Generalship in the American Civil War: George Henry Thomas [1816 CE – 1870 CE]

The fact that the man who was probably the best battlefield general of the American Civil War [1861 CE – 1865 CE] is buried in a relatively neglected gravesite in Troy, New York, merits a bit of explanation.

The Civil War produced a bumper crop of noteworthy generals, ranging from the tactically brilliant Nathan Bedford Forrest to the woefully incompetent Ambrose Burnside.

Some of the general officers in both the armies of the North and South were notably eccentric. Examples abound, including Benjamin Butler, whose major contributions to the North’s war efforts were unsurprisingly legal rather than military, such as his definition of the runaway slaves who sought Union protection as contraband. Even such icons of Southern military prowess as Thomas [Stonewall] Jackson could be prone to what might charitably be characterized as idiosyncrasies: at one point Jackson ordered pikes for his troops.

Few were aberrant enough to foster speculation of full blown psychosis, with the possible exception of the egregious George B. McClellan, whose ego survived bungling an opportunity to destroy Lee’s army at Antietam, despite McClellan’s having been provided with a copy of the Southern battle plan, primarily because McClellan was simply incapable of coordinating his attacks.

Given the brutality and uncertainty of the war, it is hard not to have sympathy for generals like John Sedgwick, who is often remembered for being shot dead through the head trying to rally Union troops under Confederate fire on the battlefield of Spotsylvania, shouting “Why are you dodging like this? They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” Claims that he was cut down in the middle of the word “distance” are almost certainly apocryphal.

Lee, Jackson, Forrest, Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan are usually considered the leading candidates for greatness when it comes to evaluating Civil War military leadership on the battlefield.

Lee was undoubtedly a genius in defensive actions. Pointing out lapses in his record regarding offensive campaigns can elicit personal attacks and calumnies as vituperative and ill-founded as those aimed at Longstreet when he noted Lee’s shortcomings after the war.

Jackson died too early for a balanced evaluation of his considerable worth, as did the Union’s John Reynolds, who perished later at Gettysburg.

Forrest could never overcome Southern class prejudice sufficiently to earn the major command his demonstrated talent on the battlefield earned him. He never faced the challenges his ability merited.

Grant scores high on determination, courage, and persistence, but his casualties score even higher, leaving him an American Zhukov.

Sherman’s brilliant march through largely defenseless Southern territory after the Battle of Atlanta was more impressive logistically than as an example of outstanding battlefield generalship: there is a reason he concludes his memoirs with a detailed accounting of the order of march of his foraging army.

Sheridan proved his worth and more at the Battle of Cedar Creek and during the Appomattox Campaign, but his major commands came too late in the war to determine its fundamental outcome.

There was another Union general whose contributions qualify him for inclusion in the pantheon of Civil War battlefield leaders: George Henry Thomas. He and his soldiers achieved notable success from the early days of the conflict to the closing stages of the war. His talents were demonstrated in actions both defensive and offensive. Troops belonging to his command twice achieved what no other soldiers managed to do during the war: they attacked and routed sizable enemy forces from prepared defensive positions, in one instance effectively destroying the opposing army as a combat entity.

George Henry Thomas was born in Virginia. As a boy, he and his family had to flee their home to escape Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion. At West Point Sherman was one of his roommates. His actions during the Seminole Wars, the Mexican – American War, and his record as an instructor at West Point won him promotions and respect.

In 1852 he married the 31 year old Frances Kellogg, five years his junior.

When The Civil War broke out Thomas, unlike so many other West Point graduates from the South, honored his oaths of loyalty to the United States government.

His January 1862 victory at Mill Springs was one of the first for the Union in the war. It stopped a Confederate offensive in eastern Kentucky, forcing the Southern troops to retreat. He figured prominently in the apparent stalemate at Perryville, which ended an invasion of Kentucky by Bragg’s forces, following which Bragg retreated to Tennessee. At Stones River [December 31 1862 – January 2 1863], Thomas stopped a retreat of Union troops, contributing significantly to a Union strategic victory on a field bloodier than Shiloh or Antietam. At Chickamauga [September 1863], Thomas rallied retreating soldiers and held the Union line to prevent the destruction of the Army of the Cumberland, winning him the sobriquet The Rock of Chickamauga.

