeting in value every day.  As I’ve said before, even patriotic farmers could not afford to give away their produce.  They relied on the income from their farms to feed their families.  

A great many farmers ended up selling to the British in New York.  If they could get their crops or cattle to Sandy Point, New Jersey, they could get the food aboard ships to be taken to Manhattan.  Getting cattle or crops through enemy lines, of course, was dangerous.  Continental patrols could stop and seize wagons headed for the enemy.  Many dealers became smugglers, buying from local farms for gold or silver, no questions asked, then taking the risk themselves to get the food to New York where they could sell at substantial profit.  The result was plenty of food in the area, but very little getting to the Continental Army.

Washington was loath to permit the soldiers to plunder the locals.  To avoid that Washington put requisition requirements on each local town to provide a certain amount of food. The army made clear that this was not voluntary.  If the locals did not produce the required amount of food, then foraging units from the army would confiscate them, without any compensation.  

The soldiers could not provide for themselves.  Many men were unfit for duty because their pants had literally rotted away and fallen off their bodies.  Many had no shoes and had to borrow shoes from their comrades when they needed to leave the cabin.  By January, the army was even out of paper money for even nominal payment for food and clothing.  The soldiers had not been paid in months, not that paying them would have done much good.  Continental paper money was nearly worthless.  A captain noted that he had paid the equivalent of an entire year’s salary for a pair of shoes.

Desperate soldiers defied the weather and standing orders against looting to find food held by area farmers.  Washington noted that his army was “becoming a band of robbers.” In January, when there was virtually nothing to feed to soldiers, Washington was a little more understanding about men seeking to feed themselves by any means necessary.  Once locals began responding to the military supply quota, the army cracked down on plundering.  Public orders announced that any soldier found out of camp after dark would be lashed on the spot.  Those found stealing from civilians could face even harsher penalties, including the possibility of hanging. 

General de Kalb noted that “Those who have only been in Valley forge or Middlebrook during the last two winters, but have not tasted the cruelties of this one, know not what it is to suffer.”  General Washington wrote to Lafayette, still in France “The oldest people now living in this country do not remember so hard a winter as the one we are now emerging from.”

By the spring of 1780, when the army began thinking about closing its winter encampment and beginning the new campaign season, the Continental army had been decimated.  Nearly 10% of the 12,000 men who began the winter encampment at Morristown had deserted. Thousands more had left following the end of their enlistments, been redeployed, or died from disease or exposure.  The result was a Continental Army of less than 8000 men facing the main British army still in New York, and less than 5000 of those were fit for duty.

Congressional Investigation

Back in Philadelphia, the delegates received Washington’s increasingly desperate letters about the army falling apart.  The elected leaders recognized there were shortages everywhere, but that the real problem must be waste, fraud, and abuse within the army.  Its response was to send a committee to figure out how the army could clean up its act and become functional again.

Philip Schuyler

The committee, made up of Philip Schuyler of New York, John Mathews of South Carolina, and Nathaniel Peabody of New Hampshire.  Schuyler initially tried to beg off, saying that as a former officer, he would have a bias in favor of the army, but his fellow delegates convinced him to go.  Congress gave the committee its instructions:

You are to abolish unnecessary posts, to erect others, to discharge useless officers, to stop rations improperly issues,; and are hereby further authorized to exercise every power which may be necessary to effect a reformation of abuses and the general arrangement of those departments which are in any wise connected with the matters committed to your charge.

The Committee arrived in late April.  On May 10, after about two weeks in camp, they wrote back to Congress, saying that General Washington’s letters informing Congress of the suffering, deprivation, and morale of the soldiers were an understatement. “Their starving condition, their want of pay, and the variety of hardships that they have been driven to sustain, has soured their tempers and produced a spirit of discontent which begins to display itself under a complexion of the most alarming hue.”

In short, the conditions imposed on the army had put it on the verge of mutiny.  If Congress did not act to change things, the army could dissolve, or turn against its own leaders.

Dances and Dating

While conditions at Morristown were some of the worst of the war, the officers did make efforts to keep up their own morale at least.  The officers pooled their money, in an initiative led by Martha Washington, to hold a series of dances and socials over the winter.  It provided some measure of relief to the suffering and tedium of the winter.  Officers put up $400 each of their own money (in inflated Continental dollars of course) to help pay for the costs of these parties.

Martha Washington was not the only notable lady at camp.  Many officers had their wives join them for the winter.  Nathanael Greene’s wife Caty Greene showed up at camp pregnant with her fourth child, which she would have that child in the camp in January.

It was also a time for new romance.  Over the winter, twenty-two year old Betsy Schuyler, daughter of General Phillip Schuyler, came to Morristown that winter to stay with her aunt. Betsy and Martha Washington began a long lasting friendship that winter.  But it was not the most significant relationship she would make. 

Colonel Hamilton came to pay a visit at the home of Betsy’s Aunt.  The two had met about two years earlier when Hamilton had stayed at her father’s home for a brief visit.  They did not seem to connect on that first visit. 

