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Philip Schuyler: An Appreciation

The mayor of Albany, New York, has ordered a statue of  Revolutionary War General Philip Schuyler removed from the front of city hall, where it has been on view since 1925. Before it’s gone, we should consider why Schuyler still deserves to be honored.

Read our President General’s appeal to Mayor Sheehan to reconsider  her order here.

 

The success of the American Revolution was made possible by an unlikely alliance of Americans, including farmers, tradesmen, urban working people, men and women pushing the frontiers of American settlement into the valleys beyond the Appalachians, free blacks for whom Revolutionary ideals of liberty were deeply and personally meaningful, and Virginia planters for whom the war risked family fortunes built over generations. Few moments in our history have brought together such a wide range of people in a single cause.

All modern Americans benefit from their sacrifices, but in enjoying the freedom they won, we have grown forgetful and ungrateful about what they have done for us. At this time in our history, many of our countrymen find it difficult or impossible to acknowledge our debt to people from our shared past who did not share all our values. The revolutionaries were not like us. They were born into a world in which freedom as we understand it was barely an aspiration. They fought to create a republic—a government organized to promote the interests of ordinary people—and began the task of pushing back the darkness of centuries. We are all their heirs and successors. We owe them honor and respect.

Philip Schuyler of New York is now among the least appreciated and sadly, the most dishonored. He was among the most interesting and the most unexpected of our revolutionaries. He was a privileged member of one of the most prominent landed families in the Hudson River Valley. The Schuylers were major Hudson Valley landowners before New York was New York. A family of Dutch patroons, the Schuylers and their network of relatives, allies, and clients dominated the Hudson Valley as completely as any group of landowning patricians in colonial North America.

British America had no native aristocracy—no class of hereditary landed aristocrats who lived on rents and enjoyed the drawing room leisure so ably portrayed in the novels of Jane Austen—but the Schuylers and their peers along the Hudson came as close to it as anyone in Britain’s American colonies. The southern planters may have longed for the leisure of British aristocrats, but they were, in fact, market farmers whose fortunes rose and fell with prices of the crops produced on their plantations. Hudson Valley patroons like the Schuylers owned vast estates and had tenants—uncommon in the colonies where land seemed inexhaustible and most colonists aspired to own their own farms.

We used to say that the American Revolution was the inevitable result of the social and economic development of the colonies, which, the argument went, was making them continuously more egalitarian, more democratic, and less British. But in important ways, the colonies were becoming more like Britain in the last generation before the American Revolution. The first stubborn pockets of urban poverty were appearing, as was a middling sort that was defining itself through consumption—drinking tea, wearing imported fabrics, imitating European fashions, and reading the latest British books. And an aristocracy, comparable in style and influence to its much more powerful British model, was starting to form. In important ways, America was becoming more British, not less, on the eve of the Revolution. This was the thesis of the late John Murrin, one of his generation’s most creative historians, who died a few weeks ago from COVID-19.

Philip Schuyler embodied the colony’s increasingly British character. Born in 1733, he was the heir to fortune and privilege. He expected to exercise privilege and pass it on. That he became a revolutionary is extraordinary. He had everything to lose from the Revolution, and the possibility of gain was hardly sufficient to justify the risk he took. If money and social standing alone had defined him, he would have stood beside the DeLanceys and the other loyalist families of New York.

As the eldest son, Philip Schuyler inherited the landed estate of his late father in 1754, and divided it with his siblings. His own holdings, stretching along the Hudson and the Mohawk, were princely. Among them his estate at Saratoga was the most valuable. He owned and built mills at the falls of creeks and acquired a schooner and sloops to trade on the Hudson. But it was the development of his own estates by encouraging emigration from Europe that occupied much of his attention. In the last years before the Revolution, Schuyler was looking forward to making his estates something like the estates of Britain’s landed aristocracy, peopled by tenants paying rents to support a way of life to which few Americans could aspire.

Like George Washington, Schuyler was a veteran of the French and Indian War, an innovator, and an energetic entrepreneur. Both men were interested in canals and other improvements to facilitate commerce. Washington saw that tobacco had little future and in 1769 he abandoned tobacco and planted wheat, setting off on decades of creative farming. Schuyler decided to grow flax, and in 1767 built a flax mill to make linen, the first of its kind in America.

In that same year Schuyler was elected to the New York Assembly. He was no radical, but a firm supporter of colonial rights, both in the growing dispute with Britain and at home. In the spring of 1769 he proposed a bill to provide for religious toleration, “to encourage the worship of God,” he wrote, “upon generous principles of equal indulgence to loyal Protestants of every persuasions,” and—ever practical—to make it possible for all Protestant denominations to own real estate for the support of their churches. But practical as he was, he was a man of principle. When patriots denounced a scheme to provide funding to support the king’s troops in the colony, Schuyler was the only member of the assembly who took their side.

News of the fighting at Lexington, characterized as a massacre, reached Schuyler on April 29, 1775. That evening he shared his reaction in a letter to a friend. “I know there are difficulties in the way,” Schuyler wrote. “The loyal and the timid in this province are many, yet I believe that when the question is fairly put, as it is really put by this massacre in Massachusetts Bay, whether we shall be ruled by a military despotism, or fight for right and freedom? the great majority of the people will choose the latter.”  Unless Britain chose a course of wisdom and conciliation, he predicted, war was inevitable. “It is now actually begun,” he added grimly, “and in the spirit of Joshua I say, I care not what others may do, ‘as for me and my house,’ we will serve our country.”

He might have remained comfortably at home on his Hudson River estates, but principle led him away. On May 9, 1775, Schuyler set off for Philadelphia as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress. Within six weeks he had been named a major general in the Continental Army. Schuyler rode north with George Washington as far as New York City, then turned north toward Albany to take command of the army’s Northern Department (known at first as the New York Department)—a largely autonomous post in which he was responsible for defending the colonies from an attack down the Lake Champlain-Hudson River corridor connecting the seaboard colonies with Canada.

