The Opening of the Revolutionary Era

From A History of the Irish Settlers in North America by Thomas D'Arcy McGee

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Chapter V.

Opening of the Revolutionary Era—Irish at Bunker's Hill—Death of Major M'Cleary—General Knox—The Clintons—The Pennsylvania Line—Moylan's Dragoons

THE period of that eventful Revolution, in which the emigrants, who had chastised the savages and expelled the French, were to turn the firelocks and cannon of England against herself, now opens before us. From the period of the Albany Conference, of 1754, the idea of confederation had filled the minds of the thoughtful, and from the capture of Louisburgh, the sense of self-protection animated the bold. It needed only in England a meddling minister and a perverse prince, to bring forth the great resistant qualities of the colonies, and these appeared in perfection in Lord North and George the Third.

It is not our place to enter into the preliminaries of this glorious contest, further than to say that the whole Irish race threw their weight into the colonial scale. The Irish Commons refused to vote 45,000 for the war. The Irish in England, headed by Burke, Barre, and Sheridan, spoke and wrote openly in defence of America; and the Irish in France, where several of them then held considerable employments, were equally zealous. Counts MacMahon, Dillon, and Roche Fermoy, General Conway, and other experienced officers, held themselves ready to volunteer into the American service; and afterwards, at the desire of the American agents in Paris, did so.

The Stamp Act was repealed in 1766, but the Tea Tax was enacted in 1767. This measure led to the general combination, which had its corresponding committee in every town and village, and which finally ripened into the Continental Army and the Continental Congress.

The first overt act was the massacre of some citizens of Boston, in State street, by a party of riotous red-coats. One of these earliest victims was a native of Ireland. The next aggression was on the other side, and of far greater significance. News having reached Portsmouth, N. H., that the export of gunpowder into America was "proclaimed," Major John Sullivan and John Langdon, with a company of the townsmen, surprised the fort at Newcastle, took the captain and five men, carried off one hundred barrels of gunpowder, fifteen light cannon, and the entire of the small arms, all of which afterwards did effectual service at Bunker Hill. For this act, Sullivan and Langdon were elected to the Continental Congress, which met in May, 1775, and the former was, the same year, appointed by that body one of the eight brigadiers general of the first American army.

In April, 1775, open war began at Lexington. When the British forces were beaten back into Boston, Thomas Cargill, of Ballyshannon, settled at Concord, saved the town records from their ravages, and entered heartily in the war. The American companies formed at Cambridge, their chief outwork being on Bunker Hill, behind Charlestown, divided by the Charles River from Boston. They were commanded by General Artemas Ward, who stationed behind the breastwork, on the left of the main body, 800 New Hampshire militia, under Stark and Reid, both of Londonderry.[1] Here the first act of hostilities befell, and nobly did the conscripts of the colonies hold their own. After a great destruction of the enemy, they slowly retired to an adjacent hill, where they were re-formed, and placed under the command of Brigadier General Sullivan. Major Andrew McClary, whose great size and desperate valor made him peculiarly conspicuous, fell while crossing "the Neck." Eighteen others of Stark and Reid's command were killed, and eighty-nine were wounded in the same eventful field.

The army awaited at Cambridge the arrival of General Washington, appointed commander-in-chief by the Continental Congress, in session at Philadelphia, on the same week the battle of Bunker Hill was fought. It is necessary to inquire what forces the new commander-in-chief had at his disposal, and, for our purpose, what part of those forces were derived from the Irish settlements.

At the first Council of War, held at Cambridge, [July 9th, 1775,] it was found that "the Continental Army," then investing Boston, was nominally 17,000 strong, but actually but 14,000. It was resolved to prosecute the siege, but that 22,000 were necessary. Of the four majors general, [Ward, Lee, Schuyler, and Putnam,] none were Irish; of the eight brigadiers general, two, Richard Montgomery, of New York, and John Sullivan, of New Hampshire, were Irish. Of the other officers we cannot now say what precise proportion our nation contributed; but we will find, in the course of the war, that a full third of the active chiefs of the army were of Irish birth or descent. Of the rank and file, New Hampshire's contingent were in great part of Irish origin; and in other colonies, recruiting prospered most in the Irish townships.

The command of the ordnance department was a post of the greatest importance, and the selection made by Washington, in this case, was most fortunate. Henry Knox, born in Boston, in 1750, was the son of Irish parents. Though early left an orphan, with a widowed mother to support, he had risen against circumstances, from a book-binder's apprentice to be a prosperous publisher, and a persevering student of tactics. He had early joined a local Grenadier Company, and learned with them the manual exercise. Married into the family of a British official, he never swerved from the cause of his country. He succeeded in inspiring his wife with his own patriotism, and in June both escaped from the city, she concealing on her person the sword with which her husband fought at Bunker Hill. Knox now undertook to bring to Cambridge the cannon taken on Lake Champlain by Ethan Allen; and, after incredible exertions against the difficulties of transit in those days, succeeded. These and Sullivan's guns formed the first artillery of the United States army, and Knox became its first master of ordnance.

