By Joe Craig, Park Ranger
It is almost a commonplace observation that Americans do not know their Revolutionary War history. This is vigorously noted through many media outlets by pundits of varying political leanings (and often muttered by park rangers between clenched teeth). The pundits in their pronouncements seem to have a fixation upon the “sufferings of our ancestors”, perhaps just another way to decry the present as with the Ciceronian phrase “O tempora! O mores!”
When the pundits commence spouting about the hardness of the War and it certainly was they often show that their grasp of the past is not great. Certain iconic events are held up as examples of hardships endured: Crossing of the Delaware and Valley Forge are evoked regularly. It is notable that they are almost always shown without any context, invariably based around winters and drawn from the earlier years of the war. Should one not know better, it would seem from these pronouncements that the War for Independence was only a rotten time in the winter, and that the conflict itself was over and done within a relatively short time.
As any serious student of the time can tell you, the war had many moments of hardship for the participants, regardless of the season, and the War for Independence is still one of the longest in our country’s history. Considering the stretch of years and the opportunities for really miserable experiences, what was the worst year of the Revolutionary War?
Thomas Paine wrote “These are the times that try men’s souls” in late 1776, when things had pretty much gone to heck for weeks on end. American Independence had come very close (several times) to being snuffed out by the British military. As the record shows Washington’s gamble at Trenton (replete with “our ancestor’s sufferings”) saved the day, if but temporarily.
Seventeen seventy seven received its nickname The Year of the Hangman from the three sevens which resembled gibbets upon which traitors’ hanged corpses would be left to rot. It aptly portrayed the stakes involved for that year for the American Rebel forces: victory and independence or defeat and horrible retribution. Lucky for the “home team” Burgoyne surrendered at Saratoga, offsetting defeats elsewhere and brining needed recognition and assistance.
Despite these desperately needed victories, Independence was not a “done deal” afterwards. The road that eventually led to the victory at Yorktown was long, hard and filled with near-disasters for the United States. Arguable, of the remaining years of the Revolutionary War, 1780 was perhaps the worst.
Things started off on the wrong foot for the United States. On New Year’s Day at West Point there was a small “mutiny” of soldiers who decided to march home. The following day, Mother Nature unleashed winter weather more severe than had been experienced by anyone living at the time. Washington’s army near Morristown in New Jersey suffered from a two day, road blocking blizzard and starved for a week. Temperatures immediately afterwards plummeted and almost every body of water from the Carolinas northward froze: British engineers measured the ice in New York harbor (a tidal estuary) at 11 feet thick. It made the “terrible winter at Valley Forge” of song and legend seem almost balmy by comparison.
The harsh winter was not the only metrological event for the year. New England’s “Dark Day” of 19 May had a day with almost no sunlight. Some took it to be the End of the World, but was probably caused by massive forest fires to the west. Nonetheless, it scared the heck out of many people and its ominous character seemed to set the tone for American fortunes.
A week prior to the Dark Day, the city of Charleston, SC surrendered to the British, which would lead to their domination of the southern states. On the 25th, several Connecticut regiments in Washington’s army come close to a mutinous mass desertion due to lack of supplies. Had not the Marquis de Lafayette returned from France earlier in the month with news of the imminent arrival of French troops, May 1780 would have been a total washout for the Americans.
The summer months saw renewed fighting and savage raids along the length of the frontiers as the British unleashed their Native allies and Loyalist militias. Their intention was to create a buffer zone between British outposts (and allied Native villages) and the lands controlled by the United States. It proved horribly successful.
At sea, the war was going poorly for the Americans. Occasional, individual victories may have buoyed American hopes, but the Continental Navy was all but out of business, its ships sunk, burned captured or trapped in port.
Financially, things were quite grim. The war was wrecking the economy for most people, and America’s Continental money was losing value due to inflation and complete lack of confidence in it ever being redeemed for hard currency.
The cause for American Independence seemed to be unraveling rapidly but certainly her heroes could pull things together! Sadly, the main heroes of Saratoga in 1777, Major Generals Horatio Gates and Benedict Arnold, would fail the United States in 1780.
Gates was named by Congress to command forces in the south with the task of recapturing Charleston, SC. His army consisted of about 3000 troops, of whom, one half were among the best Continental troops from Maryland and Delaware. The rest of Gates’ army were militia who proved to be anything but reliable.
On 16 August, Gates’ army was roundly and utterly defeated by General Lord Cornwallis’ forces at Camden, SC. The militia fled the field and the Continentals under Major General Johann Kalb crushed. Gates’ precipitous retreat to Hillsborough, NC may have been a militarily necessity, but it opened him to accusations of cowardice by his rivals and enemies.
The British-run press in New York crowed about the complete victory that Camden was for the King’s troops, and “helpfully” offered a notice about the American army that had completely dissolved:
“MILLIONS! MILLIONS MILLIONS! REWARD. STRAYED, LOST OR STOLEN,from the Subscriber…a whole ARMY consisting of Horse, Foot, and Dragoons, to the amount of near 10,000…with all of their baggage, artillery, wagons and camp equipage…”
Gates’ victor’s “Northern laurels” had become “southern willows” of sorrow.
While Gates had been thoroughly defeated in August another staggering blow was felt one month later. General Benedict Arnold, recognized for his personal courage, energy and (apparent) devotion to American Independence was found out to be a traitor.
Arnold had been in treasonous communication with the British for some time; he’d been promised a commission in the British army and the equivalent of about $1,000,000 in today’s money for the surrender of the fort complex at West Point, NY. By sheer luck, the plan was discovered, and by equal luck (for Arnold, anyway) Arnold was able to escape to British lines.
Private Joseph Plumb Martin of Connecticut’s stunned reaction was typical of most Americans: “The next day it was reported that General Arnold had deserted. I should have thought West Point had deserted as he, but I was soon convinced that it was true.” “TREASON! TREASON! Black as hell!” screeched Colonel Alexander Scammel. Many particularly those with the New Englanders’ finely developed sense of contagiousness of sin wondered who would prove to be a traitor next. Arguably, Arnold’s treason shook American confidence even more than Gates’ military defeat.
The Cause for Independence had taken quite a beating in 1780. Seismic shocks of military defeat at Camden and Arnold’s treason obviously stood out, but a war-weariness was setting in. Fighting had been ongoing for over five years, and the victory at Saratoga was three years past and the war had no end in sight. The economy was shaky at best, the alliance with France had not produced the desired results, and the United States seemed like a punch-drunk fighter, just needing one good uppercut to be knocked out.
Nor would the New Year bring much immediate relief. January 1, 1781 saw the largest mutiny of the war when the Pennsylvania Line essentially walked off the job disputing their terms of enlistment. The New Jersey Line followed suit several days later. Not what one might call a hopeful start to a new year.
Yet before the end of 1780, the situation slowly, painfully began to improve. The fallout from Arnold’s treason had not yet settled when a Rebel American force smashed a column of Loyalist Americans at Kings Mountain in South Carolina on 7 October 1780. By the end of the same year, Major General Nathaniel Greene had been named to the command of the Southern Department and his leadership would prove decisive for the United States. The French army under the Comte de Rochambeau was ensconced in Rhode Island, a strong reinforcement for Washington’s forces.
Perhaps it was grasping at straws for the rebelling Americans to think that these developments offered much hope. Having pledged to support the Declaration of Independence with “our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor” the Americans were risking a lot. For their part, the British were quite willing to deprive defeated Rebels of all of the above. Desperation can be, however, a strong spur and as the record shows, the United Sates held on to ultimate victory.