The Birth of the American Nation

Henry Jones Ford

The extensive participation of the Scotch-Irish in the Revolutionary War has been generally set forth in preceding chapters. Consideration of particulars shows how vitally important was the support of that element. Its military traditions and its tenacity of character were specially valuable in the discouraging circumstances under which American resistance was kept up. There was much to dishearten and even to repel patriotic sentiment in the way in which the war was conducted and there were periods when it seemed that the cause would collapse from its own weakness. There was one such period soon after the Revolutionary War was fairly started.

The actual beginning of hostilities was a casual explosion. The battle of Lexington, April 19, 1775, was brought on by an expedition sent out by General Gage to destroy some military stores collected by the Americans at Concord. The British troops accomplished their purpose but the countryside rose against them and on their way back they were sniped at from behind hedges, walls and farm buildings, so that they sustained heavy losses. The battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775, was brought on by the attempt of the British commander to strengthen his position by occupying an eminence commanding Boston harbor. The Americans heard of his intention, slipped in ahead of him during the night and threw up some earthworks. The engagement that ensued illustrated both the strength and the weakness of American volunteers and militia.

The Americans, long accustomed to meeting frontier perils, had a general familiarity with firearms, the use of which among the middle and lower classes of England was almost unknown, owing to the game laws and to the sheltered condition of their lives. Hence American militia excelled in marksmanship even when confronted with the regular troops of England. But the Americans were without the discipline that keeps troops steady and obedient to command. Their instinct was to look out for themselves and if the notion seized them that the issue was turning against them they were likely to break precipitately. At Breed's Hill a force of about 1,500 men endured for hours the fire from British ships in the harbor, and then repulsed two attacks made by a superior force of British regulars. But they gave way before the third attack, largely owing to the fact that their ammunition had run out. The troops on Bunker Hill, seeing the retreat from Breed's Hill, could not be held in line, although General Putnam stormed, implored, raged and pleaded. The English gained the field, but at such a heavy cost in killed and wounded as to open their eyes to the fact that the Americans were really formidable foes, and seldom if ever has any other battle made such a favorable impression for the defeated side.

So far, however, the warfare was really on a tiny scale, and the British troops in Boston were so encompassed by a hostile population that only . defective organization on the American side enabled them to hold their ground so long as they did. It was not until after the battle of Bunker Hill that Washington was appointed commander-in-chief of the American forces. His correspondence from the American camp at Cambridge gives a picture of continual vexation and perplexity as to the material from which he was seeking to fashion an army. The British in Boston remained quiescent until Washington was ready to move. On the night of March 4, 1776, Washington made their position untenable by occupying Dorchester Heights. The British, then numbering about 7,600, got into their ships and sailed for Halifax. But this small force had held Boston for eleven months, after all the country around had risen in revolt with help coming from the other colonies.

The Boston campaign hardly belongs to the strategy of the Revolutionary War. It was essentially an insurrection with which the British forces were not strong enough to cope and before which they retreated. General Washington himself thought that if they had used their opportunities energetically it might have gone hard with his command, but allowance must be made for the doubts and uncertainties which beset the British general, confronted not by an avowed public enemy but by fellow subjects having eminent support even in the British Parliament. It was not until after the Boston campaign that the business of suppressing American resistance was seriously taken in hand as a military problem. The center of operations then shifted from Boston never to return, and in view of the prominence of Massachusetts in the transactions bringing on the war her actual experience of its stress was remarkably small.

The little army which General Howe took with him from Boston to Halifax in March, 1776, he transferred from Halifax to New York harbor in the following June and on July 8 he established his camp on Staten Island. Reinforcements soon arrived on an English fleet commanded by his brother, Admiral Howe, and additional reinforcements were obtained through troops withdrawn from Virginia, South Carolina and the West Indies, making his total force about 30,000 strong.

