Sunday, January 12, 2020

Episode 131 Continental Congress - Baltimore Edition

The last few weeks, we have covered some of the most pivotal events of the Revolution.  The massive British Army under General Howe invaded New York and New Jersey, sending the Continental Army fleeing before it.  The Continental Army then countered to retake New Jersey.  Last week we looked at events in the south over the same period as Tories in Florida with their Creek and Seminole allies seemed to have no trouble pushing into patriot-controlled Georgia.  Today we look at what the Continental Congress was doing as all these events unfolded.

Relocating Congress

As the British army moved toward Philadelphia in December 1776, the Continental Army was not able to mount much of any defense.  Many on both sides assumed the British would take Philadelphia before ending the year’s offensive.  Members of Congress, not eager to become prisoners of war, decided to leave Philadelphia.  On December 12, the Congress voted to adjourn and reconvene in Baltimore, Maryland the following week.

Fite House (from US Capitols)
In Baltimore, locals first offered Congress the Courthouse, but it was too small.  Instead Congress rented the Henry Fite House, which was actually a hotel and tavern on the western edge of town.  The three story, 14 room brick building had several rooms large enough for committee meetings.  At the time, it was the largest building in Baltimore.  Congress rented the building from Fite for three months for £60.

Overall members were not happy with Baltimore.  It was not the charming modern city that exists today. As one member put it “the town was exceedingly expensive, and exceedingly dirty, that at times members could make their way to the assembly hall only on horseback, through deep mud."  In his diary, John Adams called it “the dirtiest place in the world.” There was also a 107 year wait for Orioles tickets.

Washington Gets More Power

Putting aside the conditions in Baltimore, Congress got to work.  Remember mid-December was the low point of the patriot movement.  Everyone expected the British to take Philadelphia.  The Continental Army might be captured in the process.  If not, officers and soldiers were already deserting what they saw as a lost cause.  Congress had been reluctant to turn over much power to General Washington and the rest of the military leadership for fear of losing civilian control of the army.  Since there was no executive branch, Congress itself had to act as a department of war, trying to run everything through committees.

Washington at Trenton
Congress voted on December 27 to give Washington special powers for six months to raise his own army from the states, appoint officers, and take appropriate action against uncooperative civilians.  This was the day after Washington’s victory at Trenton, but the timing was purely coincidental.  It is not clear whether word of the victory had even reached Congress by the time of the vote.  The matter had been under debate for days prior.

This was not about handing out power to a victorious general.  Congress was effectively admitting that it was not capable of making the necessary executive decisions that had to be made decisively and quickly by the Commander in Chief.  It put a six month time limit on the powers to make sure Washington did not become a dictator.  With the army on the verge of collapse, and the only serious replacement for Washington, General Charles Lee, now a British prisoner, Congress decided it had to go all in, depending on Washington to run the army as best he saw fit.

Congress expressed concern about some recent prisoners.  Congress directed Washington to investigate and protest General Howe’s treatment of Richard Stockton, who I discussed back in Episode 118. Treatment of a captured member of the Continental Congress was an issue near and dear to the hearts of the rest of the members.  Congress also denounced British treatment of Charles Lee.  When initially captured, there were rumors that Lee would be shipped back to England and hanged as a deserter or traitor. Congress affirmed Washington’s position that if the British hanged an American general, the Americans would hang a British officer of the same rank.

By the time Congress passed this resolution though, the British were treating Lee quite well.  They allowed Lee to send for his dogs and servants.  General Howe met personally with Lee during this time.  Howe eventually got Lee to send a letter to Congress asking them to send a delegation to New York to discuss peace terms.  By mid-February though, it appeared that the Americans were back on the offensive.  Congress rejected Lee’s proposal.

Foreign Policy

Congress was not ready to consider any peace proposal if Britain did not recognize American Independence.  That position required military victory.  Washington’s minor victories in New Jersey had been a huge boost for morale, but they did not change the thinking on either side that Britain would eventually crush the rebellion unless the Americans could get a few more countries involved.

I mentioned back in Episode 115 that Congress had appointed Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Lee to work as Commissioners along with Silas Deane in France.  They needed to pull France into the war with Britain.

