Saturday, April 27, 2024

ARP309 North Government Falls

This week we’re going to look at the British Reaction to hearing the news of the surrender at Yorktown.

The first word of the loss of the army under General Cornwallis came from a ship that heard about the news in France.  On November 25, 1781, a packet ship sailing from Calais to Falmouth arrived with word that officials were celebrating in Paris over a great victory in Virginia.  

Frederick North
A messenger carried the news to Lord Germain, the American Secretary.  Although it was a Sunday, he sent word to the king and met with several other top officials. They personally carried the news to Prime Minister, Lord North, who exclaimed “Oh God, oh God, it is all over!”

That day, word of the loss was still really a rumor. That night, however, the navy ship Rattlesnake arrived carrying Admiral Thomas Graves’ report of the surrender.  For most of the government, officials seemed to share Lord North’s reaction, if not his emotional outburst.  The loss of the army under Cornwallis probably meant that it was time to end the war in North America.

One man who did not share that opinion was George III.  The king had long been the leading advocate for continuing the war, and was largely responsible for maintaining a government that had supported this position.  

Two days after word arrived, the King was due to give a speech before the opening of a new session in Parliament.  The speech had been written well before the news arrived, but called for continued efforts to defend and preserve the empire.  The King, however, addressed the news of Yorktown:  “The events of war have been unfortunate to my army in Virginia, having ended in the loss of my forces in that province.  But I retain the perfect conviction of the justice of my cause.”  Despite the setback, the king wished to continue the war in America.  

The King believed that North America was vital to the British empire.  Giving up there would only mean that other colonies around the world would also push for independence.  For him, the fight for the colonies in North America was a fight for the continuation of the British Empire itself.

The King’s speech helped to rally the Tories, but opposition to the war had been growing long before news of Yorktown.  This loss only strengthened the position of the opposition.

Revised War Plans

George III asked Germain to develop a new plan for the war.  The American Secretary’s response was a proposal that Britain should retain its occupation of New York, Charleston, and Savannah.  The two southern cities were particularly important as support bases for the war in the West Indies.  The recapture of Newport, Rhode Island and establishment of a base in Delaware to block trade to and from Philadelphia could provide valuable bases.

The British Navy would continue efforts to blockade or attack rebel ports, cutting off outside trade and assistance.  Loyalists and Indian tribes would continue to receive military aid that would be used to harass the rebels

Britain would give up on trying to control entire colonies or even large portions of land.  It would simply hold a few port cities, block most trade, and wait for the misery in the colonies to get the enemy to return to their senses and rejoin the British.  

George Germain
Germain’s memo also noted that the rebel governments had essentially put themselves under French control. When the colonists realized their choice would be between serving France or Britain, they would inevitably want a return of British rule. The King reviewed this plan and gave it his support.

In January, Germain began implementation of new plans.  He wrote to General Clinton in New York, telling him that he would not be getting significant numbers of reinforcements, but that he should continue to hold all current areas that were under British control. Those towns would support naval actions along the American coast.

Germain also sent instructions to General Frederick Haldimand in Quebec to continue providing support to loyalists and Indians who wanted to continue the fight with the Americans along the northern border and western frontier.  Haldimand should also work on a diplomatic effort to draw Vermont back into British control.

Despite putting the onus for North American on the navy, the leadership was not prepared to provide more resources for that effort. Instead, the focus was on other parts of the empire. Lord Sandwich, the first Lord of the Admiralty, sent instructions to Admiral Digby in New York to take the bulk of his fleet down to the West Indies to protect British interests there.

Sandwich also deployed a fleet to India, carrying several more regiments of infantry and cavalry.  As I discussed a few weeks ago, the French fleet under Admiral Suffren was attacking British interests in India, with the cooperation of Hyder Ali and the Mysore Kingdom.  Britain had to protect its interests there.

At the ministry’s request, a member of Parliament named David Hartley wrote a letter to Benjamin Franklin.  Hartley and Franklin were friends from when Franklin was living in London before the War.  Hartley broached the idea of trying to enter into separate negotiations with the American Peace Commissioners with the idea of calling a ten year truce between Britain and America.  

Franklin’s response shut down that option pretty quickly.  For starters, the Americans were not permitted to seek a separate peace from France.  Their treaty with France obligated them to remain in the war until France also secured peace with Britain.  Further, it didn’t take a diplomatic genius to see how bad an idea a ten year truce would be.  That would only give time for Britain to defeat France and Spain, then rebuild its military, then renew its war in America.  Franklin made clear that the US was not quitting until the war with France ended, and that any conclusion of that war would recognize permanent US independence.

What is clear from these communications, however, is that the North government realized that continued fighting in America at this time would only cause more problems.  The focus was on the rest of the empire, with the hope of keeping the war in America on hold for as long as possible.

British Opposition

Meanwhile, the opposition was moving in a different direction.  On December 12, Sir James Lowther introduced a motion that determined that the British war in North America had “proved ineffectual” and that the government should abandon its attempts to compel obedience in America.  The motion ignored trigger words like “independence” but the intent was clear.  Britain should give up on America, end the war there, and focus on France, Spain, and the Netherlands.  Debate on the bill was heated, but in the end, it failed 220 to 179 - a decisive win for Lord North’s government.

Charles James Fox
One of the opposition leaders at this time was Charles James Fox.  This leader in Parliament had begun his political career at age 19, when his father purchased a seat for him in the House of commons in 1768.  In his early years, Fox was pretty closely aligned with the king on many issues.  He had been one of the leaders seeking to punish John Wilkes.  His break with the king began in 1770 when he opposed the Royal Marriages Act, which gave the king the authority to veto any marriage choice by the royal family.  George III considered this very important and took any opposition as a personal rejection.  Several additional issues, having nothing to do with America drove the two men apart over the next few years.

By 1774 Fox was engaging more with Edmund Burke, another member of parliament and a firm Whig who focused on restricting the king’s authority in government.  Burke became a staunch opponent of government policy in America, supporting instead a negotiated peace that respected American rights.  Over the course of the war, both Fox and Burke recognized the need to accept American independence and led much of the opposition against the government’s war in America.

