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 André.  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.

- - -

Next Episode 308 Kidnapping the future King of England (Available April 21, 2024)

Previous Episode 306 War in India

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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.Charles Thomson

Sunday, April 7, 2024

ARP306 War in India

Last week we looked at the Spanish takeover of Menorca in the Mediterranean Sea.  While we, in America, think of the Revolutionary war in terms of the fighting in America, that fighting launched a larger war worldwide.  When European powers went to war, that meant open season on all of their colonies and outposts around the world.  By 1781, Britain was at war with France, Spain, and the Netherlands.

While Britain had lots of colonies and outposts to defend, it was not just fighting a defensive war.  The government was always looking for vulnerable enemy real estate that it could seize.  By the 1780’s the Indian subcontinent provided many such targets.

Indian Colonization

Hyder Ali
By this time, India had been a target of European colonization for nearly three centuries.  The Portuguese established their first trading posts there in 1498.  India, at the time, was made up of several kingdoms that were often at war with one another.  Europeans took advantage of these divisions to establish alliances and build a system of control.  By the early 1600’s both the Dutch and the English had established themselves on the subcontinent.  Within a few decades, the Danes and the French also established themselves.  Later, Sweden and Austria also carved out areas of control.  As they did in other parts of the word, these European powers battled both locals and each other for greater control.

Dutch power centered around Ceylon a large island near the southeast coast, as well as along the coast of the continent nearby.  The British East India Company held large areas of influence throughout India, but was particularly strong in the northeast area known as Bengal.

After France and Britain went to war in 1778, Britain attacked French colonies that were allied with the local kingdom of Mysore. Its first target was the French Indian capital of Pondicherry, which the British captured after a two month siege in 1778.  This was just north of the Dutch area of control. At that time, however, Britain was not at war with the Dutch, so it proceeded no further. Shortly afterward, the British also took Mahe on the west coast.

Second Anglo-Mysore War

The French were not able to put many resources into their defenses in India, but the local French ally the Kingdom of Mysore was not simply ready to submit to British rule.

Hyder Ali ruled Mysore at the time.  He had allied himself with the French after the British, in his view, had betrayed him in an earlier war.  Before the British took Mahé, Ali warned them that the area was under his protection and to stay out.  The British ignored the warning and took it anyway. This kicked off what is known as the Second Anglo-Mysore War. The first one had been fought a decade earlier when Ali also tangled with British forces.

Southern India
In July, 1780, Ali assembled an army of 80,000 and invaded the British-controlled Carnatic region of south India.  The Mysore Army burned villages and laid siege to several British forts in the area.  This led to a major battle in September of 1780 against a British army of about 5000 under the command of Colonel William Baillie.  The Mysore cavalry broke the British defensive lies and decimated the army.  At the time, it was one of the worst British defeats in India.  The British retreated to Madras, leaving the Mysore to take control of the Carnatic.  

In July, 1781, a British force of about 8000 attacked the coastal city of Porto Novo, where Ali defended the city with a force of about 40,000.  The British commander, General Eyre Coote had spent decades fighting in India and was an effective officer.  I haven’t been able to find much information on the battle itself, but the much smaller British force was able to capture Porto Novo, inflicting about 9000 enemy casualties while taking about 300 of their own.  My suspicion would be the use of British navy cannons and the lack of effective weapons by the Mysore army led to the rather lopsided British victory.  This was followed up by another British victory at Sholinghur in September, and several other battles.

In the summer of 1781, Lord George Macartney arrived as the new Governor of Madras.  You may recall that we discussed Macartney before when he was Governor of Grenada in the West Indies when the French captured the island in 1779.  Macartney had become a French prisoner of war, but was exchanged and sent back to London.  Two years later, he was on his way to his next post at Madras.

Macartney brought with him the news that Britain had declared war on the Netherlands six months earlier.  Apparently, no one among the Dutch or British leadership had received the news until Macarntey’s arrival in July 1781.  Governor Macartney ordered the capture of any Dutch controlled outposts in India.  