The corridor had been fought over by Britain and France in a succession of wars that consumed much of the eighteenth century and was dotted with forts. The most important, Fort Ticonderoga, dominated the southern end of Lake Champlain and controlled the portage between Lake Champlain and Lake George. The latter stretched thirty-two miles south and connects to a narrow portage to the Hudson River about fifty miles north of Albany. The rivers and lakes in the corridor provided a nearly continuous water route from the Hudson to the St. Lawrence, and was the natural route for the colonist to use to conquer Canada or for the British to follow to take control of the Hudson Valley and cut New England off from the colonies to the south and west.

Establishing military control of this region was a desperate challenge. To the west of Albany, in the Mohawk River Valley and northward to the Great Lakes was the land of Iroquois, a confederacy of powerful, warlike Indian tribes more likely to fight with the British than the Americans because they knew that the British, at least for the moment, valued their trade more than their land, which the Americans coveted. To the east, in the mountain valleys between New York and New Hampshire was a region—what would become Vermont—claimed by both colonies and peopled by New Englanders who seemed as likely to take up arms against New Yorkers as to fight the British. To the south, along the Hudson all the way to Manhattan, New Yorkers were divided between patriots and loyalists. The British on the St. Lawrence River were, in the summer of 1775, among the least of Philip Schuyler’s worries.

To take control of this critical, complex and confusing region, Schuyler had only a fragment of the armed strength of the colonies. Most of the available manpower was dedicated to Washington’s army confronting the British outside Boston. Schuyler had Continental troops raised in New York and other units, mostly militia, from New York and adjacent parts of Connecticut and western Massachusetts. They were barely sufficient to man the outposts spread across a wide arc from the hazy borderlands of Vermont to the Mohawk River Valley. Adding to his difficulties was the distrust many New Englanders felt for New Yorkers, and their resistance to being placed under the command of New York officers, including Schuyler himself. Arms and gunpowder were in desperately short supply, and providing his men with food, clothing, and other necessities was a continuous challenge. To make matters worse, a drought made it impossible to feed what livestock he could gather.

At Ticonderoga, Schuyler found the troops there undisciplined and inattentive, but he thought he could get them into shape. “The officers and men are all good looking people,” he wrote to Washington “and decent in their deportment, and I really believe will make good soldiers as soon as I can get the better of this non-chalance of theirs. Bravery I believe they are far from wanting.” Washington responded in kind about the troops at Cambridge, but assured his new friend that “patience and perseverance” would turn their men into soldiers.

In late September Schuyler wrote to Washington from Fort Ticonderoga, admitting “the Vexation of Spirit under which I labour.” His health (“a Barbarous Complication of Disorders,” he called it) had not been good for years, and only grew worse under the pressures of his assignment. He was constantly anxious that “the Army should starve” despite his constant efforts and frustrated by the “scandalous Want of Subordination and Inattention to my Orders” by the officers scattered through his widely dispersed command. “If Job had been a General in my Situation,” Schuyler concluded, “his Memory had not been so famous for Patience—But the Glorious End we have in View & which I have a Confidential Hope will be attained will attone for all.”

By the end of November Schuyler had had enough, and considered resigning. “Our Army requires to be put on quite a different Footing,” he wrote to Washington. “Gentlemen in Command, find It very disagreeable to Coax, wheedle and even to Lye, to carry on the Service. Habituated to Order, I cannot without the most extreme Pain, see that Disregard of Discipline, Confusion & Inattention which reigns so General in this Quarter.”

Despite his frustrations, Schuyler remained at his post. His health made it impossible for him to accompany American troops on the Canadian expedition, but he funneled supplies men and supplies north. When the campaign failed, he organized a strategic retreat down the Lake Champlain corridor that helped prevent an effective British counteroffensive from reaching the Hudson in the fall of 1776, which would have been disastrous for the American cause.

The next year Schuyler met British General John Burgoyne’s offensive south from Canada with skillfully executed delaying tactics. British maneuvers forced Schuyler’s army to evacuate Fort Ticonderoga—an enormous blow to American morale—but Schuyler delayed Burgoyne’s overland march to the Hudson by having his men fell trees in the narrow road, slowing the British pace while he gathered troops for a showdown with Burgoyne on ground of his own choosing.

George Washington—among the most perceptive spectators to the Saratoga campaign—believed that “Burgoyne’s army will meet, sooner or later an effectual check” and that his success in penetrating so far south “will precipitate his ruin.”  Washington believed that by detaching troops to gather supplies, Burgoyne was pursuing a “line of conduct . . . most favorable to us,” offering the opportunity to defeat him in detail. In late July 1777 Schuyler suggested to Washington that if he brought the main army north to Albany, together they might cut Burgoyne’s overextended army to pieces.

Washington could not risk the maneuver. Schuyler was left to operate with his small army. At the beginning of August he stationed his troops near Stillwater, beside the Hudson a few miles south of his own Saratoga estate. Burgoyne’s troops destroyed Schuyler’s house and mills as they passed. Schuyler’s army was plagued by desertion and illness, but he explained to Washington that “if we by any Means could be put in a Situation of attacking the Enemy and giving them a Repulse, their Retreat would be so extremely difficult that in all probability, they would lose the greater part of their Army.”

Schuyler was not to command that attack. Congress, frightened by the evacuation of Ticonderoga and worried that Schuyler would lose Albany without a fight,  relieved him and turned the Northern Army over to Horatio Gates, who had spent weeks in Philadelphia criticizing Schuyler and angling for the command. “We shall never hold a post until we shoot a general,” John Adams wrote to Gates. Losing his command was humiliating to Schuyler, but he remained to offer whatever assistance he could as the armies prepared for battle on his own home ground.

We will never know whether the sprawling, month-long series of battles and maneuvers remembered as the Battle of Saratoga would have resulted in the same dramatic victory if Philip Schuyler had been left in command. Certainly Gates did not distinguish himself as a commander at Saratoga. The battles that sealed the American victory were directed by subordinates who would have acted with as much courage and energy for Schuyler as they did under Gates, who did not know the ground as well as Schuyler and who remained far behind the lines while the victory was won.

Although Schuyler stayed with the army, Gates studiously avoided him. Burgoyne’s surrender made Gates a hero. Congress voted to present him with a gold medal to commemorate his victory, and Gates spent months maneuvering to replace Washington as commander-in-chief. That effort failed, and his subsequent defeat at Camden, South Carolina, and his headlong flight from that battlefield revealed Gates’ true character as a field commander.