Burke had also started his political career as secretary to Charles Watson-Wentworth, the 2nd Marquess of Rockingham.  Lord Rockingham had been close to George II, holding the title of Lord of the Bedchamber.  After the death of George II, Rockingham became an early opponent of George III and was removed from most of his government positions.  Rockingham briefly served as Prime Minister in 1765-1766, during which time he repealed the Stamp Tax in America.  The king viewed this as the cause of all the troubles, since it rewarded the rioters in America and gave them the idea that they could win more concessions through violence.  In the king’s view, Rockingham’s accommodationist policies were a disaster.

Throughout the war, Rockingham led opposition to the North Government in the House of Lords.  He had long been a supporter of accommodation, and as early as 1779 believed that the war in America could not be won and that refusing to recognize that fact only created further harm to Britain.

Germain Leaves 

The vote on the Lowther motion to end the war took place at 2AM on the last day of the legislative session before Parliament left for Christmas.  More than 100 members were already gone and did not vote on that matter.  Both sides knew they would have to revisit the issue when Parliament returned in January, so both the North government and the opposition spent Christmas break lobbying for their side.

When I say the North government lobbied, I mean officials in the government led by Lord North. The Prime Minister himself did not do much talking at all.  After Parliament adjourned in December, North met with the King and told him that he believed it was time to recognize American independence. The King insisted that North remain publicly silent on the matter, only discussing it with Lord Stormont and Lord Hillsborough, two of the most pro-war leaders still in the government.  The King likely hoped these two men could bring North back to supporting the war.  In the meantime, he did not want North talking independence with anyone else.

As a way of placating the opposition, the North Ministry decided there needed to be a human sacrifice.  Lord Germain was the most outspoken supporter of continuing the war in America.  The king, North, and others decided he would have to go.  Simply firing Germain or having him quit over the failures in America would not do since that would only highlight the British failures in America.  Instead, they came up with a way to push Germain out quietly.

General Clinton had wanted to resign as commander of North America and return home.  This became more compelling when General Cornwallis returned in January and began blaming Clinton for Yorktown.  

The ministry decided to replace Clinton with General Guy Carleton. You may recall from earlier episodes that Carleton had managed to defend Quebec from rebel occupation at the beginning of the war.  He had been recalled after the loss at Saratoga, but was not blamed for that.  In fact, that loss highlighted the more conservative approach that Carleton had advocated.

Carleton’s main problem was Lord Germain.  Carleton had served on the court martial during the Seven Years War that got Germain kicked out the Army.  Germain never forgave him for that and made it his mission to damage Carleton’s career whenever he could.  So the decision to appoint Carleton as the new commander of North America would almost certainly result in Germain’s resignation as the American Secretary.

The parties discussed this maneuver ahead of time to make sure it had a minimal impact on the war effort.  Germain set the price for his resignation as a new title and a seat in the House of Lords.  After some debate, he received a title as viscount, which entitled him to sit in the House of Lords.

Germain’s replacement, Wellbore Ellis, was a longtime member of Parliament.  He was pushing 70 and was selected primarily because he would be a nonentity who would sit quietly and not rock the boat.  Ellis’ only demand in taking the job was the promise of a pension.

Votes to end the War

Several weeks after Parliament returned, a moderate member of Parliament, former General Henry Conway, put forward another resolution that called for an end to the offensive war in America.  This was a bit less aggressive. Ending the war only meant things went on hold.  It did not mean recognizing American independence. This motion also failed by only a single vote, 194-193.  A week later, Conway tried again with a slightly revised resolution.  North proposed an amendment to have the government “treat with America on the footing of independence.” By introducing the “i” word to the debate, North hoped to increase opposition to the measure.  When that failed, North called for a delay on the vote for a few weeks.

Henry Seymour Conway
The members rejected all these efforts.  The members knew that North was simply maneuvering in an effort to avoid losing the vote.  Parliament remained in session, finally voting in favor of the motion at 2:00 AM on February 28 by a vote of 234-215.  Later that day, the General Advertiser hit the streets with the headline PEACE WITH AMERICA.

This headline may have been premature.  The Crown was not ready to concede.  The following day, the King received the leaders of the House of Commons to discuss the matter. Standing next to the King during this discussion was General Benedict Arnold.  A few days later, the King gave a vague and evasive reply which seemed to indicate that he was not ready to concede the war.

In response, Conway proposed another resolution that said “the House of Commons would consider as enemies to His Majesty and this country” anyone who “advised or attempted to prosecute an offensive war in America.”  This resolution passed as well.

A few days later, things got even worse when news arrived that the British outpost at Menorca had fallen to the Spanish.  The opposition was confident enough by this point that they prepared to call for a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister.  Such a vote would remove Lord North from office and put a peace candidate in charge of the government.  North began a counteroffensive, reminding members of all the other things the opposition might do once they were in charge.  This went well beyond ending the war. There were a whole bunch of other issues the opposition supported to which many members objected. He managed to defeat the motion by 10 votes, but in doing so, North knew his days in office were numbered.

Opposition coalesced around Lord Rockingham as its leader.  Burke insisted that if he did take office, Rockingham could not let the king veto American independence.  That was the critical change that needed to happen.   Burke was also interested in purging the civil list, that is terminating jobs for a great many government workers, something the King used to reward his friends and manipulate votes in Parliament.

When the King heard all this, he drafted a speech abdicating the crown, turning his office over to his son, the Prince of Wales, and that George III would move back to Hanover and no longer reign over Britain.  Lord North managed to talk the king out of giving the speech and remaining on the throne.  But this gives some idea of where the King's head was.

Still, the king absolutely hated Lord Rockingham.  Although the king normally meets with a would-be prime minister who is seeking to form a new government, in this case, the king refused such a meeting.  George could not stand to be in the same room with Rockingham.

