Counting on the Continental Currency
On June 22, 1775, the Continental Congress issued the first Continental currency in the form of $2 million in bills of credit. At the time paper money was almost a rarity as most people preferred hard currency. Actual coins made of silver and gold. Unfortunately, there was not enough of the hard specie, as it was called, in the colonies to pay for the war.
The paper money was backed only by the promise of future tax revenues and fluctuated badly from the start. The value rising and falling based on the performance of the Continental Army against the British. It did not take long for the up and down to become simply a down as rampant inflation, lack of faith in the currency and the British penchant for counterfeiting (Read more about that here! Or in the hardcover annual here.) made the paper not even worth the paper it was printed on.
By 1781 the exchange rate was $225 to $1. ($225 in Continental currency for $1 of hard specie.) This was at a time when the average Continental Army private made $5 a month in Continental scrip. If they were paid at all. Most men had received little if any pay since 1778.
Joseph Plumb Martin, a soldier from Connecticut, relays in his memoirs a story where to earn a little extra (having not been paid in many months) he assisted in a roundup of runaway slaves that had fled to the service of British after the siege at Yorktown in 1781 had ended. “… the fortune I acquired was small, only one dollar; I received what was then called its equivalent, in paper money, if money it might be called, it amounted to twelve hundred (nominal) dollars, all of which I afterwards paid for one single quart of rum; to such a miserable state had all paper stuff, called-money- depreciated.”
Twelve hundred dollars for a quart of rum, and we thought prices were high today. The struggle to pay for the war is an epic tale for another time. It almost came to pass that counting on currency was almost a disaster.
Another Side of General Washington
Hanging in the visitor center at Colonial Williamsburg is this 1799 portrait of General Washington that was pained by Charles Willson Peale. This painting is breathtaking in person and truly presents the General as a figure larger than life.
One of the most amazing things about Washington was how down to earth he was. Even during the Revolution, his legend was well on the way to mythic proportion. There were times when his words alone spurred his men to fight. His promises were enough to keep the army together. Even when there was no food, no pay, and no prospect of victory.
The time though that he proved the most worthy of being a myth and legend was the time when he showed his officers how human he was.
The British were defeated at Yorktown, but the war would continue for several more years and the Continental Army had to stay in the field. Many officers and soldiers had not been paid for six years and dissatisfaction was mounting. In January 1783 a group of officers asked Congress to consider the back wages it owed the army. Congress refused. Tensions between the army and Congress worsened to the point that calls came to march on the Congress and collect the payments by force.
In Newburgh, NY, the officers gathered to plan the coup. Faced with the disgruntled offers and a recalcitrant Congress, George Washington called his officers to a meeting. He explained that Congress was doing what they could, he promised to do everything possible to have the issues resolved. Washington was loved and admired by his men but not even he could divert them from the course they were on, mutiny seemed inevitable.
Sensing he was losing the room, Washington started reading a letter from a Congressman that supported the officers. A few words in Washington had to pause and put on a pair of reading glasses to continue. Apologizing for the delay Washington said, “I have already grown gray in the service of my country. I am now going blind.” The officers saw the personal sacrifice of their commander. This one simple remark reached into the hearts and minds of the assembled men and placed their struggle into perspective. Instead of preparing for a military coup, the men asked Washington to do all he could and the war continued.
A gesture, as simple as putting a pair of glasses, saved the Revolution from becoming a dictatorship. If not for that one personal, and embarrassing moment for Washington, who knows how the story would have ended.
Founding Myths: Stories That Hide Our Patriotic Past by Ray Raphael
I like this kind of history books. The ones that take the “myths” or things we think we know and dig into the truth. For example, and one of the first ones that the author covers, is the legendary ride of Paul Revere.
Almost everything we were taught about this event was made up at some point in our history. Mainly to make a better story out of it. In this case, the author provides not only the myth itself, but the truth, and then a breakdown of HOW the myth came to be. He uses this approach on a number of myths and does a good job of busting them.
If you are a student of the American Revolution you probably already know the truth behind many of these. If that is the case you should get the most enjoyment out of seeing how the truth was transitioned to a fable and the reasoning behind it. I know that for me that was the best part.
If you are someone who wants to start getting their feet wet in regards to the history of the American Revolution, jump on in. This is a good book to get you started and is a fairly easy read.
The downside? It made me want to visit the local school and take a look at there textbooks. What is taught sure has changed from when I was a kid.
As always you can purchase a copy of this book by clicking on the cover image above.
The Final Act at Yorktown
This is the Yorktown Victory Monument in Yorktown, Virginia. It was here in a siege that lasted from September 28, 1781, to October 19, 1781, that final act of the American Revolution started.
Wait a second. You do know that when the British surrendered at Yorktown, that was not the end of the war right?