The Irish in New York early enlisted in the cause of the Revolution, and James Clinton, in 1775, was elected colonel of the third regiment raised in that colony. His brother-in-law, Colonel James McClearey, commanded in the same militia, and is called "one of the bravest officers America can boast."[2] The elder brother, George Clinton, after the death of Montgomery, was appointed brigadier general for New York; and in 1776, with his two kinsmen, gallantly defended the unfinished forts on the Hudson, and held the Highlands against the repeated assaults of Sir H. Clinton.[3] By this check, he prevented the junction of that commander with General Burgoyne, which, with General Stark's victory at Bennington, cut him off from either base, and compelled his surrender at Saratoga,—a victory which completed the French alliance, and saved the revolutionary cause.

In Pennsylvania, where the Irish were more densely settled, their martial ardor was equally conspicuous. They inhabited chiefly in Ulster and Chester counties, and in Philadelphia. In the summer of 1775, Congress ordered the raising of several regiments in Pennsylvania, and, among the rest, gave commissions as colonel to Anthony Wayne, William Irving, William Thompson, Walter Stewart, Stephen Moylan, and Richard Butler, all Irishmen The regiments of Wayne, Irving, Butler, and Stewart, formed part of the famous "Pennsylvania Line.'' Thompson's was a rifle regiment. Moylan, a native of Cork, after being aide-de-camp to Washington and commissary general, was finally transferred to the command of the Dragoons; and in almost every severe action of the war where cavalry could operate, we meet with the fearless "Moylan's Dragoons." Dr. Edmund Hand, who came to Canada with the Irish Brigade, as surgeon, was appointed lieutenant colonel in Thompson's regiment, and on the first of March, 1776, raised to the full rank of colonel, from which, on the first of April, 1777, he was promoted to be "brigadier general." Colonel Butler, a sound shoot of the Ormond tree, and his five sons, displayed equal zeal, and merited from Lafayette the compliment, that whenever he "wanted anything well done, he got a Butler to do it." So actively did these gentlemen exert themselves, that, on the 14th of August, 1776, a great part of the Pennsylvania Line arrived in the camp at Cambridge, which enabled Washington, by the beginning of September, to put his plans for the siege of Boston into execution.

While in camp at Cambridge, the commander-in-chief planned the expedition against Canada. This was to be undertaken in two divisions; that of Arnold to penetrate by the Kennebec and the forests of Maine; that of Montgomery to advance by the Sorel and St. Lawrence. Both were to unite at Quebec.

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[1] The contribution of the Irish settlement in New Hampshire, to the revolutionary forces, may be judged from the share of the small town of Bedford: Col. Daniel Moor, Major John Goffe, Capt. Thomas M'Laughlin, Lt. Joh. Patten, Joh. Patten, Jr., Sam. Patten, Jas. Patten, Robert Patten, John Gault, Isaac Riddle, John Riddle, Amos Martin, Jas. Martin, Stephen Goffe, (lost at sea,) Hugh Horton, (died in service,) Burns Chandler, (taken at the Cedars and never after heard of,) Samuel Moor, Samuel Barr, John Collahan, (killed,) James Moor, Robert Cornell, Ira Greer, Jones Cutting, Wm. Parker, John Hiller, John McAllister, Barnet McClair, John Griffer, Luke Gardiner, Robert Victorey, Robert Dalrymple, (killed,) Danl. Larkin, Samuel Patterson, James Patterson, Solomon Hemp, (killed,) John O'Niel, John Dorr, (killed,) George Hogg, Wm. Houston, Whitefield Gilmore, Zachariah Chandler, James Houston, Valentine Sullivan, (taken prisoner in the retreat from Canada, and died,) John Ross, John Steel, Stephen March, Robert Morril, John Tyrril, Patrick O'Murphy, Patrick O'Fling, Calvin Johnson, (died in service,) David Riddle, John Gardiner, and eighteen others, of whom three died in service.—Hist. Coll. of N. H., vol. i., p. 291.

[2] Quoted in Hoosick's Life of De Wilt Clinton.

[3] On one occasion the brothers narrowly escaped capture. The anecdote is related by Dr. Joseph Young, a contemporary, who says, at the taking of the forts, "they both remained until it grew dark, and got mixed up with the enemy. The governor escaped in a boat to the east side of the river, and James slid down the very steep bank of a creek, which ran near the redoubt, and fell into the top of a hemlock tree, and made his escape by going up the bed of the brook, in which there was but little water at the time. When the enemy rushed into the redoubt, Colonel McClearey and a Mr. Humphrey, the cock of whose musket had been shot off, turned back to back, and defended themselves desperately. They were assailed on all sides, and would undoubtedly have been killed; but a British senator, who witnessed their spirit and bravery, cried out that it would be a pity to kill such brave men. They then rushed on and seized them; and when the colonel was brought to the British General Clinton, he asked where his friend George was? The colonel replied, "Thank God, he is safe beyond the reach of your friendship!"—Washington and his Generals, vol. ii., p. 206.