On March 20, the House of Commons prepared to move a vote of no confidence against Lord North.  Before they could do so, North demanded the floor.  Lord Surrey was scheduled to take the floor, to call for the vote of no confidence. So when north demanded the floor, everyone expected him to resign.  The opposition wanted to embarrass the ministry by forcing a no confidence vote rather than a resignation, so Parliament got into a heated argument about who was allowed to speak first.  During the arguing, North just blurted out that they were wasting their time since the entire government had already resigned.  North then moved for an adjournment and went home.

The Rockingham Government

Lord Rockingham already had majority support lined up.  The king still refused to meet with him, instead agreeing to meet with Lord Shelburne.  Rockingham had Shelburne provide the king with a list of new government officials, none of whom the king liked.  Even so, the king had no choice but to approve.  Edmund Burke became the new paymaster of the forces.  Lord Shelburne would be secretary of state for home and colonial affairs. Charles James Fox would be secretary of state for foreign affairs.  The position of the American secretary was abolished.

Lord Rockingham
Most of the new ministers wanted an immediate recognition of American independence.  Shelburne was an exception to this.  He was still hoping the government might negotiate some sort of reconciliation by making other concessions to the colonies.   For this reason, Fox demanded a role on the team that would negotiate with the Americans, preventing Shelburne from dragging out the negotiations.  Burke, even before the new government was created, had written to Benjamin Franklin in France, informing the Americans that Parliament now supported American independence and that it was just a matter of working out the details.

On April 1, the Rockingham Government purged the government of North loyalists, replacing government officials with their own people.  That same month, the ministry sent Richard Oswald to France to open up peace negotiations with the American Commissioners.  It would take months for the negotiations to begin, but the process of ending the war had begun.

We’ll get to those negotiations in an upcoming episode.  In the meantime, we turn to America next week as disputes with native Americans result in the Gnadenhutten Massacre.

- - -

Next Episode 310 Gnadenhutten Massacre

Previous Episode 308 Congress After Yorktown

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Further Reading


Solomon M. Lutnick, and Soloman M. Lutnick. “The Defeat at Yorktown: A View from the British Press.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 72, no. 4, 1964, pp. 471–78. JSTOR,

Lord Frederick North:

Frederick North:

Lord Rockingham:

Charles James Fox:

Edmund Burke:

Rockingham's Second Ministry:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Donne, W. Bodham The Correspondence of King George the Third with Lord North, Vol. 2, London: John Murray, 1867. 

Keppel, George Memoirs of the Marquis of Rockingham and His Contemporaries, Vol. 2, London: Richard Bentley, 1852

Lucas, Reginald Lord North, Second Earl of Guilford, London: A.L. Humphreys, 1913. 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Fleming, Thomas The Perils of Peace: America's Struggle for Survival After Yorktown, Harper Collins, 2007.  

Hoffman, Ross The Marquis: A Study of Lord Rockingham, 1730-1782. Fordham Univ. Press, 1973 (borrow on 

Mitchell, L.G. Charles James Fox, Oxford Univ. Press, 1992.  

Pemberton, W. Barring Lord North, Longmans, Green and Co. 1938 (borrow on 

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

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Sunday, April 21, 2024

ARP308 McDougall Court Martial

Last week we covered the events in Philadelphia after Yorktown.  While everyone was celebrating the victory, there was still a war to be fought.  The army desperately needed food and supplies.  With the public no longer in fear of a British attack, politicians were even less inclined to impose the taxes necessary to support the army.

Alexander Mcdougall

Washington spent about four months in Philadelphia, meeting and lobbying members of Congress to support the army.  Many, I think including Washington, had hoped that Yorktown would have convinced the British to give up and go home. There are some indications in late 1781 that Washington expressed privately a hope that he would be back home by the spring of 1782.

By February, however, word arrived from London that the King had addressed Parliament after receiving news of Yorktown.  The king called on Parliament to continue the war and not allow the loss at Yorktown to be a reason to give up on North America.  That speech let Americans know that Britain would not simply walk away, and that fighting would likely continue.

In March of 1782, Washington left Philadelphia, not home to Mount Vernon as he had hoped, but rather to rejoin the army in New York.

Clinton’s Reputation Impeached

In New York City, General Henry Clinton became even more isolated after the British surrender at Yorktown.  The British general was always paranoid about his reputation.  General Cornwallis had sailed to New York in November, after the surrender, then left for London in December.  Clinton knew that Cornwallis would spend the next few months blaming Clinton for everything.  This was not just conjecture, Clinton had forwarded on letters from Cornwallis to London which essentially blamed the loss at Yorktown on Cornwallis obligation to follow Clinton’s orders.

Gen. Henry Clinton

Clinton had other problems too.  Earlier Clinton had deployed Captain Thomas Baddeley to Charleston, South Carolina. There, the captain had fallen ill and died.  Nothing terribly unusual about that.  However, Captain Baddeley’s wife, Mary Baddeley was Clinton’s mistress.  Clinton and Mrs. Baddeley had met in Boston early in the war.  Ironically, she came to the general’s attention after her husband had been stripped of his rank after he had refused to allow another officer to have sex with his wife.  Clinton  ended up employing her as his housekeeper.

Supposedly nothing untoward happened at that time.  Clinton left Boston and Mrs. Baddeley when he moved to New York.  As it turned out Baddeley ended up in New York as well, with her son and destitute.  Clinton once again employed her as a housekeeper.  The two grew close, although they deny having a sexual affair until Mrs. Baddeley found her husband sleeping with another woman.  At that point, she separated and began a relationship with Clinton.

Although there is no way that Clinton knew that sending Captain Baddeley to Charleston would result in his death rumors around New York painted a conspiracy to get the husband out of the way.

Clinton also faced an attack on a financial front.  There had been accusations for several years that the army under Clinton was wasting far too much money.  Expenses under Clinton were far higher than under General Howe, even though Clinton had a smaller army.  While rumors persisted, the North Administration did not investigate. They did not want to push a winning general into resigning over complaints of a few pounds.  A financial scandal would also only feed the opposition.

In 1781, Colonel Duncan Drummond, a former aide de camp of General Clinton, began a financial investigation into expenses.  Clinton had approved the investigation to look into problems.  However, Colonel Drummond soon opened up a much larger investigation into corruption and waste in the army that the revelation was going to reflect very poorly on Clinton as the commander-in-chief in America.

