A European Encounters American Slavery

Jaeger sword bayonet circa 1780

Captain Ewald's Jaeger troops may have carried, in addition to a rifle, a weapon that could be used as either a sword or bayonet. This circa 1780 example, currently on display at Jamestown Settlement in “Jamestown’s Legacy to the American Revolution,” ultimately will be exhibited at the new American Revolution Museum at Yorktown.

Hundreds of soldiers who fought in the American Revolution – American, British, French and German – kept some sort of diary or journal of their experiences.  Most only entered brief descriptions of the weather, how far they had marched, or occasionally some unusual or noteworthy event.  Such diaries seldom include the detailed descriptions or analytical commentary that historians look for.  One exception is the journal of Captain Johann Ewald, an officer with an elite Jaeger, or German rifle corps, which fought with the British Army in North America.  Beginning in 1776 when he arrived in New York, Ewald was involved in many of the major campaigns of the Revolution.  His perceptive comments (often critical of his British allies) and detailed descriptions of military operations provide rare insights into the conduct of the war, but his observations of encounters with enslaved African Americans may be the most valuable aspect of his writings.

As early as 1780 Ewald observed that some enslaved people, who had escaped from their owners, were being employed by the British to construct fortifications in South Carolina.  After he arrived in Virginia early in 1781, Ewald began mentioning these unusual “camp followers” more frequently.  Left in charge of a post at Norfolk in May, he noted, “Because I lacked some cavalry and the little at Portsmouth could not be spared, twelve Negroes were mounted and armed.  I trained them as well as possible and they gave me thoroughly good service, for I sought to win them by good treatment, to which they were not accustomed.”

After he rejoined the main British army under Cornwallis near Richmond in June, Ewald described his astonishment at the chaotic scenes he encountered.  During his absence hundreds of enslaved African Americans had left their owners to follow the British.  “Behind the baggage followed well over four thousand Negroes of both sexes and all ages.  Any place this horde approached was eaten clean.”  According to Ewald every officer had four or more of these refugees, including women serving as cooks and servants.  “I can testify that every soldier had his Negro, who carried his provisions and bundles . . . These people were given their freedom by the [British] army because it was actually thought this would punish the rich, rebellious-minded inhabitants of Carolina and Virginia.  They had plundered the wardrobes of their masters and mistresses, divided the loot, and clothed themselves piecemeal with it.  …  When I first beheld this train I could not grasp it, and I wondered as much about the indulgent character of Lord Cornwallis as I admired him for his military abilities.”  Ewald’s description anticipates by 60 years the numerous “contrabands” that escaped to the Union Army in the 1860s.

When Cornwallis decided to establish a base at Yorktown in August, he left most of the women and children at Portsmouth, taking the able-bodied men with him.  When provisions ran low during the siege in mid October, the British turned most of these refugees out of their lines.  In one of his journal entries Ewald wrote, “I would just as soon forget to record a cruel happening  . . . we drove back to the enemy all of our black friends, whom we had taken along to despoil the countryside.  We had used them to good advantage and set them free, and now, with fear and trembling, they had to face the reward of their cruel masters.”  Coming across some of these starving “unfortunates” during a night patrol, he noted, “we should have thought more about their deliverance at this time.”  Other observers mentioned that many of these people were also dying of smallpox, but only Ewald displayed any real expression of guilt and dismay at the injustice of their plight.

The Alexander Scammell Affair

This was the severest blow experienced by the allied army throughout the siege: not an officer in our army surpassed in personal worth and professional ability this experienced soldier. — “Light Horse Harry” Lee

Redoubt Number 10

Alexander Scammell rather than Alexander Hamilton might have led the October 14, 1781, assault on British Redoubt No. 10 at Yorktown, depicted in a 20th-century watercolor by Arthur Shilstone, had he not died a week earlier of a gunshot wound.

As the allied American and French army approached the outskirts of Yorktown in late September 1781, a little-known incident occurred that exposed the bitter feelings many American soldiers felt toward their opponents.  About sunrise on the morning of Sunday, September 30, Lt. Colonel Alexander Scammell of New Hampshire led a scouting party to reconnoiter the British outer defenses.  Somehow Scammell got separated from his picket guard and found himself surrounded by a group of Banastre Tarleton’s loyalist dragoons.