In the Battle of Chattanooga that November, as Sherman’s men wandered about without significantly engaging the enemy, Thomas’s troops were ordered to take the Confederate positions at the foot of Missionary Ridge. This they did, only to find their position subject to fire from the enemy line at the crest of the ridge.

The Union troops could not stay where they were. They would not retreat. They attacked uphill and drove the Confederates from a position of such natural strength that Grant said a line of skirmishers should have held it. Sheridan was said to have toasted an uphill Southern gun emplacement from a small flask only to have the Confederates fire at him, splashing him with dirt: he vowed to take the guns for that. Douglas MacArthur’s father, Arthur MacArthur, won a Medal of Honor for his role in the battle.

The Union commanders watched the attack in amazement. Grant asked who had ordered the advance uphill. Thomas said he had not, and General Granger added “When those fellows get started all hell can’t stop them.”

It appears that Thomas’s men, finding themselves in an untenable position at the foot of the ridge, attacked uphill in part to respond to the humiliations they were subjected to by the Union units newly arrived in Chattanooga, in part to wipe out the stain of Chickamauga, and in general to respond to the impossible position they had been put into in a way that would silence their critics and restore their pride with a very public display of courage. Thomas did not give the order to attack up the ridge, but he certainly contributed to the esprit de corps that motivated his men.

The Confederate soldiers had made the understandable mistake of siting their line on the topographical rather than the military crest of the ridge: the highest points rather than the line that presented the best field of fire against attackers. The steepness of the ridge and spurs descending the slope provided cover for the Union soldiers, as did Confederate troops retreating from rifle pits at the foot of the ridge.

During the siege of Atlanta in July 1864, Thomas’s troops inflicted severe casualties on Hood’s men in the Battle of Peachtree Creek.

As Sherman and his men departed on their March to the Sea, Thomas and his troops raced Hood to Nashville, where Federal reinforcements were expected. John Schofield’s Union troops inflicted heavy casualties on Hood’s army during a hard fought action at Franklin [November 30, 1864].

In December Thomas found himself reorganizing his army in Nashville, which Hood invested. The reputedly imperturbable Grant sent a flurry of messages urging Thomas to attack. Grant was being fed false information about Thomas by Schofield, who was scheming to replace his superior.

Thomas replied to Grant with careful explanations of what he needed to attend to before attacking, including the necessity of providing the cavalry with horseshoes that could handle ice and snow. Grant, irritable and impatient, sent General John A. Logan to replace Thomas, and shortly thereafter set off to take command himself.
Logan arrived shortly after Thomas’s overwhelming victory of December 15 – 16.

Hood’s army was effectively destroyed. Logan did not try to take command. Thomas was promoted to Major General. His response to the honor was muted: he was reported to have characterized the promotion as better late than never, as he had earned it at Chickamauga.

His victory at Nashville was studied with intense interest by European militaries for generations.

After the war, Thomas protected freedmen and used troops to suppress Ku Klux Klan activities. Not wanting to participate in the virulent politics of the era, Thomas requested and received a posting in San Francisco, where he died of a stroke in 1870 while responding to an article by John Schofield attacking his military career. His southern relations unreconciled, he was buried in his wife’s home town of Troy, New York.

The fact that Thomas has only belatedly and in part received the recognition he deserved can be attributed to a number of factors. One was that he was a Southerner fighting for the Union. Another was his poor personal relationship with Grant. Perhaps as important as these, however, was the conflict with John Schofield dating back to his days as an instructor at West Point.

After the war and after Thomas’s death, Schofield persistently criticized Thomas’s performance. Schofield seems to have been motivated by the fact that Thomas voted to sustain Schofield’s expulsion from West Point before the war. Schofield’s dismissal was eventually overturned on appeal.

Schofield capped his career when he became the 28th United States Secretary of War [1868 – 1869], though he lived on to 1906. Part of Schofield’s 1879 graduation address at West Point is memorized by cadets at West Point, the Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, and the Air Force Academy:

“The discipline which makes the soldiers of a free country reliable in battle is not to be gained by harsh or tyrannical treatment. On the contrary, such treatment is far more likely to destroy than to make an army. It is possible to impart instruction and give commands in such a manner and such a tone of voice as to inspire in the soldier no feeling, but an intense desire to obey, while the opposite manner and tone of voice cannot fail to excite strong resentment and a desire to disobey. The one mode or other of dealing with subordinates springs from a corresponding spirit in the breast of the commander. He who feels the respect which is due to others cannot fail to inspire in them respect for himself. While he who feels, and hence manifests, disrespect towards others, especially his subordinates, cannot fail to inspire hatred against himself.”

