Saturday, June 30, 2018

Things: The Spy of Massachusetts

In my last blog post I discussed the origin of the term, "Spy" and hinted at its use as a naming rubric for 18th century newspapers. Now a (slightly) deeper dive into the subject of newspapers of the American Revolution.

A Literate Frontier

By the mid-1760s, there were 24 weekly newspapers in the 12 colonies, and satirical attacks on government became common practice. Weekly newspapers in major cities and towns were strongholds of patriotism (although there were a few Loyalist papers).

Twelve of the British colonies had 24 newspapers 

Spy as a Newspaper

So we can see that the idea of using the name “Spy” for a newspaper was consistent with the origin of the word and its more general use. A paper’s staff and contributors observe, ask about, watch and follow closely. At least that is the hope of the public who rely on their objectivity and sense of fairness. For, as American society became more literate, the power of the press grew.

Turbulent Times

The turbulent years between 1775 and 1783 were a time of great trial and disturbance among newspapers. Interruption, suppression, and lack of support checked their growth substantially. Although there were forty-three newspapers in the United States when the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783, compared with thirty-seven at the time of the battle of Lexington in 1775, barely a dozen published on a continuing basis during that period.  Curiously, not one newspaper in the larger coastal cities -  Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, published uninterrupted through the duration of the war.

Voices of Rebellion


The nature of the rebellion caused some of this. When the colonial forces were in possession, Loyalist papers were suppressed. Conversely, during British occupation, patriot papers dispersed, or were discontinued, or they became Loyalist, until the patriots once more ascended. In result, some papers from the cities along the coast moved inland, where they could continue to publish. Exigencies of war brought logistical problems such as shortages of paper, ink, etc. This brought about poor quality papers or skipped issues to save resources.

Papers often ran political cartoons and characitures
that bordered on the absurd 

The Massachusetts Spy

Let’s turn to the paper that was the epitome of the kind of “Spy” we are talking about. Isaiah Thomas's Massachusetts Spy, published in Boston and Worcester, was constantly on the verge of being suppressed, from the time of its establishment in 1770 to 1776 and during the American Revolution. In 1771-73 the Spy featured the essays of several anonymous political commentators who called themselves "Centinel," "Mucius Scaevola" and "Leonidas." They spoke in the same terms about similar issues, kept patriot issues on the front page, and responded to attacks by pro-government papers. Rhetorical combat was a patriot tactic that explained the issues of the day and fostered patriotism short of outright rebellion. The columnists spoke to the colonists as an independent people tied to Britain only by voluntary legal compact. The Spy soon carried its radicalism to a logical conclusion. Later, when articles from the Spy were reprinted in other papers, the country as a whole was made ready for Tom Paine's critical patriotic statement: Common Sense in 1776.

A critical voice in its heyday

Who was Isaiah Thomas?

We are not talking about a legendary NBA player but a legendary newspaperman.  Our Isaiah Thomas was born in Boston, Massachusetts and apprenticed in July 1756 to one Zechariah Fowle, a Boston printer, with whom he formed a partnership in 1770. This resulted in the publication of the Massachusetts Spy. The partnership broke up after a few months, but Thomas continued publication alone. He had a motto for his paper:  “Open to all parties, but influenced by none.” Sort of the “Fair & Balanced” of its day.  The Spy initially came out three times a week but under Thomas’s sole ownership it became a semi-weekly, and then in 1771, a weekly. The Spy championed the Whig cause early on, resulting in the British government's attempt to suppress it. Massachusetts’s last Royal governor, Thomas Hutchinson, ordered the attorney general to prosecute Thomas, but the grand jury failed to find cause for indictment.

Isaiah Thomas holds an important place in America's
publishing pantheon

More Flash than Bang?

The general spirit of the time produced an abundance of mottoes, editorials, letters, and poems.  In the beginning of the struggle both editorials and communications urged united resistance to oppression, praised patriotism, and denounced tyranny. Over time, these patriotic urgings became more vigorous, and in many ways led popular sentiment. Later, the idea of independence took form, and theories of government were discussed. Unfortunately (or fortunately) too often zeal for the cause over rode any semblance of journalistic standards resulting often in exaggerated or even false reporting.

A Struggle of Ideas

Despite their shortcomings, the newspapers of the Revolution were an effective force working towards the unification of sentiment, the awakening of a consciousness of a common purpose, interest, and a shared vision of the future among the separate colonies, and of a determination to see the war through to a successful conclusion. They were often more single-minded than the people themselves, and they bore no small share of the burden of arousing and supporting the often discouraged and indifferent public spirit. In this sense they were highly successful in helping shepherd the thirteen hapless colonies in a long and impossible struggle that resulted in an improbable victory.