Exactly what happened next may never be known.  By his own account Scammell surrendered and was being led away when another dragoon rode up, drew a pistol and shot him from behind.  By afternoon Cornwallis’ surgeons had treated his wound and released him on parole.  Scammell was taken to the American hospital at the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg, but there his condition worsened.  Scammell died on October 6, the highest-ranking officer killed during the Siege of Yorktown.  Even if he had been an obscure lieutenant, the news of his “treacherous” shooting would have caused outrage, but Scammell was no ordinary officer.

Scammell was a veteran of all of the major campaigns in the north and had established a reputation as a brave and inspiring leader of men – at Yorktown he was in command of a detachment of light infantry.  He also was a member of George Washington’s inner circle, having once served him as an aide-de-camp, and was one of the few officers who could make Washington laugh with one of his humorous stories.  To the Americans, his shooting was one more example of the British behaving as villains.  When he published his memoirs some years later, Tarleton denied that Scammell had been wounded after surrendering but claimed instead that Scammell was “attempting to retreat.”

Had he not been shot, it is possible that Scammell, one of Washington’s favorites, would have been selected to lead the storming of British Redoubt No. 10 on October 14, not Alexander Hamilton.  The taking of Redoubts 9 and 10 enabled the Allies to quickly complete their second siege line, which forced General Cornwallis to surrender on October 19, 1781. Without the resulting glory and fame gained from this dramatic action, Alexander Hamilton might not have gone on to become such an important figure in the new nation’s history.


Witness to War:  Writings of Baroness Frederika Charlotte Riedesel

I saw the whole battle myself, and, knowing that my husband was taking part in it, I was filled with fear and anguish and shivered whenever a shot was fired….

Frederika Charlotte Louise von Massow, Baroness von Riedesel

Portrait of Frederika Charlotte Louise von Massow, Baroness Riedesel, 1829, oil on canvas, painted by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein.

These words, written near Freeman’s Farm, New York, by Frederika Charlotte Riedesel on September 19, 1777, come from a journal that chronicles the Battle of Saratoga and other experiences of a German baroness during the American Revolution.  Frederika was the wife of Major-General Friedrich Riedesel, Baron of Eisenbach and commander of German troops from the duchy of Brunswick hired by the British to fight the rebellious colonies.

What was this German noblewoman doing near the front line during the American Revolution?  “It is the duty of a wife to forsake all and follow her husband,” she wrote.  So in May 1776, accompanied by her four-year, two-year and ten-month-old daughters, this irrepressible woman left Brunswick for England and then Quebec to join her husband.

In August 1777, Friedrich was attached to the forces of British Lieutenant-General John Burgoyne.  Burgoyne had devised a plan to gain military control of the strategically important Hudson River valley and divide New England from the southern colonies, making it easier to end the rebellion.  Burgoyne’s forces successfully crossed Lake Champlain from Quebec, captured Fort Ticonderoga, and confidently advanced toward Albany, New York.

Frederika and her children joined other officers’ wives who followed at some distance behind the first line of advance.  Frederika wrote about Burgoyne’s small tactical victory at the Battle of Freeman’s Farm in September and his retreat at the Battle of Bemis Heights on October 7, a turning point in the American Revolution.  She also documented her own harrowing experiences in her journal.

When we marched on I had a large calash [light carriage] readied, with room for myself and the three children and my two maids; thus I followed the army right in the midst of the soldiers, who sang and were jolly, burning with the desire for victory.

It was a terrible bombardment, and I was more dead than alive … Little Frederika, was very much frightened, often starting to cry, and I had to hold my handkerchief over her mouth to prevent our being discovered.

The greatest misery and extreme disorder prevailed in the army.  The commissary had forgotten to distribute the food supplies among the troops … more than thirty officers came to me because they could stand the hunger no longer.

My children lay on the floor with their heads in my lap.  And thus we spent the whole night.  The horrible smell in the cellar, the weeping of the children, and, even worse, my own fear prevented me from closing my eyes.