Schofield recommended himself for a Medal of Honor when he was Secretary of War. The nomination was vague on details and specifics of the action, but the medal was awarded to Schofield nonetheless.

Further Reading:

• James McPherson’s The Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era is perhaps the best single volume treatment of the American Civil War.

• The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant is a masterpiece, despite its omissions and shortcomings. Gertrude Stein was correct in identifying the author as one of the best American prose stylists.

• The Memoirs of General W. T. Sherman are as informative and idiosyncratic as might be expected.

• The Century Magazine’s voluminous collection of post-bellum writings of generals from both sides provides insight into the war, its leaders, and the ongoing arguments about their actions and legacies. The four volume set of Battles and Leaders of the Civil War has been intelligently edited and condensed into the 1227 page single volume edition, Hearts Touched by Fire. Both provide acute insights into how reputations were formed.

• Recent biographies of Thomas include Christopher Einolf’s George Thomas: Virginian for the Union; Brian Steel Wills’ George Henry Thomas: As True as Steel; and Benson Bobrick’s Master of War: The Life of George H. Thomas.


An Underappreciated Victory: Plattsburgh 1814 CE

It might be considered idiosyncratic to claim a battle the importance of which was stressed by Theodore Roosevelt, among others, is underappreciated, but much of the American War of 1812 is neglected and poorly understood.

For many residents of the United States, the War of 1812 appears to have been primarily caused by the English impressment of American sailors into British navy. This elevation of a relatively minor contributor to the outbreak of hostilities to center stage precludes many less flattering reasons from being contemplated as seriously as they deserve to be. Commonly remembered or misremembered events of the conflict include:

• the burning of Washington D.C.

• the bombardment that resulted in Francis Scott Key writing The Star Spangled

• the heroic fights of the frigate USS Constitution [also known as Old Ironsides],

• the overwhelming American victory in the Battle of New Orleans in January 1815 CE

Those who retain more of their early lessons may cite Oliver Hazard Perry’s summation of the Battle of Lake Erie: “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”

Far fewer remember the seditious and secessionist activities widespread throughout New England during the war.

The Plattsburgh campaign and its culminating battle on September 11th of 1814 seem to have become largely the reserve of professional historians and local enthusiasts.

The British government provided detailed instructions to Lieutenant-General Sir George Prévost, the Commander-in-Chief and Governor General of the [French and English speaking] Canadas. Prévost was suspect in English speaking Canada for his ability to communicate with the Francophones of Quebec in their own language.

Prévost’s orders told him to invade the United States. He was expected to maintain a balance between moving quickly enough to increase and exploit secessionist sentiment among disaffected New Englanders and proceeding cautiously enough to avoid being cut off and isolated by hostile American forces. Some of the lessons learned from Burgoyne’s disasters at Bennington and Saratoga in 1777 had not been forgotten.

Prévost started south along the venerable Lake Champlain and Lake George invasion route, head of an army of some 11,000 British regulars, many battle hardened veterans of the Peninsular campaign in the Napoleonic Wars. The British army was supported by a fleet of 16 vessels, including one frigate, one brig, two sloops, and 12 gunboats.

Facing Prévost were around 1,500 American troops under Alexander Macombe, augmented by roughly 1,900 inexperienced militia, and a naval force of 14 vessels, comprised of one corvette, one brig, one schooner, one sloop, and 10 gunboats, under the command of Thomas Macdonough.

Macdonough and naval architect Noah Brown, working at Otter Creek in Vermont, had created the American fleet with nearly miraculous expedition and improvisation, but the British ships had cannons effective at a far greater range than the Americans’ carronades. Macdonough had to plan a battle that would overcome this British advantage, and that was not beyond what his inexperienced crews could handle.

Macdonough anchored his vessels in Plattsburgh Bay, forcing the British to fight at close range in its narrow confines. This neutralized the British advantage in long guns. Knowing the winds to be light and unreliable, Macdonough had his fleet equipped with springs on the anchor lines to enable his ships to rotate to a degree, and deployed extra kedge anchors from his flagship to make it possible to spin the ship completely around. He drilled his men hard as they waited for the English to attack.