Drummond’s zeal in his investigations was, at first, an annoyance for Clinton.  But opening a financial scandal on top of the military loss at Yorktown would be a one-two punch against the commander and would irreparably damage his reputation.

Clinton had requested to resign several times over the course of the war, and had been denied each time.  He had no great passion to remain in command in America, but neither did he want to be tossed out as a failure.

Clinton also has a growing feud with General James Robertson.  The general was also the Royal Governor of New York.  Clinton suspected that Robertson had pushed Drummond to take the corruption investigation further as part of a larger effort to get Clinton recalled so that Robertson could take command of the British Army in America for himself.  Robertson had sent letters to General Jeffery Amherst in London complaining about the corruption.  Robertson told Amherst that he could run the Army in America for about half of what it cost under General Clinton.

Clinton had considered resigning and returning to Britain.  The main thing keeping him from doing so was that he would have to leave Robertson in command.

A Prince in New York

New York had another VIP during this period.  While the fighting at Yorktown was still raging, Admiral Digby had arrived in New York from Britain with three ships of the line.  With the admiral was a 16 year old midshipman named William Henry.  What made this junior naval officer’s arrival so exciting, was that he was the son of King George III.  This was the first time a member of the royal family had come to America.

Prince William Henry
William was the third son of George III.  With two older brothers, it was never thought that he would inherit the crown. At age thirteen, in 1778, he received a commission in the navy.  He had been present at several battles and by all accounts was a cheerful and friendly young man.  The prince had instant celebrity status in New York. He took a walk down Wall Street, with loyalists turning to get a glimpse of the young prince.  Within a few days of his arrival General Clinton held a banquet for Admiral Digby and the prince.  Following the dinner, Digby send William back to his ship for the night.  Digby warned Clinton and the other officers that raising the profile of the prince would put him in danger.

That advice came too late.  The arrival of the prince had already caught the attention of Colonel Matthias Ogden. The colonel from New Jersey was a highly experienced officer.  He had been a part of colonial protests since the Stamp Act, and had joined the army at its outset in 1775, participating in the Quebec Campaign.  The famous painting of the Death of General Montgomery at Quebec depicts the general dying in the arms of then Major Ogden.  Later promoted to colonel, Ogden had fought in the Philadelphia Campaign, wintered at Valley Forge, and took part in the Sullivan Campaign in New York.  In 1779, he was court martialed, but acquitted of all the serious charges, being found guilty only of “gaming” that is playing cards or dice.  He received a reprimand and continued in service.  In 1780, he had been captured and taken to New York as a prisoner of war for six months before being exchanged.  

Shortly after the prince’s arrival in New York, Ogden became aware of that fact, through intelligence sources that he had cultivated inside the city.  He learned that the prince not only strolled through the city streets with little protection, he also often slept in town along with Admiral Digby, in a lightly guarded house in the city.  

Prince Wm in Uniform

Ogden put together a plan where he and about forty men would slip across the Hudson River at night, take the house where Digby and Prince William were sleeping and bring them back to American lines before the British could react.  It was a daring and risky plan.  George Washington reviewed Ogden’s plan and approved it.

Unfortunately for the Americans, British intelligence was on the ball. Britain Captain George Beckwith received intelligence that the Americans were planning some sort of kidnapping plot in New York.  After being informed, General Clinton doubled the guards around his own house as well as that of Admiral Digby.  He put the army on alert for such a raid.  When word got back to the Americans that the British were on alert for the raid, they ended up calling off their plans.

A short time later, Admiral Digby and Prince William sailed for the West Indies.  There would not be another opportunity to launch the raid.

Heath - McDougall Conflict

Washington always had other matters to occupy his attention.  It was around this same time that a dispute between two of his top generals came to a head.

General William Heath was among the first generals appointed by the Continental Congress in 1775.  He had been a leading officer in Massachusetts during the Siege of Boston.  You may recall that I talked about how Heath lived right by Dorchester Heights and had asked General Putnam to take the Heights.  Heath also had a book that explained how to take the Heights but did not want to let Putnam read it because he didn’t like to lend out his books.

William Heath

Heath received promotion to major general in August of 1776, when Congress promoted all the original brigadiers who had not yet received promotion.  Washington did not seem particularly impressed with Heath.  In 1777, he gave Heath a chance to lead an attack on Fort Independence in New York.  Something I discussed in Episode 128. The attack was a mess, and seems to have affirmed Washington’s view that Heath was not a competent commander.  

For the rest of the war, Washington refused to give Heath any position of importance.  Instead, the general held a string of administrative positions.  Even so, based on seniority, Heath rose to the top of the army.  By 1781, only General Horatio Gates was senior to Heath. At this time, Gates was on leave from the army following the debacle at Camden.  So Heath was the top ranking officer in the army after Washington himself.

As I said though, Washington kept Heath from any important positions.  When Washington took his army to Yorktown, he left Heath behind.  Washington took General Benjamin Lincoln with him as his second in command.  Given Heath’s rank, he had to do something.  Washington left him in command of the forces around New York, where there would be no expected actions.

Another lackluster major general left behind during the Yorktown Campaign was General Alexander McDougall.  You may recall McDougall was an active leader in the Sons of Liberty in New York City before the war.  When the war broke out, he took a commission as a colonel.  He was promoted to brigadier at the same time that Heath was promoted to major general.  A little over a year later, McDougall also became a major general.  The promotion probably had more to do with McDougall being one of the more senior brigadiers by that time and the decision by Congress that New York deserved to have a second major general in the army.  Washington also did not seem particularly impressed with McDougall’s leadership skills and never gave him much of anything important to do.  McDougall spent most of the war in the New York Highlands for most of the war, where there was little action. 

McDougall had been elected to the Continental Congress in 1780.  He was there for only about a month. McDougall insisted on collecting his pay as a major general as well as payment for his service in Congress.  He wore his uniform to congressional sessions, which seemed to annoy many delegates.  They insisted on referring to him as Mr. McDougall rather than General McDougall, much to his annoyance.