Eleven cannon balls flew through the house, and we could distinctly hear them rolling about over our heads.  One of the poor soldiers who lay on the table, and was just about to have his leg amputated, had the other leg shot off by one of these balls … I was more dead than alive …

My husband often wanted to send me to the Americans, in order to put me out of danger, but I told him it would be worse than anything I had had to bear heretofore to be with people to whom I should have to be polite while my husband was fighting them.

I was the only one among all the women whose husband had not been either killed or at least wounded, and I often said to myself, ‘Should I be the only lucky one?’

I tried to divert my mind by busying myself with our wounded.  I made tea and coffee for them, for which I received a thousand blessings.

On October 17 the capitulation went into effect … while driving through the American camp I was comforted to notice that nobody glanced at us insultingly, that they all bowed to me, and some of them even looked with pity to see a woman with small children there.

After Burgoyne’s surrender on October 17, 1777, Frederika and her children accompanied Riedesel into captivity. When the war officially ended in 1783, they returned home to Brunswick. Encouraged by her husband, Frederika published her journal and letters about the American expedition shortly after his death in 1800. Her engaging journal reveals the life of a compassionate, courageous, and resourceful woman and provides a unique glimpse into the American Revolution.

Source: Barnoness von Riedesel and the American Revolution. Translation and introduction by Marvin L. Brown, Jr. with assistance of Marta Huth. Published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture at Williamsburg, Virginia, by The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill. 1965.

A new Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation video explores women’s roles during the American Revolution:

Portrait of George Washington

George Washington presided over the 1787 Constitutional Convention. This circa 1800 portrait of Washington, after Gilbert Stuart’s Lansdowne portrait, is exhibited at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown.

Compromise Brought Constitutional Convention
to a Successful Conclusion on September 17, 1787

While compromise seems elusive on many of today’s pressing public issues, it was a crucial element at the 1787 convention that framed our federal constitutional system of government.

On May 25, 1787, 30 men assembled at the state house in Philadelphia to begin the federal convention.  The gathering included governors, court justices and former Continental congressmen.  Eventually, 12 states (Rhode Island did not participate) sent a total of 55 men to attend at least some sessions of the convention.  One of their first actions was to select George Washington to preside over the meetings.  The Virginia delegation effectively took the lead by introducing a set of proposals, commonly called the Virginia plan, for a national legislature of two houses, or branches, (both apportioned by population) and a national executive and judiciary.

Early in the debates, the delegates agreed to create an entirely new system of government based on the principle of separation of legislative, executive and judicial powers rather than just amending the existing Articles of Confederation.  The problem of representation posed the greatest threat to their work.  In June, William Patterson introduced the New Jersey plan, favored by the smaller states, which retained the one-state, one-vote system of the Articles of Confederation.  After a brilliant speech by James Madison, this plan was rejected, but a heated and bitter debate between the large and small state delegations dragged on into July. 

Finally Roger Sherman of Connecticut proposed the so-called “Great Compromise” providing for a lower House of Representatives apportioned by population and upper branch, or Senate, which gave each state equal representation.  The adoption of this solution, which protected the interests of both large and small states, was a critical turning point.  Throughout the rest of the convention, delegates worked out solutions to a variety of thorny issues and controversies. 

By September 17 the convention had completed its work, and the new Constitution was ready to be sent out to the states for ratification.  Without the willingness of the delegates to compromise on several critical issues and the steadying influence of George Washington, our fledgling new nation might never have taken flight.

Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford:  Loyalist, Renowned ScientistBenjamin Thompson, Lord Rumford

A portrait of Benjamin Thompson, one of the most prominent scientists of the late 18th century, will be exhibited in the new American Revolution Museum at Yorktown® galleries to help tell the story of Loyalists.  Loyalists were colonists who chose for a variety of reasons to remain loyal to the British crown instead of supporting the Patriot cause.