Franklin in Paris
(from U. Penn)
Congress, however, did not want to rely on France alone.  Franklin had only arrived in France in late December.  Before Franklin could do much of anything, let alone get any reports back to Congress, the delegates added to Franklin’s duties by appointing him to serve as a Commissioner to the Court of Spain.  Both France and Spain had lost colonies to Britain during the Seven Years War.  Congress hoped that both countries might find this an opportune time to reclaim lost real estate while Britain was tied up in America.  Entry of any other European power into war against Britain would force London to spread its resources more thinly, and give America a better chance of holding onto its independence.

I’m going to get into Franklin’s exploits in Paris in a future episode, but for now, I want to point out that Congress was already expanding his role and attempting to get whatever European powers into a war that would improve the American odds of winning.

Congress also was not convinced that anyone could convince France to start a new war with Britain.  If they could not get France into the war, Congress at least hoped to receive more covert assistance in the form of munitions and other supplies needed to help the war effort.

Vermont Independence, Not Now

As if there was not enough going on, political leaders in the New Hampshire Grants met in a convention in the town of Westminster.  There, they drafted their own declaration of independence, calling themselves the Republic of New Connecticut.  A few months later, they would change the name to Vermont.

The declaration was especially controversial because New York still considered this territory to be part of New York.  Anxious not to annoy the New York delegation, Congress opted to ignore the declaration entirely, not approving or criticizing it.  It would not receive a delegation from the new self-proclaimed republic nor do anything else to recognize its status.  The people of Vermont would have to wait more than a decade to get any recognition.  For this reason, I’m only mentioning this in passing for now.  I will talk more about the politics of Vermont independence in a future episode.

Money Problems

A much more immediate problem for Congress was money.  Congress had been pumping out millions of dollars in paper money, which promised the bearer some day would receive hard currency.  But especially when it looked like the British might win, no one wanted to accept the Continental currency since a British victory meant there would be no entity around to make good on that paper.  Even when the Americans looked like they had a chance of victory though, continental paper continually suffered from hyper-inflation.  Congress had no plan in place to receive any hard money (gold and silver) to pay off the paper.  States would not give it the power to collect taxes.  It could only get anything from the states if the states unanimously agreed to such a plan.  Congress never seemed capable of doing that.

1st Ed. Adam Smith "Wealth of Nations"
published in 1776 but did not influence
Congress' monetary policies.
(from Great Thinkers)
On January 14th, Congress passed some recommendations for states to come up with tax money.  But for a people fighting a war over a foreign government trying to collect taxes from the states, there was a strong inclination for many states to oppose this.  Anyone ever getting anything of value in exchange for their paper currency continued to look like quite a gamble.

Congress’ only response to this was to order people to accept the money at face value in exchange for their goods.  The only time that really worked was when soldiers pointed a gun at merchants and ordered them to turn over their goods in exchange for paper, or go to jail.  As a result, few people were willing to supply the government with much of anything.

During this session, Congress approved borrowing another $13 million through the sale of loan certificates.  It also increased the interest rates from 4% to 6%.  Even with these changes, the risks were too high for most speculators.

In December and January, New England leaders met at a conference in Providence, Rhode Island to discuss the growing problems of government credit and currency acceptance.  Although over in Britain, Adam Smith had published his new book, The Wealth of Nations, no one in America seemed interested in the invisible hand of the market.  Instead, delegates recommended the establishment of mandatory prices on a wide range of commonly needed goods, and forcing merchants to accept paper money at those prices.  The Continental Congress endorsed the New England Conference’s recommendations, and also recommended that the middle and southern states hold similar conferences.

This, of course, only continued devalue the Continental dollar and created even more economic chaos across the continent.  But to be fair to Congress, they really had no choice.  Congress had no power to raise money through taxes, and little chance of obtaining that power in the foreseeable future.  States would not come up with the necessary funds to prosecute the war.  As a result, delegates saw no option other than to continue printing paper money and force people to accept it for goods and services.

Changing the Medical Corps

In addition to building a diplomatic corps and creating an economic system out of nothing, Congress also spent considerable time running military affairs.  Although they had just given Washington a great deal of authority over such things, Congress could not help but meddle in disputes that came to its attention.