His fellow New York Delegate Alexander Hamilton, nominated McDougall to become the new Secretary of Marine, essentially the civilian head of the navy.  McDougall had worked as a merchant captain before the war.  McDougall wanted to serve in that capacity, but did not want to give up his commission as a major general in the army. Congress eventually voted that he could not maintain both.  The final motion praised McDougall for wanting to continue to serve his country in the army, but that if he really wanted to do that, he needed to resign as Secretary of Marine.  

McDougall eventually did that and returned to active duty in the Continental Army in New York.  As I mentioned last week, Congress never chose a replacement for Secretary of Marine, and Robert Morris took over those responsibilities himself, while also serving as Secretary of the Treasury.  When McDougall returned to the army, Washington put him back into an administrative position.  When the army left for Yorktown, McDougall remained behind at West Point.

Heath and McDougall never really got along.  Part of this may have been the natural dislike that New Englanders and New Yorkers had for each other.  It could have been that Heath was from an old established family, while McDougall was a recent Scottish immigrant.  Maybe it was just that both officers were prickly and rather insecure about their abilities.

Whatever the cause, Heath and McDougall did not seem to like each other from almost the beginning of the war.  Heath had been one of the few Continental leaders who recommended against the Continental Army abandoning New York City in 1776.  If Heath’s recommendation had held, the army almost certainly would have been completely destroyed by the British in Manhattan.  McDougall was particularly critical of Heath’s judgment on that decision.

A relatively minor incident arose shortly after Heath took command of the army in New York.  McDougall’s wife had ordered something from a merchant in New York City.  The item took forever to be delivered.  Between the time McDougall had purchased the item and the time it was delivered, Washington had issued an order cutting off the purchase of anything from British-occupied New York City.  To avoid any problems, McDougall asked Heath to approve that he could claim the items already purchased.  Heath refused.  He said only Washington or Governor Clinton could give such approval.  McDougall went to Clinton, who gave approval, but Heath’s prickly decision to refuse an accommodation greatly annoyed McDougall.

Heath began issuing orders regarding the distribution of supplies that McDougall regarded as absurd and illegal. The officers and men under his command were being denied adequate food and supplies while surrounding units received whatever they needed.  McDougall wrote to Heath saying 

Whatever orders you shall please to give, whether they are clearly or doubtfully in the line of service, shall by implicitly executed….but permit me at the same time to inform you that it is my determination for the future to disobey every unmilitary and absurd order which may be given by any of your executive officers, and to put them in arrest…  

Heath took this as a direct challenge to his command. 

A short time later, McDougall was sitting around a table drinking with some of his subordinate officers.  A discussion of the 1776 evacuation of New York came up.  McDougall called Heath a “knave” for his call to remain in the city.  McDougall claimed that Heath knew remaining was militarily foolish, but argued for it anyway because he knew that would increase his political popularity back in New England.  McDougall went on to accuse Heath of bypassing him and illegally requisitioning supplies in such a way that was weakening the military defenses at West Point.

Heath got word of McDougall’s diatribe and immediately drew up a list of seven charges against the general.  These included mismanagement of supplies and “tending to lessen confidence in the commanding general”.  He put McDougall under house arrest and transferred command of West Point to Brigadier General James Paterson. McDougall wrote to General Washington protesting his arrest.

Washington, in Philadelphia by this time, wrote to both men.  His response was more formal that what I’m about to say but he was essentially saying: guys, you are supposed to be the two grownups I left in charge of the army.  If you had a dispute, we could have solved it quietly amongst ourselves.  Now, by bringing charges, you are airing the army’s dirty laundry in front of everyone.  This is not helping you, the army, or the cause.  At this point though, we have no choice but to go through the official process.

Washington convened a court martial against General McDougall and ordered General Stirling to preside.  McDougall brought counter charges against Heath and also objected to Stirling and several other officers on the court martial as biased against him.  This and other objections led to several delays before the court finally began hearing the case in April, 1782.  Delays caused by further objections and demands for evidence meant that the court did not complete its work until August.

McDougall’s main argument against the charge that he brought disrespect on General Heath was that he only stated facts that everyone already knew about the general. He sought to show objectively that Heath was a knave and that calling him that did not diminish him any more than his actions already had.  In the end, the court acquitted McDougall on six of the seven charges.  It found him guilty of denouncing his commanding officer and ordered Washington to issue a reprimand.  Washington, compelled by court to do so, issued a reprimand, but said he did so “with extreme reluctance.” In the same letter he wrote of McDougall’s “generally acknowledge merit” and ordered him back to duty.

Lord Stirling
McDougall agreed to drop his counter-charges against Heath. It seems he took to heart Washington’s admonitions that these court charges were only hurting the army.  And he just wanted to put the matter behind him.  

Unfortunately, another general did not feel the same way.  Soon after the court marital rendered its verdict, McDougall received a letter from General Stirling complaining that McDougall had insulted him in his accusations to remove him as head of the court martial.  Stirling at least implied that he wanted a duel to protect his honor.  McDougall refused to apologize, but also replied that he had said nothing in his objections to question Stirling’s character, honor, or integrity.

Stirling did not back down.  He wrote again saying that even if McDougall did not use explicit words, he had insinuated that Stirling’s reputation was not, well, sterling.  

An exasperated McDougall wrote back “the trial is now finished and the sentence published.  Does your lordship wish to have me tried again by a court martial where you are to preside? If not, it is immaterial to you, and to me, whether my exceptions to you were legal or illegal.”  Stirling did not appear to press the matter any further, but the exchange resulted in two more Continental major generals who were no longer on speaking terms.

Without an enemy to distract them, the Continental Army seemed to be turning on itself.

Next week, we head to England to see how officials there reacted to news of the loss at Yorktown.