Thompson was born in Woburn, Massachusetts, in 1753.  In the 1770s he lived in Concord (earlier called Rumford), New Hampshire, and became an officer in the 2nd Provincial Regiment.  He developed close associations with prominent British officers, incurring the wrath of citizens opposed to British rule.  Thompson made the decision to leave America and had a successful career as a scientist and inventor in Britain and on the Continent, known principally for his work in thermodynamics.  He was knighted in Britain in 1784 and was made a Count of the Holy Roman Empire in 1791 – Count “Rumford” – for his social and scientific achievements in Bavaria, where he lived for a decade and was in the employ of the government.  He is credited with the invention of the “Rumford fireplace,” which was adopted throughout Europe in the 1790s.  Count Rumford continued his scientific work until his death in Paris in 1814.

The 18- by 24-inch oil-on-canvas painting by an unknown artist dates to 1785, a fact revealed during conservation.  The portrait was acquired by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation specifically for the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, which will replace the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown by late 2016.


Revolutionary War uniforms

Variations of American Revolutionary War uniforms, worn by historical interpreters at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown.

Revolutionary War Military Attire
Was Less Than Uniform

The iconic American soldier of the Revolutionary War is attired in a blue regimental coat with red facing.  In reality, Americans wore many different military uniforms during the Revolution.  In 1777 the Continental Congress ordered 40,000 soldiers’ uniforms from France.  Half of the coats were produced in blue with red cuffs and facings, and half in brown with red cuffs and facings.  A lottery was held to determine how the coats would be distributed.  The states that drew brown coats – Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire – could redraw for leftover blue coats.  Although a general order in 1779 standardized all Continental Army regimental coats to blue with one of four facing colors – white, buff, red and blue – assigned to each of the 13 states, some of the “lottery coats” may have continued in use.

Variations of American Revolutionary War uniforms, worn by historical interpreters at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, are pictured here.  Musicians’ coat colors (top left), shown as red with blue facing, were the opposite of the coat colors of soldiers in their regiment so that they could easily be identified as non-combatants.  At top center and right, “lottery coats” are shown in brown and blue, both with red facings.  At bottom left, a black hunting shirt represents a militia unit from Virginia’s Gloucester County.  Bottom center, a regimental coat with white facing on blue represents the Connecticut Light Infantry.  A 3rd Continental Light Dragoons stable jacket is shown at bottom right.  This regiment was formed in New Jersey in 1777, and many of its recruits were skilled horsemen from Virginia and North Carolina.

Breaking News From Virginia:  Colony Declares Itself “Independent of Great Britain”

On August 7, 1776, readers of the one of Scotland’s leading newspapers, The Edinburgh Evening Courant, learned that Virginia had taken the final step on the road to independence.  By this time, of course,   the Declaration of Independence already had been adopted in Philadelphia.  However, since it took a month or more for news to cross the Atlantic, no one in Britain would know about it for another few days.  It was not until August 10, 1776, that the news of the July 4th Declaration of Independence would reach Britain, and subscribers to The Edinburgh Evening Courant had to wait until August 21 to read the full text of the Declaration in their newspaper.

The news of Virginia independence reached Britain first because Virginia acted before the Continental Congress did on this issue.  The Fifth Virginia Convention passed a series of resolutions in late May and June, 1776.  These resolutions rejected all aspects of British authority and gave the Commonwealth of Virginia a new form of independent government.  Virginian Richard Henry Lee then urged the Continental Congress to follow Virginia’s lead.   The Continental Congress took his advice, finally declaring independence for the 13 colonies on July 4, 1776. 

A copy of the August 7, 1776, edition of The Edinburgh Evening Courant is the recent gift of a private donor to the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation and is intended for future exhibit at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, replacing the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown in 2016.

A copy of the August 7, 1776, edition of The Edinburgh Evening Courant, the recent gift of a private donor to the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, is intended for future exhibit at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, replacing the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown in 2016.


Naval trunk owned by Captain Tobias Lear in the 1770s.

The trunk owned by Captain Tobias Lear in the 1770s is on exhibit in “Jamestown’s Legacy to the American Revolution” at Jamestown Settlement through January 20, 2014.

One of the artifacts recently acquired for the future American Revolution Museum at Yorktown is a small wooden, leather-covered dome trunk ornamented with brass tacks, owned by Captain Tobias Lear, sometimes referred to as the fourth Tobias.  His son, the fifth Tobias, served as personal secretary to George Washington from 1784 to Washington’s death in 1799.

