From Victory to Defeat –
Admiral Francois de Grasse and the Battle of the Saintes
April 12, 1782
In early September 1781 French Admiral de Grasse won a decisive naval victory over a British fleet off the Virginia Capes – a victory that resulted in the surrender of an entire British army under General Cornwallis at Yorktown in October. Despite George Washington’s efforts to persuade de Grasse to remain and support an attack on Charleston, S. C., his powerful French fleet departed Virginia for the West Indies in early November. The wealthy sugar-producing islands of the Caribbean were vital to the economies of both France and Great Britain, and their security commanded a high priority. At this time the war was going badly for Britain – Gibraltar and Minorca were under siege, Spain had retaken West Florida, and Jamaica appeared to be vulnerable.
In desperation, the king’s ministers looked to Admiral George Rodney to turn the tide. In January 1782 Rodney left England with a force of 12 ships of the line with orders to link up with Admiral Samuel Hood, who was already stationed in the Caribbean. By the time the two British naval forces joined up on February 25, the situation in the West Indies had deteriorated even further. The French had recaptured the island of St. Eustatius, and de Grasse had also recently taken St. Kitts from the British. After several indecisive skirmishes in March, de Grasse and his fleet sailed out from his base at Martinique in early April with the intention of joining a Spanish naval force from Cuba for an attack on Jamaica.
Rodney and Hood set off in pursuit, and the subsequent clash between the two forces on April 12 resulted in one of the greatest British naval victories of the war. Named for some small islands off the northern end of Dominica, the Battle of the Saintes was notable for both controversy and innovation. De Grasse commanded 35 ships of the line compared to the British, who had 36 ships of the line. Both fleets also had associated frigates. Most of the British ships, however, had been armed with carronades, a relatively new weapon. These short, powerful cannon could deliver devastating broadsides at close ranges and gave the British an advantage in firepower. Some of the British cannon had also been outfitted with flintlock firing mechanisms, which were more reliable than matchlocks.
After some inconclusive maneuvering in the morning, a shift in the wind direction opened up a gap in the French line of battle. Rodney quickly took advantage of the resulting confusion by breaking through the opening with his ship, the Formidable. At least five other British vessels followed Rodney, pouring cannon fire into the French as they crossed the “T” and scattering the French fleet into three groups. By nightfall de Grasse’s fleet had been dispersed and Rodney’s victory had restored British naval supremacy in the West Indies. Some French ships escaped, but at least five major ships of the line had either been captured or destroyed. The Comte de Grasse was also taken prisoner when his flagship, the Ville de Paris, surrendered. He remained a prisoner in England until peace was declared in 1783. The Battle of the Saintes is most remembered for Rodney’s innovative and controversial naval tactic of “crossing the T” or “breaking the line.”
Phillis Wheatley – A Journey
Phillis Wheatley’s short life was marked by journeys – from freedom to slavery, from slavery to being the first African-American woman in the colonies to publish a book of poems, and from a renowned poet whose work was praised by George Washington and the Countess of Huntington to a tragic death from poverty and illness at the age of 31.
Phillis was born in 1753 in Senegambia in Africa and enslaved at age 7. She was taken to America on a ship named the Phillis and purchased in Boston by a wealthy merchant and his wife, John and Susanna Wheatley. Phillis was named for the ship that carried her across the Atlantic and for the family that purchased her. John and Susanna were progressive for their time and had their oldest daughter begin Phillis’s education, teaching her to read and write. When they recognized her talent and intelligence, she was taken from domestic work and educated further. She could read Greek and Latin by age 11 and began writing poetry soon after. Phillis’s style was strongly influenced by the classic authors she read – Homer, Horace and Virgil, among others.
In 1773 Phillis took a journey to England with Nathaniel Wheatley, the son of John and Susanna. She was sent there for her health, and also because it was thought she might have a better chance of finding a publisher for her poetry in England than in Boston. In England she met with several socially prominent people, including Selina Hastings, Lady Huntingdon, a religious leader to whom Phillis dedicated her book, Poems on Various Subjects, published in England that year.