Schuyler expressed no bitterness about the opportunity that had been denied him. Although deprived of his army, Schuyler continued to serve selflessly for the rest of the war—first as Continental Indian commissioner, and later as a member of Congress, promoting effective relations between Congress and the army. He never lost Washington’s respect and esteem.

An original member of the New York State Society of the Cincinnati, United States senator, and leading citizen of New York, Philip Schuyler was honored in the early years of the republic. Reviewing the war decades later, Daniel Webster concluded that Schuyler was “second only to Washington in the services he rendered to the country in the war of the Revolution” under “difficulties which would have paralyzed the efforts of most men.”  Webster overlooked Nathanael Greene, Henry Knox, and Baron Steuben, but his assessment was not too far off.

“He was one of those men,” an early biographer wrote, “who often work noiselessly but efficiently; whose labors form the bases of great performances. A builder, not given to heroics, Schuyler was “indifferent to that popular applause which follows the enunciation of startling opinions, or performance of brilliant services.” For sustained devotion to the American cause and perseverance in the face of extraordinary obstacles, few officers of the war were his equal. We became, and remain, an independent people thanks to that kind of devotion, and owe Schuyler the honor he richly deserves.

Philip Schuyler came as close as any American of his time to living like a British aristocrat, but fought and helped to win a revolution that ended the possibility of an American aristocracy. We dishonor Schuyler and other heroes of the Revolution when we hold them to modern standards, forgetting that what they created—the first great republic of modern times, based on principles of liberty, equality, natural and civil rights, and citizenship—is what makes it possible for us to hold those standards, and is the foundation of our own ideas of freedom.

 

Above: Philip Schuyler by John Trumbull, 1792, Yale University Art Gallery.

 

Lessons from a Revolutionary Epidemic

George Washington’s aggressive response to epidemic disease during the Revolutionary War offers lessons for today. That war was fought not just against British forces, but against an enemy far more dangerous—smallpox.

Smallpox was one of the most dreaded diseases of the eighteenth century. A viral illness, smallpox caused high fever, severe headaches, vomiting, pains in the loins and back, and the eruptions that gave the disease its name. Smallpox was extraordinarily virulent; individuals exposed to the virus, which passed by contact, were almost certain to be infected.  One attack usually conferred immunity to future infection. Smallpox was endemic in eighteenth-century Britain; the island was rarely free of the disease. It was almost constantly present in London and often ravaged the countryside. In Britain death seems to have claimed between fifteen and twenty percent of those infected. Smallpox was among the most common causes of death in eighteenth-century London. Ten percent of deaths in the city between 1731 and 1765 (which averaged about 23,300 total each year) were attributed to the disease. The number reached an all-time high in 1751, when some 3,538 Londoners died from smallpox—most of them children under five.

Smallpox was far less common in North America. It passed through the colonies in epidemic waves that typically began in the port cities and spread outward. The disease appeared sporadically in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Charleston, and passed into the surrounding areas before gradually fading. Smallpox was no less virulent in North America, but the low density of the population—early America’s version of “social distancing”—discouraged its transmission. Smallpox was consequently less likely to reach epidemic proportions in the Chesapeake, the Carolinas or Georgia, where the population was dispersed and towns were few and small. Ships trading along the tidewater rivers sometimes transmitted the illness to particular plantations, but such outbreaks tended to be localized. Annapolis and Williamsburg were infected occasionally, but even in those towns epidemics were typically short.

Smallpox infection in Britain’s mainland colonies in North America seems to have been distributed more or less evenly across the age spectrum, because the North American population contained a much larger percentage of non-immune adults. Adults were better able to endure the ravages of the disease than children, so the mortality rate among colonists was lower than in Britain. About ten percent of infected colonials seem to have died. But American epidemics seemed particularly bad to contemporaries, because the large percentage of non-immunes meant that outbreaks tended to involve a much higher percentage of the people in any community than would be infected in a comparable English population. This fact led some to speculate that Americans were somehow intrinsically more susceptible to the disease.

The Revolutionary War occurred during one of the worst smallpox epidemics in American history, which ultimately reached from maritime Canada to Central America (and brilliantly documented by Elizabeth Fenn in her book, Pox Americana—winner of the 2004 Society of the Cincinnati Prize). Its spread has been traced from colonies on the Atlantic seaboard all the way to the Indians living on the Pacific coast. Unlike today’s virus, which spread from continent to continent in days and weeks, and infected people around the world within a few months, the smallpox epidemic that paralleled our Revolution took years to reach the farthest parts of the continent, passing from traders to Indians and from Indian to Indian across the West. This was possible because the smallpox virus, unlike SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19), remains stable and capable of infecting victims for long periods outside a human host. The coronavirus needs a host, and dies within hours on most surfaces.

When the Revolutionary War began, most of the young men who would serve in the Continental Army and the militia had never been exposed to smallpox. A much larger proportion of the British and Hessian soldiers who came to America had been exposed to it, and were immune. This put the Continental Army, which was always short of manpower, at a considerable disadvantage.

Eighteenth-century people had very little understanding of disease transmission, and incorrectly attributed many diseases caused by pathogens to environmental conditions like bad air, foul smells and damp weather. But they understood that smallpox passed from one person to another and that contact with the sores and scabs of an infected person was almost certain to infect a non-immune. The close quarters of an army camp was ideal for spreading the disease.

George Washington understood how debilitating smallpox could be to a young man. The disease had barely touched Virginia in his youth, but he contracted it in 1751 when he went to Barbados with his brother Lawrence. Smallpox was endemic to Barbados, kept alive there by the constant arrival of non-immune, recently enslaved Africans. The Washington brothers undoubtedly encountered the virus shortly after they arrived, at the home of one of their hosts, where the children were sick with the disease. Lawrence, who had been to boarding school in England, was undoubtedly immune. Nineteen-year-old George was not.

Young George might have encountered an infected child face-to-face, inhaling small infectious droplets or carrying the virus to his mouth or nose on his hands. But since the infectious nature of smallpox was understood, it seems unlikely that George risked direct personal contact with an infected person. He probably kept his distance, but he could have picked up the virus in another way. The virus can be present in scabs and dried-out bodily secretions, and desiccated but still dangerous particles can circulate in the air or be carried to a new host on inanimate objects. Someone changing bed linen, sweeping floors or even opening the window in a sickroom might have swirled infectious material into the air and ultimately into George Washington’s lungs.