The war did not officially end until the signing of the Treaty of Paris on September 3, 1783. That means the war lasted for almost two years after Yorktown. Then why is it called the end of the war?
The Battle Was Over, But Not The War
After Yorktown, the British ended offensive operations in North America. They were fighting France and Spain for control of the Caribbean (and other places). These were far more valuable to them than the American Colonies.
Fighting still occurred as both sides took every chance to raid and smack around the other guys. Besides, Britain still controlled Charleston, Savannah, and New York which were no small potatoes. That wasn’t the worst news. The United States was broke, so even though the major fighting was over other issues, just as deadly started to take root. With no money Congress could not pay the troops, without pay, many troops wondering why they even stay in the army. Some thought that they should simply turn on Congress and there was a very, very real chance that the army would turn on Congress and put a dictatorship in place. Luckily General Washington himself put the kibosh on this.
During this time also, behind the scenes of the treaty negotiations was a bunch of backbiting double-dealing that threatened to prolong the war. In the end, the treaty was signed and the war was officially over. The adventure for the new country was just about to begin.
An Artifact From Commodore Arnold
In the picture is actual shot from a swivel gun mounted on the Royal Savage. The quarter is there to show scale. So, what makes this so special? Well, it starts with a name you probably recognize, Benedict Arnold. In 1776 Arnold led an American fleet on Lake Champlain against the quickly advancing British. The Battle of Valcour Island was fought on October 11, 1776 and it was a stunning loss to the Americans. Or was it?
On the heels of their retreat from the failed campaign to turn Canada into the fourteenth colony, the Americans gathered every ship they had on the lake to take a stand against the oncoming British forces. Command of the makeshift fleet fell to Benedict Arnold who as an experienced ship captain as well as one of the “heroes” of the invasion of Canada, looked to have the best chance to make the stand.
In the end, the American fleet was almost totally destroyed, but even so, Arnold managed to accomplish an incredible fleet. He had managed to convince Guy Carlton, the British commander, to take a slower pace on his advance. Carlton came to the decision that it was too late in the year to continue his invasion of New York. The British withdrew back to Canada until the following year. Had they continued they would have found very little in the way of defenses. They could have made it all the way to Albany without much of a fight.
The Royal Savage was one of the ships in Arnold’s fleet, commanded by David Hawley. The ball in the picture was forged at the Skeene Foundry and was sized for one of the lightweight swivel guns on the vessel. Usually several of these balls were loaded into the canon. This turned it into a sort of giant shotgun.
As a part of my personal collection, it is a reminder of Arnold on his ascent. The battle at Valcour was just one in a series of episodes where Arnold very well may have saved the revolution.
The war was over and the United States had come fully into existence. Thirteen independent states now faced the world as one nation under the auspices of the Articles of Confederation. This document was the model of government that was created during the Revolution and for lack of a better term, it sucked. The Confederation Congress had very little power to set national policy. It had no power to tax and was often wholly beholden to a majority of states in most decisions. There was no way that the country would stay together under such a system.
In May of 1787 delegates from the states came to Philadelphia for a convention tasked with “fixing” the Articles of Confederation. Instead, they would toss them out. Over the summer and in incredible secrecy, a new government took shape and form.
Issues of representation in the government and the type of government drew the most debate. Centered on the creation of a strong central government in a Federal system, the convention was split most the time. Some thought that the states should be the primary driver of the government. Others thought it should be the people of the nation. Small states demanded the same power as the larger states and the issue of slavery hung like a dark cloud.
Sunrise or Sunset?
On September 17, 1787, the final version of the document was signed and sent to the states for ratification. For the duration of the convention George Washington had presided as the president, his wisdom and leadership was instrumental in keeping the process moving. During the signing, the eminent Dr. Benjamin Franklin had perhaps one of the prescient observations of the summer. In his notes on the convention James Madison relayed the following:
Whilst the last members were signing it Doctr. FRANKLIN looking towards the Presidents Chair, at the back of which a rising sun happened to be painted, observed to a few members near him, that Painters had found it difficult to distinguish in their art a rising from a setting sun. I have said he, often and often in the course of the Session, and the vicisitudes of my hopes and fears as to its issue, looked at that behind the President without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting: But now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting Sun. (Madison’s Notes for September 17, 1787)
The photos at the top of the article show a reproduction of the chair that Washington sat in as President of the Convention. They show the sun motif that so vexed Franklin. It is currently on display at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia.
The Fighting Quaker
The Nathaniel Greene monument at Guilford Courthouse is just one that stands to memorialize the man who General Washington hand-picked as his successor in command of the army should he fall. And it was a good choice.