Siege of Negapatam

The first British target was the Dutch controlled city of Negapatam.  The Dutch Governor Reynier van Vlissingen had been unaware of the declared war with Britain until word arrived in late summer of 1781.  Up until that time, the Dutch had been fighting with the Mysore under Hyder Ali.  

British Camp by Rock of Sholingarh
Earlier that year, Mysore soldiers had raided several villages under Dutch protection.  The governor sent emissaries to meet with Ali and demand damages for the attacks.  Instead, Ali took the emissaries hostage and demanded a ransom. The Mysore also threatened to take several other Dutch outposts.  

In response, the Dutch commander, Vlissingen, was in discussions with the British about forming an alliance with  Mysore.  When word arrived of war between Britain and the Netherlands, all that changed.  Despite having to pay a ransom to get the return of his emissaries, Vlissingen reached out to Ali once again, hoping to form an alliance with Mysore against Britain.  Ali was amenable to such an arrangement once he learned that the Dutch were at war with his main enemy, Britain. 

Initially Vlissingen sent 600 Dutch soldiers, along with gunpowder and ammunition, to Hyder’s camp in Tanjore.  When they learned that British forces were going to move against Negapatam, the Dutch soldiers returned to the city, along with about 2100 Mysore soldiers. There, the armies were supplemented by another 5500 local Indian militia.

Because the British were fighting with Mysore all over the region, they could not simply focus all their forces on the Dutch target.  In fact, the British commander, General Coote, did not want to make much of any of his army available for what he regarded as a sideshow to the main fight for Carnatas.

Hector Munro
After some effort, Governor Macartney convinced General Hector Munro to take command of the force to be called up against Negapatam.  Munro was an experienced officer.  He came from an aristocratic Scottish family.  He got his start in the military in the 1750’s capturing Jacobite rebels during the rising.  By 1760, he was a major in the 89th Regiment of Foot, which was deployed to India.  He spent nearly a decade there, fighting against Ali in the first Mysore war in the 1760’s. He returned home in 1768 and was elected to Parliament.  Munro made some big investments in a bank that failed in the financial crisis of 1772.  This may have been part of the reason that he decided to return to active duty in India in 1778.

By late 1781, Munro had spent nearly two years of his return in active combat against the Mysore Army.  Once again, he had had enough and was ready to return home.  That was when Governor Macartney tapped him to command the attack on Negapatam.  To support Monroe, Coote agreed to deploy an army under the command of Colonel John Braithwaite.  Although Braithwaite had been injured in a recent battle, his soldiers under the command of Colonel Eccles Nixon marched to Negapatam.

On October 20, the British under Colonel Nixon, who were marching overland, seized two Dutch outposts at Karaikal and Nagore. General Munro sailed with additional forces carried by the British Navy commanded by Admiral Edward Hughes.

The following week on October 27, the British forces attacked the outer redoubts of the main Dutch defense at Negapatam.  The defenders repulsed the British.  The following day, the British brought more reinforcements for a second attempt, and were repulsed again.  Munro then attempted to attack the redoubts on the other side of the city.  There, he was more successful, forcing a rout of the Mysorean cavalry. By the end of October, the Dutch retreated behind their city walls and prepared for a siege.

Edward Hughes
The total British force consisted of about 4000 soldiers, while the defenders had about 6500.  But the bulk of the defenders were local militia who were not considered to be as reliable in battle.  Munro had his men begin digging siege trenches around the city, and bringing up cannons to take down the city walls.  The Dutch attempted several sorties out of the city to prevent the setup of enemy artillery, but were unsuccessful.

Even before the British arrived at Negapatam, the Dutch commander van Vlissingen sent word to Ali to send more Mysore soldiers to help lift the siege.  A Mysorean relief army was near the town by November 8.  However, they were reluctant to launch an attack given the size of the British lines, and the presence of British warships within cannon range of any attack.  The Mysore leaders paused and called for even more reinforcements so that they could attack with an overwhelming force.

