Category Archives: American Revolution

Why the red coat?

Why the red coat?

It has been said in some circles that the British Army used red coats for their uniforms as a way to hide blood should a soldier get shot. This could be important to the moral of a unit. It would be hard to see who was wounded and who was not. Such consideration is foolish and patently untrue. While the red may hide the blood, the gaping holes in the fabric would probably be a giveaway. Also, they wore white pants, which are not good for hiding the blood that would accompany most wounds. So the question is why red?

In the days before synthetic dyes made almost any color cheap and easy to produce, some colors were more difficult and expensive to dye into clothing than others. Red and purple were by far the most difficult. Which is why they were used to project a sense of power. Purple has long been associated with kings and red with the Catholic church, the two groups that could afford the most expensive dyes.

So cladding their army in coats of red was meant to project power onto the battlefield. A sense of status to the soldiers themselves. Yet it was very expensive so the British put a little twist on it. The red dye for the enlisted men’s uniforms came from madder, a plant that is actually in the coffee family whose roots will provide a reddish color. Still costly, but affordable to the army. The officers however needed a red that was a little brighter and would stand out from the enlisted men. Their uniforms were dyed with cochineal, which is an insect. Yep, their uniforms were dyed with dead bug shells.

 

 

Jefferson Indian Peace Medal

Jefferson Indian Peace Medal

Jefferson Indian Peace Medal

 

In the days before the American Revolution, the great European powers explored the wilds of North America. They presented the leaders of the various native tribes with silver medals. The medals were symbols of friendship. They also singled out the leaders as special people. They were effective tools that tied the leadership of various tribes to the major powers.

In the wake of the Revolution, it was decided that the United States of America would continue the tradition. Thomas Jefferson, the first Secretary of State, saw the medals as just trinkets that were the continuation of a long-standing European tradition to give small presents to treaty negotiators, one that was harmless and really had no meaning. Sort of like when you stop at a truck stop and buy a spoon with the name of whatever state you are visiting.

When Jefferson, as President, sent Lewis and Clark on their great adventure to the Pacific Ocean they were loaded down with these medals in 1804 through 1806. Along the way, as they handed out the medal to the various tribes they encouraged their “new friends” to send back or turn in any such trinkets they had received previously from other Europeans. There is no record to indicate how many were returned. Odds are not many.

The medal above is one of these medals. The original medals were made of thin silver plates connected with a small silver band. On the front, President Jefferson, the back the crossed tomahawks and clasped hands indicating peace and friendship. Each successive President would strike their own medallions. Whether or not they worked in promoting friendship… well that may be another story.

 

The First Congressional Medal

The First Congressional Medal

So, you think that Congress is slow to act now?

The medal above was commissioned by Congress in 1776 to honor General George Washington for his role in forcing the British to abandon the besieged city of Boston.

A gold one was to be struck and given to General Washington.  Silver ones would be struck and given to dignitaries and VIPs.

The front of the coin, which should look a little familiar is based on the bust of Washington Jean-Antoine Houdon. The back side showed a scene of Washington and four of his men on Dorchester Heights overlooking Boston.

Over the next twelve years, Congress would authorize six additional medals. In 1777 they honored General Horatio Gates and 1779 General Anthony Wayne. Major Henry Lee, General’s Morgan and Greene would follow over the next couple of years and the last of the era went to John Paul Jones for his capture of the Serapis.

So about the delay. Congress approved each of these medals in a quick form, but it turned out that there was nowhere in the colonies that could actually produce the medals. So they looked to France to produce the awards. And they took their time.

On March 21, 1790, President Thomas Jefferson presented former President Washington with his medal. Also as a box containing the other five medals commissioned fourteen years after they were ordered. If only they had Amazon!

Over the years the Congressional gold medals would be given to prominent military men. Later recipients would expand to include actors, artists, musicians and other entertainers.