On this meeting, however, Hamilton became love-struck immediately.  According to one story, Hamilton was so stricken by his first visit in Morristown with Betsy, that he forgot the password to reenter camp when returning home.  The two quickly became inseparable.  When Hamilton had to leave camp required by his military duties, the couple wrote letters to one another.  

Betsy’s father, General Phillip Schuyler, was, by this time, a member of Congress. As I mentioned, he visited the camp that spring as part of the investigatory committee.  After receiving his blessing, the couple got engaged in April.  Betsy would remain with the army as a camp follower after the winter camp broke up.  The following December, Hamilton and Schuyler would get married.

The Morristown encampment would remain active until June, 1780.  I will cover a few other events from the camp in some future episodes, but for most soldiers it would be remembered as the most brutal winter of the war for its cold and deprivation.

Next week: Across the River in New York General Clinton makes plans for the British army in the coming year.

- - -

Next Episode 240 British Plans for 1780 

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Further Reading


Morristown Winter Encampment:

The Great Story:

“To George Washington from Major General Nathanael Greene, 14 November 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“General Orders, 3 December 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives,

From George Washington to Samuel Huntington, 15 December 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“From George Washington to Samuel Huntington, 18 January 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“From George Washington to Philip Schuyler, 30 January 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives,

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Halsey, Edmund Drake History of Morris County, New Jersey, New York : W.W. Munsell & co. 1882. 

Tarbox, Increase N. Life of Israel Putnam ("Old Put"), Major-General in the Continental Army, Boston Lockwood, Brooks & Co. 1876. 

Tuttle, Joseph F. “Washington at Morristown during the winters of 1776-77 & 1779-80Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, New York: 1859. 

Weig, Melvin Morristown: A Military Capital of the American Revolution, Washington, DC: National Park Service, 1950. 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Chadwick, Bruce The General and Mrs. Washington: The Untold Story of a Marriage and a Revolution, Sourcebooks, 2006. 

Cunningham, John T. The Uncertain Revolution: Washington and the Continental Army at Morristown, Down the Shore Publishing, 2007. 

Hazelgrove, William Morristown: The Darkest Winter of the Revolutionary War and the Plot to Kidnap George Washington, Lyons Press 2021. 

Laurerman, Rosalie Jockey Hollow: Where a Forgotten Army Persevered to Win America's Freedom, (self-published) 2015. 

Rae, John W. Morristown: A Military Headquarters of the American Revolution, Arcadia Publishing, 2002. 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Sunday, February 13, 2022

ARP238 Court Martial of Benedict Arnold

When we last left General Benedict Arnold back in Episode 219, he had resigned his position as Military Commander of Philadelphia and had just gotten married to Peggy Shippen.  


Arnold had resigned his command in the face of numerous criminal charges alleging corruption, misuse of power, and consorting with loyalists.  The charges were brought by the State of Pennsylvania, and supported by its President, Joseph Reed.

Benedict Arnold

Arnold retained his commission as major general and demanded a court martial in order to clear his name. Many of the state charges were dropped and the matter was moved to a military court. George Washington had initially tried to convene a court martial shortly after the charges were brought in the spring of 1779, hoping to get the matter over with as quickly as possible and get one of his best combat generals back into action.

President Reed, however, did not want these charges brushed away.  He notified Washington that the prosecution needed time to build its case. If the army tried to push through a quickie court martial and absolve Arnold wrong-doing, then Pennsylvania would cut off its supplies to the Continental Army.  Bowing to this pressure, Washington gave Pennsylvania time to build its case.  Washington first scheduled the trial for June 1779. Continued delays pushed the trial back for months.  

Meanwhile General Arnold remained in Philadelphia, falling deeper into debt and trying to build a life with his new wife, without any real way to support her.  He opened up secret communications with the British, offering to betray his country.  None of this, however, had come to light in the public yet. 

Americans were divided on Arnold. Some saw him as a great general who had been treated poorly by government officials and who was a hero of the revolution.  His detractors saw him as a vain, corrupt man who consorted with loyalists, and despite whatever contribution he made to military victories, was not worthy to remain a military leader.  It seems that the overwhelming majority held the former opinion.  Arnold was a hero, one who had been critical to many of its early successes, and should be recognized as such.

Arnold had certainly made his share of enemies during his military rise.  In 1776, Arnold had nearly faced a court martial. That conflict stemmed from his criticism from the decision of another court martial that he had demanded against subordinate officers who, he believed, had failed to follow his orders.  The only thing that saved Arnold at that time was the fact that his military services were needed to defend against the British invasion from Quebec.

There was no love lost between Arnold and most of the officers who had served with him in the earlier years of the war.  While many might have had a grudging respect for his abilities on the battlefield, Arnold did not seem to get along well with others.  He had a prickly personality, and many believed he put his concerns of money and his personal wealth above the needs of the country.