Command of the British fleet changed several times in the run-up to the battle. Commander Thomas Everard briefly pulled rank on Daniel Pring in Quebec, after which Captain Peter Fisher took the reins from a reinstated Pring. Fisher was replaced by George Downie in late August. Downie joined the British naval forces on Lake Champlain on September 9. The winds being unfavorable, Downie could not attack the anchored Americans on September 10th, as Prévost urged. That night the winds shifted to the northeast. As dawn broke on September 11, Downie sailed into Plattsburgh Bay.

When he did he found the breezes blocked by the spur of land that formed the bay. Downie lost the ability to maneuver. He anchored under a galling fire, and managed to fire a broadside that killed or wounded roughly 20% of the men on Macdonough’s flagship, briefly stunning Macdonough himself. A counter blast from the Americans killed Downie.

The large ships suffered frightful carnage on both sides, but Macdonough, when his starboard guns were disabled, used his kedge anchors to turn his flagship in place, presenting his undamaged port battery towards the English flagship, which, not able to respond to this new fire, surrendered. Macdonough then used his anchor lines to address the last active big ship in the English force, compelling its surrender in short order.

The Americans captured all four large English vessels: the frigate, the brig, and both sloops.

The American gunboats were interspersed between the larger American boats. Half of the British gunboats attacked the end of the American line of ships until fought off by the American schooner Ticonderoga. The other half played no significant role in the battle, some of their crew claiming they had seen a signal to withdraw at the back of Downie’s flagship. The commander of the British gunships later deserted.

The American naval victory was complete. Although Prévost had an advantage of close to 3 to 1 in manpower, he broke off from battle. Without British control of the lake, there was no way Prévost could support his army in the field. He retreated back to Canada.

American losses, not including the poorly documented militias, were approximately 100 killed and 115 wounded. British losses ran to roughly 170 killed, 220 wounded, 320 captured.

Prévost was relieved of command and returned to England. Although his explanation of events was originally accepted, a report from England’s senior naval officer for Lake Ontario, Commodore Yeo, fixed blame on Prévost for the defeat, arguing Prévost had forced the English fleet into action prematurely. Pring, captain of the British ship that was last to surrender to the Americans, was commended for his actions by the navy.

Despite support for his decision to retreat from Wellington, Prévost was eventually widely held responsible for the failure of the invasion. He died of natural causes before he could clear his name.

Macdonough and several of his officers received commendations and promotions, as did Macomb. In addition to their service awards, they were honored with Congressional medals.

The American victory at Plattsburgh directly influenced peace negotiations, being used to justify American demands for exclusive use of Lake Champlain and to negate British claims to exclusive use of the Great Lakes.

The fame of the American victory at Plattsburgh was in part eclipsed by Andrew Jackson’s defeat of the British outside of New Orleans on January 8, 1815. The Treaty of Ghent had ended the war on December 24th 1814, though it was not ratified by Congress until February.

The Battle of Plattsburgh was far more influential in terms of international affairs, though the Battle of New Orleans, propelling Jackson towards the presidency as it did, had major effect on the domestic politics of the United States of America.

President Jackson arranged for the removal by forced marches of several southern tribes east of the Mississippi, preserved in modern memory as the Trail of Tears. The expulsion of the remnants of northern tribes who made up Tecumseh’s Confederacy, whose raiding had been an important cause of the War of 1812, was at least as important and thorough, though generally less well remembered.

Further Reading:

• Theodore Roosevelt wrote The Naval War of 1812 with his customary brio.

• John Elting’s Amateurs to Arms: A Military History of the War of 1812 is a clear
and unsparing account of the American side of the conflict.

• David Fitz-Enz covers the Plattsburgh campaign in detail in The Last Invasion:
Plattsburgh, the War of 1812’s Most Decisive Victory, with close attention to
Prévost’s role and fate.

• Eliot Cohen’s Conquered into Liberty: Two Centuries of Battles along the Great
Warpath that Made the American Way of War describes 200 years of military history
along the Lake Champlain – Lake George corridor.

Real Estate Scams and the Loss of Empire in America: The Battle of Saratoga [1777 CE]

The British lost control of the lands that were to become the United States of America for many reasons, including some of a political, demographic, geographic, and economic nature, though the subtly pervasive forces of profound ignorance and almost unfathomable incompetence should probably not be dismissed out of hand from a short list of the most important. Nor should simple venality be ruled out.