The struggle of ideas led to and buttressed the
struggle for independence

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Why Spy?

For many years during my service in US Army intelligence I had the bright idea of writing a spy novel. To tell you the truth, probably half the people I worked with had that notion. A few even worked up drafts. But very few finished. And to my knowledge, fewer got published. As a long term student of history, I wanted to paint a historical picture, not just spin a spy yarn. Until recent years, very few Americans knew that, in addition to being the top soldier during the Glorious Cause, George Washington was the nation’s foremost spymaster. But we in Army Intelligence knew about his secret role. So when I decided to move forward on writing my spy novel (s) I decided to blend spy themes with fictional versions of James Bond with the background of the American Revolution. The Yankee Doodle Spies brands the series – tales of men and women who fought the secret war – gathering information, intelligence, to give Washington an edge over the enormously powerful British land and sea forces.

George Washington was the great case officer
of his day

Origins of the Term, Spy

Words have meaning. So let’s drill down on the word, Spy – the central word in this series. Just where does it come from and what does it mean? According to one source, the word comes from Old French and other European languages.

Benjamin Tallmadge coordinated
Washington's spies

A Noun

The word Spy, as a noun, stems from the mid-13th century and meant "one who spies on another."  This originates from Old French word, Espie, meaning a "spy, look-out, or scout."
In Middle English, spy came from the shortening of the Old French word, espie, espying, espier, espy.  The Old French itself was of Germanic origin, stemming from an Indo-European root shared by the Latin word specere, which means to behold or to look.

Old French was connected to Latin

A Verb

To Spy, the verb has the same mid-13th century origin and meant to watch stealthily.
This carried over from the verb in Old French, espier, which meant, to "observe, watch closely, spy on, or find out," probably from Frankish spehon or some other Germanic source.  The term spehon is seen in Proto-Germanic and also in Old High German and similarly meant "to look out for or scout."
Old English had the verb, spyrian "to make a track, go, pursue; ask about, investigate." The noun connected to the verb was spyrigend "investigator, inquirer."

Old High German was connected to Frankish and Old French

The Italian verb, spiare and Spanish espiar also derive from the Germanic from around 1300 and similarly mean "to catch sight of.” The term evolved into the modern German verb, spähen "to spy."  The word evolved in Middle Dutch to the word, Spien.

One of many iterations of the Army
Special Agent's Badge 

Interestingly - as I worked with German counterintelligence during the Cold War and their modern term for spy is Spion and espionage is Spionage. The root of the word and basic sounds are unchanged. But pay attention to some of the other action descriptors in the etymology such as observe, watch closely, find out, look out, ask about, etc.

A Curious 18th Century Use

We can see the term, “to spy”, means learning through observation and of course reporting. Now done clandestinely in time of war you get closer to the more modern definition. But the term spy once had another usage - connected to observing and gathering information in order to report on it.  So it is no small leap from this terminology to get at another use for the term “Spy."

"Spy" used a journal

For in the 18th century the term “Spy” was used as the name of major periodicals in colonial and post-colonial America. These had no small role in shaping colonial  thought during the struggle for independence that preceded the actual war.We shall discuss that in more detail in an upcoming post.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Things: The Shot Heard Round the World

This is the anniversary week of the battles of Lexington and Concord – the famous “shot heard round the world” did not occur in a vacuum. Over a decade of political strife and miscalculation led to Englishmen firing upon Englishmen, a concept that would have been considered absurd just months before the event. So I am going to provide a short overview of those events that took a political crisis to insurgency and finally open rebellion.

Colonial Crisis

Almost after the last whiff of gunpowder dispersed into the blue skies over North America at the end of the French & Indian war in 1763, a crack began to develop in Britain’s newly won empire. The problems involved management of the new empire and the governance of the English settled colonies, native Indians, and the French speaking Quebec and the economics of empire.  These cracks were subtle at first but over time, they seemed to split of their own weight. The war had plunged the British government deep into debt, and the British Parliament sought to exploit the colonies for quick funds. They enacted a series of coercive measures to pull revenue from the colonies.

The French and Indian War sowed the seeds of later conflict
between Britain and her colonies

The Stamp Act

The Stamp Act of 1765 was one of the first initial measures forced upon the American colonists, instated to help pay for troops stationed in North America after the British victory. A tax on paper – it was not well received and more and more American colonists became politically active.