The proximate cause of the charges he now faced were primarily the result of Arnold’s willingness to associate with, and protect the interests of, loyalists in Philadelphia.  As military commander following the British evacuation in 1778, Arnold mixed with the Philadelphia elite, many of whom had consorted with the British during the occupation of the city.  

Many Philadelphians who had suffered greatly from the occupation, resented those who had collaborated with the British and, in doing so, maintained their property and comfort.  They now wanted these collaborators to pay.  Arnold, however, saw these people as the real leaders of the city - the merchants who could actually get things done.  Further, Arnold wanted to be accepted by the elites of society, something the orphaned boy who had to fight his way to the top thought he deserved.

Joseph Reed 

The radicals could not charge Arnold with treating the Philadelphia loyalists decently.  Not only was that not a crime, Washington and Congress had instructed Arnold to do just that.  Washington did not want to see a reign of terror go after Philadelphians who has done what they needed to do to survive the British occupation.  Rather, Washington, and much of the Continental Congress, was forward-looking, focused on returning Philadelphia to its role as a producer of goods and supplies needed to continue the war effort.  The commercial and economic leaders of the city were crucial to making that happen.

So, the radicals couldn't go after Arnold for being nice to suspected loyalists.  Instead, they could go after Arnold on charges of corruption and abuse of power.  They accused Arnold of using his position of authority as military commander of the city to profit himself personally.

Although a great many radicals in Philadelphia resented Arnold, one of the most powerful was Pennsylvania President Joseph Reed.  It was Reed who had brought the charges against Arnold, and who had prevented Washington from sweeping the charges under the rug.

Following Pennsylvania’s charges in February, the Continental Congress looked at, and dismissed many of the charges.  Several of the charges, such as shutting down the merchant trade for a time, had been ordered by Congress.  By the time of the court martial in December, Arnold faced four charges: 

  1. Allowing a loyalist ship to leave Philadelphia with valuable cargo
  2. Shutting down Philadelphia shops from all commerce, while at the same time making purchases of his own from the stored goods for personal profit and resale.
  3. Imposing menial duties on militia soldiers, and 
  4. Appropriating state wagons to transport private property for his own benefit.

The Court Martial

Arnold’s trial had been delayed at first because Reed insisted on being given time to build a case.  Although the court planned to convene on June 1 to accommodate Reed.  By that time, the summer campaign season began, and there was no time to gather a large group of senior military officers to hear the case.  Once the Continental Army settled into winter quarters in Morristown, the long-awaited court martial could begin, finally starting on December 23.

Robert Howe

Because Arnold was such a senior officer, the normal protocol of being judged by those more senior to the accused was waived.  All of the twelve officers who sat on the court martial were subordinate to Arnold.  Also, due to changes in availability, the court’s composition when it began on June 1, changed considerably to new officers who presided beginning in December.  Major General Robert Howe, headed the court martial.  Also presiding were brigadier generals: William Maxwell, Henry Knox, and Mordecai Gist.  The remainder of the 12 man court consisted of colonels, and even one lieutenant colonel.

Lieutenant Colonel John Laurance, who had prosecuted several other generals in prior years, led the prosecution.  As was the norm at the time, General Arnold defended himself.

The Charges 

The first charge against Arnold was that he had permitted a loyalist ship to leave Philadelphia.  The story gets pretty complicated.  A group of partners, led by Richard Shewell had a ship, the Charming Nancy in Philadelphia in the spring of 1778, while the British still occupied the city.  The partners were trying to get out of town with their valuables before either the British or the Americans could seize it.  

The owners convinced the British that they wanted to sail to New York as part of the general evacuation.  However, they were also concerned about being captured by American privateers that preyed on ships leaving Philadelphia.

Shewell had gone to Valley Forge to see if he could get a pass that would prevent privateers from taking his ship.  Most of the leadership at Valley Forge saw him as a collaborator and threw him out.  Shewell met with Benedict Arnold, who at the time was still in Valley Forge awaiting the final evacuation of Philadelphia. Arnold gave him a pass, allowing the Charming Nancy to leave Philadelphia and go to any American-controlled port.

When the ship left Philadelphia during the British evacuation, it was seized by a privateer and taken to Egg Harbor, New Jersey.  After several months of fighting, the American prize court accepted the validity of Arnold’s pass and permitted the owners to keep the ship and its cargo.

Arnold’s defense was simply that he believed that the owners were Americans, trying to prevent their ship and cargo from being seized by the British, and that he granted the pass in order to prevent the goods from falling into the enemy’s hands.

The prosecution attempted to show that the owners of the Charming Nancy had sold Arnold an interest in the cargo, and that Arnold, acting out of personal interest, had defied Congress’ instructions not to permit any ships or cargo to leave Philadelphia. 