Captain Lear was born on August 1, 1737, and died on November 6, 1781.  He served as superintendent of the Continental Yard at Langdon’s (now Badger’s) Island in the Piscataqua River across from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, during the American Revolution.  He also is known as the builder of the ship Ranger, made famous by John Paul Jones.  Some time earlier Lear served on the Panther, and it was during this time that he used this trunk, inscribed on the inside in period ink, “Captain Lear for Ship Panther.”  The maker’s label indicates that the trunk was made by London trunk maker James Bryant.  The date July 6, 1773, appears below the label.  The trunk has its original paper lining decorated with a playing card motif.  This box held important papers and perhaps a small keepsake or cherished object that reminded Captain Lear of home and family left behind.

Since people first took to the sea, tight quarters have dictated that mariners make choices about the few personal items they can keep with them.  Even in the 21st-century American Navy, with ships larger than ever imagined in the 18th century, a sailor typically has very limited space for personal belongings.  Pictures of family and friends, a laptop or books are common items taken on board ship today.

Remembering Thomas Jefferson on the Fourth of July

Declaration of Independence broadside 1776 Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation

Thomas Jefferson was principal author of the Declaration of Independence, adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776. A rare broadside printing of the document dating to July 1776 is on exhibit at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown.

The Fourth of July is a day to remember Thomas Jefferson, one of the great leaders of the revolutionary period.  Born on April 13, 1743, this year marks the 270th anniversary of his birth. 

Today Jefferson is remembered as a farmer, slave owner, lawyer, politician, statesman, president, scholar, architect, and philosopher.  He was father of the Declaration of Independence, the Louisiana Purchase, Lewis and Clark expedition, and the University of Virginia. Jefferson’s passions included his family, books, music, architecture, fine food, wine, Paris, science, gardens, Monticello, and exploration of the natural world.  Yet perhaps his greatest passion was the new nation he worked tirelessly to create and nurture – a country founded on the idea of popular government.

Jefferson also understood that anniversaries are a time to remember and commemorate important events and accomplishments.  In 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence was marked by celebrations.  Organizers of the Washington celebrations were eager to bring Jefferson back to the capital for the day, but at the age of 83 he was too ill to travel.  Instead, he penned a letter to commemorate the event.  In it he wrote,

“May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the Signal of arousing men to burst the chains, under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings & security of self-government.  That form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion.  All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man.  The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view.  The palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of god.  These are grounds of hope for others.  For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.”

These would be his last words to the nation.  Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, that fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.  What words from the Declaration of Independence do you find most inspiring today as we celebrate America’s birthday?

Lowering the Bar – British Army Recruiting Practices During the American Revolution


Image of a press gang, circa 1780

Before the American Revolution, Great Britain maintained a rather small standing army that was made up of volunteers.  While the British navy routinely “pressed” or drafted sailors when they needed them, there was strong resistance to the idea of granting the army such authority.  Some able-bodied petty criminals were allowed to volunteer for the army as an alternative to jail, but they could not be compelled to do so.  Army enlistment practices changed  in 1778 when the British defeat at Saratoga and the entry of the French into the war caused Parliament to pass the Recruiting Act of 1778, a law “for the more easy and better recruiting of his Majesty’s Land Forces.”  In reality this was a conscription act that allowed “all able-bodied idle, and disorderly Persons” to be enlisted in the army against their will.  This act also reduced the minimum acceptable height for an army recruit from 5 feet, 6-1/2 inches, to 5 feet, 4 inches.

The soldiers obtained under the Recruiting Act of 1778 proved to be much poorer physical specimens than were the pre-war volunteers.   As one British officer lamented, “The magistrates … sent in wretched objects totally unfit for service.”  Such was the need for soldiers though, that these “wretched objects” were still herded aboard transports sailing to America.  The mortality rate among army conscripts was very high.  In the case of one British regiment serving in America, the Royal Welch Fusiliers, more than half of the men sent to the regiment in 1779 were to die in less than two years, principally from disease.

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