The Townshend Acts

Charles Townshend

Then in 1767, Parliament passed a series of acts called the Townshend Acts, named after Charles
Townshend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer who devised the program. These included: the Revenue Act of 1767, the Indemnity Act, the Commissioners of Customs Act, the Vice Admiralty Court Act, and the New York Restraining Act. This stirred up more agitation across the colonies but especially in New England where the acts met immediate resistance.

The King Street Incident

The political unrest caused by the Townshend Acts would lead to the event known to the British as the King Street incident. But you know it as The Boston Massacre. Colonial agitators accosted British soldiers and threatened them with violence. Their reaction led to the shooting of that name. By now the colonists in opposition to the Crown began organizing. The British met colonial reaction with one more action. The Tea Act was one of the final coercive measures passed by Parliament and became the last straw, making it the final unifying factor that brought the colonies from political agitation to an insurgent-like movement that would lead to open rebellion. The Parliament's insistence on the right to tax the colonies in the end became too much. The Tea Act was a lame attempt to convince the Americans to buy British tea and recognize Britain's right of taxation.

Boston Massacre provided rebels propaganda 

The Party

The colonies refused to accept this policy, and instead, the Sons of Liberty, one of many local insurgent groups, staged what became known as the Boston Tea Party. The Loyalist governor, Thomas Hutchinson, refused to let ships leave without the colonists paying the duty. The radicals were stirred to action. The Sons of Liberty and their supporters disguised themselves as Mohawk warriors, and clambered aboard the remaining British vessels in port tied at Griffin’s Wharf. They sent 342 chests of British tea to the bottom of the harbor.

Boston Tea Party

The Reaction

The British responded to the party by instating the Intolerable Acts, which the colonies refused to submit to. The British government now tightened its grip on Massachusetts. The new royally appointed governor, General Thomas Gage, was given expanded powers, and several thousand more troops to garrison Boston and cow the colonists with a show of force. Along with these acts, Parliament closed Boston harbor, and sent 4,000 British troops to Boston, to patrol the "rebellious areas." Parliament believed that these acts were perfectly legitimate, that the colonies needed to pay for the maintenance of the British Empire. The colonies thought differently. And a drumbeat of actions began a small but growing political rift that would lead to an insurgency of sorts.

Boston Port Bill closed the harbor
impacting New England's economy

Birth of Rebellion

Lieut Col Francis Smith
led the ill-fated column
But the colonists reacted with more action, and by 1775 political crisis morphed to open insurgency careening towards rebellion. The Massachusetts colonial assembly directed the townships to ready their militias, which had already been preparing for what many foresaw as the coming conflict. The British had many sympathetic Loyalists who kept them apprised of the growing resistance. In April 1775, Gage received orders to disarm the rebels. Gage ordered Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith to gather 700 British Army soldiers and march to Concord, where the rebels were reportedly storing mass quantities of arms and ammunition. Their orders were to find the stash and destroy it. He also had orders to arrest certain rebel leaders such as Sam Adams and John Hancock. Smith’s column was drawn from 11 of Gage's 13 occupying infantry regiments. Major John Pitcairn commanded ten elite light infantry companies, and Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Bernard commanded 11 grenadier companies. Quite a shock force by any measure.

General Thomas Gage faced a difficult situation

An Intelligence War

But the patriots, as the rebels deemed themselves, had an intelligence network. Some believe Gage’s American wife, Margaret Kemble Gage, was a rebel spy. See my Blog post, “The Lady was a, Spy?” Regardless the source, the rebels had received word of the British orders. On 8 April, Paul Revere rode to Concord and notified local militias in the area to be on the alert for the British army forces. On 18 April, Revere received word of British “regulars” making their way to Lexington and Concord. Having already warned the militia in Concord, which had secured the weapons supply, Revere and William Dawes rode quickly to Lexington to warn the townspeople of the expected British onslaught.

Margaret Kemble Gage: Spy?

Shot Heard Round the World

This began a frantic race to Lexington during the night: The British pressing to maintain surprise, the patriots to gather enough forces to challenge them.  The celebrated first clash took place at Lexington Green, the town square, dawn on the morning of 19 April. Militia captain John Parker, a veteran of the Seven Years' War, led some 80 Lexington militiamen, known as minutemen. The British had 700. Years later, one of the participants recalled Parker’s alleged words before the skirmish: “Stand your ground; don’t fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.”

Race to Concord

A British officer demanded that the militia disarm and disperse, and in the ensuing confusion, muskets were fired. To this day, there exists considerable uncertainty over whether the militiamen or the British soldiers fired first. Regardless, the British soldiers rushed forward with their bayonets. A skirmish ensued, during which eight militiamen were killed and only one British soldier wounded. Resistance melted away at Lexington, and the British moved on to Concord, where militia from Concord and nearby Lincoln awaited anxiously. The British found and destroyed some rebel weapons caches, but most of the colonists’ military supplies were hidden or destroyed.