The problem with the prosecution's case was there was no evidence that could prove Arnold had any ownership interest, and Arnold had issued the pass one day before Congress finalized its orders barring any ships from leaving Philadelphia.  In truth, Arnold did receive a personal interest in the ship, but the prosecution could not prove this at trial.

The second charge was that after Arnold had taken control of Philadelphia, that he had purchased goods from warehouses that had been ordered by Congress to be held for inventory and potential confiscation.  

When the British had abandoned Philadelphia in a hurry, they could not take everything of value, nor did they make much effort to destroy it.  Congress had issued orders, essentially preventing the sale or movement of any goods until the army could determine what items were in the city, who owned them, and whether they were subject to seizure.  General Arnold was responsible for executing those orders.

A great many loyalists feared that their goods would be seized by the army because of their collaboration with the enemy during the occupation.  They were desperate to get their goods out of there, or to sell them quickly for any amount.  The prosecution accused Arnold of buying goods at pennies on the dollar, while at the same time barring anyone else from buying or selling anything.

Arnold defended himself by denying any personal interest in any of the goods that had been embargoed.  He readily admitted that he had executed his orders from Congress to prevent the sale, transfer, or removal of any items by anyone else.  He also conceded that had he made any purchases of these goods that doing so would be both illegal and repugnant.  Arnold categorically denied making any deals in which he purchased or took any ownership interest in the goods that he had sequestered on behalf of Congress.  Once again, Arnold probably did do this, but the prosecution was unable to give any conclusive proof that he had done so.  Again, Arnold really did make such deals. The prosecution simply could not prove it.

Timothy Matlack
The third charge involved misuse of militia.  This seemed to be a rather petty charge that stemmed from an incident where one of Arnold’ aides, Major Franks, ordered a militia sergeant named William Matlack to fetch a barber.  Matlack happened to be the son of Timothy Matlack, who sat on Pennsylvania’s Supreme Executive Council.  Arnold had ignored Matlack’s complaints about this matter.

At trial, Arnold’s defense was simply that soldiers under the command of an officer must follow orders.  Enlisted men regularly performed acts of service for officers and there was no good legal precedent for thinking otherwise.

The fourth and final charge against Arnold was that he had used wagons owned by the State of Pennsylvania to transport personal property from Egg Harbor, New Jersey.  Arnold readily admitted that he had used wagons to transfer property back to Philadelphia.  The British were about to attack Egg Harbor and the use of the wagons prevented those goods from falling into the hands of the British. Further, Arnold noted that he had reimbursed Pennsylvania for the cost of using the wagons, so he did not improperly benefit from the use of government property.

Arnold brought witnesses and documents to back up his defense.  At the same time, he stressed his  own sacrifices that he had made to the country.  He savaged Reed, bringing up the old story about how Reed had betrayed General Washington back in 1776 when Reed was Washington’s aide, and the same time corresponding with General Charles Lee to imply his support that Lee replace Washington as commander in chief.

The Verdict

The trial lasted just over a month, but a large portion of that was the result of brakes caused by the terrible blizzard conditions that happened in northern New Jersey during that month.  By late January, the court reconvened to render its verdict.  The court dismissed charges two and three.  The prosecution did not produce any good evidence that Arnold had purchased any of the warehouse items in Philadelphia, and dismissed the charge of misusing militia for personal service.

As for the first charge, permitting a ship in possession of the enemy to have a pass to an American port, the court found that behavior to be “irregular” but did not go so far as to say it implied any criminal behavior.  On the fourth charge, the use of state wagons to transport personal property, the court found it to be “imprudent and improper.”  Even though Arnold had paid for the use of the wagons, an officer could not use his military authority to make use of state property for personal benefit and just pay for it later.

Samuel Huntington
Even so, the court did not see the finding of guilt to be serious infraction that required dismissal from service or any other real penalty.  It recommended that Washington reprimand Arnold for his behavior.  The final verdict was really more about poor judgment, and arguably an effort simply to maintain good relations with Pennsylvania by not simply granting a blanket acquittal with honor.

The court martial submitted the verdict to Congress, which gave its approval on February 12 by a vote of 23-3.  For some reason, Congress did not immediately communicate its approval of the conviction back to Washington. President Samuel Huntington provided Washington with formal notice in a letter dated March 11, along with a printed copy of the court martial proceedings.

Washington, pursuant to his duty, issued a written reprimand as part of his general orders for April 6, 1780.  The general orders simply repeated a summary of the charges and the verdict as well as Congress’ reprimand.  In the final sentences, Washington issued his reprimand as required by the court:

The Commander-in-Chief would have been much happier on an occasion of bestowing a commendation on an officer who has rendered such distinguished service to his country as Major General Arnold.  But in the present case a sense of duty and a regard to candor oblige him to declare that he considers his conduct in the issuance of the permit as particularly reprehensible, both in a civil and military view, and in the affair of the wagons, as imprudent and improper.  