- - -

Next Episode 309 North Government Falls 

Previous Episode 307 Congress After Yorktown

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Further Reading


William IV of the United Kingdom

Court Martial of Matthias Ogden

“Matthias Ogden’s Plan for Capturing British Officers in New York, March 1782,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“From George Washington to Matthias Ogden, 28 March 1782,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“From George Washington to Matthias Ogden, 2 April 1782,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“From George Washington to Matthias Ogden, 27 May 1782,” Founders Online, National Archives,

Bowler, R. A. “THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION AND BRITISH ARMY ADMINISTRATIVE REFORM.” Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, vol. 58, no. 234, 1980, pp. 66–77. JSTOR,

Alexander McDougall:

“To George Washington from William Heath, 18 January 1782,” Founders Online, National Archives [charges against Gen. McDougall],

“To George Washington from Alexander McDougall, 27 January 1782,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“From George Washington to Alexander McDougall, 3 February 1782,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from Alexander McDougall, 8 February 1782,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“General Orders, 7 April 1782,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“General Orders, 28 August 1782,” Founders Online, National Archives [findings of court martial],

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Fitzgerald, Percy H. The Life and Times of William IV. Including a View of Social Life and Manners During his Reign, London: Tinsley Brothers, 1884. 

Heath, William Memoirs of Major-General William Heath, New York: William Abbatt, 1901.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Fleming, Thomas The Perils of Peace: America's Struggle for Survival After Yorktown, Harper Collins, 2007.  

Fowler, William H. Jr. American Crisis: George Washington and the Dangerous Two Years after Yorktown, 1781-1783, Walker & Co. 2011. 

Glickstein, Don After Yorktown: The Final Struggle for American Independence, Westholme Publishing, 2015. 

MacDougall, William American Revolutionary: A Biography of General Alexander McDougall, Praeger, 1977. 

Somerset, Anne The Life and Times of William IV, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1981 (borrow on

Willcox, William B. Portrait of a General; Sir Henry Clinton in the War of Independence, Knopf, 1964 (borrow on .

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Sunday, April 14, 2024

ARP307 Congress After Yorktown

Over the last few episodes, we covered the ongoing war in the Carolinas, and war spreading around the world.  We last left the main Continental Army back in Episode 300 with the surrender at Yorktown.

Following the victory at Yorktown, the bulk of the Continental Army returned to the area around British-occupied New York City. 

Captured British flags from Yorktown
brought to Philadelphia
General Washington left the army for a time. He ordered General Benjamin Lincoln to take charge of the army’s movement back to New York.  Washington left Yorktown on November 5.  His first stop was to visit his stepson, who was recuperating from “camp fever” that had infected him while in volunteer service at Yorktown.  Following the British surrender, Washington sent Jack Custis to stay with a relative not too far from Yorktown, where he could receive better care.  

Washington arrived the day after leaving Yorktown, only to find that Custis had died moments before his arrival.  For the next few days, Washington escorted his grieving wife and daughter-in-law back to Mount Vernon.  It took more than a week to get home, as every town along the way wanted to celebrate the victory at Yorktown with the commander.  Washington remained at Mount Vernon for only a few days before heading to Philadelphia.

The Continental Congress was still celebrating the victory at Yorktown when Washington arrived on November 26.  Celebrations aside, Washington had some real concerns about the state of the Congress.

President John Hanson

John Hanson of Maryland had been unanimously elected president a few weeks earlier.  Hanson had only been in Congress for a little over a year.  It seems that no one really wanted to serve as president.  The office came with a great deal of responsibility and no power.  Hanson took over from Thomas McKean of Delaware, who had only taken the office for a few months after Congress elected Samuel Johnston.  Johnston refused to take the seat, stating that he was leaving Congress to run for Governor of North Carolina.  When McKean took up the chair, he informed Congress that he would only remain there until the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania returned to session in the fall, where he was Chief Justice.

John Hanson
Only a week after Hanson’s election, he wrote to his son-in-law that he wanted to resign.  He found his duties “irksome.” He did not feel well and thought he needed to go home.  The main reason he did not resign was that no one else wanted the job, and it was unclear that Congress could even seat a quorum to vote for a replacement.

Attendance at Congress was also a frustration.  When Washington addressed Congress on November 28, two days after his arrival, three states did not have the necessary two delegates to vote on behalf of their states.  Seven other states only had two delegates present, meaning that if they disagreed on a matter, the state could not vote.  Most of the better delegates had moved on to other positions in their home states, or as diplomats abroad.  So, Congress was a shell of its former self.

One reason Hanson disliked his new job was that the president was responsible for handling all correspondence of Congress.  This meant writing state officials, to beg for men, money, and supplies, as well as diplomatic and military correspondence.  Hanson determined almost immediately that this was not for him.  He assigned all the work of correspondence to Congress’ secretary, Charles Thomson.  And to be clear, Thomson was not just a secretary taking Hanson’s dictation.  Hanson was reading and replying to all official correspondence using his own judgment.

Robert Morris, Superintendent of Finance

In truth, most of Congress’ work had been outsourced by this time.  As I mentioned back in Episode 281, Congress had determined in early 1780 that it could not handle both legislative and executive duties.  It created several new departments to be headed by an appointee to run the government.  The only one they appointed at the time, and the most important was Robert Morris, serving  as Superintendent of Finance.  In Britain, the top financial position, the minister of treasury, was also usually the Prime Minister.  So it was little surprise that Morris was seen as the effective leader in the Confederation government.  Hanson held the title of president, but anyone who needed something done came to Morris.

Robert Morris

Like many capable men, Morris had grown tired of government work.  As a political moderate, he suffered near constant criticism from the radical Whigs who controlled Pennsylvania politics.  He had hoped to return to private practice. Instead he accepted this appointment, given the desperate circumstances of the country's financial system, and a belief that Morris was best suited to manage things.  Once taking the job, Morris acted aggressively.  

He did not limit his own authority to financial matters.  He took control of the marine committee, and abolished the board of admiralty.  Since the Continentals did not have much of any navy by this point, few objected.  Morris  was also deeply involved in foreign diplomacy, since the only hope of keeping the financial system running was with the help of foreign loans or gifts from US allies.

I’ve talked about the continually growing mess that Continental finances had suffered over the course of the war.  The Yorktown Campaign only made that worse.  Agents had scrambled everywhere to come up with money to pay for that campaign, meaning that any available dollar and any debt that could be incurred on behalf of its success was done.  The campaign had been successful, but the debt situation was even worse as a result.  