As they waited, the British attacked the Mysore camp and forced the relief column to retreat on November 10.  Inside Negapatam, the Dutch were out of food and were surrounded by the British army and navy.  After a failed counter attack on the British lines on November 10, Vlissingen called a council of war.  The council agreed the Dutch should surrender the following day.

The Dutch came out under a flag of truce asking for terms.  The two sides reached an agreement and the next day, November 12, the Dutch garrison surrendered.  A day later a larger Mysore army arrived, only to discover that it was too late to provide relief.  It retreated back inland without engaging the British.


Following the fall of Negapatam the Mysore pulled back from the coast where the British navy could provide the British with an advantage.  The main British fleet that was present at Negapatam moved on to the Dutch island of Ceylon.

Fort at Trincomalee, 1782
The British fleet carried several hundred volunteers, along with its marines to capture the Dutch colony at Trincomalee.  The fleet reached Trincomalee Bay on January 4, 1782. They landed an assault force several miles north of the Dutch Fort Frederick.  Marching at night, they managed to enter the fort before the enemy even knew of their presence, taking the small 43 man fort garrison prisoner.  

The larger Fort Ostenburg, however, controlled the harbor.  By January 8, the British took a hill above Fort Ostenburg.  Getting artillery onto the hill would prove difficult, so Admiral Hughes sent an emissary to call for the Dutch surrender of the fort.  

Dutch Governor Iman Willem Falck received the British officer, Major Geils, who demanded the fort’s surrender.  Falck refused the demand and sent Geils back to inform his commander.  Geils was also an engineer.  He used his time in the fort to observe its defenses and believed that the British could storm the fort instead of a siege.

The following morning, a force of 450, made primarily of British marines and seamen stormed the fort with scaling ladders.  After a brief battle Fort Ostenberg fell to the British. Admiral Hughes left a garrison, made up primarily of Indian soldiers, to retain control of Trincomalee while his fleet returned to Madras. 

The Dutch forces on the island were taken prisoner, Dutch Governor Falk was granted parole to travel to the Dutch East Indies and report the loss of Trincomalee.


The British success in India meant that both sides would soon be sending more resources there.  Hughes had taken Trincomalee with six ships of the line.  When he returned to Madras, he found three more ships had arrived, bringing his fleet to nine. 

Admiral Suffren
About the same time Hughes was returning to Madras a new French fleet was on its way.  France had established its naval headquarters for the Indian Ocean at Isle de France, an island just off Mozambique, known today as Mauritius.  In late 1781, a French fleet left Isle de France headed for India. Initially, the French targeted Trincomalee, but then decided to head straight at the British fleet at Madras.

Admiral Thomas d'Estienne d'Orves commanded the French fleet. However, he became very ill during the voyage and turned over command of the fleet to Admiral Pierre André de Suffren.  The fleet included 11 ships of the line and six smaller fighting ships.  Along the way, the fleet captured a British ship of the line, the 50 gun Hannibal, which they also pressed into French service.

In early February, the French fleet reached Madras, and began raiding coastal towns and villages.  Shortly after their arrival Admiral d’Orves succumbed to his illness and died.  Admiral Suffren continued on with the campaign.

After discovering the British fleet at Madras, Suffren sailed further south.  He planned to land at Porto Novo, then march back up the coast and capture enemy villages along the way.  Near the landing point, Suffren discovered that the British fleet under Hughes had followed them down the coast and were prepared to do battle.  The British fleet was smaller, but managed to catch the French fleet out of position.

Initially the British took on five French ships of the line, eventually joined by two more.  The others inexplicably remained out of the battle, just watching.  Several of the British ships were badly damaged and close to sinking.  Again, inexplicably, the French ship ended their attack before sinking several enemy ships. 

Although the British were able to inflict considerable damage, Admiral Hughes realized he was outgunned and sailed away that night under cover of darkness.  His fleet sailed from Trincomalee to make repairs.