In addition Washington included a personal note to Arnold, essentially reminding Arnold that, as military leaders, they needed to remain above reproach.  I think the note also says a lot about how Washington regarded his own position in the army:

Our profession is the purest of all.  Even the shadow of a fault tarnishes the luster of our finest achievements.  The least indiscretion may rob us of the public favor, so hard to be acquired.  I reprimand you for having forgotten that, in proportion as you have rendered yourself formidable to our enemies, you should have been guarded and temperate in your deportment toward your fellow citizens.  Exhibit anew those noble qualities, which have placed you on the list of our most valued commanders.  I will myself furnish you, as far as it may be in my power, with opportunities for regaining the esteem of your country.

Moving On

In his not to Arnold, Washington seemed to make clear in his note to Arnold that he was eager to get Arnold back in the field, where he could regain public esteem and restore his reputation as an honorable warrior.  

Arnold, however, remained frustrated.  In a letter from about this time, sent to Silas Deane, he wrote 

I believe you will be equally surprised with me, when the court-martial having fully acquitted me of the charge of employing public wagons or defrauding the public, or of injuring or impeding the public service.  Yet in their next sentence say ... I ought to receive a reprimand’ 

He clearly was not in any frame of mind to return to military service or restore his reputation.  A few weeks before the final reprimand, Arnold’s wife had given birth to their first child, Edward.  Arnold seemed focused on beginning a naval career, having written to Washington about the idea of taking a fleet to sea.  Arnold had been a merchant captain before the war, and had already acted as a naval commander on Lake Champlain.  A naval command could have given him, not only an opportunity for military glory, but would also to recover from his financial troubles, as he would be entitled to a share of any prizes captured at sea.

Washington passed along this request to Congress, but did not support it.  The Continentals did not have the ships or sailors to create a new fleet for Arnold.  Putting him in a command above the many navy captains who had waited for years for a ship an crew would have created a political firestorm.

A few weeks after the reprimand, Arnold received word from the Board of Treasury that it had disallowed some of his requests and that Arnold now had to repay Congress £1000 sterling.  Arnold, who was already hopelessly in debt and still hoping to get money from Congress, was beyond frustrated with his situation.

Around this same time, he renewed his secret correspondence with British Major John Andre.  In late March he had sent General Clinton details about the defenses around Charleston, South Carolina, looking to prove his worth to that army.  He began looking for an opportunity to switch sides and to turn over as valuable a piece of property as he could, in order to maximize his cash reward from the British. 

Arnold began writing to Phillip Schuyler to intercede with Washington to give him a new appointment as Commander of West Point.

Next week: we look at the hardships endured by the army during the winter in Morristown.

- - -

Next Episode 239 Winter at Morristown 

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Further Reading


Proceedings of the Court Martial:;view=fulltext

Murdoch, Richard K. “Benedict Arnold and the Owners of the Charming Nancy.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 84, no. 1, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1960, pp. 22–55,

“General Orders, 6 April 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives,

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Arnold, Benedict Proceedings of a general court martial for the trial of Major General Arnold, Philadelphia: Francis Bailey, 1780 (1865 reprint). 

Hill, George Canning Benedict Arnold. A Biography, Boston: E.O. Libby 1858. 

Sellers, Charles Coleman Benedict Arnold The Proud Warrior, NY: Minton, Balch & Co. 1930. 

Todd, Charles Burr The Real Benedict Arnold, New York: A.S. Barnes and Co.1903. 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Cunningham, John T. The Uncertain Revolution: Washington and the Continental Army at Morristown, Down the Shore Publishing, 2007. 

Lea, Russell M. A Hero and A Spy: The Revolutionary War Correspondence of Benedict Arnold, Heritage books, 2008

Malcolm, Joyce Lee The Tragedy of Benedict Arnold: An American Life, Pegasus Books, 2018. 

Randall, Willard Sterne Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor, William Morrow & Co. 1990 (or read on 


Sunday, February 6, 2022

ARP237 The King’s Speech

Last week we talked about the efforts by the Continental Congress to bring other European powers into the war against Britain in 1779. This week I want to take a look at the situation, also in late 1779, from the perspective of the British government.

A Difficult Year

For the King, the year had not been a good one.  It got off to a difficult start when it was revealed that the government had broken up a plot to assassinate the King in late 1778.  Much of 1779 had been spent in divisive hearings.  The navy became divide over the the courts martial related to the naval battle of Ushant.  Then, Parliament held hearings into the loss of Burgoyne’s Army at Saratoga.

George III, 1779
The naval courts martial of Admiral Keppel and Palliser dragged through the spring of 1779, resulting in riots and long lasting divisions within the naval leadership, and leading to some mob riots against political leaders.  The whole mess had threatened to bring down the First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Sandwich, who only avoided censure by Parliament, when he successfully appealed to his friend in the House of Lords to put off the censure shortly after Sandwich’s lover was assassinated by a jealous suitor.  By late 1779, the British Navy, and the administration that ran it, were a divided mess.