One of the first to answer the call to arms from Rhode Island, Greene served in a number of capacities during the war. He received his brigadier appointment from the Continental Congress on June 22, 1775. Greene was given command of Boston by Washington after the British withdrew.
In August 1776 he became one of four new major generals. At that point, he was given command of all troops on Long Island. He selected the location of fortifications and supervised their construction. During the British invasion, he was given command of Forts Washington and Lee only to lose them to the British onslaught. He would make up for it at the Battle of Trenton where he led one of two American columns into the fight.
After given command of the reserve at the Battle of Brandywine Washington pleaded for him to take over as Quartermaster General during the long winter at Valley Forge. He did so reluctantly but proved more than competent. He would lead the right wing of the army at Monmouth. Rhode Island was next along with Lafayette and the French.
Once he was in command of the army in the south Greene became an immortal. Somehow he did it without winning a single battle. He didn’t need to. Much like Washington he simply managed to keep fighting. Never allowing the British to rest. The eventual victory at Yorktown belongs to Greene as much as any man. None, however, can say it better than the enemy that he dueled within the Carolinas.
Green is as dangerous as Washington, I never feel secure when encamped in his neighborhood– General Charles Cornwallis
A Continental Soldier (Kind of)
At the Cowpens Battlefield, they have this display set up as you see above. It lets you take a musket to your shoulder to “see what they saw”. From there you can get a good idea of the terrain on the battlefield that day in January of 1781.
At Cowpens, the American forces were made up of a mix of the regular Continental Army, and the militia. Or State troops as they were called. The Continentals were made up of units from Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware. They had all seen a lot of action. In a lot of ways they were the cream of the American army and were allowed to head south due to the general stalemate that was going on up north. Combined that with the fact that they were led by General Daniel Morgan and back up by a number of equally well-seasoned militia troops, it is really no wonder they carried the day.
- A few interesting things about the Continentals that fought that day.
- Their average height was 5ft 6in (Which is what the shadow figure in the picture stands at.)
- Their musket weighed 10 Pounds
- Each piece of lead shot they carried weighed approx 1 ounce.
- The weather on the day of the battle had a temperature of 55-65 degrees with a wind that would reach 10 knots.
We have looked and will look again at the battle from a tactical and strategic view. For just a second thought we should put that wooden replica up to our own shoulder and think what it must have been like to stand there.
Washington Light Infantry Monument At The Cowpens
The National Battlefield Park at The Cowpens in South Carolina is a kind of serene place. The terrain is not the same as when the battle was fought there back on January 17th, 1781. Still, you can get a good sense of the land. When you are on the battlefield itself there is not much in the way of monuments. A stark difference compared to other battlefields.
The one exception out on the field is the Washington Light Infantry Monument which is pictured above. Fairly simply, not real gaudy, the pole in the center was topped with a brass eagle. Inside the base are several artifacts. A vial of water from Eutaw Springs (location of another battle later in the war). A brick from a house at Eutaw Springs. A handwritten account of the Battle of Cowpens and a roster of the members of the group that dedicated the memorial.
One of the first monuments dedicated to a battle from the American Revolution in the South, it was built in 1856 by the Washington Light Infantry a South Carolina militia regiment formed in 1807 and named for General George Washington though eventually it would become more closely associated with William Washington, the General’s cousin and a very important Continental Army commander in the war, especially the Southern Campaign.
Built at a time when the nation was starting to come apart, the monument was dedicated on the 75th anniversary of the battle, a move that some hoped would serve as a reminder of the common cause that brought the people together during the revolution. Considering what happened in South Carolina just a few years later, it didn’t really have the desired effect.
The Governor’s Palace At Williamsburg
The picture above is the Virginia Governors Palace at Colonial Williamsburg. Construction on the original building started in 1705 and continued off and on until 1718. That year Governor Spotswood finally took up residence. It was not totally completed, however. Lack of funds and growing expenses dragged the construction out. A total of nine Governors would live in the “palace”. Including such men at Robert Dinwiddie, John Murray, fourth Earl of Dunmore, Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson. In 1780 the capital moved to Richmond where it would stay.
The original palace burned down in 1781, and it pretty much stayed that way for a very long time. After the Revolution, the land was given over to the College of William & Mary and several instructional buildings took over the location. In 1928 The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation purchased the site and began an extensive archaeological survey of the site. During this survey, they were able to locate the original foundation and were able to get a good idea of the structure which for many had only ever existed in paintings of descriptions.
In 1929, armed with the results of the survey an extensive reconstruction of the original building started. In 1934 the restored building opened to the public and serves as a historic site and museum to this day.
Certainly one of the highlights of any trip to Williamsburg, there is no description that can possibly translate what it feels like to be standing on the top floor of that building and looking through the window, out over the town square and imagining what it was like in the days before the Revolution.