The shot heard round the world on Lexington Green

At the approach of the huge British column, the Concord militia retreated to a ridge overlooking the town and militia colonel James Barrett withdrew from the town of Concord and led the men across the North Bridge to a hill about a mile north of town, where they could continue to watch the troop movements of the British and the activities in the center of town. The militia faced off against the regulars at the North Bridge.

Minutemen take on British at North Bridge

When a British covering party of around 100 regulars moved to secure the North Bridge, they were attacked by some 400 American patriots.  The regulars were both outnumbered and outmaneuvered. Confused orders from their commander and the superior numbers of the rebels broke their morale. In a confused retreat, they abandoned their wounded in search of the safety of the approaching grenadier companies coming from Concord. Despite the setback at the North Bridge, the regulars continued to search for and destroy colonial military supplies in the town while the rebels watched anxiously. They paused for lunch, assembled for a march, and left Concord  in the afternoon.

Militias swarmed the returning British column inflicting maximum casualties

But the deliberate actions of the British, aimed at displaying British superiority, had an unintended consequence. It gave the colonial militiamen from outlying towns and villages additional time to reach the road back to Boston. The call went out and more and more companies of militias swarmed along the British column as they marched back to Boston. It was all the officers could do to avoid panic with revenge-minded rebels continually firing on them from behind roadside houses, barns, trees, and stone walls. Some estimates give the rebel strength at 2,000 by time the British column returned to Boston. The bill for the day’s actions: British 273, Americans 95.


When the British returned to garrison, the militiamen began to lay siege to Boston.  The call went out to the other colonies and soon they were joined by militias from Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. These colonial forces would be constituted as the Continental Army by the Second Continental Congress. The Battles of Lexington and Concord turned the decade-long crack between the colonists and the mother country into a chasm Britain could never breach. It also widened the split between the patriots and Loyalist colonists, who soon would wage their own savage war within a war. But the immediate result was impressive: it roused 16,000 New Englanders to the join forces around Boston.  Less than a year later, the British army of occupation would withdraw to Canada to prepare for a long war.

The British occupation of Boston

The American Revolutionary War had begun. But it would take another year for that to morph into a war for independence.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

People: Artemas Ward, First Commander

When selecting what to cover regarding People, I try to cover the "second tier" first patriots. Those men and women whose actions helped shape the course of the American Revolution, but who are often glossed over in the little history that is taught these days. I use quotation marks around second tier because, in fact, the sum of their activities, and often their sole actions,were essential to the success of the Glorious Cause. In that spirit, this blog post discusses one of the least known of our great first patriots, Artemas Ward of Massachusetts. A stolid, serious leader of the patriot cause in New England, the little known Ward was the first commander in chief of the American army during the early days of the War for Independence.

Early Life

This first patriot was born in Shrewsbury on 26 November 1727. His father, Nahum Ward, was an accomplished  sea captain, merchant, land developer, farmer, lawyer and jurist. Young Artemas attended the common schools, was prepared for college by a private tutor and graduated from Harvard College (B.A. 1748, M.A. 1751). Like his father, he held a prolific number of public offices at the town, county, and state level. In 1750 he had married Sarah Trowbridge, daughter of Rev. Caleb Trowbridge and Hannah Walter of Groton, Mass. Together they had eight children. To care for his new wife and coming family he opened a general store and became a tax assessor.

Silent Servant

Ward would go on to hold many offices at the town, county and state level. But his military service was the hallmark of his career. He was appointed Justice of the Peace in 1752, a representative in the Colonial General Assembly for many terms and in the executive council. With the outbreak of the war with France in 1755 Ward became a major in the 3rd Massachusetts Regiment,the militia of Middlesex and "Worchester" counties. The regiment served as garrison forces along the frontier in western Massachusetts. This duty called him at intervals between 1755 and 1757, and alternated with his attendance at the General Court.

Massachusetts militia protected the western frontier

In 1757, he was made the colonel of the 3rd Regiment, which marched with British General James Abercrombie's force to attack Fort Ticonderoga in 1758. The French army consisted of 3,600 men under General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm who decisively defeated the numerically superior force of  Abercrombie. However Ward himself was sidelined during the decisive (losing) battle at Fort Carillon by an "attack of the (kidney) stone." This was clearly an on and off condition for Ward, as we shall see.