The decisive American victory at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777 CE constituted a turning point. Although the war dragged on for six more long years, and the British were never driven from New York City by force of arms, after Saratoga the tide turned against the English, who were forced to shift their major operations to the Southern colonies. The American success at Saratoga also provided the final impetus needed to bring the French fully into the war against their ancient enemy across the channel.

The Saratoga campaign was unusually lengthy and complex, ranging at least from the time Benedict Arnold fought a critical delaying action at Valcour Island on October 11, 1776 to at least his suicidally brave charge riding between the fire of both armies to take the Breymann Redoubt on October 7th, 1777, fatally compromising the English position. After this John Stark deftly blocked the retreat of the British army led by Burgoyne, precipitating its surrender. Stark’s move was just one of four times he crucially affected the outcome of the Revolution. He deserves to be known better outside of New Hampshire.

The failure of Howe to move north from New York City to support Burgoyne, the strange fizzling out of St. Leger’s invasion of the Mohawk Valley, the death of Jane McCrae, and the muskets provided to the American rebels as a result of the efforts of Beaumarchais, who was in the middle of writing his trilogy of plays about Figaro, the barber of Seville, all influenced the outcome of the campaign, but even more important was the issue that has perplexed scholars for more than 200 years: Why was Burgoyne’s advance so slow? Why was he dragging heavy cannons through the wilderness? Why did he bring along such cumbersome dinnerware?

His lack of speed allowed the Americans time to collect an army to oppose and eventually defeat him. This rebel force included a detachment of Daniel Morgan’s Virginia regiment, some of whom had the congenial duty of sitting in trees out of range of the English muskets, picking off English officers with rifles, which were accurate at great distance: a dream assignment for an enlisted man.

The cannons are easy to explain. The route Burgoyne chose is not.

Burgoyne had observed the Battle of Bunker [Breed’s] Hill in Charlestown [June 17, 1775] from a safe vantage across the water in the vicinity of Copp’s Hill in Boston. Bunker Hill was by far the bloodiest day of the American Revolution in terms of British killed and wounded. Burgoyne watched the New England troops shred repeated attacks by professional imperial soldiers only to retreat under cannon fire, much of it provided by ships of the British fleet.

Burgoyne was apparently unaware of the fact that many of the Americans at Bunker Hill fell back because they had run out of shot and powder. John Stark held the left flank of the American line that day behind defenses he had hastily improvised, commanding his men so well that they repulsed Welch and English waves of attacks, inflicting crippling losses that forced the British to withdraw to another part of the field.

Whatever the reasons behind the American abandonment of the field, the Battle of Bunker Hill convinced Burgoyne that artillery was crucial to defeating the revolutionaries. And events demonstrated artillery’s decisive strategic role in the Saratoga campaign on both sides. It was key to the British success at Ticonderoga, and on the American side to Kościuszko’s forcing of Burgoyne’s army off its riverside line of march into the welter of hills and ravines where the battles of Saratoga took place.

His cannons did not in fact impede Burgoyne’ progress for much of the Saratoga campaign. Heading south from Quebec into New York State in 1777, Burgoyne was not so delayed by his field artillery or even his sumptuous and often criticized table settings that he had any great problem taking the key fortress of Ticonderoga, a victory so significant that in London the betting odds on the recognition of American independence fell from even money to five to one against.

After his success at Ticonderoga, Burgoyne had two possible routes to the Hudson River Valley open to him. The first was the well-known, proven, and relatively easy voyage on Lake Champlain, with a brief portage to Lake George, navigation of which would take his army quickly into farmlands near the northern reaches of the Hudson.

The other route, which he selected, forced his army to hack paths through a wilderness of forests and swamps. The reasons for his eccentric choice have baffled historians who underestimate how profoundly influential petty intrigue and graft can be.

Colonel Philip Skene held title directly from London to 30,000 acres (12,0000 hectares) of land around the head of Lake Champlain. He founded Skenesborough (now Whitehall) with a sawmill, iron forge, barracks, and docking facilities for trade with Canada, as well as a fine two-and-a-half story stone house. These he temporarily abandoned around the time when revolutionary activity picked up in his neighborhood, exemplified by the capture of Ticonderoga by his pre-war acquaintance Ethan Allen [May 10, 1775].

Allen demanded the fort surrender “”In the name of the Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress” though it is far from clear he held a commission from either of these entities.