The battle losses, in what became known as the Battle of Sadras, were pretty even.  Both fleets lost about 130 killed and wounded.

Suffren did not immediately give chase.  He met with his ship commanders to scold those who failed to enter the battle, then went ashore to meet with Hyder Ali and to land his armies on the coast.  French soldiers joined with Ali’s Mysorean soldiers to begin a siege against Cuddalore


After both fleets had time to make repairs, they both set out in search of another battle.  The fleets spotted each other on April 8th.  Many of Hughes’ crew were sick with scurvy at the time, and hoped to avoid battle. But Suffren gave chase.  

Negapatem, 1782
On the morning of April 12, realizing he could not avoid a fight, Hughes formed his ships into a line of battle.  It took hours for both fleets to get into position.  The two lines joined in battle by around 1:30 in the afternoon.  Both lines blasted each other with broadsides, inflicting considerable damage.  The British took the heaviest casualties, suffering nearly 600 killed and wounded.  French casualties have conflicting reports, ranging from about 350-550 killed and wounded.

A rainstorm at about 5:30 PM finally forced the two lines to separate and withdraw.  For the next week, both fleets remained within a few miles of each other, but both were too badly damaged to renew the battle.  The French considered renewing the fight on April 19th, but after reviewing the condition of the enemy fleet, decided to sail away.

The British fleet might have looked formidable, but it was a bluff. Several British ships of the line were barely afloat and were maintained by skeleton crews because so many sick and wounded had been pulled off to hospital ships.

The French retreated to the Dutch port at Batacalo, in modern day Sri Lanka.


Once again, the two fleets separated for a time to make repairs and then set sail again in search of one another.  The French fleet departed Batacalo for Cuddalore, which had fallen to France’s Mysorean allies.  There, Ali asked the French Admiral Suffren to attack Negapatam, which was the same town that the British had captured eight months earlier, and which I discussed at the beginning of this episode. Suffren would not participate in a land attack, but agreed to engage the British Navy off the coast there.

Suffren meeting with Ali, 1782
On July 11, 1782, Hughes was anchored near Negapatam with his 11 ships of the line, when Suffren arrived with his 12 ships. Hughes had received intelligence that the French fleet was on its way and was prepared for battle.

The following day the two lines fought yet another destructive yet largely indecisive battle.  The British fleet was more aggressive this time

There was some dispute after the battle.  The British claimed that the Sévère had struck her colors during the battle, meaning she was a British prize.  The captain of the Sévère disputed this, claiming that the British had simply shot away the halyards, causing the colors to fall, and then be raised again.

The British left without their prize.  A court martial of the events later held in Paris determined that the captain had struck his colors, but that his subordinate officers refused to surrender and had the colors raised again.  Suffren actually sent three of his captains home for court martial. The other two avoided censure. The captain of the Sévère, however, was cashiered from the navy.

The war in India would continue, on land and at sea, for even a year after the American Revolution ended.  We’ll have to return for some further adventures in India in a later episode.  Next week, however, we return to America, as General Washington makes plans to kidnap a future king of England.

- - -

Next Episode 307 Congress After Yorktown (Available April 14, 2024)

Previous Episode 305 Siege of Menorca

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Further Reading


Plan of Action at Porto Novo:

Battle of Sadras – 17 February 1782

Battle of Providien – 12 April 1782

Battle of Negapatam, 6 July 1782

Battle of Negapatam – 6 July 1782

Capture of Fort Trincomalee by surprise

The Battle of Trincomale – 3 September 1782

General Eyre Coote

Sir Edward Hughes

Singh, Kumar Badri Narain. “THE WAR OF AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE AND INDIA.” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, vol. 38, 1977, pp. 591–94. JSTOR,

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Malleson, G.B. Final French Struggles in India and on the Indian Seas, London: W.H. Allen, 1884. 

Mill, James The History of British India, Vol. 4, London: J. Madden, 1840. 

