Thought-Provoking Insights on the Revolutionary War

A Conference Report

By Nancy Spannaus

June 18, 2022—Approximately 140 people gathered June 10-12 in Johnstown, New York for the yearly Conference on the Revolutionary War in the Mohawk Valley sponsored by New York’s Fort Plain Museum. They were treated to a series of 11 lectures, most of which featured surprising insights on the American Battle for Independence. In this post I will report on the thrusts of seven of those lectures (the only ones I heard).[1]

Thought-provoking Insights on the Revolutionary War
The Fort Plain Museum in New York’s Mohawk Valley

The conference attendees hailed from as far away as Georgia and California, although the preponderance seem to have come from the Mohawk Valley. Cosponsoring the event were 17 organizations, ranging from the local county (Montgomery), to publishing houses, and historical organizations such as the Alexander Hamilton Awareness Society. A major attraction was the wide array of history books for sale, both by the Museum and a few supporting organizations. I was one of those booksellers.

Presiding over the proceedings were Museum founder Norman J. Bollen, and his colleague and conference organizer Brian Mack. During one intermission, Bollen happily announced the Museum’s plans for a major expansion, including the reconstruction of the Fort Plain blockhouse.

A Contagion of Violence

The conference’s opening presentation was by author James Kirby Martin, who addressed the topic “A Contagion of Violence: The Human Slaughter in Frontier New York: 1775-1783.” Martin’s fascinating speech took on the myths propagated by those he designated “extremists” on both ends of the spectrum: those who believed the colonists guiltless in conflict with the Indians whose land they were occupying, and those who assert that the settlers were pursuing a genocidal plot to wipe out the indigenous peoples. I don’t subscribe to either, he said.

What set off the contagion of violence, which was epitomized by the series of slaughters starting with the Battle of Oriskany, was the breaking of the unity of the Iroquois Federation, Martin said. At the beginning of the war, the Americans officially declared to the Indians that they should stay out of the conflict. Yet, at that very moment (1775) the British Indian Department’s Sir Guy Johnson was actively working to recruit tribes in the Iroquois Federation to join the British side. Eventually, despite considerable resistance by their fellow tribes, the Seneca and Mohawk tribes allied with the British forces. One of the leading instigators in this effort was Mohawk Joseph Brant, who worked closely with the British Indian Department from a very young age.

The first battle in which different tribes of the Federation shed each other’s blood was the Battle of Oriskany. There, members of the Oneida tribe, who had joined the Americans, were pitted against the Mohawks and Senecas. Despite the fact that the Americans and Oneidas were the main victims in what Martin described as a genuine massacre, 60 Senecas were also killed, feeding the process of revenge.

Two Oneida warriors, allied with the Revolutionaries at the Battle of Oriskany.

From that time on, there ensued a contagion of retaliation, as the Indians and the white settlers sought revenge against those who had killed their kin. A veritable river of blood was spilled in massacre after massacre, as scalps were taken en masse, civilians were burned out of their homes, and hundreds were killed.

There are two crucial implications of the split in the Indian Confederation, Martin explained. The first was its impact on the ability of the Indians to negotiate for their own rights to land; once they were fragmented, their bargaining power was effectively lost.  The second is the reality that certain Indian tribes – specifically the Oneida and the Tuscarora – were close allies of American Revolutionaries throughout the war. The modern caricature of the bloodthirsty Indian is just that: a caricature.

Martin concluded with a discussion of his work with today’s representative of the Oneida Nation, Ray Halbritter, in an effort to build mutual understanding of their history. This is critical for reconciliation the nation needs in years ahead.

The Sullivan-Clinton Campaign

The second speaker, former Army officer and tour guide Glenn F. Williams, served as an appropriate follow-up to Martin, as Williams’ subject involved the 1779 campaign of retaliation by the Americans against the Indian tribes and loyalists who had been attacking American settlements since 1777. Usually called Sullivan’s campaign, the offensive was intended to stop the ongoing murderous raids on the frontier. It has generally been described as an indiscriminate assault on innocent Indian families.

Thought-provoking Insights on the Revolutionary War
Major General John Sullivan

Williams’ description, which included detailed profiles of the leaders on both side of the fighting, belied this characterization. For example, Washington’s orders to General Sullivan called upon him to distinguish between those Indians guilty of massacres of white settlers, from those who were not involved, and offer terms to the innocent.

Among the interesting aspects of the conflict that Williams mentioned was the way the British Indian Department Rangers (generally white Loyalists) conducted themselves in the warfare. Their role was generally to accompany the Indian war parties (primarily Seneca and Mohawk) on the raids, and to formally offer the American forces a truce if they would surrender. Once that was refused, they watched from the sidelines as the mayhem proceeded.

Williams’ presentation was followed by a “fireside chat” which I didn’t audit.