That was on November 4. The disease has a two-week incubation period, and like clockwork George fell ill on November 17, later recording in his diary that on that day he had been “strongly attacked with the small Pox.” He was confined to the brothers’ rented house until December 12.  He suffered, but that suffering conveyed immunity that protected him during the Revolutionary War.

Smallpox was already present in Massachusetts when Washington arrived to take command of the Continental Army in the summer of 1775. He took steps to isolate the soldiers from infected townspeople and contain the unfortunates who had already contracted the disease. Daily inspections were instituted to check men for symptoms, and immune troops were placed on the front lines. Washington established a dedicated smallpox hospital. These steps undoubtedly flattened the curve of infection, slowing the spread of the disease, but could not stop it. New recruits, many of whom came from areas where smallpox was rare, contracted the disease after arriving at the crowded camps. Washington knew that nothing would kill the patriotic spirit of the new recruits converging in Cambridge faster than a smallpox epidemic in the army.

While Washington’s precautions—similar to the self-quarantines and social-distancing policies of the moment—were based on the best science of his time, there was only one proven solution: inoculation. Vaccination was unknown. Inoculation had been introduced to Boston by Cotton Mather during the 1721 smallpox outbreak. This risky procedure involved making a cut in the skin of a healthy person and inserting the virus, usually in the form of pus from the skin eruptions of an infected person. Inoculation, in most cases, conveyed a mild case of the dreaded sickness. The pox were typically limited to the area around the incision, and the associated fever and other symptoms less severe than those originating from an infection that began in the lungs.

The procedure was dangerous. Patients under inoculation could develop a full blown case of the disease and die, and they were as contagious as other smallpox sufferers and had to be isolated until recovery. The risk of inoculation accidentally spreading the disease made it a highly controversial procedure. Without proper regulation and supervision, inoculation might destroy the army and spread the disease to civilians.

The cost of failing to act became clear during the invasion of Canada in the winter of 1775-1776. American forces were devastated by smallpox during the Siege of Quebec. After interacting with infected locals (purportedly sent into American lines by the British army), the pestilence spread quickly through the American army. Disorganized attempts at inoculation left the whole army contagious and suffering. The spread of the virus and lack of supplies made their position untenable. The army withdrew from Canada in defeat. Everyone knew—the British, Congress, even deserters—that sickness had been the invading army’s downfall.

Washington decided that inoculation was a risk he had to take to build up the army’s immunity. Washington listened to the advice of doctors and became convinced that inoculating troops before they entered active duty was the most effective strategy. By January 1777, this became army policy. “The Small Pox by inoculation,” the commander-in-chief wrote to his brother John Augustine, “appears to me to be nothing.” He ordered all of his slaves inoculated and reported that they “are likely to get well through the disorder.” If he were a member of the House of Burgesses, Washington wrote, he would “move for a Law to compel the Masters of Families to inoculate every Child born within a certain limited time under severe Penalties.”

Ensuring the health of the troops was a key to a successful Revolution. The Board of War asked Dr. Benjamin Rush to write a pamphlet about keeping soldiers healthy for the use of the Continental Army officers. “Fatal experience,” Rush wrote, “has taught the people of America that a greater proportion of men have perished with sickness in our armies than have fallen by the sword.” Rush prescribed proper dress and diet as well as exercise, personal hygiene and orderly, clean encampments providing proper sanitation and access to good water. Lack of uniforms, tents and adequate food often made following Rush’s guidelines impossible for the young officers responsible for carrying them out. They did their best, which blunted the force of disease and helped keep the Continental Army in the field. Their best efforts, and the best efforts of the officers of the Continental Navy and of the French army and navy, could not stop the ravages of epidemic disease. Contagious illnesses claimed thousands more lives than battle.

There was no glory in it. Artists celebrated men giving their lives in battle rather than those who suffered and died in a struggle with one of the war’s more dangerous enemies—smallpox, dysentery, measles, influenza and typhus among them. Only once, it seems, did a contemporary artist grasp the deadly importance of disease to the war and depict it on canvas.

The subject of the painting, which is among the treasures in our collections, is Thomas François Lenormand de Victot, a French naval officer who served under Admiral d’Estaing and later, Admiral de Grasse. Wounded at Grenada in 1779, he was denied a glorious death in battle. He died at Martinique in 1782 from a fever that swept through the French fleet. In the painting—undoubtedly commissioned by his family—Lenormand is dead in the foreground, but his risen spirit confronts Death, protecting his stricken sailors, facing the war’s great killer with courage and dignity.

Disease wracked the armies and navies of the Revolution, but Washington’s energetic, proactive response flattened the curve—it slowed the spread of disease and helped the Continental Army prevail in a war that demanded much more than tactical skill or courage in battle. After the disaster at Quebec, smallpox never overcame an American army.  Washington and his senior officers worked ceaselessly to prevent the spread of disease among their troops. There was no glory in it, but it saved lives, and ultimately saved the Revolution.

Our republic was founded by people who committed themselves to the greater good. We are called to do the same. Washington protected his troops and we are called to protect ours. The soldiers on our front lines include grocery clerks, medical professionals, delivery men on scooters, sanitation workers and the thousands of others risking exposure while working to maintain essential services.  We are protecting the republic Washington and his generation fought to create. Like Washington, we need to act before the disease decimates us. Washington learned from experience. We should learn from his example.

Kathleen Higgins

Joseph Plumb Martin, Everyman

It’s not every man who can play Everyman, but Joseph Plumb Martin pulled it off with what looks like effortless ease. His Narrative of some of the Adventures, Dangers and Sufferings of a Revolutionary Soldier is one of the most insightful, passionate and carefully crafted first-hand accounts of the Revolutionary War—and the most successful. You can hardly pick up a book about the Revolutionary War written in the last forty years without bumping into Joseph Plumb Martin. He’s the most quotable, and most quoted, common soldier of the Revolution. But he’s more than that, and more interesting.