Skene accompanied Burgoyne’s invading army in 1777, making certain the English general was comfortably ensconced in Skene’s fieldstone manor house after the British success at Ticonderoga.

Burgoyne could have travelled by boat back to Ticonderoga and portaged to Lake George for a relatively quick and comfortable descent to the headwaters of the Hudson. Instead, he sent his army to hack through 26 miles [42 km] of forested swamplands along the banks of Wood Creek. The roads they built and improvements they made to connecting roads to Fort Ann could be expected to significantly increase the worth of Skene’s holdings.

Historians generally agree Skene greatly influenced Burgoyne’s decision on this matter, for considerations we will probably never know. Logistical reality forced Burgoyne to send his artillery and most of his supplies via Lake George, but his infantry was literally bogged down building and upgrading roads. It wasn’t the often cited cannons or baggage train that fatally delayed the British invasion: it was a transportation infrastructure project that enhanced real estate values.

The magnitude of the British Army’s engineering challenges can be seen in part by the 40 bridges they built, one of them across a swamp two miles long. The retreating Americans carried out a scorched earth policy and harassed English construction efforts.

The delays caused by this road building proved critical to defeating Burgoyne. He returned to England after his surrender. Most of his enlisted men were taken as prisoners of war. The Americans, deeply angered by British mistreatment of captive revolutionary soldiers, were eager to make examples of them.

Burgoyne eventually received remarkably favorable treatment by Shaw in The Devil’s Disciple, in which he is given the line “… your friend the British soldier can stand up to anything except the British War Office.” Or, in the case of Saratoga, the British officer. Though Shaw was generous to his fellow playwright, England was less so: Burgoyne never held another active field command.

New York State seized most of Philip Skene’s American lands, but the British government compensated him with a pension of £180 per year and a lump sum of £20,000 which he used to purchase property in Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire.

Further Reading:

• Richard Ketchum’s Saratoga provides a useful narrative overview of the campaign.

• Hoffman Nickerson discusses Burgoyne’s choice of route in detail in his book The Turning Point of the American Revolution, though he does not draw out all the conclusions the evidence he presents supports.

John Stark: The French and Indian War [1754 – 1763 CE] and the American Revolution [1775 -1783 CE]

Each state has the opportunity of honoring two persons notable in its history with sculptures in the National Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol Building. New Hampshire chose Daniel Webster and John Stark [1728 -1822]. The latter deserves to be known for more than his contribution to the state’s license plates. At least four times, Stark’s actions were critical to the success of the American Revolution.

Born in what is now Derry New Hampshire, Stark was an outstanding example of the American of the northern frontier of his day. In 1752, while on a hunting trip, Stark was captured by Abenaki Indians and brought to the Canadian settlement of St. Francis, which was notorious for launching raids into New England territory. One of his companions was killed.

When forced to run the gauntlet upon his arrival in St. Francis, Stark grabbed a stick at the head of the two lines of warriors and proceeded to swing away at the young men who had been prepared to pummel him, to the obvious amusement of the village elders. He later earned further respect from the braves when he refused orders to work with the squaws in the fields. Stark was adopted into the tribe before being ransomed home the next spring.

During the French and Indian War [1754 – 1763], Stark served as second in command to Major Robert Rogers in his Rangers Company. He refused to accompany the Rangers on their celebrated 1759 attack on St. Francis, citing respect for his foster parents there. At the end of the war, he retired with the rank of captain.

When the American Revolution started, Stark accepted a Colonelcy in the New Hampshire Militia, mustered troops, and marched them down to the scene of the fighting around Boston. He made the first of his major contributions to the Revolutionary cause at the Battle of Bunker Hill [Breed’s Hill, June 17, 1775].

When he arrived at the site, Colonel Prescott’s men were erecting defenses. They had called for reinforcements, but most of the American officers and troops hesitated to cross over a neck of land subject to British naval artillery.

Marching his men to the front fieldworks without suffering casualties, Stark took command of the left end of the American line. He and his men quickly reinforced a rail fence as a firing position, and threw up a low stone wall between the end of the fence and the adjacent river, interdicting a previously undefended stretch of beach. His soldiers were deployed three deep behind these hastily improvised works.

