This Day in History: The British surrender Fort St. John

Source: This Day in History: The British surrender Fort St. John

On this day in 1775, British forces surrender to American Brigadier General Richard Montgomery. They’d been under siege at Fort St. John for nearly 7 weeks.

It was an early success in the American fight for independence!

Did you know Americans attempted to invade Canada during the early months of the war? There were two prongs to this attack: Benedict Arnold led one group of men towards Quebec on a roundabout route through Maine. (See October 29 post.) A second force was dispatched towards Montreal. This second force was initially led by Major General Philip Schuyler.

Fort St. John stood in the way of Montreal.

That fort had already been attacked once, during the summer of 1775. Benedict Arnold’s effort to take the fort ended when he stole a British warship from a nearby river. The British soon dispatched Major Charles Preston to improve defenses at the fort, in case it was attacked again.

They would be better prepared if and when the Americans returned.

Naturally, Americans weren’t giving up. Schuyler soon headed up Lake Champlain toward Fort. St. John. Things were not going well at first. Americans made two attempts to attack the fort, but these efforts fell flat on their face. It didn’t help that the soldiers were undisciplined and kept disobeying orders. Making matters worse, Schuyler fell ill and had to pass his command to Montgomery.

The brigadier general decided that a direct attack would not work. He began a siege of Fort St. John instead.

Not that a siege was easy, either. The ground was swampy, and it was hard to build stable siege works. The place was infested with malaria and many Americans fell ill, just as Schuyler had done. Depressingly, Americans received word during this time that Ethan Allen had been captured in an ill-advised attempt to take Montreal.

Allen was only supposed to recruit new volunteers, not attack Montreal.

Montgomery was frustrated. He wrote his wife: “I have been dragged from obscurity much against my inclination . . . the instant I can with decency slip my neck out of the yoke, I will return to my family and farm, and that peace of mind which I can’t have in my present situation.”

The entire effort was on the brink of failure.

Fortunately, the tide turned. Large cannon began arriving to reinforce the Americans. It had been recently captured at Fort Ticonderoga. Soon, Americans received word that a small British force at nearby Fort Chambly had surrendered. More captured supplies were brought in, reinforcing the Americans at Fort St. John still more.

Perhaps even better, British reinforcements from Montreal were repulsed and never made it to the fort.

British Major Preston saw the writing on the wall. He still had plenty of ammunition left, but he was running out of food. Finally, the British surrendered, marching out of the fort on November 3 and stacking their muskets in front of the Americans.

Preston was apparently ashamed and embarrassed to find himself in such a spot. “The tears run down his cheeks,” one Connecticut soldier described, “and he cried like a child.”

Little did Preston know it, but it was just the beginning of the end for the British. Their army was strong, of course, but the American thirst for freedom would prove even stronger!

There is more to the Canadian campaign, of course, but that is a story for another day.

Enjoyed this post? More Revolutionary War stories can be found on my website, HERE.

Primary Sources:

This Day in History: Tench Tilghman’s midnight ride

Source: This Day in History: Tench Tilghman’s midnight ride

On this day in 1781, George Washington’s aide-de-camp continues a multi-day ride from Yorktown to Philadelphia. You might know about Paul Revere’s famous midnight ride, but do you know about Tench Tilghman’s?

Paul Revere’s service earned him a poem, and he’s endured in American memory ever since. By contrast, Tilghman’s ride has gone mostly unnoticed—but the effort took so much out of him that he was sick for days afterwards.

Tilghman didn’t mind. He’d been entrusted with the long journey as a reward for his years of Revolutionary War service: Of all the soldiers in the army, Tilghman was the one who got to tell Congress that the war against Great Britain was won!

General Charles Cornwallis had formally surrendered on October 19. The very next day, Tilghman left on his mission. He’d barely slept, and he was suffering from recurring bouts of fever. (He may have had malaria.) Nevertheless, Tilghman would not let General Washington down. He hopped on a boat, intending to catch a quick ride to Maryland.

It wasn’t to be. The boat’s captain made a navigational error that left his vessel stranded on a sandbar. Precious hours were lost as the crew waited for the tide to come in. When Tilghman finally arrived in Annapolis, it was already October 22.

Only then did he discover that he was running a race against a message from the French.

“I found that a letter from Count de Grasse to Governor Lee . . . had gone forward to Congress,” Tilghman wrote Washington, “in which the Count informed the Governor that Cornwallis had then surrendered—This made me the more anxious to reach Philada as I knew both Congress and the public would be uneasy at not receiving dispatches from you. I was not wrong in my conjecture—for some really began to doubt the matter.”

Tilghman would have to move faster. He hopped aboard a packet to Rock Hall. From there, he found a horse and began the long ride to Philadelphia.

He spread word of the American victory as he traveled.