Martin’s Narrative was rescued from over a century of obscurity by George Scheer, a frequent contributor to American Heritage magazine, who discovered a copy of the first and only edition of the book, published in 1830, in the library of Morristown National Historical Park. He transcribed it, added an introduction and gave it to the world as Private Yankee Doodle, published by Little, Brown in 1962. It took off, appealing to patriots and cynics in equal measure, and has never gone out of print.

The book has been packaged and repackaged under titles including The Diary of Joseph Plumb Martin, A Narrative of a Revolutionary Soldier and Ordinary Courage. Paperback versions are commonly assigned in college courses. Selections from the Narrative appear in anthologies on the Revolution and on the experience of war, including one assembled by John McCain. A version for children is available as A Young Patriot: The American Revolution as Experienced by One Boy and another as Yankee Doodle Boy. Martin has shown up in the PBS series Liberty’s Kids. Passages of the Narrative enrich documentaries. His name rolls by in the credits of nearly every miniseries and feature film on the Revolutionary War. The National Park Service named the hiking trail circling Valley Forge the Joseph Plumb Martin Trail. He’s become one of our best-known revolutionaries. He’s everywhere.

Given the book’s history, its modern popularity is a surprise. Martin was a seventy-year-old veteran when his account of nearly eight years in Washington’s army was published by Franklin Glazier in Hallowell, Maine, a town on the Kennebec just below Augusta. Glazier printed almanacs, sermons, schoolbooks, statutes, law reports and a little church music. Martin’s Narrative was an outlier, and it seems unlikely that Glazier printed more than a few hundred copies. Martin explained that he wrote the book to satisfy his friends and did not expect it to “reach beyond the pale of my own neighborhood.” Surviving copies are rare, and the fact that George Scheer stumbled onto one in the late 1950s is remarkable.

It was not the first autobiographical narrative of a common soldier, but it is an early one. Memoirs of generals were common fare in Britain from the late seventeenth century, as were moralizing tracts and fantastic tales retailed as the work of ordinary soldiers, but genuine accounts of military service written by enlisted men and junior officers were something new in the early nineteenth century, made possible by the declining cost of printing and improvements in book marketing that made it practical, if not very profitable, for little printers like Glazier to publish them.

Martin was born in Massachusetts in 1760 and raised by his maternal grandparents in Connecticut. The family valued education—his father, the Reverend Ebenezer Martin, had graduated from Yale. Joseph’s youth was interrupted by the Revolutionary War and he never attended college. He joined the Connecticut militia in 1776 and served in the defense of New York City. Discharged at the end of 1776, he enlisted as a private in the Connecticut Continental Line in April 1777 and served for the duration of the war. He was assigned to the light infantry in 1778 and promoted to corporal, and in 1780 he was transferred to the new Corps of Sappers and Miners and promoted to sergeant. He fought in several of the major engagements, including Brooklyn, Kip’s Bay, Harlem Heights, White Plains, Germantown, Fort Mifflin, Monmouth and Yorktown, and was among the last Continental soldiers discharged in 1783.

More than forty years passed before Martin began writing his narrative of the war. It’s an old man’s book, based on memories filtered through decades of ordinary struggles and striving, successes and disappointments. Yet it’s often a young man’s voice we hear when we read it, which suggests a clever old man did the writing. The narrator is contrived for effect—not a fiction, but not quite the author himself.

That the narrator is an invention is signaled by Martin’s insistence that the book consists of nothing but “the common transactions of one of the lowest in station in an army, a private soldier.” In truth, Martin wasn’t a private for long. His assignment to the light infantry placed him among the army’s elite troops, and his quick promotion to corporal and later sergeant suggests that he stood out, despite his youth. Literate in an army filled with barely literate soldiers, he must also have been industrious and reliable. The son of a Yale-trained minister, he probably read in his spare time and wrote letters home.

He wants us to imagine young Private Martin as just another one of the boys. “I never studied grammar an hour in my life,” he says, “when I should have been doing that, I was forced to be studying the rules and articles of war”—the strained “forced to be studying” has the deliberate, country-rube cadence of a invention like Huck Finn or Brer Rabbit.

He drops the Everyman pose to tell us in his own voice: “I never learned the rules of punctuation farther than just to assist in fixing a comma to the British depredations in the state of New York; a semicolon in New Jersey; a colon in Pennsylvania, and a final period in Virginia,” ending with “a note of interrogation, why we were made to suffer so much in so good and just a cause.” A man who invents puns about punctuation was probably never one of the boys.

Martin’s alter ego is a somewhat roguish fellow, a joker and a trickster, whose place near the bottom of the social scale provides him with a perspective on the seedier side of the Revolution. He really sees history from the bottom up, a vantage point from which hypocrisy, deceit, greed and corruption are in plain view. The rest of us see what’s happening above. He sees what’s really happening from below, a not-so-innocent young man adrift in an war filled with chicanery, selfish opportunism, abused authority and hopeless bumbling.

His Narrative is a tale of needless suffering and exploitation. “Almost every one has heard of the soldiers of the Revolution being tracked by the blood of their feet on the frozen ground,” he wrote. “This is literally true; and the thousandth part of their sufferings has not, nor ever will be told.” Americans had the means to support the war, he says, but too many of them were content to let others do the fighting while they raked in the spoils, from petty swindlers taking advantage of hungry soldiers, to embezzlers, cheats and war profiteers. Continental officers, he complained, were too often cruel, vindictive and unfeeling.

Enlisted men had won the war, yet in the end they had been “turned adrift like old worn-out horses.” For decades veterans were disappointed by the government’s unfulfilled promises of land grants, back pay and compensation for the collapse of the Continental dollar. “The country was rigorous in exacting my compliance to my engagements,” Martin wrote, “but equally careless in performing her contracts with me; and why so? One reason was, because she had all the power in her hands, and I had none. Such things ought not to be.”

Much of the modern popularity of Martin’s Narrative lies in his raw critique of the selfishness and vice he witnessed. Yet for all his cynicism and frustration, he was a patriot who confessed he felt “a secret pride swell my heart” at Yorktown, “when I saw the ‘star-spangled banner’ waving majestically in the very faces of our implacable adversaries.”

Few men wrote about our Revolutionary War with such unsentimental clarity or condemned its corruption and failures more bluntly. Yet he was amazed that men “starved and naked, and suffering every thing short of death . . . should be able to persevere through an eight years’ war, and come off conquerers at last!” The Revolution, for all its vices, astonished him. It should astonish us, too.