Back in Boston, Phillis’s fame grew, and in 1775 she wrote a letter and poem to George Washington. In her letter she wrote, in part, “Wishing your Excellency all possible success in the great cause you are so generously engaged in.” The last stanza of her poem reads,
Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side,
Thy ev’ry action let the goddess guide
A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine,
With gold unfading, Washington! Be thine!
Washington invited Phillis to meet with him at his headquarters in Cambridge, Massachussetts, in 1776. Later that year Thomas Paine published the poem in the Pennsylvania Gazette.
Phillis was still enslaved to the Wheatleys at this time. When John Wheatley died in 1778, he freed Phillis in his will. A few months later Phillis married John Peters, a free black grocer. They had two sons together but lived in poverty. Phillis could not find a publisher for another book, possibly because the war had become the nation’s focus. One son died, and her husband was imprisoned for debt. Now ill and poor, and fully exposed to the racism of the time, Phillis was able to find work only as a scullery maid in a boarding house, which finished the destruction of her health. She and her infant son died of illness there in 1784, just 31 years after her journeys had begun in Senegambia.
Document Box Commemorates Stamp Act Repeal
A leather-covered document box, embossed with the gilded text “Stamp Act Rep’d / March 18, 1766” will be exhibited at the future American Revolution Museum at Yorktown. The box, probably made in England, was discovered by Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation curators who were searching for an artifact that would be emblematic of the British Parliament’s repeal in 1766 of the Stamp Act, a tax imposed on newspapers, pamphlets and cards imported into the American colonies and which also placed a tax on legal documents.
In England, the repeal of the tax had advocates among British merchants whose livelihoods suffered when the American colonies boycotted the importation of English goods. In London, coaches carried merchants to Parliament to demonstrate their support of the repeal, and copies of the repeal were sent to waiting merchant ships bound for colonial American ports. In the 13 American colonies during the months following the repeal, there were public celebrations, bells were rung, broadsides were posted, and statues of William Pitt, a powerful Parliament member who persuasively advocated for the repeal of the Stamp Act, and King George III were erected to commemorate the event. The letters “WP” on the document box lid may allude to Pitt.
While researching the “Stamp Act Repealed” document box, curatorial staff discovered a similar document box in the collection of Princeton University that shares a New Jersey provenance and the same embossed text – “Stamp Act Rep’d / March 18, 1766.” Based on comparisons of images, it is apparent that the same tools were used to create the embossed text on both boxes. The Princeton example retains its maker’s label, which identifies it as having been made for export in London by James Season. The Princeton’s document box was owned by John Witherspoon (1723-1794), the sixth president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), who was a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
While the original owner of the document box that is destined for exhibit at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown is unknown, it seems safe to conclude that the Stamp Act repeal had enough significance for this individual to merit owning a souvenir commemorating the event.
Mercy Otis Warren, Historian of the Revolution
In a time when politics and war were considered the province of men, Mercy Otis Warren provided powerful arguments for the Patriot cause, stoking the fires of revolution several years before Thomas Paine’s Common Sense.
Born in 1728 in West Barnstable, Massachusetts, to James and Mary Otis, Mercy was one of 13 children. Though she received no formal education, Mercy sat in on her brother’s lessons as he prepared to attend Harvard College. From an early age, she developed a keen interest in politics that only grew stronger when she found herself at the center of the revolutionary movement. Not only was her brother, James Otis, an early opponent of the Stamp Act and Writs of Assistance, but her husband, James Warren, whom she married in 1754, was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1765, served as its speaker and eventually became president of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress on the eve of the Revolution.
Their parlor in Plymouth, Massachusetts, became a focal point of local politics where they hosted protest and strategy meetings with other revolutionaries including Sam Adams, John Hancock and John Adams. From this vantage point, Mercy picked up her pen to write satirically about the British and their Loyalist followers. Through poems, pamphlets and plays, she gave voice to Patriot complaints, detailed British atrocities in Boston, and staunchly advocated for independence. When newspapers up and down the seacoast carried her works, she became one of the most influential propagandists of her time.