The British launched three attacks on Stark’s position, attempting to turn the Americans’ flank. All three attacks were stopped with deadly fusillades. The British facing Stark, having suffered heavy losses, concentrated their forces on another portion of the field for the rest of the fight.

When the Americans were finally forced to retreat, Stark’s troops provided covering fire for Colonel Prescott’s men. The British were considerably sobered by their Pyrrhic victory. They had mistakenly believed they were up against peasant farmers. In John Stark and his men, veterans honed by incessant frontier wars with Indians and the French, the English were battling what was likely the age’s finest irregular infantry.

Washington offered Stark a command in the Continental Army. After the abortive invasion of Canada in 1776, Stark and his men joined Washington in New Jersey. Despite the fact that their terms of enlistment were expiring, the New Hampshire forces under Stark participated in the crossing of the Delaware and the American victories at Princeton and Trenton. Without them, Washington would have had insufficient numbers to proceed.

Sent back to New Hampshire to raise more troops, Stark learned to his disgust that fellow New Hampshire resident Enoch Poor, who had carefully avoided the fighting at Bunker Hill, had been promoted to the rank of Brigadier General in the Continental Army. In March of 1777, Stark resigned his commission, though he pledged future service should it be needed.

It was needed soon. Four months later, after Burgoyne had invaded from Canada and taken Ticonderoga in June, New Hampshire offered Stark a commission as Brigadier General of the Militia from that state. Stark accepted, stipulating that he would not be answerable to the command of the Continental Army. With conniving gasbags like Horatio Gates running the Continental Army’s response to Burgoyne, it was a wise precaution, as Gates’ disgraceful treatment of Benedict Arnold was to prove.

At the Battle of Bennington [August 16], Stark used infiltration and envelopment strategies that essentially destroyed an expedition of German mercenaries fighting for the British: of 374 professional soldiers from Brunswick, only 9 escaped. With Seth Warner’s reinforcements, the Americans also drove off a relief column sent out by the English. Stark lost 14 dead and 42 wounded. The American victories at Bennington cost Burgoyne approximately 1,000 men dead, captured, or wounded, and caused widespread desertion among his Indian allies.

Stark had another key role to play at Saratoga, blocking Burgoyne’s retreat to Canada by siting canon at an outcropping now known by the name of Stark’s Knob.

John Stark was made a Brigadier General of the Continental Army in October. He was Commander of the Northern Department three times between 1778 and 1781, spending much of his time trying to deal with government thieves in Albany.

After the Revolutionary War, Stark retired to private life, a notable exception to the common practice of the American generals of the time, garnering him praise as a modern Cincinnatus. In 1809, unable at age 81 to join a group of veterans commemorating the Battle of Bennington, he wrote to them a letter closing with “Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils.” “Live free or die” was adopted by New Hampshire as its state motto in 1945; it appears on New Hampshire’s license plates.

Further Reading:

• Astonishingly, at the time of this writing there is no standard modern biography of John Stark. Most recent books rework materials from Howard Parker Moore’s A Life of General John Stark of New Hampshire [1949] and Caleb Stark’s Memoir and Official Correspondence of Gen. John Stark [1877].

• Two of the better recent offerings are Stark: The Life and Wars of John Stark by Richard and John Polhemus and Clifton La Bree’s New Hampshire’s John Stark. Several new biographies are reportedly in progress.

The End of the Iroquois Empire: The Sullivan-Clinton Campaign 1779 CE

The Five Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy settled into the area that is now Upstate New York about 1200 CE, with the related Tuscarora joining them from the Carolinas around 1720, increasing the number of allied tribes to six. They called themselves “Haudenosaunee,” meaning “The People of the Longhouse.” Though their men ranged wide and far for both hunting and war expeditions, the Iroquois were far from nomadic, being settled in well-established towns.

The Mohawk, inhabiting lands near the conjunction of the Mohawk and Hudson Rivers, guarded the eastern approaches to the Iroquois heartland. The Seneca, living in regions now close to the city of Buffalo, protected the western borders. Oneida inhabited the upper Mohawk Valley; Cayuga were centered on the Finger Lakes; Onondaga kept the Council fire near present day Syracuse. The Tuscarora settled south of the Oneida, mostly between the Oneida and the current New York – Pennsylvania border.

By the early 18th Century, Iroquois interests dominated much of the Ohio, Hudson, Delaware, Susquehanna, Chenango, Mohawk, and upper St. Lawrence River valleys. They had both significant influence and imperial designs on the territories in between and bordering this region.