 

Joseph Plumb Martin is one of many remarkable veterans of the Revolutionary War featured in our current exhibition, America’s First Veterans, on view at the headquarters of the American Revolution Institute of the Society of the Cincinnati through July 26. Learn more about America’s First Veteranshere.

Joseph Winter, Lone Wanderer

On the evening of December 18, 1829, a young Philadelphia portrait painter named John Neagle set off on foot toward the home of an artist friend named Thomas Birch. It was snowing and the streets of Philadelphia must have been nearly empty. People who had somewhere to go pulled their coats tight and hurried through the dark.

The thirty-three year-old Neagle had not gone far when he saw an old man huddled under a makeshift shelter, trying to keep out of the snow. Neagle might have kept on walking, but he paused. “I found him much benumbed with cold and scantily clad,” Neagle wrote in his diary. “His outer dress was ragged—His flannel and coat scarcely covered his naked body and he had an apology for a shirt—all were in rags and strings.”

Neagle tried to engage the man in conversation, but found that his first language was German, which Neagle did not speak. Rather than give up in frustration, Neagle invited the old man to come home with him, where the artist “administered to his wants over a good cheerful fire.” It might have been the first kindness anyone had shown the old man in a long time. Neagle went out to ask his neighborhood grocer, a German, to come translate for him.

There by the fireside the artist learned that the man’s name was Joseph Winter. He was something like seventy-three years old, though Winter wasn’t quite sure of his own age. He had come to Pennsylvania before the Revolution and settled in a German community near Bethlehem, where he had worked as a weaver. He had been married, but his wife and children were long dead. His eyesight had grown dim and his fingers were no longer fit for the loom. Unable to support himself, he had become, Neagle wrote, “a lone wanderer in a world evincing but little feeling or sympathy for him.”

Neagle learned something else that made a profound impression on him. As a young man, Winter had served in the Revolutionary War, and “had fought very hard to establish the liberties of our country.” Winter was a homeless veteran—one of the first homeless veterans about whom we know anything at all. Homeless veterans are now a familiar sight in our cities, but they were something new and appallingly sad in 1829, at least to a thoughtful man like John Neagle, whose imagination quickly turned to how he might express that sadness and inspire his fellow Americans.

A few years earlier he had completed a masterpiece—a heroic portrait of an ironmaster titled Pat Lyon at the Forge. Lyon commissioned the portrait, writing to Neagle “that I do not desire to be represented in this picture as a gentleman—to which character I have no pretensions. I want you to paint me at work at my anvil, with my sleeves rolled up and a leather apron on.” The painting created a sensation when it was exhibited. It was revolutionary in its realism—a craftsman’s portrait in his working clothes, standing at an anvil—and densely symbolic—beneath his leather apron Lyon wears a pair of fine shoes no blacksmith ever wore to work, and outside the open window is the Walnut Street Jail, where Lyon had once been imprisoned for a crime he did not commit.

Looking at the homeless Joseph Winter, Neagle decided on a project as richly symbolic as Pat Lyon at the Forge. He would paint Winter’s portrait, just as he appeared—old, his face etched in sorrow, exhausted, his clothes shabby and threadbare. Winter sat for the portrait, which is the first known portrait of a homeless veteran.

The finished portrait attracted wide public notice, and Neagle had it engraved for sale with the title Patriotism and Age. The portrait made Winter a symbol of the thousands of elderly veterans of the Revolutionary War for whom the nation had made no provision. “This picture speaks a satire of melancholy truth,” one viewer commented, “that must reach the heart of every American, who is not forgetful of the blessings inherited from his forefathers.” Nearly a quarter of a million Americans had borne arms in the Revolutionary War, and tens of thousands were still living in 1829. Most of them were then in their seventies or eighties. Like Joseph Winter, many were no longer able to support themselves, and depended on family or charity to meet their most basic needs.

The federal government had not turned its back entirely on veterans of the Revolution. Those who had been disabled were granted pensions during the war, and in 1818 Congress had voted to provide pensions to veterans of the Continental Army and Navy who could document their service and prove their financial need. But the law made no provision for the majority of Revolutionary War veterans, who had served in the militia, and pension examiners rejected thousands of applications on the grounds of insufficient evidence of service or of financial distress. Joseph Winter did not receive a pension under the act of 1818.

We don’t know how Winter came to live on the streets of Philadelphia. We can guess that he left his home near Bethlehem when he was no longer able to work as a weaver and made his way to Philadelphia because in the city he might find some way to support himself. Perhaps he was attracted to the city because he might find food there, or inexpensive lodging, or access to public or private charity, or simply because a city is a better place to beg than a country town—all reasons the homeless are drawn to cities today. The decision cut him adrift from the people he knew and the community in which he had lived, making him, as Neagle saw, a “lone wanderer.”

For John Neagle, the homeless veteran he took into his home was a challenge and a chastisement—a symbol of our unrealized aspirations as well as our ingratitude. We turn too easily from both. Neagle reminds us to look harder, and to look beyond material needs—beyond the food and shelter Joseph Winter so clearly lacked, to the indefinite needs we all have for the conditions necessary to be happy.

That might sound like a thing very difficult to define, but our Revolution placed it among our highest aspirations. Our right to life, and therefore a claim on what we need to survive, is a right so fundamental that our Declaration of Independence calls it a self-evident truth. So, too, is liberty, a right to be free from unnecessary restraints—a fundamental right but hard to define in a comprehensive and immutable way, since the restraints necessary to maintain civil society change with society itself. Jefferson might have stopped with life and liberty—conditions clearly necessary to human flourishing—but he forged on to name, but not to define, a right to pursue happiness.

Our fundamental right to pursue happiness is a right to fulfill needs that governments cannot fulfill—among them our needs for dignity, respect, appreciation, honor, fellowship, community and love. We do not need these things to live or to be free, but we need them to flourish—to be happy. Governments cannot provide them. Jefferson knew this, which is why he wrote that we have a right to pursue happiness rather than a right to happiness itself. The role of government is only to create and defend the circumstances in which free people can pursue happiness in their own way.