 

 

The Lilies of Yorktown

The Lilies of Yorktown

The Lilies of Yorktown

In October 1781 British General Cornwallis found himself, along with his army, under siege in the small Virginia town of Yorktown. The French and American armies took their final positions and the battle began in earnest. The American Revolution was about to enter into its final phase.

The French played an integral part in the war on the side of the Americans. Without their navy, there would have been no chance for the US to gain any ground against the mighty British Navy. Without their army, their professional and well-armed army things may have turned out different. At Yorktown, it was French siege guns and artillerymen that bore the brunt of the siege operations.

As the siege went on, both sides knew the end was coming. On the far end of the British lines were two redoubts, fortifications, that had housed British artillery at one time. To complete the siege the redoubts had to be taken. Called #9 and #10 the French and American forces prepared for the final investment. The Americans, led by a young Alexander Hamilton would take #10. The French would take #9 sending 400 men against the 120 defenders.

The French would carry their redoubt with a loss of fifteen men killed and seventy-seven wounded. Almost a quarter of their force. With both redoubts taken the circle around the British tightened and several days later they surrendered.

Today in redoubt #9, as pictured in the photo above, lilies grow bright and strong. Some people say that since the lily is the symbol of France it must have been the blood of the French soldiers that caused the lilies to spring up there in the redoubt. Hard to say if that is true or not, but there they are on the French redoubt paying tribute to our friends and allies.

 

 

The Ferguson Rifle

 

Ferguson Rifle
The lock mechanism of a Ferguson Rifle.

The Ferguson Rifle

It was expensive and hard to produce. Four gunsmiths would struggle to make 100 in six months. It cost four times what the standard musket would cost. What it was though was one of the first breech-loading rifles and it very well could have changed the face of the American Revolution.

A turn of the trigger guard would cause the breech plug to drop down, a standard British .615 caliber lead ball would be put into the barrel followed by the patch and powder. It could be loaded from a prone position, behind cover and loaded faster than a standard Brown Bess musket.

The rifle was designed by Patrick Ferguson a British officer who worked based on an earlier 1720 French design. After making improvements in the mechanism he was awarded the patent in 1776. At the start of the revolution, Ferguson gained permission to outfit 100 men in an “experimental rifle corp” to field test the weapons. At the Battle of Brandywine, the rifle served well but Ferguson himself was wounded. During his recuperation, the unit was disbanded and the rifle was used only sparingly. The cost of production proved too much and the rifle was mothballed.

The Myth

Ferguson would eventually meet his end later in the war at King’s Mountain. One account of his unit at Brandywine would live on well past him. Just before he was wounded in the battle he observed a group of American officers enter a small glade. He and some of his men had taken cover at the edge. From the uniforms, he could tell that these were high-ranking men. He raised his self-named rifle placing the sites on the man in the lead. At that moment the group turned around, oblivious to the dangers lurking at the wood line. Ferguson decided to not take the shot as shooting the man in the back would not be honorable. The group of officers made it back unscathed and Ferguson would later catch a ball in his elbow and be put out of action.

Based on accounts on the day of the battle it is very probable that the man who had been in the sites of Ferguson’s rifle was General George Washington himself. Later upon hearing that it may have been, Washington Ferguson said that he did not regret his decision. A case of honor over expediency.

 

The Raleigh Tavern at Williamsburg

The Raleigh

The Raleigh Tavern

Nestled in the middle of the Duke of Gloucester Street in Colonial Williamsburg stands the Raleigh Tavern. Or at least a close facsimile. The original burned down in 1859 and the lot was built over. In 1926 the forerunner to Colonial Williamsburg began excavation on the site and uncovered the original foundation. The building was restored and opened in 1932 and became the first exhibition building at Williamsburg. It stands today. You can eat lunch and dinner there and take part in reenactments of the history that happened here.

What makes this building so special?

Ground was broken for the tavern around 1717, named of course, for Sir Walter Raleigh. One of the first to try to build a colony in Virginia. The tavern became the social center of the town. It became a favorite place for the delegates to the colonial assembly to meet after sessions. In a lot of ways, these “after session” meetings became the breeding ground of the revolutionary movement.