Abercrombie's Campaign vs Ticonderoga would end in failure

When he returned from the war, Ward was named to the Court of Common Pleas. He also got involved in the heated politics of the Bay Colony as a member of the governor's council while maintaining many of his militia connections. As friction with Britain increased in the next decade he associated with the likes of John and Samuel Adams, John Hancock and Joseph Warren.  In the General Court he was placed on the taxation committee along with Samuel Adams and John Hancock. On the floor, he was second only to James Otis in speaking out against the acts of parliament.

Safe to say he was a Whig. In  fact, his often blatant support for the increasing demands of the colonists put him at odds with the Massachusetts governor, Francis Bernard, who revoked his militia colonelcy. But Ward's growing popularity got him re-elected to the governor's council until  1774, when the new governor, the infamous Thomas Hutchinson removed him from the council for his political activism. Things were reaching a boiling point in New England and by October of that year Ward sat with the first Provincial Congress of Massachusetts. He was also appointed Brigadier General by the Congress on 24 October 1774.

Struggle for Freedom Begins

As political crises brought on an American Revolution, the populace in and around Boston, and New England in general, were at the point of insurgency by the spring of 1775. The conglomerate of local militias , minutemen and other factions assembling around the British occupied city in a popular swell of patriotism. If New England was the most aggressive rebel region, and Massachusetts the most aggressive rebel colony, Artemas Ward was one of its most aggressive if little known of its leaders.

The insurgency did not need much to shift to open rebellion. It did reach that when "the shot heard round the world" was fired on 19 April 1775. Ward missed Lexington and Concord however, due to illness. But upon learning of the action, rose from his sick bed, mounted his horse and rode in pain (he had kidney stones again) to Boston to help organize the siege of the city.

Ward missed Lexington & Concord but rallied from
his sick bed to take charge

Ward was popular with the troops and because of his military experience, soon proclaimed commander of all Massachusetts state militia. In June, the Continental Congress appointed him Major General and commander of all forces besieging Boston - some 15,000 strong. Boston-strong, I suppose. By now, other New England colonies as well as New York were sending men to Boston - America's first national army was forming.  Ward was soon to be tested in both his military and political acumen

First Commander

Ward had his hands full with the army,whether New England's or the United States' forces, the men were ill-trained, ill-led, ill-equipped and had little regard for military discipline.  But Ward, like Washington later, also had a complex array of political issues to deal with: Committees of Safety from several states, locals, his commanders and the Continental Congress. Never flashy but always steady, Ward worked through these as best he could.

General Artemas Ward as  first American commander

Ward faced formidable challenges. Not only was he confronting the world's most powerful army, but he was doing so with a force of volunteers who had agreed only to turn out for a single battle. Once the British had been driven back to Boston, many militiamen wanted to return to their farms. In their minds, they had volunteered to fight but had not enlisted in an army. The independent-minded Yankees had little enthusiasm for camp life, especially given the harsh and unsanitary conditions in the sprawling camp at Cambridge. Ward faced the daunting task of creating an army from chaos.

Job one was to keep the army together. He appealed for volunteers to become the first enlistees. Men from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Rhode Island began to fill the ranks. Some have claimed Ward was a poor disciplinarian and that his "Grand American Army" was anything but grand. But the solid Yankee puritan understood his volunteer Yankee soldiers. He knew from experience they would resist strict discipline, a discipline the jurist in him felt he had no legal authority to impose. Ward felt he had to lead by consensus and mutual respect. These were after all the men of whom Samuel Adams wrote, "our soldiers will not be brought to obey any person of whom they do not themselves entertain a high opinion." Ward's calculated soft management helped his raw recruits hold the siege.

Ward began his RevWar service commanding the ragtag force
besieging Boston

Job two was to keep the British in Boston. The Battle of Bunker Hill occurred under Ward’s general command. On June 13, 1775, having learned from a "line crosser" that the British were planning to send troops from Boston to occupy the hills surrounding the city, Ward directed General Israel Putnam to set up defenses on the Charlestown Peninsula, specifically on Bunker Hill. On 16 June, some 1,000 colonial militiamen under Colonel William Prescott  built earthen fortifications on top of Breed’s Hill, because although smaller, was closer to Boston. The resulting battle was iconic: a draw that resulted in the slaughter of British regulars by militia rebels.

Lack of munitions caused rebels to abandon Breed & Bunker Hills

From Number One to Number Two

On 17 June, Congress debated who should be appointed supreme commander of the American forces. Fellow (and completely biased) New Englander John Adams suggested that "the greatest number" wanted the job to go to Ward. But Congress needed to persuade delegates from the South that this was not just New England's war and chose George Washington of Virginia and made Ward his second in command.