The soldiers of our Revolution, and all of our veterans since, risked their lives and deferred enjoyment of their liberties to create and defend the circumstances essential for our freedom and happiness. Their sacrifices transcend the conditions of any normal employment, and oblige all of us as beneficiaries to express our respect and appreciation—to care, in Lincoln’s words, “for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves.”

On that snowy December night 190 years ago, John Neagle met a homeless veteran who was cold and hungry. He took him home and “administered” to his most basic needs. But when he painted Winter’s portrait he treated the old soldier with dignity, respect, appreciation and honor. He called on his contemporaries to treat all of the surviving soldiers of our Revolution in that way, and through his art he calls on us to treat our own veterans—particularly those who have become lonely wanderers in a world so often without sympathy—with that dignity, respect, appreciation and honor we owe to them, and which are vital to their happiness.

In 1832, moved in part by the popular sensation caused by the engraving of Winter’s portrait, Congress passed a comprehensive pension act, offering pensions to every surviving veteran of the Revolutionary War, without regard to disability, financial need or whether he was in the Continental service or the militia. Shortly thereafter, Congress extended those same benefits to the widows of Revolutionary War veterans.

Joseph Winter disappeared from the historical record after his encounter with Neagle. The weather warmed over Christmas that year, and Winter may have returned to the streets, or found lodgings in the city with Neagle’s help or the help of new-found friends. We cannot know. We can only hope that his last years were contented ones.

 

Joseph Winter is one of many remarkable veterans of the Revolutionary War featured in our current exhibition, America’s First Veterans, on view at the headquarters of the American Revolution Institute of the Society of the Cincinnati through July 26, 2020. Learn more about America’s First Veteranshere.

Margaret Corbin, Revolutionary

Liberty is commonly depicted as a pretty young woman in a white classical robe, kindly in peacetime, steel eyed and determined in war. This personification of Liberty is grounded in Roman depictions of the goddess Libertas, who was honored with a temple on the Aventine Hill in Rome. Libertas was often depicted offering a pileus, the soft cap that symbolized freedom for former slaves, and was sometimes shown wielding a vindicta, a rod symbolizing emancipation from slavery, tyranny and arbitrary rule.

These symbols—the pileus and the vindicta—intertwined with the initials U.S., were cast into the breech of cannon barrels manufactured in Philadelphia in 1777, a silent acknowledgment of the hard truth that American liberty had to be won in battle and protected by arms. One of these cannon barrels, a chance survival from a desperate time in the Revolutionary War, is on display at the headquarters of the American Revolution Institute. It was probably cast in the summer of 1777 by James Byers, who set up a makeshift foundry in a converted pottery workshop.

At the moment Byers cast it, and probably no more than a few blocks away, a remarkable young woman was suffering. Her story, like the hard truth symbolized by the emblems of liberty cast into the cannon barrel, reminds us that liberty is hard to win and hard to keep, and might be better personified by a woman in a tattered skirt and a torn shirt, her face black from burnt powder, her hands dirty and bloodstained, her expression angry, defiant and determined.

The young woman’s name was Margaret Corbin. She was then not quite twenty-six years old. Margaret had been born in what is now Franklin County, Pennsylvania, in the rolling farm country west of Gettysburg, though that blood-soaked town would not be founded until she was ten. Her father (and her mother, too, probably, though we don’t know that for sure) was a Scots-Irish immigrant. They settled on the Pennsylvania frontier not long before Margaret was born—two of the thousands of poor immigrants who surged into the Cumberland Valley in the last decades before the Revolutionary War, many of whom moved south into the Great Valley of Virginia and into the western Carolinas.

Margaret barely knew her parents. When she was five, her father was killed by Indians and her mother taken captive, never to be heard from again. Margaret and her brother weren’t home when the Indians attacked, and as frontier orphans they were raised by an uncle. Margaret married a farmer, John Corbin, when she was twenty-one.

Some three years later he enlisted in the First Company of Pennsylvania Artillery. What could have moved him to do it? What did fighting the British mean to him? We cannot know for sure. We can only generalize. Men like John Corbin did not read treatises on natural rights or political economy. Few of them had ever heard of John Locke or Baron Montesquieu or ancients like Cicero. Taxes on paint, paper, lead, tea and glass—the Townshend Duties that so angered colonial merchants—didn’t touch people like Corbin, who didn’t buy paint or drink tea, who didn’t use much paper, and for whom lead was something cast into musket balls rather than holding genteel window glass in place.

Men who lived in the colonial backcountry valued their independence. They had little property. In Pennsylvania, where the law was more generous to squatters than in other colonies, many lived on land to which they had no clear title. What little they had—a bedstead, a few pots, a gun—belonged to them, and there was no squire to whom they owed obedience nor to whom they paid rent. And if they liked they could go, joining the constant movement southward through the valley, or press westward, toward the Ohio frontier, where the British had drawn a line forbidding settlement—a symbol of their intention, or so it seemed to Americans across the colonies and up and down the social scale, to impose much tighter control on their restless, unruly subjects.

Margaret went with him to the army. Like thousands of other women who followed the army, she probably had nowhere else to go, and supported herself doing laundry, mending clothes, cooking and nursing the sick. George Washington didn’t like the practice, but grudgingly accepted it, and allowed women with the army to draw rations, at least when his men were in camp. When his troops were on the march, he did his best to shed the army of anything that would slow it down or consume its meager stores, but at every moment of the war, women were present—in camp, on the march and on the battlefield. This was particularly true of the artillery, which had wagons and horses and, on the battlefield, a constant need for people to carry ammunition, powder and water to swab and cool the guns between rounds, without which powder being loaded would explode prematurely and kill or maim their crews.

Margaret went with the First Company of Pennsylvania Artillery to the defense of New York City. What she did between August and November 1776 is a blur, as Washington’s army shifted from Long Island to Manhattan to Westchester County, parrying the blows of a superior British army intent on destroying it.

On November 16, 1776, their battery was stationed north of Fort Washington, on the northern end of Manhattan. The guns were set up on the northern edge of a vast ridge, which the British and their Hessian auxiliaries had to take before approaching Fort Washington—the last American stronghold on Manhattan Island. The battery supported some 250 Maryland and Virginia riflemen commanded by a skilled young Marylander named Moses Rawlings.