In 1769 the  Governor dissolved the House of Burgess because they passed a non-importation agreement. This was in response to the Townsend Acts. It was here at the Raleigh that the men met. Here they formed an association that carried out the first boycott in the colonies against the British.

In 1773 in a private room Richard Lee, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and other prominent men meet and created the first of the Committees of Correspondence. This committee traded news and happenings with leaders in other colonies and would become the primary means of organizing colonial resistance to the Crown’s rule.

The next year when Governor Dunmore closed the legislature for objecting to Parliament closing the Port of Boston in reaction to the Boston Tea Party, the delegates meet here again to draft another non-importation agreement.

The Raleigh Tavern became the center point of the revolution in Virginia.  It is very fitting that it became one of the first buildings restored at Williamsburg. If you ever are in the area stop by Colonial Williamsburg and The Raleigh Tavern, a place that earned a spot in history.

 

Firearms in Colonial America

Firearms in Colonial America

Firearms in Colonial America

Yep, firearms of all kinds were very prevalent in Colonial America. As might be expected in a far distant land with thousands of miles of frontier bordering it. The following are a few interesting details that were found in the William and Mary Law Review Volume 43 No. 5,2002 Counting Guns in Early America by James Lindergren and Justin L, Heather

The information that is listed below comes from probate records from the various colonies where full inventories of personal belongings were made and kept. So the numbers are dependent on estates going through the probate process, which was not always the case. Interesting, but not conclusive.

In inventories from 1774 firearms were found listed in the 53% of male estates.

At the same time, female estates showed that approximately 38% of women-owned some sort of firearm.

From the same inventories, only 30% of estates showed any cash in the inventory.

14% owned some sort of edged weapon.

25% had bibles listed, and 62% listed any book at all in their inventory.

Approximately 10% of all inventoried firearms were listed as either broken or outdated.

The information provided states at least one firearm is listed. It would not be a stretch that most people that had one, more than likely had more than one.

For comparison in a recent ongoing study, as of 2015 approximately 41% of US households owned at least one gun.

Counterpoint

For the counterpoint. The article that this information came from was written to dispute the findings of Michael Bellesiles who in 2000 wrote Arming America: The Origins of the National Gun Culture. In that book, he contends that firearms in Colonial America were few and far between. Often with the colonial militias needing to confiscate guns to arm their ranks. A review of that book can be found here at The New York Times website.

If you feel like digging into the question, you can get a copy of Bellesiles book here with its stellar 1.5-star review average. This may be a case of reading the book, and the article and see if you can help answer the question about how prevalent firearms were in Colonial America.

 

A Side Story to the 1765 Stamp Act

1765 Stamp Act

A Side Story to the 1765 Stamp Act

 

The Stamp Act had an incredible effect on history, but it had an unusual side effect that sometimes gets missed in the discussion. To tell that though we need to first look the Stamp Act itself.

In 1765 the American Colonies were firmly under the control of the British Parliament. The recently ended French & Indian War (Seven Years War in Europe) had left the British the undisputed ruler of the North American continent. The British Army in conjunction with the American colonial forces defeated the French and all seemed well for a time.  Prior to the French & Indian War, the British rulers had a sort of hands-off policy towards the American colonies. Only occasionally tweaking or supporting but never really “ruling” as they could.

Now the British were faced with two issues. The cost of the war to defend the colonies from the French and the now ongoing expense of posting substantial force in America to defend against the natives. They needed money and felt it was time for the colonies to foot their share of the bill. The first attempt at this was the 1765 Stamp Act passed by Parliament.

The tax would require the colonists to pay on anything that required paper. This included legal documents, licenses, newspapers, other publications. Even playing cards. This did not sit well with the colonists who opposed this sort of “direct” taxation. They took to the streets in protest through most of the colonies. It could be said that the revolution started here. It was eventually repealed and Parliament would spend the next ten years stumbling through a bad idea after a bad idea to get the Americans to pay taxes.