Confederacy control of the Mohawk River Valley, which provided a large water level route connecting North America’s East Coast and the lands on the western side of the Appalachian Mountains, positioned the Iroquois well for hegemony.

The Iroquois generally had balanced French, Dutch, and English colonial efforts to their own advantage. The Confederacy effectively ended French plans to expand colonial holdings using Huron allies in 1649, and was crucial to the victory of England and its colonists in the French and Indian War [1754 – 1763]. The Iroquois were equally astute in the subsequent peace negotiations, protecting their lands in part by increasing the real estate holdings of the British Superintendent of Indian Affairs, Sir William Johnson.

Sir William Johnson was yet another of those meteoric Irishmen who carved such spectacular careers through the 18th and 19th centuries. After he arrived in North America, he immersed himself in Indian culture, going native to the point that he was adopted into the Mohawk Nation. He commanded Iroquois and militia troops during the French and Indian war, and was fortunate enough to be available for the honor when the English decided they needed a hero after the Battle of Lake George [1755]. He provided substantial service in the capture of Fort Niagara [1759] and the assault on Montreal [1760].

While protecting Iroquois territory from westward pushing colonials, Johnson accumulated vast personal land holdings [about 170,000 acres, 690 square kilometers]. He was fiercely loyal to Britain, and convinced many of his native allies that they should be so as well. He died on the 11th of July in 1774 while hosting a meeting of representatives of the Iroquois Confederacy, but his baneful influence lived on. His lands were confiscated after the American Revolution.

At the opening of the American Revolution, which they correctly saw as a sort of civil war, the Six Tribes tried without success to remain neutral. Many Oneida and Tuscarora allied themselves with the American revolutionaries. The Mohawks, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca generally sided with the English.

British-allied Iroquois warriors were effective raiders against civilian populations and isolated militias. They gained well deserved notoriety with massacres in Wyoming [Pennsylvania] in July 1778 and Cherry Valley [New York] in November 1778. The former inspired Thomas Campbell’s romantic epic in Spenserian stanzas, Gertrude of Wyoming [1809], which was well reviewed at the time of its publication, despite its many historical errors.

Loosing aboriginal warriors on settlers of European descent was the nuclear option of its day. It did not ultimately work for the French, however, and was counterproductive for the English. The 1778 raids on the frontier caused George Washington to order the Sullivan – Clinton expedition to carry out a scorched earth policy in the Iroquois heartland in the summer of 1779.

There was only one major battle. It took place near what is now Elmira New York on August 29th, 1799. Sullivan’s troops avoided stumbling into an ambush, and used artillery and sharply pushed infantry attacks to completely rout the British and their Iroquois allies. About a dozen died on each side of the battle. Plausible but unproven hypotheses suggest that two senior Iroquois political chieftains, one a woman, may have been killed while observing the fighting. More importantly, Sullivan’s forces were essentially unopposed when they subsequently dismantled the heart of the Iroquois economy by destroying more than 40 villages, including food reserves and crops in the field.

The expedition’s leaders, Generals John Sullivan and James Clinton, were severely criticized at the time for not exterminating the Iroquois warriors, who raided the frontier the next two summers. But the power of the Iroquois Confederacy had been permanently broken. The Iroquois death toll from exposure and starvation far outnumbered battlefield casualties. Many died during the winter of 1779 – 1780 outside of Fort Niagara, where in a curious echo of the French managed starvation of the Hurons on Christian Island [1649 – 1650], the British proved strikingly incapable of providing food and shelter for their refugee allies. It proved impossible for the tribes to recover from the destruction of their settlements in the Iroquois heartland.

The Treaty of Paris ended fighting between the American revolutionaries and England in 1783. A peace treaty with the Iroquois was not signed until the following year. This treaty formalized the loss of a great deal of the Confederation’s land. Much of the remainder was stolen by white settlers afterwards. The American allies among the Oneida and Tuscarora were treated nearly as badly as the tribes who fought against the revolutionary Americans.

Further Reading:

• Francis Jennings’ The Ambiguous Iroquois Empire is a good place to start investigating Iroquois history.

• Barbara Graymont’s The Iroquois in the American Revolution and Max Mintz’s Seeds of Empire: The American Revolutionary Conquest of the Iroquois provide overviews of the end of the Iroquois empire.