Samuel Adams and John Hancock: The Odd Couple

The second day of the conference was opened by William M. Fowler, Jr., a long-time professor at Northeastern University in Boston. Fowler provided detailed profiles of two of New England’s most prominent Revolutionary leaders, and their relationship during the course of the conflict, Samuel Adams and John Hancock He drew out the contrast between the background and character of the two men, who nonetheless both played crucial roles in moving the Revolution forward. His presentation highlighted the complexity of the Revolutionary movement.

Massachusetts Patriot Samuel Adams wanted liberty for all men, including slaves.

Fowler characterized Samuel Adams, the elder of the two, as a principled revolutionary, a fact demonstrated in his Masters’ thesis on when it was lawful to resist the supreme magistrate to preserve the Commonwealth. Adams’ stature in Boston came largely from his father’s position as deacon in Old South Church. He early on became the head of the Popular Party, which agitated against the Royal Governor in the run-up to the War. (Unfortunately, he did not cite Adams’ strong efforts to ban slavery during this period.) He later was the founder of the True-born Sons of Liberty.

Hancock, on the other hand, reached prominence as a rich merchant, a stature he achieved through the aid of his uncle Thomas. While Hancock joined the Sons of Liberty, he didn’t play an active role. He, like Samuel, ended up as a delegate to both the first and second Continental Congresses. Apparently, he expected to be named Commander in Chief of the newly formed Continental Army due to his high social status, and was most disappointed when that job went to George Washington.

Fowler argued that the divide between the two men extended to their views of the nature of the new government to be created. Samuel Adams, along with Virginians Arthur and Richard Henry Lee, was devoted to his state, fearing centralized power, whereas Hancock allied with those like Pennsylvanian Robert Morris and New Yorker James Duane who were more national-minded. This difference compounded the personal animosity between the two men.

John Hancock

Yet, ironically, the stories of how both men came to support the Constitution in the Massachusetts Ratifying Convention were ironically similar, in Fowler’s telling.  Hancock, who was governor at the time, had one of his likely diplomatic illnesses, and did not attend the Convention. But when a delegation visited him to seek his support, it gently intimated the potential for a major national post in the new Executive, thus inducing Hancock’s yea vote. Samuel Adams was also withholding his vote for the Constitution at that time, and another delegation visited him as the point of decision neared. His question, Fowler said, was “How stands the town?” Having been told that the town (Boston) was in favor, Adams put aside his qualms and voted yea.

These votes from these leaders were critical in swinging Massachusetts behind the new government. The Constitution was ratified by the convention with a vote of 187 to 165; without a “yea” vote in Massachusetts, there is no way a new national government could have been created.

“Brave and Gallant:” Blacks in the Revolutionary Army

The next speech, given by Saratoga Park Ranger Eric Schnitzer, was a direct challenge to today’s popular characterization of the role of blacks, enslaved and free, in the Revolutionary war. The general truth, Schnitzer argued from the outset, is that there was racial integration in all military formations — the Continental Army and the militias — during the War for Independence. He then proceeded to document that assertion.

He described how blacks got into the Army, the restrictions on rank (absolutely the case), and their treatment as to pay, clothing, shelter, and armaments. He asserted that there is no example of discrimination against the blacks in any of the latter four categories, but for pay.

There was indeed an order from General Washington at the outset barring blacks from the Army, Schnitzer began. This was changed less than a month later to permit free blacks.  By the spring of 1779, there was a radical change, with a Congressional declaration that any enslaved black who joins the army will be emancipated and received $50 at the end of the war.

Thought-provoking Insights on the Revolutionary War
painting of Peter Salem, Revolutionary hero

Of course, there was wide variation in the views of the black troops by their white commanders, Schnitzer said, but the reality is that blacks served side by side with white soldiers throughout the war. The famous First Rhode Island Regiment, compromised totally of blacks (with white commanders), was not the rule, but represented the most segregated treatment of blacks in the war.

Schnitzer cited the special honors which were proposed at the time for two black soldiers in the Battle of Bunker Hill, Peter Salem, and Salem Poor. Fourteen Boston officers petitioned the Massachusetts General Court to ask the Continental Congress to provide special honors for Salem Poor, who was thought by some to have killed a British general during the battle. It was from this petition’s description of Poor that Schnitzer took his title: “brave and gallant.”

Peter Salem’s bravery is still honored in the city of Framingham, Massachusetts; June 17 is called Peter Salem Day.

Feeding Washington’s Army

Speaking later on the second day was Ricardo Herrera, a professor of military history at the school of Advanced Military Studies, U.S. Army Command General Staff college. Herrera’s presentation dealt with the contest for food and forage between the U.S. and British armies, especially during the winter of 1777-78, i.e., Valley Forge.