Mercy formed a circle of friends with whom she corresponded regularly, including Abigail and John Adams, Martha Washington and Hannah Winthrop. Over time, she also corresponded with Sam Adams, John Hancock, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Alexander Hamilton and other early leaders. Knowing she occupied a unique position as confidante to many key players in the Revolution, she decided early in 1775, with enthusiastic support from John Adams, to write a history of the American Revolution. From then on, she actively coerced the men she’d be writing about to send her accounts of debates in Congress, copies of correspondence and any other information they could supply. Mercy continued writing plays, poems and pamphlets during and after the war. When her History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution was finally published in 1805, President Thomas Jefferson ordered advance copies for himself and for every member of his cabinet. Now a fierce anti-Federalist, Mercy used this opportunity to contrast the virtuous self-sacrifice of the revolutionaries with what she saw as a postwar lapse in revolutionary principles.
In her plays, Mercy Otis Warren placed women in the center of political turmoil. Though she didn’t advocate formal political rights for women, she did not believe they should divorce themselves from politics entirely. Through her characters, she suggested that a healthy republic required politically conscious women willing to make sacrifices for public good. And through her writings, Mercy proved such women could inspire their countrymen to action.
James Forten’s Decision
James Forten was a free African American at the time of the American Revolution who faced an interesting choice at one point in the war. He was born to free parents in 1766, and attended a Quaker school for free black children for two years of his childhood, while also working to help support his family. Forten was 14 years old when he joined the crew of an American warship in 1781. When his ship was captured by the British, he was sent to a prison ship where the captain was impressed by Forten and offered to send him to England and educate him, rather than have him remain a prisoner. What would you have done if you were James Forten?
James Forten was an American and a patriot. He refused the captain’s offer, feeling that to accept it would be a betrayal of his country. He then spent seven months on the British prison ship Jersey, infamous for brutal conditions and daily deaths from hunger and disease. Forten survivedP and was exchanged after seven months. Upon release, he walked from Brooklyn to Philadelphia and took up a job as a sailmaker’s apprentice. In time he invented a mechanism that made handling ship’s rigging easier, and the profits from this invention helped him to open his own sail loft on the Philadelphia waterfront.
For the rest of his life Forten used his money and influence to benefit humanitarian and moral causes such as abolition of slavery for all African Americans, women’s rights and temperance. He contributed major funding to William Lloyd Garrison’s publication, Liberator. Although the causes he supported were controversial, Forten continued to prosper and was respected by black and white citizens alike. He was not only the most affluent black man in Philadelphia, he was one of the wealthiest Americans of his time, with holdings estimated at $100,000. His decision in 1781 to stay in America yielded great benefits to the causes he supported, particularly the cause of abolition. He died in 1842, just 18 years before the outbreak of Civil War and 20 years before Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
James Armistead Lafayette – Hero and Spy
James Armistead was an enslaved African American in New Kent County, Virginia, when British forces invaded Virginia in 1781. When James learned that General Lafayette had arrived in Virginia to oppose and harass British forces, he volunteered to join Lafayette’s Light Infantry. His owner, William Armistead, consented.
James was first sent by General Lafayette to conduct espionage in the British camps. He soon gained the confidence of General Benedict Arnold, who had by this time changed his allegiance to the British cause. Acting as a double agent, James pretended to relay important information about movements of American forces to General Arnold, while he was in fact gathering information for the Americans from General Arnold and later General Cornwallis. He gained the trust of both men, who believed in his pose as a runaway slave. He was allowed to move easily between camps, and British officers spoke openly about strategy in front of him. James documented the information he gained in the British camps in written reports that were then passed on to other American spies and carried to General Lafayette. His accurate and detailed reports to Generals Lafayette and Washington were vital to the American victory at Yorktown in October of 1781.
After the war James Armistead returned to his owner and slavery in New Kent County. Manumission laws that granted freedom to slaves who were sent to fight in their masters’ place did not apply to him. However, in 1786 he petitioned the Virginia Assembly for his freedom. He was supported in his petition by his owner and a letter from the Marquis de Lafayette describing James’ important role in victory at Yorktown. He wrote, “His intelligences from the enemy’s camp were industriously collected and most faithfully deliver’d. He properly acquitted himself with some important commissions I gave him and appears to me entitled to every reward his situation can admit of.” His petition was granted, and he gained his freedom on January 9, 1787. He then took the last name Lafayette in honor of the Marquis.