Field operations by the British opened on August 22, with the landing of troops on Long Island. The American army was defeated at the battle of Long Island, August 27; and again at the battle of Harlem Plains, September 16, and again at the battle of White Plains, October 28, 1776. Washington saved the remnant of his army by crossing the Delaware River into Pennsylvania, but his situation seemed almost desperate. His letters during this period complain bitterly of the character of the officers and men with whom he was expected to defend his country. Writing to his brother on November 19, 1776, Washington said: "The different States, without regard to the qualifications of an officer, are quarreling about the appointments, and nominate such as are not fit to be shoeblacks, from the local attachments of this or that member of Assembly." Joseph Reed, who was Washington's adjutant-general throughout the campaign of 1776 in New York and the Jerseys, wrote that "a spirit of desertion, cowardice, plunder, and shrinking from duty when attended by fatigue or danger, prevailed but too generally through the whole army."

Washington's difficulties were greatly aggravated by the widespread disaffection to the American cause which existed in all the middle colonies and was particularly strong in Pennsylvania where many people had been alienated by the revolutionary subversion of the charter Government. After he had crossed the Delaware he wrote to a friend, "We are in a very disaffected part of the Province, and between you and me I think our affairs are in a very bad condition; not so much from the apprehension of General Howe's army as from the defection of New York, the Jerseys and Pennsylvania." The capture of Philadelphia seemed so imminent that Congress fled to Baltimore.

The Pennsylvania revolution was mainly the work of the Scotch-Irish element of the population, but it was not approved by all the Scotch-Irish. Charles Thomson always regarded it as an untoward event that hurt much more than it helped the American cause. Close study of the period in our own time has on the whole corroborated Thomson's views. Paul Leicester Ford concludes a minute account of the revolution that overthrew the charter institutions of Pennsylvania with this statement of the consequences:

"The price paid is hard to compute. The division in the State had far reaching results. It prevented Washington from receiving the full aid of the most important State of the Union at Long Island, at White Plains and in the campaign of the Jerseys.

It alienated the richest city and the best grain and beef region from the American cause. It made Tories of many and rendered Howe's eventual occupation of Philadelphia almost the occupation of a friendly country. It so weakened the Government of Pennsylvania that for months, at the most critical period of the war, it not only was powerless to aid the Continental side but had actually to rely on the Congress for support. It created a lawlessness in the people that led to riots and confusion equalled in no other State, to the mutiny of the Pennsylvania line, the driving of Congress from Philadelphia and the later civil insurrections. Finally it built up a powerful 'popularist' party, opposed to commerce, to sound finance and to federal union, that for many years hung like a dead weight on all attempts tending to advance those measures."

But if the Scotch-Irish were mainly responsible for these consequences by outrunning public opinion in general by their radical measures, they retrieved the situation by their staunch loyalty to the American cause. As soon as Washington had crossed the Delaware he was in touch with the Scotch-Irish settlements in Bucks and Northampton Counties and felt the sustaining influences of active popular support. Clothing and blankets were collected by committees of citizens for the use of his soldiers. The Rev. John Rosbrugh, pastor of the Presbyterian Church at Allen and Lower Mount Bethel, Northampton County, raised a company and brought it to join the Continental army. The patriotic clergyman was killed by the enemy a few weeks later. More important even than the direct aid was the assurance of protection against surprise by volunteer scouts in every direction. The Scotch-Irish farmers could be depended upon to watch the roads and convey prompt intelligence of a movement in any quarter.

With his base of operations thus made secure Washington was in a position to conceive and execute the brilliant exploits by which he gained military renown in the crisis. The initiative was Washington's own. On December 14 he wrote to Governor Trumbull of his purpose "to attempt a stroke upon the forces of the enemy, who lie a good deal scattered," in the hope that success would "rouse the spirits of the people, which are quite sunk by our late misfortunes." The particular stroke actually attempted appears to have been due to the suggestion of Reed, who wrote from Bristol, N. J., December 22, 1776, giving detailed information of the location of the British forces, and asking, "Will it not be possible, my dear general, for your troops, or such part of them as can act with advantage, to make a diversion, or something more, at or about Trenton?" He went on to urge that "our cause is desperate and hopeless, if we do not take the opportunity of the collection of troops at present, to strike some stroke." On receipt of this letter Washington at once sent for Reed to come to his headquarters and the arrangements were made for the attack upon the Hessians at Trenton on the night of Christmas. The stroke was completely successful. The Hessians were defeated and their commander was mortally wounded. Washington having secured his prisoners re-crossed the Delaware and resumed his former position in Bucks County.