Morris had to take some radical steps.  First was a decision not to repay any debts incurred prior to January 1, 1782.  The idea was that no one would accept Continental credit if they had to get behind so many other creditors to collect their money.  Morris hoped that an assurance that new creditors would be at the front of the line, might make those loans possible.  Of course, simply telling old creditors that they would have to wait until some time after the war for payment of anything due was not exactly something that gave new creditors confidence that they might later be pushed into that same category.

Morris also made the hard choice that he would not pay the army.  Since most officers and enlisted men were already used to receiving none of their promised pay, this was not really a big change in practice.  But declaring that everyone was going to have to work for the foreseeable future without getting paid was a slap in the face to the military.  Again, Morris had to prioritize new creditors for payment.  

To help the army, Morris largely gave up on relying on states to provide food and supplies for the soldiers.  Instead, Morris used some of the savings from non-payment of debt to enter into agreements directly with government contractors to provide food and supplies to the army directly.  These contracts were put out for public bid so that the government could get the best deal possible.

Since the Continental Congress’ credit was shot, Morris pinned his hopes on his new Bank of North America, which was funded through assistance provided by the King of France.  Morris hoped to grow that money by getting people to invest in the bank and accept bank notes produced by the bank, which were based on specie held by the bank.  Morris also issued “Morris Notes” which were used as currency backed by his own personal credit.

Confederation Cabinet

Near the end of 1781, Congress finally got around to appointing two other department heads.  Robert Livingston received an appointment as Secretary of Foreign Affairs.  If you are not sure what the Secretary of Foreign Affairs did under the Articles of Confederation, don’t feel bad.  Livingston had no idea either.  He mostly learned what he could not do.  

Robert Livingston
He could not make any foreign policy decisions on behalf of the US.  Anything he wanted to do had to go before Congress for a decision.  Since Congress often did not have enough delegates for a quorum, Congress could not make the decision either. Livingston expressed frustration that when he brought a question to Congress, he could watch the debate but could not offer any advice and could not ask any questions of that body.  He was not allowed to correspond directly with diplomats from other countries, nor with the US diplomats in Europe if those letters involved anything related to foreign affairs.  Any such letters had to go before Congress for approval before being sent.

Livingston did get authority to hire a couple of clerks. One of them was a Frenchman who had been serving in the Continental Army under General von Steuben.  This appointment seemed to cause many in Congress to argue that Livingston was simply a shill for French policy.  The limitations and concerns about Livingston did not seem to have anything to do with him personally.  He was a widely respected patriot leader who had himself served in the Continental Congress for years.  He was also Chancellor of New York during this same time.  Congressional restrictions seemed to have more to do with the trouble of the delegates themselves letting go of any small amount of authority to a separate body.

All of this only frustrated Livingston, who hadn’t really wanted the job in the first place.  To give you some idea of his frustration, in September of 1782, about a year after his appointment, he wrote a letter to Benjamin Franklin, the US Ambassador to France, and a peace delegate to complain that he had not received a single letter for six months. This was during the time that Franklin and others were actively negotiating a peace treaty with Britain - something that was of interest to the Secretary for Foreign Affairs.  As a result, Livingston did little on his own but report things to Congress and meet with Robert Morris.

Congress’ choice for a Secretary of War was even more contentious.  Horatio Gates was still head of the Board of War, but since his embarrassing performance at Camden, no one really wanted him anymore.  Washington seemed to favor Philip Schuyler, since he was no longer an active general and was an able politician and administrator.  The New England delegates, however, really disliked Schuyler.  Nathanael Greene and Henry Knox were both considered, but since they still played vital roles in the army - Greene as the southern commander and Knox as head of artillery, Congress did not want to remove them from those roles.  

Benjamin Lincoln

In the end, they settled on Benjamin Lincoln.  The general was acting as Washington’s second in command, but ever since his surrender at Charleston, no one seemed inclined to trust him with an independent command.  The consensus was that he was a great administrator, but not so much a field officer.  So Lincoln got the job.

At the time of his appointment, Lincoln was moving the Continental Army from Yorktown back to around New York. He still managed to get word of his appointment and got to Philadelphia two days ahead of Washington.

Like Livingston, Lincoln had no authority to make policy on his own.  His main jobs were to keep track of military men and supplies on hand and to prepare estimates of needs for future campaigns.  He also spent most of his time conferring with Robert Morris.

One other new job created around this time was for Thomas Paine.  The famous writer had fallen on hard times and could not seem to find anyone to pay him anymore.  He had created quite a few enemies in Philadelphia through many of his past attacks in the press.  Washington and Morris agreed that Paine would be useful as public relations for the government.  He did not have a title, and his job was not publicly known.  His salary would come out of funds set aside for Livingston’s use in secret services.

Washington’s stay in Philadelphia was primarily for the purpose of getting more supplies for the army.  Many were convinced that Yorktown had effectively ended the war.  If they were reluctant to come up with money while the enemy was an active threat to the states, they were even more reluctant now that the immediate threat seemed to be on the wane.

Washington used Morris to push an agenda that would get the army what it needed.  Always cautious about being seen as infringing on civil affairs, General Washington did not want to push Congress directly, but used Morris as his attack dog.  Morris pushed hard for direct taxes that would fund the army.  Congress refused.  

Congress did place requirements on the states to provide funds to the Bank of North America.  In that case, the States refused.  When the first quarterly payment was due in April of 1782, the bank received nothing.  After a few weeks, New Jersey sent a fraction of what it owed.  Morris noted that the amount sent was enough to fund the government for about ¼ of a day.

British Spies

Meanwhile the British in New York remained active in their efforts to undermine the Congress in Philadelphia.  Earlier in 1781, the British had captured a clerk named Thomas Edison.  Under interrogation, Edison convinced his captors that he could give them access to Congress’ private records.  As an assistant to Charles Thomson, secretary of Congress, Edison had access to documents related to the recent Silas Deane debates, internal arguments over western territories, problems between Congress and the French Ambassador.  