James Armistead Lafayette lived as a farmer near Richmond, Virginia, for the rest of his life. He had a wife and children and at one time owned several slaves. In 1818 he applied to the state legislature for financial assistance and was granted $60 immediately plus an annual pension of $40 for his service during the Revolutionary War. In 1824 the Marquis de Lafayette visited the United States and was honored as a hero of the American Revolution in Richmond, Virginia, with a parade and festivities. As the Marquis rode along the parade route he reportedly recognized James Armistead Lafayette, halted the procession, dismounted from his horse and warmly greeted and embraced his old comrade.
Frisia Leads the Way in Recognizing U.S. Independence
Soon after the American Revolution began, the Continental Congress recognized that it was imperative to establish diplomatic relations with the nations of Europe, and over the course of the war Congress sent envoys to every major European power. The results of these diplomatic missions were mixed at best. France was American diplomacy’s big success story, with that nation becoming America’s most important ally in the war. Spain, although it helped America unofficially, refused to extend formal diplomatic recognition to the U.S. Prussia, a longtime British ally, offered America neither recognition nor help, although it did trade with the new nation in a limited fashion.
Of the remaining nations of Europe, Americans saw the Netherlands as their best remaining prospect for recognition. In 1780 future American president John Adams took charge of negotiations with ”The Republic of the Seven United Provinces,” as the Dutch Republic was called. However, the negotiations moved slowly because of the Dutch Republic’s federal structure. Each of the seven provinces had to be persuaded separately to support recognition, and some provinces were less than enthusiastic about the idea.
Finally on February 26, 1782, the province of Frisia or Friesland in the northern part of the Netherlands decided to act. Frisia was and is linguistically and culturally distinct from the southern provinces of the Dutch Republic, and often chose to go its own way. Frisia’s recognition of the U.S. was an event that had significance in internal Dutch politics as well as in the field of international affairs. Support for the ideals of the Revolution was widespread in the Netherlands, but the conservative oligarchs who dominated some of the provinces feared that encouraging revolution abroad might also encourage revolution at home.
At the end of the day, Frisia’s action tipped the scales in favor of recognition, and on April 19, 1782, the United Provinces accepted the credentials of John Adams as the first U.S. minister to The Hague. Most Dutch citizens seem to have supported this decision with enthusiasm. The Leeuwarden Citizen’s Society for Liberty and Glory had a silver medal struck commemorating Frisia’s historic action. The Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation has acquired one of these 1782 medals and will be placing it on exhibit in the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown galleries, planned to open in 2016.
The iconography of the medal is anything but subtle. The face of the medal shows three allegorical figures. The central figure is a Frisian warrior who holds the hand of an Indian princess representing America. The warrior turns his back to the other female figure, who is the goddess Britannia, a symbolic representation of Great Britain. Below the figure of the Indian princess is a set of broken shackles. Below the figure of Britannia is a snake in the grass. The burghers of Leeuwarden clearly believed, as many in continental Europe did, that the American Revolution was not just a dispute between Britain and her American colonies. In their eyes, as in ours, the Revolution was part of a larger moral struggle between liberty and tyranny.
Mary Katherine Goddard – An American Printing Pioneer
The Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, but it would take seven months for the signers’ names to be officially acknowledged. Early copies of this treasonable document were printed without names. After the American victories at Trenton and Princeton in January 1777, however, Congress ordered an authenticated printing, complete with the signers’ names. Congress was in session in Baltimore, Maryland, at the time, and local printer Mary Katherine Goddard offered the use of her press, in spite of the risks involved in being associated with this controversial document.
Who was this woman printer, Mary Katherine Goddard? Born in 1738 to Dr. Giles Goddard, postmaster of New London, Connecticut, she was well educated by her mother, Sarah Updike Goddard. In 1762 she and her widowed mother moved to Providence, Rhode Island, where her younger brother, William, had opened a printing office, the first in the colony. Mary Katherine took a keen interest in the business of printing the Providence Gazette and worked as typesetter, printer and journalist. William traveled a great deal, so Mary Katherine and her mother became the real publishers of the paper. They added a bookbindery and printed almanacs, pamphlets and books on occasion.