Before they could put those matters behind them, Parliament had also held hearings over the surrender of Burgoyne’s army at Saratoga.  General Burgoyne had returned to London by early 1778 after receiving parole.  He was doing whatever he could to protect his reputation.  General William Howe also returned to London in late 1778, after the ministry accepted his resignation as commander of North American forces.  Howe also wanted a hearing to protect his own reputation.  Admiral Richard Howe also returned, having resigned his command in North America, and was also looking to clear his good name.

Generals Burgoyne and Howe both had demanded courts martial, but the ministry did not want to deal with the publicity.  Since the ministry did nothing, Parliament formed itself into a “Committee of the Whole” in the spring of 1779 to give both men a platform to state their cases.  During the hearings, both generals largely blamed Secretary of State Lord Germain for the lack of coordination and the loss of the army at Saratoga.  

Charles Fox, who was one of the leading opponents of the war and of the ministry more generally, tried to use the hearing to go after Lord Germain politically.  According to some accounts, Fox met with Burgoyne shortly after he returned to Britain on parole.  At that point, Burgoyne had primarily blamed General Howe for leaving him without support in upstate New York.  Fox, however, convinced Burgoyne Germain was responsible.

Parliament concluded the hearings in the summer, without reaching any conclusions or assigning any blame.  So, the dispute, however, continued to play out in the newspapers and in conversations.  Members of the Carlisle Commission had returned from America in frustration that the ministry’s policies had undercut any hope of a negotiated peace. Joseph Galloway, the Pennsylvanian who had thrown in with the loyalists following the First Continental Congress, and who had become the leader of the colonial loyalists in Britain, savaged General Howe for his weak and tepid prosecution of the war.

Howe’s mother, who was related to the royal family, publicly accused Germain of feeding disparaging information about her sons to the newspapers. The whole affair threatened to bring down the ministry for a time.  Several lower level officials resigned in protest. The King and Lord North, however, really wanted to keep Germain in his post.  They feared that any replacement would be less willing to prosecute the war as aggressively as needed.

The public blame for the failure at Saratoga, and more largely the continuing failures of the war in America, would continue for years.  This was the case despite efforts by the King and ministry to put aside the blame and get on with winning the war. By the fall of 1779, the ministry ordered General Burgoyne to return to America and return to captivity with his soldiers, who were still being held as prisoners of war.  Burgoyne refused, and was forced to resign all of his government positions.  This left him financially ruined.  He retained his seat in Parliament, and became an embittered foe of the ministry.

Parliament Cartoons, 1779
General Howe had family and position that could not be taken away so easily. However, he did lose reelection to Parliament in 1780 and lost all influence with the government for the remainder of the North Ministry.  He did publish a defense of his time in America, which continued the controversy and the pressure on Lord Germain.  Galloway wrote a response which dumped blame back on General Howe.

All of these political fights were playing out while Spain declared war on Britain and a joint French-Spanish fleet was preparing to take out the British Navy and facilitate an invasion of Great Britain in the spring of 1779.  In London, various lords were placing bets on when and how large an invasion force would land.  Only a smallpox epidemic in the Spanish and French fleets prevented the invasion from happening. While the invasion never materialized, a siege of British-occupied Gibraltar began in June, thus taxing the British Navy’s already diminished capacity.

Amidst all these scandals, and near the end of Parliament’s session in June, Lord North wrote to the King, offering his resignation once again, and suggesting a replacement. The King simply ignored the request and continued on.  Like Germain, if North stepped down, his replacement would likely seek a negotiated peace in America so that Britain could end the threat it now faced against France and Spain.

The problems of 1778 led to a consensus developing in London of compromise and cutting one’s losses.  Not only was the loss of North America at risk.  Valuable sugar islands in the West Indies were under threat.  Gibraltar and Menorca were vulnerable, and even Britain itself was a target.

The government was highly unpopular and Prime Minister North seemed to have all but given up.  He only remained in office because the King refused to accept his resignation.  The last Parliamentary elections had taken place in 1774, meaning that elections would be required again in 1780.  Given the tenor of the country, Parliament would almost certainly return from those elections with more members looking to end the war at whatever cost.

King Remains Stalwart

One of the few leaders who remained determined to continue the fight was King George himself.  In June of 1779, the King wrote to North stating that: 

no inclination to get out of the present difficulties … can incline me to enter into what I look upon as the destruction of the Empire…. The present contest with America I cannot help as seeing as the most serious in which any country was ever engaged … Whether the laying of a tax was deserving of all the evils that have arisen from it, I suppose no man could allege that without being thought more fit for Bedlam [an insane asylum] than a seat in the senate, but the step by step demands of America have risen.  Independence is their object, that certainly is one that every man not willing to sacrifice every object to a momentary and inglorious peace must concur with me in thinking that this country can never submit to.  Should America succeed in that, the West Indies must follow … Ireland must soon follow the same plan and be a separate state, then this island would be reduced to itself, and soon would be a poor island indeed.