Mohammed, Gholam, The History Of Hyder Shah Aiias Hyder Ali Khan Bahadur And Of Son, Tippoo Sultaun, Delhi: Cosmo Publications, first published 1855. 

Sinha, Narendra Krishna Haidar Ali, vol.1,1721-1779, Calcutta Oriental Press, 1941. 

Wylly, H.C. Sir Eyre Coote, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1922. 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Cavaliero Roderick Admiral Satan: The Life & Campaigns of Suffren, I.B. Tauris, 1994. 

Haroon, Anwar Kingdom of Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan: Sultanat E Khudadad, Xlibris, 2013. 

Van Lohuizen, Jan The Dutch East India Company and Mysore, 1762-1790, Brill, 1961. 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Sunday, March 31, 2024

ARP305 Siege of Menorca

This week we’re stepping away from North America to look at a battle raging over in Europe. By 1781 The British were so short-handed in America because of the war with France and Spain.  Both countries were set on taking real estate back from Britain, believing that their traditional enemy was spread thin due to the American rebellion and that other colonies and territories would be vulnerable to attack.

The main reason Spain got involved in the war was over the hope of retaking Gibraltar, part of the Spanish mainland that had been under British control for over 70 years. A combined British and Dutch force captured the region in 1704, during the War of Spanish Succession. The island remained a British possession in the treaty that ended that war.

In the decades following the capture, Britain viewed its control of Gibraltar as more of a bargaining chip to use against Spain.  There were several proposals to return Gibraltar to Spain over the years, but the two countries could never come to terms. Spain had attempted to retake Gibraltar militarily multiple times since then, but without any luck.

Almost as soon as Spain declared war on Britain, in 1779, it began its siege of Gibraltar.  But after two years, that siege seemed to be going nowhere.  Spanish officials began to focus on other British possessions that might be vulnerable.  Attention quickly turned to Menorca.


The island of Menorca sits in the Mediterranean, about 130 miles southwest of Barcelona.  It is the second largest of a chain of islands that had for centuries been controlled by Spain, or other Spanish kingdoms before Spain became a unified nation.  Britain had taken control of Menorca in the same peace treaty that gave it control of Gibraltar. 

Island of Menorca
Menorca became an important naval base for British ships in the Mediterranean.  The British moved the capital to port Mahon, and established a naval base there.  The British also built up a Spanish fort there, known as the Castillo de San Felipe, which the British called Fort St. Phillip.

During the Seven Years War, a French fleet took back Menorca from the British.  At the outset of the war, France deployed a 16,000 man army and seventeen ships of the line to dislodge the British.  French forces were able to take the island rather easily, but had to besiege the British garrison in Fort St. Phillip.  That siege lasted about two months, before the British garrison finally surrendered.  The British, with less than 3000 men, had managed to hold off the French losing 59 killed and 149 wounded. French losses of 3600 dead and wounded, although many of those came from disease rather than battle.

During the siege, Britain sent a relief fleet under Admiral John Byng, which attacked and withdrew rather quickly.  During a review after the battle, a court martial determined the Admiral Byng had failed to do his utmost to relieve the British garrison and ordered him executed by firing squad. Although many thought the Admiral would receive clemency, he did not. He was shot the following spring.

Without British naval support, the British garrison could not get food and supplies and began to starve.  The British agreed to surrender on the promise that they would be sent to Gibraltar.

France held the island for the remainder of the Seven Years War.  In 1763 the peace treaty ending the war returned Menorca to British control.  In exchange Britain returned the captured island of Guadeloupe to France.

For the Spanish, British control of Menorca, part of a chain of Spanish islands, was almost as galling as British control of Gibraltar.  During the most recent war, Britain had made Menorca a port for British privateers, who attacked French and Spanish shipping in the region.  Spain set its sights on retaking the island and requested support from the ally in the French Navy.