Washington and Lafayette at Valley Forge (wikimedia commons)

Herrera’s emphasis was a sharp polemic against the idea that Valley Forge was a home of martyrs, the scene of poor, suffering, barefoot soldiers, as often portrayed in popular culture.  The way the encampment has to be understood, he said, is as a sophisticated Forward Operating Base, the home of an active field army that is building a defense in depth during the winter months.

For details, I have to refer you to Herrera’s book, Feeding Washington’s Army: Surviving the Valley Forge Winter of 1778.

An American Privateer’s War on the British African Slave Trade

The final day of the conference began with a presentation I was very much looking forward to, since I had come across the work of the presenter, Christian McBurney, in the course of preparing for my own book on American slavery. McBurney has done valuable work on the history of the early Americans’ policies on slavery. In this speech, he was promoting his upcoming book (to be published by the end of the month) on a Rhode Island privateer’s expedition to attack the British slave trade on the African coast.

McBurney first provided a general context on the slave trade, documenting British dominance in the 18th century. The zenith of Great Britain trade in human chattel was 1775, when it conducted 150-200 voyages. He described the murderous treatment of these captives in the Caribbean Islands, where they produced sugar and underwent a very high death rate. His book contains charts documenting the voyages in detail (slavevoyages.org).

Two British slave ships in the late 1770s,

The American Revolution was a crucial catalyst for a global anti-slavery movement, McBurney said; it was the first in world history that political action brought a total end to the slave trade. But, he added, his research does not show sympathy for the Africans to be a motive for the American privateers to interdict the trade. Rather the major reasons for the privateers’ efforts were to 1) become rich, and 2) serve the patriot cause. Privateers were not pirates. They were officially commissioned by the government, and followed strict rules, including on the disposition of the spoils.  Apparently, quite often, those spoils included captive Africans.

Privateering was a risky business; there were often pitched battles with the British. In fact, profits from the slave trade overall were not enormous. McBurney debunked the idea that slave profits for the relatively miniscule American slave trade could have financed the major buildings of Newport, Rhode Island, as some have recently charged.

McBurney’s crucial finding was this: The unintended positive outcome of the privateers’ war on British slave trading was the virtual collapse of the British slave trade by 1778. He calculated that the privateers were responsible for 70% of the collapse, through their interdiction of ships and destruction of British outposts on the African continent. (It should be noted that during this same period, the American colonies—becoming states—had also outlawed the slave trade.)

As for the journal narrative on the privateer interdicting the British trade, McBurney urged people to read his book.

The Road to Yorktown

The final presentation of the conference was given by historical consultant Robert A. Selig, and again the audience was given a challenge to the standard approach to this topic.  With the help of detailed timelines on communications and travel, Selig made the case for his contention that General George Washington had virtually no influence on several key factors which resulted in the Americans’ victory at Yorktown.

One of the reasons for that was lack of intelligence: he had no knowledge of where some of his own troops and those of the French were at crucial times. Another is that decisions were being taken by others with whom he had no contact whatsoever.

First, Washington’s decision to go South to confront Cornwallis, rather than attack New York, was forced by the fact that the French Admiral Comte de Grasse told him he would not travel to New York harbor, but to the coast of Virginia. Additionally, De Grasse only planned to stay there until October 15.

Battle of the Capes, where DeGrasse defeated the British

Washington got DeGrasse’s letter with this news on August 14, and faced a huge problem: How was he going to get his Army, ultimately comprised of approximately 8900 people from locations along the East Coast, to Virginia in time to work with DeGrasse to crush Cornwallis? The time required for travel essentially dictated that it was impossible.

Yet he succeeded. Why? The crucial contributing factors were the French victory over the British fleet in the Battle of the Capes (Sept. 5), and the fact that the French decided to send ships up the Chesapeake to help ferry Washington’s Army down to Virginia. Had this not happened, the lack of available boats would have prevented Washington from getting there on time.

Of course, once the troops were in place, Washington had a crucial role to play in the conduct of the siege and final victory. But Selig’s presentation underscored the degree to which the U.S. victory is owed to the French in many more ways than is generally known.

The USA’s 250th Anniversary

As you have seen, the presentations at this event were generally challenging to much mainstream thought. My intent in providing them was not to endorse these views wholesale, but to provoke readers to further study on questions around our early history which are still relevant today.

The Fort Plain Museum’s ambitious plan for future events involves planning a 12-year timeline of crucial events occurring 250 years ago, leading up to the signing of the Treaty of Paris which ended the Revolutionary War. Such a history, untainted by egregious misrepresentations and omissions from all political sides, is sorely needed in our fractured nation. Stay tuned.

[1] The write-ups in this article are based on notes taken during the presentations, not transcripts or recordings.  The author apologizes for the inevitable, hopefully small, errors which will occur.

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