At the age of 30, Mary Katherine and her mother followed William to Philadelphia to help run a new printing office and newspaper, The Pennsylvania Chronicle and Universal Advertiser. After her mother’s death in 1770, Mary Katherine kept the paper running, as William travelled and pursued other interests. An erratic man, William departed again in 1773, this time to Baltimore, and soon Mary Katherine followed. William started Baltimore’s first newspaper, The Maryland Journal and the Baltimore Advertiser, but by 1775 “M.K Goddard” was on the masthead, a sign that she was the true editor and publisher of the paper.
Mary Katherine Goddard reported the beginnings of the war at Lexington and Concord. On several occasions, she received threats and raids on her printing office from disgruntled readers trying to stifle what she printed, leading her to complain to the Baltimore Committee of Safety, which defended her right to freedom of the press.
In 1775 Mary Katherine became the first female postmaster in the United Colonies. In this position she often received and was able to publish news faster than her competitors. Increasingly, newspapers were becoming an important vehicle for spreading ideas and reporting on the conflict with Great Britain. A conflict with her brother was the probable cause for her leaving the printing business in 1785, but she stayed on as postmaster of the Baltimore Post Office for four more years. In 1789 Mary Katherine was forced out in favor of a male appointee. The only reason given was that she was a woman and could not handle the travel the position required. Mary Katherine appealed to Congress and to George Washington about this injustice, and more than 200 Baltimore businessmen endorsed her petition, but nothing came of it. Her later years were spent running a bookstore. Mary Katherine died in 1816 at 78, leaving behind a reputation as a sound businesswoman and pioneer in the American printing trade and postal service.
George Washington – Two Christmases
In 1759 George and Martha Washington spent their first Christmas together at Mount Vernon. They had been married less than a year. A list of presents George Washington intended to purchase for stepson John (Jacky), age 5, and stepdaughter Martha (Patsy), age 3, shows a heartfelt appreciation for the joys of childhood. His list reads:
A bird on Bellows
A turnabout Parrott
A Grocers Shop
A Prussian Dragoon
A Man Smoaking
A Tunbridge Tea Sett
3 Neat Tunbridge Toys
A Neat Book fash Teas Chest
A box best Household Stuff
A straw Patch box w. a Glass
A neat dressed Wax Baby
The items on the list would have likely been handmade and imported from Europe. Many mechanical and hand-carved toys of this period were produced in the cities and towns of northern Germany, such as Hamburg and Hannover. Although we can’t be sure what each one looked like, several were fairly common. The bird on bellows, cuckoo, turnabout parrot and “smoaking” man were probably mechanical toys made of metal. The bird and parrot would have contained whistles and may have had flapping wings. The grocer’s shop also likely was made in northern Germany, where elaborate miniature toy room settings were crafted and sold. The Prussian dragoon was probably a metal toy soldier, and the wax baby doll would have been made of poured, tinted and painted wax, a common method for doll construction in the 1700s. The three Tunbridge toys were probably made in Tunbridge, Kent, England. They may have been puzzle boxes, yo-yos or small decorative chests, made in the Tunbridge fashion, of many small pieces of wood glued together to create a mosaic effect. The tea set and tea chest may have been toys or could have been for a dowry for Patsy. The patch box contained small cloth patches to apply to the face as beauty marks. Were these for Patsy to play with, or meant as a present for Martha? If even half these things were purchased, it must have been a jolly and exciting first Christmas at Mount Vernon.
Contrast this with the events of George Washington’s Christmas in 1776. He was then Commander-in Chief of the Continental Army, encamped along the Delaware River in Pennsylvania. His army was ill-supplied, exhausted from marching, and suffering from poor morale after a series of defeats. In addition, many of his men had enlistments that would soon run out. In a desperate move to rally support for the Patriot cause and seize the initiative, Washington, with a cadre of able officers and about 2,400 men, planned and carried out the successful Christmas attack on Hessian forces wintering in Trenton, New Jersey. Washington’s forces secured the surrender of the infamous Colonel Rahl of the Hessians, with only four Americans wounded and no fatalities on the American side. This remarkable Christmas Day victory revived the spirits of the Continental Army and renewed support for the Patriot cause.