Adams suggested Ward was initial first choice
for commander in chief

While General Ward received national recognition for the heroic stand at Bunker Hill, the failure to supply enough ammunition to hold the position denied the Americans a victory. When Washington took over command of the army in Cambridge on 2 July, 1775, Ward became his second in command. The New England militiamen who made up the balance of the first American army trusted and admired Ward, but Washington quickly became a critic. Accustomed to serving with professional officers, Washington dismissed Ward as "a fat old church warden." Washington was also appalled by the lax discipline among Ward's New England soldiers.

Ward was instrumental in the successful siege of Boston in 1775

The New England versus Virginia clash became an early on challenge to the unity of the army. Washington's open criticism deeply offended Ward, yet over the next nine months he helped Washington convert the assembled militia units into the Continental Army. He was stationed with the right wing on Roxbury heights. Because of impaired health and the British now gone from Boston, he resigned his commission in April, 1776. But at the request of General Washington, who now realized he needed to win over the New Englanders, he continued to act as his second until the end of May.

Ward was part of the leadership team that forced the
mighty British Army from Boston 

Post Military Public Service

When Ward returned to civilian life he served in demanding and important positions in Massachusetts. He was Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas of Worcester County in 1776 and 1777. He served in the Massachusetts Senate as President of the Executive Council for about three years. In this capacity, Ward functioned as Massachusetts’ chief executive during the critical years of the war (1777-1779). Essentially the office that replaced the Royal Governor. Ward served as a member of the Continental Congress from January 1780 to May 1782.

Post War Public Service

Shay's rebellion led to
the Constitutional Convention

Ward was elected Speaker of the Massachusetts House in 1786, which made his actions as a Justice of the Peace of the Worcester Court during the 1786 Shays’ Rebellion all the more significant. He faced down the rebels on the courthouse steps, demonstrating his popular influence and his respect for the rule of law. Shays' rebellion led to demands for a new form of government and the Constitutional Convention resulted. With the instantiation of the new constitution, Artemas Ward was  elected as a Federalist to the 2nd and 3rd Congresses (1791-1795).

Ward House in Shrewsbury

In December of 1797 Ward concluded his long career as judge and spent his final years in quiet retirement at home with his family. He died on October 28, 1800 and is buried at Mountain View Cemetery in Shrewsbury Center.

Ward is buried in Mountain View Cemetery


Ward's accomplishments as a jurist and politician mark him among the first rank of founders who helped guide the colonies to statehood and transition and an idea into a nation. As a military commander he was eclipsed by Washington and hindered by health and his disposition. Still, he provided a popular figure for the New England colonists to rally around at a time of near chaos and when, with one correct move by the British, the cause of American independence could have  been snuffed out easily. He suffered criticism from his commander in chief yet had the fortitude and patriotism to remain long enough for the culture of a new American army, the Continental Army, to emerge from the chaos of the early camp around Boston. For that alone, we give a loud huzzah to the rebellion's first commander.

Artemas Ward Memorial

On November 3, 1938 a bronze statue of General Ward was unveiled at Ward Circle, Washington, D.C. and stands at the intersection of Nebraska Avenue and Massachusetts Avenue. The stone base is inscribed “Artemas Ward, 1727-1800, Son of Massachusetts, Graduate of Harvard College, Judge and Legislator, Delegate 1780-1781 Continental Congress, Soldier in Three Wars, First Commander of the Patriotic Forces.”

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Places: Coryell's Ferry

Before the Brooklyn Bridge, the Lincoln Tunnel, or the Wilson Bridge, there was the ferry. And not just the Staten Island Ferry...And yes, there were tolls...

A Hard Land to Travel

America in the time of the Yankee Doodle Spies was a hard land to travel. Most of America was still heavily forested and inland, rugged to mountainous terrain made any travel worth one's life, literally. But by the mid 1700's the coastal and tidewater regions were fairly developed. Here, a network of (usually bad) roads crisscrossed these regions connected by fords, bridges, and ferries crossing the waterways. Early American bridge construction was limited to short spans. Fords enabled travel across only shallow waters. But numerous ferries were established along rivers and tidal flows. They carried carts, wagons, livestock, and travelers on foot, horseback, or in carriages. But ferries in the time of the Yankee Doodle Spies were not always reliable, and sometimes very dangerous. With weather forecasting non existent they were subject to sudden changes of weather, storms and shifting tides causing accidents that damaged property and injured passengers or livestock. Many ferries had unreliable schedules. Some ferries offered only part time service along. And sometimes not very reliable source of income. For that reason, many ferry operators had a second trade or occupation such as a farm, tavern, or store. Schedules were often non existent. The weary colonial traveller was at the mercy of the ferryman's other demands, causing delays and long waits for service.