Spanish and French Fleets

During the summer of 1781, Spain deployed an invasion fleet, which included 51 troop carriers moving 13,000 soldiers.  The fleet was backed up by supply ships, hospital ships, bombardment ships, and 13 Navy vessels.  Don Luis Berton de los Blats, Duc de Crillon, commanded the fleet.  

Duc de Crillon
Crillon was a French army officer from an aristocratic family, who rose to the rank of general after fighting in the War of Austrian Succession and the Seven Years War.  Near the end of the Seven Years war, he moved to Spain and took a commission as a general in the Spanish Army.  Spain and France were close allies and both ruled by the Bourbon family during this era, so I guess changing armies did not seem to raise any eyebrows.

He had been part of the Spanish effort to capture Gibraltar after Spain declared war in 1779.  While that siege continued without him, the king tasked him with the capture of Menorca in 1781.

France deployed 20 more ships of the line under the command of Admiral Luc Urbain du Bouëxic, comte de Guichen to support the Spanish fleet.  Like his counterpart, Guichen was also an experienced officer from a noble family.  He had also fought in the War of Austrian Succession and the Seven Years war.  Guichen had fought at the Battle of Ushant and also in the West Indies in the West Indies where the Comte de Grasse had served under him.  In the summer of 1780, Guichen led a merchant fleet back to Europe, leaving de Grasse in the West Indies.

Plan of Attack

Both fleets approached Menorca, hoping to surprise the British there.   The French fleet had initially headed out into the Atlantic, hoping to fool anyone watching that it was headed for America.  It then slipped past Gibraltar at night, avoiding observation as it entered the Mediterranean.  Although France provided some naval support, the invasion itself was a Spanish operation.

The Spanish planned to land its main army at Mesquida bay, just north of the capital at Port Mahón. A smaller force would land south of the capital.  The hope was to march both armies at once and capture most of the British garrison outside the fort.

The fleets arrived at Menorca in late August, 1781.  Plans began to fall apart almost immediately.  British observers spotted the fleets on the southern side of the island and sent urgent dispatches to Port Mahón.  Within hours, most of the garrison was in the fort.  The defenders also put a chain across the mouth of the port and sank several ships to prevent the invasion fleet from entering.  Despite getting its defenses in place, the British faced a difficult situation.

British Defenses

The British commander, James Murray, was also a highly experienced officer from an aristocratic family.  Like his opponents, Murray was old enough to have fought in the War of Austrian Succession. He served as the captain of a grenadier company.  After the war, Murray used his experience and family money to purchase a commission as a major, and then as a lieutenant colonel.  He had faced off against the de Guichen during the Seven Years War when the latter besieged Louisbourg in Canada.

Port Mahon in 1756
I talked about Murray’s service very early in this podcast, when he was one of three generals under General Wolfe during the capture of Quebec in 1759.  After the war, Murray received promotion to major general, and served as the British governor of Quebec from 1763 to 1768.  After his return to Britain, Murray received an appointment as Lieutenant-Governor of Menorca in 1774, and then as Governor in 1778.

Murray’s lieutenant governor was also a general in the regular army: William Draper.  There is some debate about the size of the British garrison.  Some contemporary reports say that the defenders numbered around 5600.  However, nearly 2000 of those were civilian workers and local militia. Many of the locals were from other nationalities.  There were sizable Jewish, Greek, and North African communities living on the island.  It appears that few, if any, of these, mustered at the fort for its defense.  Within a few weeks of its invasion, the Spanish expelled all of these communities, removing from the island.

Many of the British regulars who had been stationed on Menorca before the war had been shipped to North America.  To replace them, George III had deployed soldiers from Hanover, in what is today Germany, to fill the garrison at Menorca.  Recall that in addition to being King of Britain, George was also the Elector of Hanover.  Murray reported having about 2700 men, of which about 2000 were British regulars, although about 400 of his regulars were invalids who could perform limited service.