Dogs of [the Revolutionary] War
“There are three faithful friends – an old wife, an old dog, and ready money” – Benjamin Franklin, 1738
“He that lies down with dogs shall rise up with fleas.” – Benjamin Franklin in Poor Richards Almanack
During the 18th century in Western Europe a gradual change occurred in the relationship between people and their dogs. Canines began to appear as characters in literary works as individuals with emotions and feelings, and increasingly they were depicted alongside their masters in portraits. In England, George Stubbs painted likenesses of various dog breeds that vividly captured their personalities on canvas. American colonists also began including dogs in family portraits. For example, in 1735 William Byrd II of Virginia had his daughter Anne depicted alongside her devoted canine companion. Given this increasing interest, it should come as no surprise that references to dogs frequently show up in sources relating to the American Revolution. Dogs enriched the lives of many leaders, beginning with George Washington.
Washington was a lifelong dog lover and owned numerous dogs of many breeds. He gave them very interesting names such as Captain, Duchess, Drunkard, Juno, Jupiter, Pilot, Rover, Searcher, Sweet Lips, Truelove, Tippler, Taster and Vulcan. An avid foxhunter, Washington built kennels at Mount Vernon and worked to create a new American breed of foxhound, one that would be taller and faster than its English cousins. Washington’s fondness for dogs, as well as his keen sense of gentlemanly honor, was evident after the battle of Germantown, Pennsylvania, in October 1777. During the confusion of the fighting, British General William Howe’s dog, Lila, ended up with the Continental Army. Identifying its owner from a tag on the collar, Washington returned Lila to General Howe under a flag of truce “with his compliments.”
Numerous advertisements taken out in the loyalist press in New York City during its occupation suggest that many lower-level British officers (or units) also kept dogs of various breeds as companions or as guard animals. These ads for lost or found animals mention Pointers, Spaniels, Terriers, Setters and Newfoundland breeds – most are described in detail and promise a reward. Some of these dogs seem to have been greatly loved: “Lost, about ten Days ago, an old brown-colored Bitch, with a white Neck, white Feet, and bad Eyes, particularly her right Eye; answers to the Name of Jean.” In 1777 the Sergeant Major of the 6th Regiment promised a significant reward of ten shillings for information on this elderly dog. Lord Cornwallis is said to have owned two Great Danes named (appropriately enough for a General) Mars and Jupiter. Banastre Tarleton and his British Legionnaires apparently enjoyed fox hunting, since in 1778 he requisitioned a barrel of oatmeal “for the Fox Hounds.”
Numerous officers in the Continental Army also were attached to their canine companions – perhaps none more so than the bizarre General Charles Lee, an eccentric, British-born officer who at one time was second in command to Washington. Lee was notorious for his “strange passion for dogs,” who accompanied him wherever he went – even on the battlefield. One of his favorites was a Pomeranian named Spado or Spada. In 1775 Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, John, that at a dinner party Lee insisted she shake hands with “Mr. Spada,” who was seated in a chair! Abigail was very fond of her own dog Juno, writing to her granddaughter, “If you love me … you must love my dog.” Baron von Steuben was accompanied throughout the Revolution by his beloved and much indulged Italian Greyhound, Azur, a large dog with an enormous appetite. The Marquis de Lafayette is credited with introducing Basset Hounds to America when he presented a pair to George Washington. It seems that dogs begin to show up everywhere – but references to “Revolutionary” cats are very rare!
Finally, there is one dog story from the Revolution that is amusing and another that is disturbing. According to Joseph Martin, an American soldier at the siege of Yorktown in 1781, there was an especially large British Bulldog that frequently chased after the cannon balls fired toward the American entrenchments. Martin observed that “our officers wished to catch him …, but he looked too formidable for any of us to encounter.” Another dog made the ultimate sacrifice during the winter of 1775 during Benedict Arnold’s march across the frozen wastelands of Maine to attack Quebec. General Henry Dearborn had a large black Newfoundland. He later wrote, “My dog was very large and a great favorite. I gave him up to several of Capt. Goodrich’s company … they killed and divided him among those who were suffering most severely with hunger.”
Please share your stories of dogs in the American Revolution. We’d love to hear them.
Thanks to Bob Selig for his suggestions.