Meanwhile Reed was active in getting information of the position of the enemy and on December 28 he was able to send to Washington an account of conditions offering an opportunity for another stroke. Washington at once set the troops in motion and on the 30th he reoccupied Trenton. The General directed Reed, who was a Princeton graduate and knew the country well, to make a reconnoissance. Reed at once set out accompanied by six horsemen, members of the Philadelphia city troop—John Dunlap, James Hunter, Thomas Peters, William Pollard, and James and Samuel Caldwell. This little detachment performed a remarkable exploit, thus related by Reed:

"We met with little success on our way, or in the immediate vicinity of Princeton, to which we had approached within three miles. The ravages of the enemy had struck such terror that no rewards would tempt the inhabitants, though otherwise well disposed, to go into Princeton on this errand. But it being fully resolved not to return while there was a chance of success, it was concluded to pass on, and even to go round Princeton, expecting that in the rear they would be less guarded. As we were passing slowly on, almost within view of the town, a British soldier was observed passing from a barn to the dwelling house without arms. It being supposed that he was a marauder two of our party were sent to bring him in, but they had scarcely set out before another was seen, and then a third, when orders were given for our whole party to charge. This was done, and the house surrounded. Twelve British soldiers, equipped as dragoons, and well armed, their pieces loaded, and having the advantage of the house, surrendered to seven horsemen, six of whom had never before seen an enemy."

Reed returned to headquarters with these and other prisoners the same evening. The British began to concentrate against Washington's position in Trenton and began an attack on January 2, 1777. He decided to make a forced march during the night and attack the British in Princeton. This movement brought on the battle of Princeton, in which the British were signally defeated.

The effect of these brilliant successes upon the fortunes of war was far greater than the actual gains would indicate. Congress returned to Philadelphia and adopted measures for reorganizing the army. The Jerseys were practically abandoned by the British. The English historian Lecky says that "a fatal damp was thrown upon the cause of the Loyalists in America from which it never wholly recovered."

The British Government planned a campaign in 1777 which if successful would have cut the theatre of war in two. General Burgoyne, who had served with distinction in the war in Portugal, was in command of the British forces in Canada. The plan was that he should move southward to the Hudson, and in cooperation with General Clinton, stationed in New York, and General Howe, stationed in Philadelphia, hold the line of the Hudson, severing New England from the rest of the country. The southern part of the campaign was carried out according to the design. Clinton held New York and Howe was able to occupy Philadelphia after defeating General Washington at the battle of Brandywine. Meanwhile Burgoyne was pushing southward. He drove the Americans out of their fortifications at Ticonderoga and during their retreat inflicted upon them crushing defeats, the remnants that escaped fleeing in the direction of Albany. Affairs seemed in a desperate state, when the New Hampshire authorities appealed to John Stark to take charge of the defense of that State.

Stark's career is finely illustrative of the military aptitude implanted in the Scotch-Irish by their Ulster training and by their frontier experience in America. Born in Londonderry, N. H., in 1728, he experienced Indian captivity in his boyhood and gained a knowledge of the interior that enabled him to act as a scout for an expedition sent into the Indian country in 1753. In 1755 he was commissioned lieutenant of a company stationed at Fort Edward. While this company was upon an expedition it was attacked in overpowering numbers by the French and Indians, and all the superior officers were killed or wounded, so that the command devolved upon Stark. He managed the retreat so skillfully that he was successful in reaching Fort George with his men, bringing all his wounded. He was at once commissioned captain and served throughout the French War, gaining a high reputation as a cool and intrepid tactician.

It was only natural that a man of his military experience and ability should be prominent in the Revolutionary War. At the outbreak of hostilities he received a colonel's commission and raised a regiment almost in a day. That regiment formed the left of the American line at the battle of Bunker Hill, and covered the retreat.