The Siege

Despite the disparity in forces, Fort St. Phillip was a formidable defense.  Spanish forces would be unable to take it by storming the defenses.  Instead, both sides settled in for a siege.  General Murray had managed to get a message off the island, via a Venetian merchant vessel, which brought word to the British Consulate at Florence that the garrison was under siege.  Even so, there were no British fleets readily available to break the siege.

Port Mahon in 1781
Initially, Spanish forces deployed just over 10,000 soldiers to the island.  Spanish artillery set up a large battery on Cape Molal, just across Port Mahon to the west of Fort St. Phillip. Over time, additional artillery batteries were set up the north, west, and south of the fort so that the attackers could fire from all sides.  After several months, the Spanish received reinforcements, increasing their ranks to over 13,000.  The addition of French soldiers may have put enemy boots on the ground at over 16,000.

By November, the Spanish were lobbing mortar shells into the fort, causing some damage, but not enough to take the fort.

During this time, British defenders were not simply hunkering down.  British cannons fired on the Spanish artillery, destroying some.  Several British sorties front he fort killed or captured enemies who got too close.  Given the vast difference in force size, however, these sorties had to retreat back into the fort before the Spanish could mount any sort of counterattack.


Several months into the siege, Crillon was under pressure to finish off the garrison.  The Spanish general had a reputation as a courteous enemy who was gracious to his opponents.  There is an example of this, while he was engaged in the siege of Gibraltar, Crillon had sent the British commander a shipment of fruits, vegetables, meats, and ice, noting the excessive heat, and a note stating that he looked forward to becoming his friend after facing him as an enemy.

On Menorca, about two months into the siege, Crillon attempted to reach out to Murray in the hopes of ending the siege as soon as possible.  Crillon decided the best way to do this might just be to offer a bribe.  In mid-October, Crillon offered Murray a payment of what amounted to a little more than £100,000 and a general’s commission in the French or Spanish army if Murray would surrender the fort.

Murray took the offer as an insult to his honor.  The two leaders exchanged a series of notes that indicated that there would be no surrender anytime soon.  The British had plenty of ammunition, impenetrable defenses, and enough food to last for a year before the need for a relief fleet.


Soon after this exchange, a dispute broke out between General Murray and his second in command, General Draper.  It seems that Draper began to favor a British surrender in late October.  The timing of this has led some historians to speculate that the Spanish might have offered a bribe to Draper after Murray had turned down such an offer.  No evidence of such a bribe has ever been found, but the timing does seem suspicious.

During the first few months of the siege, the two generals seemed to work well with one another.  On October 29, however, Draper wrote a letter back to a member of the House of Lords stating:

My Lord, I am sorry to be obliged to inform you that I think Lieut.-General Murray in his capacity as a magistrate has acted so very ill that I hold it incumbent upon me to bring him to trial for the same, and I must beg the favour of you to inform His Majesty therewith. 

The letter is frustratingly unclear about exactly what Murray had done to deserve being put on trial.  A few weeks later, Murray wrote a note to Draper, criticizing him for not doing his duty, and asking if he wanted to be relieved.  Draper continued and the two seemed to continue working on the defense of the fort for the next couple of months.

James Murray
In January, 1782, when Murray ordered defenders to withdraw from some of the fort’s outer works and reinforce the inner works, Draper demanded a council of war, or said he would no longer serve as lieutenant governor.  Murray took that as an act of insubordination.  He relieved Draper of command and divided the command between British Colonel Pringle and Hanoverian Colonel Linsing.

In addition to commanding the defense of the fort, Murray also had to deal with dissension in the ranks caused by Draper’s removal, and the view of many officers that they really did need to consider surrendering.

In truth, the military situation began to get much worse over November and December.  Enemy mortars  had destroyed many gardens inside the fort that provided the only source of fresh vegetables.  As a result, many in the garrison were suffering from scurvy.  Malnourishment also allowed other diseases to begin to take their toll.