Dutch settlers used ferries to traverse the Hudson and cross to Long Island

But they were critical to the transportation system of the time. Ferries connected America's burgeoning tidal cities to their surroundings, using a growing system of toll roads, pikes, and longer-range boats connected with them, allowing efficient if sometimes erratic transit of the mid Atlantic to distant points such as New York and Baltimore. North of Philadelphia, significant ferry enterprises linked Mercer County, New Jersey, and Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Between 1675 and the outbreak of the American Revolution, Trenton established the Lower, Middle, and Upper Ferry crossings over the Delaware. The Middle Ferry connected with a stagecoach line to New Brunswick and downriver service to Philadelphia.

River Ferries

Simple Designs

Some ferries were merely small longboats rowed or sailed across a body of water. But most were purpose built and of simple design. Essentially a simple rectangular platform, with a flat bottom and flat, vertical sides. They were easy and cheap to build and the only requirement was that they float! The bottom at each end sloped upward, which reduced the water resistance, making it possible to move across the water with minimal effort. Most upriver ferries lacked landing docks, simply loading and and unloading onto a natural riverbank, sometimes modified to make a sloping earth ramp as the entry/exit point. In more sophisticated ferries, a movable ramp was attached at each end of the vessel, pivoting on hinges, and controlled by a long pole mounted. When crossing the water, both ramps were held in a raised position. The simplest and most dependable way to propel a ferry across a (usually shallow) river was through man power. That is, by poling. This is the same method used by most river boats, and the method of choice for the Durham boats used in the military transport across the Delaware in 1776. Others used oars, or winches pulling via rope.

Photo of 19the century ferry - simple design little changed from 18th century
this one powered by winch and rope

The Ferry to Freedom

The ferry played a major role in the American War for Independence. The movement of supplies relied on them. But most important was the ferry's role in the movement of armies. Some engagements, such as Stonos Ferry in South Carolina (1779), took place at or near ferries, and many others were facilitated by ferry travel.

The battles around New York in 1776 (setting for my first novel, The Patriot Spy) relied on ferry crossing points to move troops and supplies. Brooklyn was central to Washington's escape from Long Island in the face of overwhelming British forces. He used the Brooklyn ferry point as his point of debarkation. Most famously, the ferries between Pennsylvania and New Jersey played key roles in the American Revolution. As the war shifted across the Jerseys, other ferries played a role on the Delaware. Trenton’s Lower Ferry earned the nickname, the “Continental Ferry” as its proprietor, Elijah Bond, offered active American soldiers reduced rates. During the British occupation of Philadelphia (September 1777–June 1778), American spies disguised as farmers used ferries at the Schuylkill River (including Gray’s Ferry) to slip in and out of the city.The most celebrated ferry action of the war was George Washington and his army crossing the Delaware on Christmas night in 1776, at McConkey’s Ferry. This gallant action and events around are told in my second novel, The Cavalier Spy. But a lesser known ferry in the region also played a pivotal role in the struggle for independence.

Washington's Crossing of Delaware on Durham boats December 1776

A Lesser Known Ferry

Some ten miles up the Delaware River was an important ferry operated by one John Coryell, a tavern keeper and ferry operator. Coryell's Ferry operated on the Delaware River between what are now Lambertville, New Jersey, and New Hope, Pennsylvania. At that time, both places were also called Coryell's Ferry. Although less well known than McConkey's ferry, Coryell's ferry was an important crossing during the Revolutionary War.  In early December 1776, Coryell denied British soldiers passage on his ferry as General Charles Cornwallis  pursued the Continental Army into Pennsylvania. There was also some military activity at and around Coryell's Ferry at that time as Cornwallis troops pressured the retreating Americans and fended off the local militias. And in 1777, part of Washington's army camped near the ferry, which it used to cross into Pennsylvania in the ramp up to the Brandywine campaign.

Coryell's Ferry 1776

Mentioned in the Dispatches

Coryell's Ferry is mentioned in three of George Washington's papers from December 1776: “General Orders, 12 December 1776,” “From George Washington to John Hancock, 12 December 1776,”“General Orders, 29 December 1776,” Spelling tended to be inconsistent in 1700's America, and the name of the ferry is spelled differently in each document. ("Corells", "Corriels", and "Coryells"). 

