Thursday, 20 May 2010
Two Little Known Battles
West Point is in the midst of a very early Graduation Week now, but across the years come memories of two little known battles of the Revolutionary War fought not all that far from here. The first took place a few days hence, on 23 May, in 1777; the other on this date in the following year, 1778.
The battles fought by the young Continental Army in the vicinity of New York City were a series of embarrassments that left the city firmly in British hands since 1776 and forced the retreat of Washington into Pennsylvania. One battle on Long Island, however, was an unqualified success, mainly due to the leadership of LTC Return Jonathan Meigs, of Middletown, CT, and 170 Connecticut Raiders under his command. In the early morning hours of 23 May 1777, with the aid of two local Patriots, he and his men captured the British commander of the garrison at Sag Harbor, NY, and the fort constructed there using bayonets and firing only a single shot. That the Redcoats had built their fort on the high ground overlooking the harbor did not inspire loyalty among the Colonists, as that was the site of the local cemetery, and many graves had been desecrated in the process.
With six Redcoats dead and another 53 captured, Meigs moved upon the harbor. Eventually detected and taken under fire, the men from Connecticut nevertheless burned over a dozen British ships containing rum, grain and supplies and stores of forage. Picking up another 37 prisoners, the small force returned to Connecticut without having lost a single man. Meigs later commanded a regiment under General “Mad Anthony” Wayne in the capture, again by bayonet alone, of the British fortifications at Stony Point, NY. Perhaps Meigs suggested the attack by stealth. In any event, the battle of Sag Harbor was the only successful attack for the Continental Army in the New York City area from the initial British occupation until their departure at the end of the war.
If you are wondering about his unusual first name, “Return,” blame it on his mother. For some time his father, Jonathan Meigs, unsuccessfully had courted a young Quaker beauty. She respected him but was unwilling to become his wife. Rebuffed yet again, he was about to mount his horse and ride off when she supposedly relented and called out, “Return, Jonathan.” Thus the name of their firstborn son.
The other battle, fought one year later on this date, 20 May, in 1778, was led by the Marquis de Lafayette himself and took place on Barren Hill (now Lafayette Hill), just northwest of Philadelphia. Sent from Valley Forge on 18 May with just over 2,000 Continentals to maintain surveillance on the British garrison in Philadelphia and determine their intentions, Lafayette soon found himself the target of a British plan to surround and capture his entire force with well over 9,000 highly trained Redcoats. As the Pennsylvania militia fled in disorder, Lafayette selected a regimental force of about 500 soldiers recently trained by Von Steuben, provided them with several artillery pieces and attached a force of 50 newly recruited Oneida Indians to help them. Their mission was to confound the enemy forces and cover the withdrawal of the main force to safety across the Schuylkill River. As the British paused to determine the intentions of this small but determined force with cannon, Lafayette rallied the bulk of his forces and led them down a concealed road unknown to the Redcoats. Other small patrols skirmished and added to the confusion of the vastly superior enemy force that had expected to surprise the rebel force and capture them by sheer force of numbers. When the main body was safely across the river, the covering force successfully withdrew with minor casualties.
General Lord William Howe, commander of the forces in Philadelphia, had prepared an elegant dinner party for the night of 20 May to celebrate the victory and the capture of Lafayette. The young Marquis was to be the guest of honor before being taken back to London as a prize prisoner of war, but Howe was to be disappointed. This unsuccessful David and Goliath engagement proved so embarrassing to the British that it was not even mentioned in some of their subsequent reports and histories of the Revolutionary War. The British forces then withdrew towards New York City, according to their plan, constantly observed by Washington’s patrols. On 28 June 1778, the forces would meet in the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse, the last major battle of the Revolutionary War fought in the north. There, MG Charles Lee, ordered ahead to attack, split, and halt the British column to give Washington time to mass the rest of his forces, instead permitted his subordinate units to attack piecemeal. Eventually they fell back under pressure, much to the consternation of Washington, who rallied Lee’s forces, added his remaining forces and attacked in intense heat that caused a large number of casualties. The battle between approximately equal numbers was a draw but again proved the value of the disciplined training provided by Von Steuben at Valley Forge during the preceding winter. The British units left the field in Washington’s hands and continued their withdrawal.
We will cover the graduation of the Class of 2010 in our next Gray Matter.
Your humble servant, J. Phoenix, Esquire.
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