The King saw American independence as the end of Britain as he knew it.  Britain could not simply sacrifice a few colonies for the greater good.  The colonies were fundamental to the future of the British Empire.

Around this same time, the King called together his top ministers for an informal meeting.  Several ministers later expressed fear that they had been brought in for a mass dismissal.  Instead, the King wanted to encourage them to remain committed to the cause.  He told them that his only regret in the events leading up to the war was his decision to change ministers in 1765 and to accede to the new Prime Minister’s decision to repeal the Stamp Act. The King now saw the repeal as a sign of weakness in the test of wills with the colonies.  That is probably what emboldened them to go to war.  What was needed in 1779 was no sign of weakness.  The ministry would stand firm and resolute in its governance of the colonies.

Besides, the King also believed that holding out a little longer would result in victory. A few weeks later, in another note to Lord North, the King commented that he had “long entertained that America, unless this summer supported by a Bourbon fleet, must sue for peace … but that propositions must come from them to us, no further ones be sent from hence; they ever tend only to increase the demands.

But while peace was hopefully just around the corner, the King did not think the ministry could simply crouch in a defensive position to protect Britain itself.  It needed to spread its military throughout the empire and protect its colonies.  He was willing to risk an attack on Britain itself if it meant deploying more forces to other parts of the empire that remained in danger.

In a letter to Lord Sandwich, the King noted:

We must be ruined if every idea of offensive war is to lie dormant until this island is thought in a situation to defy attacks…If ministers will take a firm decided part and risk something to save the Empire, I am ready to be foremost on the occasion, as my stake is the deepest; but if nothing but measures of caution are pursued, and further sacrifices are made from a want to boldness, which alone can preserve a state when hard-pressed, I shall certainly not think myself obliged after a conduct shall have been held so contrary to my opinion, to screen them from the violence of an enraged nation.

For the King, victory seemed to be a test of wills.  The colonies would not have the will to hold out much longer.  The King saw his job as shoring up the will of his government to do everything possible to protect all parts of the empire until the other side broke.  Until then, he would keep Lord North as Prime Minister.  He would keep Lord Germain as Secretary of State.  He would continue to put pressure on opponents of the war and those who thought to bring down the ministry.  Most of all, he would continue to push for the use of the British army and navy to advance the cause of the Empire at whatever cost.

Ireland and Free Trade

Another issue that arose that year was discontent in Ireland.  With the threatened French invasion and with the fear of attack by American privateers, Britain had grown its local militias to protect the homeland.  These men were volunteers who saw the need to organize and be ready to protect their homes against possible attacks.  Ireland also faced its own internal threat.  Irish Catholics, who were denied even basic rights, such as the right to own property, were ready to revolt whenever possible.  Prior to the war in America, Britain kept about 8000 regulars in Ireland to put down any budding rebellions.  As the war in America grew, half of those regulars in Ireland were deployed to America, leaving the British particularly weak.

Irish Volunteers march on Dublin, 1779
Britain had always been uncomfortable about too much military training for subjects outside of England.  An empowered people in places like Scotland or Ireland could result in new rebellions.  Militia in Ireland was limited to the Protestant population.  There was no way the ministry was going to trust Irish Catholics with guns, or give them military training.  That only increased the risks of violence and conflict.

That limited most of the Irish militia to northern Ireland, where most of the Irish Protestants lived.  By 1779, 42,000 Irish Protestant volunteers were on the muster rolls.  London reluctantly provided arms, but uniforms and other necessities were a local responsibility.

Even Irish Protestants had their complaints.  When the war in America had begun, officials in London placed an embargo on the export of Irish food products, or just about anything else needed for the war effort.  The reason was to guarantee a cheap source of supplies for the army.  The government didn’t want to compete for these items with other buyers throughout the empire. This trade restriction created great financial hardship for Protestant landowners in Ireland who lost markets for their produce.

When the Irish Parliament met in Dublin  in the fall of 1779, Britain had already removed some of the most burdensome elements of the embargo, but restrictions still in place made life difficult.  Members of the Irish Parliament debated motions demanding free trade rules from London.

The Irish militia volunteers appeared in Dublin as well, demanding free trade for their exports.  In uniform and under arms, the volunteers called for action on their demands.  On November 4, the volunteers decorated a statue of William of Orange with placards, including one that read “A FREE TRADE - OR Else!!!”.  A protest outside of the Irish Parliament a little over a week later made clear that the lack of action on the free trade issue would result in greater trouble.

In the Irish Parliament, opponents of the protests objected that such behavior was unacceptable when Ireland was at peace.  In response, Another member of Parliament Walter Hussey Bergh remarked “Talk not to me of Peace.  Ireland is not at peace; it is smothered war. England has sown her laws as dragons’ teeth: they have sprung up in armed men.”  The Irish Parliament, however, was unable to grant the reforms demanded by the protesters.  Those had to come from London.