Congress had appointed John Morgan as Physician-in-Chief of the Army back in October 1775.  This was right after it removed Benjamin Church on suspicion of espionage.  Dr. Morgan had been a Quaker physician in Philadelphia before the war, but had served in the French and Indian War and left his Quaker upbringing behind many years before the war even started.  He became a committed patriot and by most accounts served reasonably well as Physician-in-Chief for well over a year.  The big complaint against him was that he was unable to make medical supplies available to regimental surgeons.  But the problem there was not administrative competence.  It was that the Continental Army had no supplies, and no money to buy them.

John Morgan
(from Wikimedia)
Dr. William Shippen, also from Philadelphia, and Dr. Samuel Stringer of Albany both tried to undermine Morgan and replace him.  In the fall of 1776, Congress had decided to divide medical authority, limiting Morgan’s authority to New England and giving Shippen administrative control over the mid-Atlantic region where the Continental Army was now centered.  Stringer, put in charge of the Northern army medical staff, simply refused to obey any of Morgan’s orders.  Morgan visited Congress in an attempt to figure out why they had done this, but could not get a hearing.

Finally in January 1777, Congress decided it had had enough.  Without consulting Washington and without any hearings, Congress simply dismissed Morgan and Stringer from the army and put Shippen in charge.  Morgan, unhappy with his dismissal and unable to get a hearing, published a book over 200 pages long trying to vindicate himself and his reputation.

Morgan made it his goal in life to take down Shippen.  In late 1778, Morgan working with Dr. Benjamin Rush, a member of Congress and also a Philadelphia physician, had Shippen brought up on charges of fraud and speculation.  Among other things, they accused Shippen of speculating in the sale of goods needed by the wounded and personally profiting from their sale.  Shippen avoided conviction by one vote and continued to serve until he resigned in 1781.

Congress later exonerated Morgan of any wrongdoing, but did not reinstate him.  His army career was over for good.

Congress also made another important medical decision during this session. It recommended that all Continental soldiers receive smallpox inoculations.  This was controversial.  A safe vaccination would not be discovered until years later. The inoculation as it existed at the time often left the soldiers sick with a mild version of the disease for a couple of months, rendering them incapable of fighting or marching.  It also killed a small percentage of those inoculated. For this reason, Washington at one point had banned inoculations and even jailed some private doctors who inoculated soldiers.

At the same time though, smallpox could ravage armies.  It had killed thousands of soldiers, especially in the northern army during the Quebec campaign, where I think it was decisive in the failure to secure Canada for the patriots.  Smallpox had already claimed the life of Major General John Thomas as well as the Army’s first foreign General, Frederick William, Baron de Woedtke, both of whom had succumbed to the disease months earlier.  John Adams called smallpox “ten times more terrible than Britons, Canadians and Indians, together." The decision to inoculate soldiers, with which Washington also had come to agree, would end up saving thousands of desperately needed soldiers.

Congress also created a Commissary General of American Prisoners whose job would be to provide necessities for the American POWs that the British held in New York. The thousands of prisoners, mostly captured during the New York campaign and the surrender of Fort Washington were literally starving to death aboard prison ships.  After Congress approved the position, Washington appointed Elias Boudinot to serve as Commissary General.  I plan to discuss his activities in a future episode.

Promoting Generals

Congress also took the opportunity to use the session to appoint more generals.  Although Congress had granted Washington authority to commission field officers, Congress retained for itself the authority to commission new general officers.  Early in the session, it has appointed Henry Knox as a new brigadier general and chief of artillery.  It also appointed Francis Nash general to assist with the organization and defense of the Carolinas.

Major General Lord Stirling
(from find a grave)
Toward the end of the session though, Congress decided to make some larger promotion decisions.  On February 19th, it promoted five men to major general: William Alexander (Lord Stirling), Thomas Mifflin, Arthur St. Clair, Adam Stephen, and Benjamin Lincoln.  Two days later, it promoted nine others to brigadier general.