Captain George Beckwith had become the head of British intelligence in America after the capture and execution of Major John AndrΓ©.  He agreed to release Edison on the promise that Edison would help to gain access to Congressional records in Philadelphia.

James Moody
Beckwith assigned the project to James Moody, a loyalist officer.  When the war began, Moody was a New Jersey farmer who attempted to remain neutral.  When he refused to take the patriot loyalty oath, he was branded a traitor and suffered harassment and threats.  In 1777, a group of patriots attempted to shoot him.  Shortly after that incident, he fled to New York and became a lieutenant in a loyalist regiment.  Over the next couple of years, he spent most of his time performing intelligence operations in New Jersey, recruiting soldiers for the loyalists, and even leading several raids against patriot outposts.  In 1780, he led a failed attempt to kidnap New Jersey Governor William Livingston.  A little later, he helped rescue another loyalist from prison who was facing execution.  He also took prisoner several patriot officials and militiamen during his raids into the state.

As his reputation became more prominent, patriot leaders focused on his capture.  In August of 1780, while returning from a raid, Moody made it to the British fort at Bull’s Ferry in New Jersey. While he was there, a troop under General Anthony Wayne captured the fort and took him prisoner.  Because he was in uniform when captured, he was initially treated as a prisoner of war.  But when Governor Livingston learned of his capture, he demanded Moody be tried for espionage and treason.  

This was about the same time that Benedict Arnold had fled to the British, so the Continental mood toward spies was particularly hostile at the time.  Moody was held in chains at West Point.  He learned that Governor Livingston planned to prosecute the case against him personally, and that he also stacked the court that would hear Moody’s case, pretty much ensuring a guilty verdict. 

Moody realized that the way this was playing out meant that he would probably be dangling from a gallows in the very near future.  Despite the fact that officials posted a guard inside his cell to watch him 24/7, Moody worked on an escape.  He found a post half buried in the ground.  After asking for a coat to stay warm, Moody used the post to break off his hand cuffs, using the coat as cover from the guard.  He waited for a moment when his guard was not paying attention, then dashed out the door, grabbing the musket from a second guard outside the door.

He found himself outside and in the middle of a Continental Army camp, with alarms raised about the escaped prisoner. Rather than run for it, he simply shouldered the musket that he had taken from the guard and marched through camp like any other soldier.  He managed to make it out of camp and spent the next few days carefully making his way back to British lines.

Despite this close call, Moody spent the next couple of years continuing to go back into New Jersey on intelligence missions.  Several times, he was able to take out couriers carrying messages between Washington and Congress.

When the British learned of the opportunity to obtain embarrassing papers from the Continental Congress, they called on Moody to carry out the plan.  The plan itself was brazen, but quite simple.  Edison would be released and allowed to return to Philadelphia.  At an agreed time, he would let the British agents into the State House (what we call today Independence Hall) providing them the agreed documents.  The men would bring them back to New Jersey and smuggle them back to the British in New York.

Moody did not go himself to Philadelphia.  He remained just across the river in New Jersey while his brother John and a third loyalist named Lawrence Marr picked up the documents.  Moody had rented a room where the men could stay for the night.  While there, he overheard a conversation in the tavern.  A man said that there had been a plot to break into the Continental Congress’ records but that one of the conspirators had betrayed the conspiracy.

It turns out that Edison blew the whistle on the action.  According to Moody, Edison lost his nerve at the last minute and informed authorities.  According to Edison, it was his plan all along to lure the agents in and then get them captured.  I think Moody’s story makes more sense since Edison did not reveal anything until the last minute.  But authorities believed Edison’s story and later rewarded him for his actions.

Moody’s brother John and Marr were both captured.  Both were sentenced to hang as spies, but only Moody’s brother went to the gallows.  James Moody managed to escape the tavern just before a large patriot patrol arrived in search of him.  According to Moody’s later account, he threw himself in a ditch then crawled into a hay rack to avoid deduction.  The next day, he stole a canoe on the Delaware River and paddled upriver more than 100 miles to northern New Jersey.  From there, he was able to make his way back to New York City.  This final close call was the end of Moody’s career as a spy.  Shortly afterward, he left America and sailed for London.

Next Week: General Washington returns to New York and approves an attempt to kidnap a future King of England.  Continental General Alexander McDougall faces a court martial.

- - -

Next Episode 308 McDougall Court Martial 

Previous Episode 306 War in India

 Contact me via email at

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Further Reading


The John Hanson Story:

Nuxoll, Elizabeth M. “The Bank of North America and Robert Morris’s Management of the Nation’s First Fiscal Crisis.” Business and Economic History, vol. 13, 1984, pp. 159–70. JSTOR,

The Debt Problem: 1781 to 2014

The Wartime Adventures of Lt. James Moody

Lawrence Marr Jr. and John Moody

Conn, Kevin A. “Contingencies, Capture, and Spectacular Getaway: The Imprisonment and Escape of James Moody” Journal of the American Revolution, Nov. 24, 2020.

Continental Congress Amendment to Report on Thomas Edison:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Journals of the Continental Congress, Vol 21, Washington: Gov’t Printing Office, 1912. 

Moody, James Narrative of the Exertions and Sufferings of Lieut. James Moody, in Cause of Government Since the Year 1776, New York, Privately Printed, 1865 (original, London, 1782). 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Dangerfield, George Chancellor Robert R. Livingston of New York, 1746-1813, Harcourt, Brace, and Co. 1960 (borrow on

Fleming, Thomas The Perils of Peace: America's Struggle for Survival After Yorktown, Harper Collins, 2007.  

Fowler, William H. Jr. American Crisis: George Washington and the Dangerous Two Years after Yorktown, 1781-1783, Walker & Co. 2011. 

Glickstein, Don After Yorktown: The Final Struggle for American Independence, Westholme Publishing, 2015. 

Mattern, David B. Benjamin Lincoln and the American Revolution, Univ. of S.C. Press, 1995 (borrow on 

Rappleye, Charles Robert Morris: Financier of the American Revolution, Simon & Schuster, 2010. 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.