The King’s Speech

On November 25, the King addressed the opening of the new session of Parliament in London. He began by noting that the French threat to invade Britain had failed “by the blessings of Providence” but still remained a concern.  

He also noted that Ireland had become a problem.  The King did not recommend a specific course of action but did recommend that Parliament address the issue.  Parliament would quickly pass several provisions that allowed Ireland to export first wool and glass.  A bit more contentious was a general bill that permitted complete free trade between Ireland and all parts of the British Empire.  This also passed, in recognition that Britain could not afford an Ireland that would cause additional problems for the country while at war.

The King also noted that the war was prosecuted with great expense, which was creating hardship.  He called upon the “wisdom and public spirit” of the members to continue to provide what was necessary.  He also thanked the militia, which had doubled in size in Britain upon the threat of a French invasion.

He ended his brief remarks saying “Trusting in the Divine Providence, and in the justice of my cause, I am firmly resolved to prosecute the war with vigour, and to make every exertion, in order to compel our enemies to listen to equitable terms of peace and accommodation.”  In other words, the war would have to remain a burden on Britain in order to bring about an acceptable peace.


While some members rose to speak in support of the King, Charles Fox voiced his concerns.  He noted the result of the policies pursued over the past few years that the king found “his empire dismembered, his councils distracted, his people falling off in their fondness for his person.”  He then seemed, indirectly at least, to question the King’s legitimacy to the throne, noting that George’s “claim to the throne of this country was founded only upon the delinquency of the Stuart family.”  This attack, even obliquely to the legitimacy of the King to sit on the throne of Great Britain, was coming dangerously close to treason.  But it was also a reminder that when the King used his status to promote a controversial policy, he risked the entire monarchy on the success of that policy.

London Cartoon from 1779
George III being thrown off the horse "America"
Prime Minister North, also very unpopular, had told several people that he only remained in office because the King would not allow him to resign.  While this was true, it tied the king more directly to government policies than the monarchy had done in decades.  As a result, the unpopular policies of continuing the war were impacting people’s views of the king himself. 

The King relied on the most hard core members of the cabinet to keep the war effort going.  The Secretary of State of American Affairs, Lord Germain, was one of those men.  As one of the few men who shared the King’s view that the war had to be prosecuted with vigor, he remained in the King’s good graces.  This, despite criticism for his failure to order General Howe to support General Burgoyne in New York.  At the same time, he became a lightning rod in Parliament for criticism of the war.  Later in that Parliamentary session, a vote to eliminate his position failed by only seven votes.

With the war increasing both debt and taxes, many people were questioning the government in ways that were unprecedented. The “out-of-doors” movement developed a political organization that was made up of people who were not in parliament.  They questioned, not only war spending, but the government waste and corruption that was hurting taxpayers.  They began calling for reforms in Parliament’s representation, closer to actual populations - drawing on rhetoric similar to the calls of “taxation without representation” that had taken hold in the colonies.

So the danger for the King was that the more he tied himself personally to the policies of the government, he risked popular wrath as those policies became more unpopular.  Nevertheless, the King would not allow the government to fall and would not allow the ministry to back away from holding onto America at all costs.  That was how important he saw British rule in North America.

Next week, we return to America for the Court Martial of Benedict Arnold.

- - -

Next Episode 238 Court Martial of Benedict Arnold 

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Further Reading


Herman, Joel Transnational News and the Irish Free Trade Crisis of 1779, Feb. 8, 2021:

King George III, official correspondence:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

The Parliamentary Register: or History of the Proceedings and Debates of the House of Commons, Vol. 14, London: John Stockdale, 1802 (reprint) (contains King’s speech to Parliament)  

Galloway, Joseph A reply to the observations of Lieut. Gen. Sir William Howe on a pamphlet entitled: Letters to a nobleman : in which his misrepresentations are detected and those letters are supported by a variety of new matter and argument, London: G. Wilkie, 1780. 

Howe, William The narrative of Lieut. Gen. Sir William Howe in a committee of the House of Commons, on the 29th of April, 1779, relative to his conduct during his late command of the King's troops in North America, London: Printed by H. Baldwin, 1781.

Galloway, Joseph Letters to a nobleman, on the conduct of the war in the middle colonies, London: J. Wilkie, 1779. 

Joyce, P. W. A Concise History of Ireland, New York : Longmans, Green, and Co. 1903. 

Murray, Alice Effie A history of the commercial and financial relations between England and Ireland, from the period of the restoration, London: P.S. King, 1907. 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Cook, Don The Long Fuse: How England Lost the American Colonies, 1760-1785, Atlantic Monthly, 1995 (or read on 

Hibbert, Christopher Redcoats and Rebels: The War for America, 1770-1781, Penguin Books, 2001 (or read on . 

Morley, Vincent Irish Opinion and the American Revolution, 1760-1783, Cambridge Univ. Press, 2002.

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

Roberts, Andrew The Last King of America: The Misunderstood Reign of George III, Viking, 2021. 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.