Campaign of 1778

Coryell's Ferry figured large in the Monmouth campaign in June 1778, when the Continental  Army crossed there in pursuit of the British into the Jerseys. The events which set that crossing in motion began the previous autumn.The British army occupied the American capital, Philadelphia, from 26 September , 1777 until 18 June, 1778. The occupation forced Congress to move to York, Pennsylvania, which had a demoralizing effect on many Americans. During that same winter of 1777, General George Washington  camped  his army some twenty miles  from Philadelphia at Valley Forge, which provided a  great venue for the  "winter quarters." The forge offered good ground for a defense from British attack and a great strategic point from which to watch or block British movements. The British recalled General William Howe in early 1778, appointing his second in command, Sir Henry Clinton as the new commander in chief. Sensing his exposure and wanting to consolidate his forces for a new British strategy, Clinton decided to move the army back to new York. His forces moved out on 18 June, 1777, crossing  the Delaware River at Cooper's Ferry into New Jersey. From there, they began a march northeast across the Jerseys.

There were numerous ferries along the coastal and inland rivers
of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania - as with all the colonies

By then, Washington had the Continental army on the move. Learning of the British evacuation of Philadelphia, Washington decided it was time to leave Valley Forge. On 20 June , the columns of dust ridden but eager soldiers arrived at the Pennsylvania side of Coryell's Ferry. The following day, Washington crossed to the New Jersey side (at today's Lambertville), and established his headquarters at the Holcombe house. The main body of the army soon followed the commander in chief into New Jersey.  This was no surreptitious, cover-of-night crossing as at Brooklyn or McConkey's. Given a much larger army with 700 horses and 200 wagons, the 1778 crossing was a large scale and noisy  event. By the morning of 21 June, they began their pursuit of the retreating British. From Coryell’s Ferry, the Army headed through today’s West Amwell (then simply called Amwell). The main body of Washington’s army camped for the night of June 22, 1778 near Ringoes.This would culminate on 28 June, when they clashed with the British near Monmouth Courthouse in the controversial battle of that name. Although a draw, the Continental Army met the British on even terms in open combat. 

The crossing at Coryell's Ferry led to the battle at Monmouth C.H.

A Call for Help

Although the maneuver and actions of Monmouth took place in June, Washington had done much prior planning and clearly viewed Coryell and his ferry as central to his plans to prevent British use and to ensure its availability for the Continental army. The dispatches to and from Coryell shown below  offer a window into the logistical side of Washington's war. A side that required early preparation of the area of operations. (Note: indifferent spelling was the norm for all classes during the time of the Yankee Doodle Spies.)

To John Coryell
Head Quarters Valley Forge 1st March 1778


I am very anxious to have all the continental flat Boats below Trenton carried up the River as far as Easton or near it, that they may be intirely out of the Enemy’s reach—I have desired the Gentlemen of the Navy Board to order Commodore Hazelwood to collect all those and carry them up as far as Trenton and when he has got them there to let you know it. I shall therefore be exceedingly obliged to you if you will collect a proper number of hands who are used to carry Boats thro’ the Falls and go down for them when you have notice. Or if you do not receive such notice in a few days, the Men may as well go down to Bordentown where the Boats are and bring them up from thence. There are a number of Cannon and some Stores there which I want carried to a place of safety. If you think the Boats can be taken thro’ the falls with the Cannon in them, it will save much expence and secure them perfectly. You are to apply to Messrs Hopkinson and Wharton of the Continental Navy Board at Bordentown for the Cannon if they can be carried up in the Boats.

I see by a letter of yours to Colo. Lutterloh that you want Money for these purposes. You may hire the Men for doing this service upon an assurance of their being paid the moment it is performed. And you will therefore make out the account when you have finished and apply directly to me for the Money when it shall be paid with thanks. 

I am &c.


Coryell's Landing Toll House

Response to His Excellency

Coryells Ferry [Delaware River]

March the 6th 1778

Honoured Sr

I Recd yours of the 1st instant the third at night & am Determined to serve you according to your Directions If Possable the Badness of the weather has hindered me to proceed on with any more Boats since my Last1 but Expect to Start the Remainder in two or three Days that I now have at my Ferry & when they are gone I will go after the Rest I am afraid I cant Bring up any Cannon in the Fleet Boats If there should be any Dur[ha]m boats below as I Expect there is I kno I Can Bring up Canno[n] in them and Will I have ingaged a number of Brave watermen for the purpose & I am dr Sr your Humble sert

Jno. Coryell

P.S. there was a number of peac eis of Duck Left at my place I had to press sleds to move them to Reading & I Kept one for the use of my self & men; If it Cant be spared it is not Cut I will send it on.


Coryell's Landing today