A Close Run Thing

When thinking on the American Revolution, it’s generally a matter of national pride to see that the outcome was inevitable. A plucky militia, with Right on its side, handily defeated an Evil Empire who couldn’t be bothered to listen to the concerns of the rebels.

It’s always nice to have a happy origin story – or at least one that couldn’t have gone any other way.

Too bad that’s nowhere close to the reality of the American Revolution. It was one close call after another.

Even well before the shooting started, there were plenty of chances for the sides to reach a settlement. Back in March 1770, the radical Sam Adams encouraged a mob to go and harass the handful of British soldiers guarding Boston’s Customs House. Some four hundred agitators gathered, and started taunting the soldiers. Taunts led to snowballs being thrown, then chunks of ice and wood. One soldier was hit with a club and knocked to the ground. Another soldier then fired off a shot, prompting the others to let loose a volley without an order. When order was restored, there were five dead and six wounded.

Sam Adams was delighted. It would be no problem to accuse the soldiers of murder; the British would see that they got off; and the other colonies would see just how unfair and oppressive the British were, bringing them to the Cause.

His cousin John Adams thought otherwise. He believed, with good reason, that the other colonies would see that Boston was basically under mob rule, and they wouldn’t want to have anything to do with that anarchy. They would instead offer to work something out with the British, if only to avoid the sort of military occupation that was in Boston.

John Adams got his way. No other lawyer in Massachusetts would come to the defense of the soldiers, so he did. He successfully argued that they acted in self-defense, and defused tensions. Instead of being forced back into the British fold, the colonies had a few years to consider their position and strategy as the little injustices piled up. So when the British overreacted to a minor tax protest in Boston in 1773, it was clearly time to get serious, coordinate their actions, and work together towards independence.

Once the shooting did start, after Lexington and Concord, there were many opportunities for the Revolution to be crushed. The first real battle of the war would take place on Breed’s and Bunker Hills just north of Boston. If the rebels could get and keep control of those heights, British forces in the city would never be safe. The British planned a complex assault, to strike before the rebels could finish their fortifications. It was noted that the hills were on a peninsula connected to the mainland by a narrow strip of land, Charlestown Neck. If troops could be landed in that area, or even if a ship could be maneuvered in close enough, any retreat would be cut off. The rebel forces – almost all of their current army – would be captured and the rebellion ended.

But a divided command and hesitant commanders let that obvious winning strategy go by. As a result, though the British did actually win the battle, they suffered huge casualties – and the surviving rebels easily escaped to keep the fight going.

Once fighting starts, it’s very common to have battles that could have gone either way. If a storm hadn’t cancelled plans for a full-scale assault on Boston in early 1776…. If the rebel army hadn’t been able to escape after the Battle of Long Island…. If the rebels’ desperate attacks on Trenton and Princeton had failed…. If Benedict Arnold hadn’t been able to delay the British move down Lake Champlain, or if he had obeyed orders at Saratoga…. If the British had knocked out the French Expeditionary Force before they got to do anything…. If the British hadn’t made tactical mistakes at Cowpens….

There is one incident that happened off the field of battle that is worth looking at. In September 1777, Captain Patrick Ferguson was on patrol near Philadelphia, defending the British position, when he was surprised by a rebel officer on a reconnaissance mission. Ferguson was armed with a breech-loading rifle of his own design, which was much more powerful and accurate than anything else in common use. It would have been no big deal for him to shoot the fleeing officer. But Ferguson was a man of honor; even though he had the other officer in his sights, he didn’t feel it was sporting to shoot a retreating officer in the back. Especially one who was so cool and calm in the face of danger.

Had he shot George Washington, there’s no doubt the war would have turned out differently. There were already complaints about his conduct of the war; General Horatio Gates was being floated as a replacement. Gates was one of those people who let sycophants inflate their egos to the point where they really believed they were much more capable than they really were. Should Gates have been named commander in chief, his weaknesses would have become readily apparent. After his bubble burst, the next likely leader was someone who really could fight and win battles in the field, but at this point in time, General Benedict Arnold was starting to talk with the British about switching allegiance….

The war dragged on, stalemated for several years. French help was minimal, and they were getting tired. The economy was a mess. Recruits were non-existent. Whoever could land the next knockout punch would win. That blow was delivered by the rebels at Yorktown, in large part because a storm stopped the British escape attempt in its tracks.

Even after the fighting ended, there was still a chance for everything to go to heck. With the ink drying on a treaty, the officers in the Continental Army were now free to focus on another matter of great importance – their pay. Most of them hadn’t been paid in ages, Back in 1780, Congress promised them half-pay for life. Now that the war was over, there was a lot of fear that Congress would welch on this deal. A delegation was sent to Philadelphia to bully Congress into coughing up some dough.

Up at Newburgh NY, Washington was encamped with his officers. He got wind of letters circulating among the officers both in camp and in Philadelphia, plotting action if Congress didn’t give in. He called for a meeting with the officers on March 13, 1783. This conspiracy had to be squashed; the new country could not tolerate a military coup! Especially with British forces still occupying cities like New York. It wouldn’t have taken much – maybe just a polite request from the Loyalist community in New Jersey – for them to decide it was necessary to “intervene” in order to “protect the public order”….

At the meeting, Washington gave an impassioned speech, begging them to think of their personal honor and stop all this talk of marching on Congress. It didn’t work; he was unable to sway them.

He had one last thing to try. He had a letter from Congressman Joseph Jones of Virginia, saying that Congress was aware of their grievances, and was doing all it could to deal with them. Washington decided to read the letter, in the hopes it would do the trick.

He began to read it, then squinted and did something that no one present could have seen coming.

He put on his reading glasses. Only a small handful of his closest friends and associates knew that he needed them. Then he commented, “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in your service.”

That did it. Everyone in the room knew what Washington had done for the army and the country. He was leading and fighting almost from the very outbreak of hostilities, and had certainly been at it longer than any of them. Some of them actually broke out in tears. The Newburgh Conspiracy was done for. Congress would soon work out a deal, which the officers accepted.

There’s a story that years later, Washington corresponded with Charles Thompson, the secretary of the Continental Congress. Thompson had been at virtually every session of Congress since its beginning in 1774 through the dissolution in 1788. Together, they knew more secrets about the Revolution than probably everyone else combined. In their letters, they discussed writing their memoirs of the War. They decided not to – it would have been too nerve-wracking for people to know just how close and how often the Revolution came to the brink of failure.

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