A British officer, Thomas Davies, painted a watercolor (now owned by the New York Public Library) of the approach from a secure vantage point across the Harlem River, depicting the British landing on northern Manhattan. One of their batteries is firing in the middle foreground, and in the middle distance, on the edge of a ridge, smoke rises from an unseen American battery perched on the edge of the ridge defying the enemy’s approach. Fort Washington—a large, crude pentagonal earthwork—is in the distance, a long way from the outwork where the little battery was firing.

The puff of smoke from the lonely American battery in this watercolor is as close as we can come to an image of Margaret Corbin, who was on hand to support the guns. John Corbin was a matross—a key member of a conventional gun crew, which in theory consisted of a loader, a spongeman, a ventsman, a senior gunner and a firer. Under usual circumstances, a matross could assume any of these roles except that of senior gunner, which required more training than most men received, and in a crisis a matross might wind up commanding a gun. A gun battery in the field also had a large contingent of laborers to drag the heavy guns around, move powder and ammunition from wagons in the rear, and carry water from wherever it might be found—sometimes at a considerable distance from a firing position. Women often did this work.

Everyone on a gun crew had a very specific role in the deadly choreography of battle. The loader placed the powder bag in the bore and the spongeman rammed it home with the back end of the sponge staff. The ventsman, who had been keeping his leather-covered thumb over the vent hole to keep fresh oxygen from feeding a spark, jammed a tool like an icepick through the hole to tear open the powder bag. The loader then added the ball and the spongeman rammed wadding in behind it. The senior gunner (typically in command) aimed the piece and the ventsman primed it by pouring fine priming powder down the vent. Everyone stepped back but the firer, who touched off the priming charge with a slow burning match held in a tool called a linstock, discharging the gun.

The deadly dance started again with the spongeman dipping his sponge staff into a bucket of water and swabbing out the gun to extinguish lingering sparks. If he didn’t get them all, the next powder charge might blow as he rammed it home. Pension records testify to the many spongemen who were burnt, blinded, maimed or killed outright by premature powder explosions. It was the most dangerous job on a gun crew.

John Corbin may have been a spongeman. As the Hessians advanced on their position, he was killed by Hessian musket fire, an enemy artillery round or the premature explosion of powder in his own gun. We will never know which. What we know is that Margaret was nearby and took his place on the gun crew, which continued firing. We can only imagine the scene, but if she was carrying water and her dead husband was a spongeman we can picture her seizing the sponge, dipping it in the water she had brought forward to swab it out. The enemy brought its own light cannons forward as the infantry approached, and as soon as they were close enough they undoubtedly shifted from heavy round shot to grape shot or canister—ammunition that scattered balls like a shotgun.

Margaret fell hideously wounded before the battery was overrun, hit in her left shoulder and arm, jaw and left breast. She must have been looking down, her chin briefly on her chest near her armpit, her left arm raised. In that posture a ball entering her left arm near the shoulder could have smashed her jawbone and lodged in her left breast, or even passed through her breast and onward in flight. Whether the wound was caused by musket or cannon fire we don’t know, but the damage was severe. Margaret was captured, though in so much pain, if she was conscious, that she can hardly have cared about falling into the hands of the enemy.

Fort Washington was supposed to hold out for weeks, but it fell within a hour and the British captured over 2,800 Americans and much of the Continental Army’s remaining cannons, powder and ammunition. Three-fourths of those men would later die as prisoners. George Washington watched, appalled, from the New Jersey side of the Hudson. It was the worst defeat he ever suffered, though he suffered at a distance. Margaret’s suffering was much more immediate. The British released her, along with other women and some of the wounded. She was taken overland by wagon to Philadelphia, where she languished for months, slowly recovering, at least somewhat, from her wounds.

She was evacuated from Philadelphia before it fell to the British in the fall of 1777 and ultimately assigned to the Corps of Invalids, a unit composed of disabled soldiers kept on the army’s rolls to guard hospitals, magazines and other facilities—soldiers unable to march or bear the strains of campaigning, with no other means of support. Margaret’s place among them was an anomaly. She was apparently too crippled by her wounds to do any service, but she was housed, drew rations, provided with rough clothing, and cared for as she recovered, to the extent she ever did.

On July 6, 1779, Congress awarded Margaret Corbin, “who was wounded and disabled in the attack on Fort Washington, whilst she heroically filled the post of her husband who was killed by her side,” a complete outfit of clothing and one-half of the pay of a private soldier for the rest of her life. By this act Congress formally recognized a female combat veteran for the first time in American history. George Washington’s aide Tench Tilighman wrote to Henry Knox’s aide Samuel Shaw and paid Margaret a fellow soldier’s grim compliment: “It appears clearly to me that the order forbidding the issue of Rum to Women does not extend to Mrs. Corbin—Granting provision at all, to Women who are followers of the Army, is altogether matter of courtesy, and therefore the commanding General may allow them such a Ration as he thinks proper—But Mrs. Corbin is a pensioner of Congress.”  Therefore, he added, she should be given rum with her rations, but “perhaps it would not be prudent to give them to her all in liquor.”

In 1780, she moved with the Invalid Corps to West Point, where she remained a disabled pensioner in the charge of William Price, commissary of military stores, long after the war was over. On January 31, 1786, Price complained to Henry Knox, who was then secretary of war. “I am at loss what to do with Capt Molly” he wrote. “She is first an offensive person that people are unwilling to take her in charge . . . and I cannot find any that is willing to keep her.”  She was, we can only imagine, in constant pain from her wounds. If she was offensive, we can readily understand why. William Price comes off rather badly in the story. Margaret Corbin—“Captain Molly”—never left West Point, and died there in 1800, just forty-eight, and was buried in a grave that has been lost to memory.

She paid the cost of liberty, and in doing so lost the personal independence she was probably fighting to maintain, or secure for herself, her husband and for the family she never had. Her arm crippled, her face disfigured, she is not the way we imagine Liberty. Perhaps we should.

 

Margaret Corbin is one of many remarkable veterans of the Revolutionary War featured in our current exhibition, America’s First Veterans, on view at the headquarters of the American Revolution Institute of the Society of the Cincinnati through July 26, 2020. Learn more about America’s First Veteranshere.