The Maryland Journal wrote of Tilghman’s reception in Chestertown. The people were ecstatic! Their celebrations included “the roaring of Cannon, and the Exhibition of Bonfires, Illuminations, etc.” They held a ball and drank thirteen toasts. While the city celebrated, Tilghman caught a few quick hours of sleep at his father’s house. By daybreak on October 23, he was already on his way again. He rode hard all day, switching his tired horse for a fresh one whenever possible.

He finally arrived in Philadelphia during the early morning hours of October 24. It was the middle of the night, but he wasn’t going to wait around any longer. He pounded at Thomas McKean’s door—McKean was then the Continental Congress’s President.

Tilghman was making such a racket that the city watchmen thought he was drunk! Fortunately, Tilghman’s real purpose was clarified and the same watchmen soon carried a message throughout the city: “Cornwallis is taken!”

The next morning, Tilghman met with a congressional committee. “[T]hey were perfectly satisfied with the propriety and expediency of every step which was taken,” Tilghman reported to Washington. By then, Tilghman was back in bed, fighting a fever. Nevertheless, the faithful aide wasn’t one to be held down for long.

“I shall without delay join you,” he wrote Washington. “I am too much attached by duty and affection to remain a moment behind, when I think my presence can render any service or assistance to your Excellency.”

With men such as these, no wonder our Revolution was won.

Primary Sources:

In Defense of King George | History | Smithsonian Magazine

The author of a new biography shines a humane light on the monarch despised by the colonists

Source: In Defense of King George | History | Smithsonian Magazine

Since 2015, Queen Elizabeth II has released more than 100,000 pages of documents in the Royal Archives relating to King George III. They reveal a startlingly new picture of the last king of America—one about as far removed as possible from the description of George in the Declaration of Independence: “A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.”

We can now see, for example, George’s fervent denunciation of slavery in an essay he wrote as Prince of Wales in the late 1750s, after reading Charles de Montesquieu’s classic enlightenment text, The Spirit of the Laws (1748). Indeed, George’s comments go even further than Montesquieu’s own opposition to the practice.

“The pretexts used by the Spaniards for enslaving the New World were extremely curious,” George notes; “the propagation of the Christian religion was the first reason, the next was the [Indigenous] Americans differing from them in colour, manners and customs, all of which are too absurd to take the trouble of refuting.” As for the European practice of enslaving Africans, he wrote, “the very reasons urged for it will be perhaps sufficient to make us hold such practice in execration.”

George never owned slaves himself, and he gave his assent to the legislation that abolished the slave trade in England in 1807. By contrast, no fewer than 41 of the 56 signatories to the Declaration of Independence were slave owners.

It was the Declaration that established the myth that George III was a tyrant. Yet George was the epitome of a constitutional monarch, deeply conscientious about the limits of his power. He never vetoed a single Act of Parliament, nor did he have any hopes or plans to establish anything approaching tyranny over his American colonies, which were among the freest societies in the world at the time of the Revolution: Newspapers were uncensored, there were rarely troops in the streets and the subjects of the 13 colonies enjoyed greater rights and liberties under the law than any comparable European country of the day.

George III’s generosity of spirit came as a surprise to me as I researched in the Royal Archives, which are housed in the Round Tower at Windsor Castle. Even after George Washington defeated George’s armies in the War of Independence, the king referred to Washington in March 1797 as “the greatest character of the age,” and when George met John Adams in London in June 1785, he told him, “I will be very frank with you. I was the last to consent to the separation [between England and the colonies]; but the separation having been made, and having become inevitable, I have always said, and I say now, that I would be the first to meet the friendship of the United States as an independent power.” (The encounter was very different from the one depicted in the miniseries “John Adams,” in which Adams, played by Paul Giamatti, is treated dismissively.)

As these voluminous papers make clear, neither the American Revolution nor Britain’s defeat can be blamed on George, who acted throughout as a restrained constitutional monarch, closely following the advice of his ministers and generals.

I had long assumed that the mental illness that “Mad King George” suffered throughout his reign—at almost 60 years, the longest of any British king—was the result of the rare blood disorder porphyria, which was the generally accepted diagnosis for half a century. Yet it turns out that this conclusion was based on a highly selective list of the king’s symptoms, which Ida Macalpine and her son Richard Hunter, both psychiatrists, presented in the 1960s, arguing strenuously for the diagnosis in journals on both sides of the Atlantic. In fact, leading medical experts have come to agree over the past decade that George III almost certainly suffered from bipolar disorder. In our more enlightened age, we can sympathize much more closely with the horror of his situation: He was a helpless spectator to his own mental deterioration.

The time has therefore come for objective Americans to take a fresh look at their last king. It was right for the colonies to break away from the British Empire in 1776 because they were ready by then to found their own nation-state, but despite the rhetoric of their founding document, they were not escaping tyranny, so much as bravely grasping their sovereign independence from a good-natured, cultured, enlightened and benevolent monarch.

Adapted from The Last King of America by Andrew Roberts, to be published on November 9, 2021, by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021