All promotions can be controversial in the sense of who gets it and who does not.  But these appointments had a particular impact on one man: Benedict Arnold.  General Arnold had seniority over all five of the appointees to major general.  Arnold was already ticked that he had not received promotion in an earlier round back in August 1776.  But at least in that round, all those who did get promoted were senior to him, even if their service was not particularly distinguished.  Arnold, who had almost single-handedly held off a British invasion from Canada that fall, and who was one of the most senior brigadier generals in service, seemed a lock for promotion in this round.

When you got passed over for officers with less seniority, that usually was taken that the leadership did not respect you and that you should resign.  Arnold wrote to Washington, inquiring about this and indicated that he would resign.  He only held off because Washington said there must have been some mistake and that he should wait until Washington could make inquiries into what happened.

As it turned out, there was no mistake.  Congress had considered and rejected Arnold.  The main reason given was that Congress already had two major generals from Connecticut, and that before this, no State had three major generals.  Of course it did not seem to bother anyone that Virginia got its third major general in this round, in addition to the Commander in Chief.   General Adam Stephen who just got bumped up was particularly undistinguished and someone who General Washington despised.

Thomas Mifflin
(from Wikimedia)
The reality was that despite Arnold’s impressive fighting record, he did not have friends in Congress to advocate for him.  Members knew his record of fighting with superiors and with the officers under his command.  Arnold wrote out several resignations but ended up remaining at his post, mostly because Washington pleaded with him to do so and promised to work things out.

Arnold wrote back to Washington to say that he could interpret this action in no way other than Congress had lost faith in Arnold as a leader and was politely asking him to resign.  The only things that kept him from doing so immediately was that he expected Congress to send another leader to take over his command, and his desire to go to Philadelphia and seek a court martial prior to resigning.  With that he would have the opportunity to hear the criticisms against him and defend his reputation before submitting his resignation.

This dispute would linger for a few months.  In May, following Arnold’s noted leadership at the Danbury Raid, which I’ll discuss in a future episode, Congress finally decided to give him the promotion.  However, going from the most senior brigadier general to the most junior major general meant that the promotion changed nothing in terms of who could give him orders and who he could order.  So the same five men who had been promoted over him were still his senior.  So, Arnold’s grudge against Congress for being denied proper respect for his services would continue.

Return to Philadelphia

By the end of February delegates decided the Continental Army’s counter offensive in New Jersey had made Philadelphia apparently secure for the time being.  On February 27th, the delegates adjourned their Baltimore session and resumed work in Philadelphia on March 5th.

Next Week, I will look at how the British military and political leadership debated strategic war plans and prepared for the 1777 fighting season.

- - -

Next Episode 132 Britain Adjusts its War Plans

Previous Episode 130 Fort McIntosh, Ga

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Further Reading 


Rush, Benjamin “Historical Notes of Dr. Benjamin Rush, 1777” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 27, No. 2, The Historical Society of Pennsylvania; University of Pennsylvania Press, 1903, pp. 129-150:

John Morgan:

John Morgan:

William Shippen:

Samuel Stringer:

Smallpox during the Revolutionary War:

Elias Boudinot:

Letter, Washington to Arnold, March 3, 1777:

Letter, Arnold to Washington March 11, 1777:

Procknow, Gene “Personal Honor and Promotion Among Revolutionary Generals and Congress” Journal of the American Revolution, 2018:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Journals of the Continental Congress, Vol. 6 (Oct. 9 - Dec. 31, 1776) Washington: Government Printing Office 1906.

Journals of the Continental Congress, Vol. 7 (Jan. 1 - May 21, 1777) Washington: Government Printing Office 1907.

Morgan, John A vindication of his public character in the station of director-general of the military hospitals and physician in chief to the American army, anno 1776, Boston: Powers and Willis, 1777.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Mello, Robert A. Moses Robinson and the Founding of Vermont, Vermont Historical Society, 2014.

Montross, Lynn The Reluctant Rebels, The Story of the Continental Congress 1774-1789, Harper & Bros. 1950.

Smith, Page John Adams, Doubleday and Co. 1962.

Steffen, Charles G. The Mechanics of Baltimore: Workers and Politics in the Age of Revolution, 1763-1812, Univ. of Illinois Press, 1984.

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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