Spanish Troops on Menorca
The garrison had fallen to about 1500 men, many of those in hospital.  Many soldiers who were sick refused to seek medical assistance, especially since there was little that could be done.  There were quite a few accounts of guards simply dropping dead from sickness while on guard duty.

One reason Murray had to pull back from the outer defenses in January was that he no longer had enough men to defend them.  The enemy had intensified its bombardment in preparation for a final assault.   About this same time, enemy mortars destroyed a storehouse that contained much of the salted meat that had been sustaining the garrison.

The defenders managed to hold out for a few more weeks, keeping up cannon fire against the enemy.  But by February, they were losing about 50 men per day to scurvy.  Murray noted that he needed 830 men to maintain guard duty in the fort, but had only 660 who were healthy enough to do so.  Almost all of those 660 men showed some signs of scurvy, meaning they would not be able to do so for much longer.


With the end appearing near, Murray sent a note to Crillon on February 4, setting forth the terms under which he would surrender the fort.  Essentially Murray was willing to give up the fort in exchange for passage of his men, and their arms back to Gibraltar.  His men would retain their arms, ammunition and flags while awaiting transport.

Surrender at Minorca
Crillon, of course, also realizing the end was near for the British, refused these generous terms.  He countered that any surrender would require the British garrison to become prisoners of war.

The following day, the two commanders reached a compromise agreement.  The British would become prisoners of war temporarily, but would be allowed transport back to Gibraltar.  Crillon allowed that 

in Consideration of the Constancy and Valour which General Murray and his Men have shewn in their brave Defence, they shall be permitted to go out with their Arms shouldered, Drums beating, lighted Matches, and Colours flying, till having marched through the Midst of the Army, they shall lay down their Arms and Colours

The British force of about 950 soldiers who were still capable of walking, walked out of the fort on February 6, 1782 to the nearby town of Georgetown, where they laid down their arms.  British records report only 59 defenders killed in battle, meaning that probably nearly 2000 died of scurvy or other diseases during the siege.  The victors did everything they could to care for their foes, providing them with much needed food and medicine.  French ships carried the survivors back to Gibraltar.


The Spanish victory made Crillon a national hero.  He received promotions and accolades, including changing his title to the Duke de Crillon-Mahon.  Spanish leaders gave him command of the Siege of Gibraltar.

Over in London, the dispute between General Murray and General Draper only grew larger.  Draper returned to London while Murray remained at Gibraltar for several months.  Draper, while in London, referred 29 charges against his former commander to be heard by court martial.  Murray’s absence, as well as chaos in the government following news of Yorktown, meant that the court martial did not have a chance to sit until the end of 1782, rendering a verdict in early 1783.

Murray was acquitted of all but two minor charges, one of which was bringing discredit and dishonor up Draper.  The court recommended only a reprimand.  The king approved the verdict but did not issue a reprimand of his own.  The court also directed Draper to sign an apology to Murray for bringing frivolous and ill-founded charges against his commander.

The following year, the court published the records of the court martial, including Murray’s defense.  The court left out Draper’s response to the defense, so Draper published his views as a public pamphlet.

Next week, we’ll take a look at some of the other battles around the world that pressured the British to end the war in America.

- - -

Next Episode 306 War in India 

Previous Episode 304 Jacksonborough Assembly

 Contact me via email at

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Further Reading


Cassell's Illustrated History of England, Vol. 5, London: Cassell Petter & Galpin, 1865. 

Ode on the taking of Minorca. Addressed to the Honourable James Murray, 1782. 

Andrews, John History of the war with America, France, Spain, and Holland: Commencing in 1775 and ending in 1783, London: Pater Noster Row, 1785. 

Draper, William Observations on the Honourable Lieutenant-General Murray's Defence, 1783. 

Mahon, Reginald H. Life of General the Hon. James Murray, London: John Murray, 1921. 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Chartrand, René Gibraltar, 1779-1783: The Great Siege, Osprey Publishing, 2006

 Warren, Jack D. Freedom: The Enduring Importance of the American Revolution, Lyons Press, 2023

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.