Side Effect?

So the unusual side effect? People in the colonies who took offense with the Stamp Act looked for some way to show their displeasure and to speak out beyond the newspapers and protests. So a market developed to fill that need. Whereas today we would wear ribbons or buttons or put bumper stickers on our cars, items like you see in the photo above, a simple teapot with a slogan became one of the more popular forms of subtle protest. Surely these items were made in Boston or Philadelphia or any other of the hot spot of the revolution.

Nope. They were made in England and Ireland and shipped to the Americans. While the British government struggled with how to deal with the Americans, their merchants figured the best way was to take their money and laugh all the way to the bank.

Sea to Shining Sea…Eventually

Sea to Shining Sea…Eventually

The photo above is of a map from 1755 that shows the extent of the British holdings in North America. And yes, if you look close you will see that many of the colonies stretched well beyond what is their western border today. Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia do not stretch all the way to the Pacific ocean, but for a time they did. Most of the original colonial charters didn’t set a fixed western boundary for the colonies

Do you mean to tell me that you never heard of the Pennamite–Yankee Wars? Three times between 1769 and 1784 men from Pennsylvania and Connecticut faced off in the Wyoming Valley near the north branch of the Susquehanna River because each claimed it as their own. (Eventually, it ended up with Pennsylvania.)

Or in the early 1700’s when New York and Connecticut nearly came to blows over their border? Or Connecticut and Rhode Island (Which flared up in 2003)? Don’t think that Massachusetts avoided conflict with them either. Come to think of it Connecticut, for being such a small colony, sure did like to scrap.

The map above was compiled by John Mitchell. He was commissioned by the British Board of Trade to put together a comprehensive map of all their holdings in North America. He was given access to every existing map and chart as well as journals and colonial charters. From that, he put together the map above.

When finished it was found to place a large amount of territory into a dispute with France. This fact was used as a propaganda tool to help incite the French and Indian War.

When the American Revolution ended it was this map that the main parties used to work out the borders for the new United States of America.

 

Surrender at Yorktown

Surrender at Yorktown

On October 19, 1781, the Sige fo Yorktown finally came to an end. American and French forces accepted the full surrender of the British army. The war would go on for several more years, but the British defeat at Yorktown was the last full battle of the American Revolution.

The actual surrender was completed on paper in fourteen articles of capitulation that were agreed upon by the commanders. The document above was believed to have been printed on a French ship in the bay and was one of several copies used to first spread the word of the surrender. It is original and dates to 1781.

The Fourteen Articles

 

  • Article 1
    • British and German soldiers and sailors in York and Gloucester were to surrender themselves as prisoners.
  • Article 2
    • Artillery, arms, stores and military chest (money) were to be turned over.
  • Article 3
    • Two redoubts on the left flank were to be handed over to the American/French forces.
  • Article 4
    • Officer may keep their sides arms and personal belongings.
  • Article 5
    • The soldiers while prisoners were to be afforded the same rations as American soldiers. They would be allowed to receive additional supplies as provided by their officers or other parties.
  • Article 6
    • Some of the men not counted above may be paroled to Europe for the remainder of the war.
  • Article 7
    • Officers will be allowed to maintain soldiers as servants.
  • Article 8
    • A ship was to be provided so that Cornwallis could communicate with his commander, General Clinton, in New York.
  • Article 9
    • Traders that were captured with the British Army were no to be treated as prisoners and were allowed to dispose of their goods.
  • Article 10
    • Natives or inhabitants of other parts of the country are not to be punished for providing service to the British.  (This one became tricky.)
  • Article 11
    • Proper hospitals should be provided.
  • Article 12
    • Wagons should be furnished for transport.
  • Article 13
    • Shipping and boats captured in the harbor will be turned over to American naval officers.
  • Article 14
    • No article is to be infringed on based on reprisals.

For more details on the articles click here.