Notes from the Battlefronts

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Notes from the Battlefronts

Lord Dunmore…217

Joseph Plumb Martin…221

Thomas Paine…229

Eliza Wilkinson…235

Horace Walpole…241

George Washington…247

Ever since 1765, the British government (Parliament) had been trying to collect taxes in America to pay British bills. Americans protested right from the beginning that Parliament had no right to tax people who had no representation in Parliament. Some Americans voiced their objections to British taxation in newspapers and pamphlets. Others, like Samuel Adams (1722–1803) and his Sons of Liberty, protested violently and spoke early, openly, and illegally about independence from Great Britain. The last straw for the British was the Boston Tea Party of December 1773, when Boston patriots dumped 342 chests of British tea into Boston Harbor. To punish Boston, which was the center of the most violent protests, and to let Boston serve as an example to the other colonies, Parliament passed the Intolerable Acts in 1774. The Intolerable Acts closed the port of Boston, gave the British-appointed governor of Massachusetts complete control of town meetings, ordered that British officials who committed major crimes in the colonies would be tried in Great Britain, and required that the colonists house British soldiers in dwellings belonging to private citizens.

Closing the port of Boston (as a result of the Boston Port Act) meant that no goods could go in or out of the city, and even fishing boats could not use the harbor. The idea was to starve Boston citizens into paying for the dumped tea. Their loss of control over town meetings (the Administration of Justice Act) took away the self-government that Massachusetts citizens had enjoyed since the founding of Plymouth Colony in 1621. To Bostonians, these were the most offensive of Great Britain's punitive acts.

Parliament then appointed General Thomas Gage (1721–1787) to be commander in chief of British forces in America as well as governor of Massachusetts. He arrived in May 1774 with instructions to set up a new Massachusetts capital in Salem (near Boston) and prepare to make sure the Intolerable Acts were enforced.

The other colonies were angry at the British for their punishment of Boston. They wondered what punishments might be in store for them. They were also moved by sympathy for the plight of the suffering citizens of Boston. Finally, twelve of the thirteen colonies decided to send representatives to a First Continental Congress to decide what to do about the problem. Congress met for the first time in September 1774.

Congress issued statements complaining about the Intolerable Acts and just about every other act of Parliament since 1765. Congress drew up several petitions to King George III (1738–1820), listing their complaints and asking for a remedy. Congress then agreed to discontinue trade with Great Britain until the problems were addressed. Congress promised to meet again in May 1775 if the problems had not been set right.

King George refused to have anything to do with Congress's petitions. He said Congress was an illegal body and any documents coming from it were also illegal. Meanwhile, the atmosphere in Boston grew more hostile, and General Gage was forced to move there from Salem to keep the peace. Bostonians resented the presence of so many soldiers in town, and they resented Gage's attempts to enforce the Intolerable Acts. During the winter of 1774–75, Massachusetts rebels began to train for war and to stockpile weapons and ammunition at Concord, Massachusetts.

The British government grew more determined to show Boston and the rest of the colonies who was boss. On April 14, 1775, General Gage received instructions to do something that would show he was in charge. Gage decided to send soldiers to Lexington, Massachusetts, to arrest Samuel Adams and his friend, John Hancock (1737–1793), another member of the Sons of Liberty, both of whom had been branded criminals by Parliament. From there, the soldiers were to march on to Concord to seize the rebel weapons stockpiled there. Alerted by patriots Paul Revere (1735–1818) and William Dawes (1745–1799), a band of between forty and seventy minutemen (citizen-soldiers, prepared to protect their town at a minute's notice) turned out to greet the British at Lexington on April 19. Shots were fired at Lexington and Concord, and the Revolutionary War unofficially began. Hancock and Adams escaped and made their way to Philadelphia for the May 10 meeting of the Second Continental Congress.

Meanwhile, in the colony of Virginia, the British-appointed governor, John Murray (1732–1809), known as Lord Dunmore, was shocked by the April 1775 events at Lexington and Concord. These events occurred in addition to some serious trouble he was having at home with patriot Patrick Henry (1739–1799), who was urging armed resistance to the British. Dunmore finally declared martial law in Virginia in November 1775. Martial law is the temporary rule by military authorities, imposed in time of war or when regular rule ceases to function. Lord Dunmore's Declaration of Martial Law opens this chapter.

Although the fighting had already begun, it would be more than a year after the shootings at Lexington and Concord before Congress officially declared America's independence from Great Britain. One of the first accomplishments of the Second Continental Congress was the formation of a Continental Army with George Washington (1732–1799) as its leader. By November 1775, Washington had seventeen thousand men under his command, but their terms of service were due to expire at the end of the year. Washington put out a call for men to enlist. One young man who answered the call was a sixteen-year-old Connecticut farm boy named Joseph Plumb Martin (1760–1850). Long after the war ended, Martin wrote a book about his Revolutionary War experiences called A Narrative of Some of the Adventures, Dangers, and Sufferings of a Revolutionary Soldier. The book was later called, alternatively, Private Yankee Doodle and Yankee Doodle Boy. Some of Martin's wartime exploits are recounted in this chapter, in his own words.

By the winter of 1776, the war had turned against the Americans. Badly outnumbered and seeming to face defeat at every turn, General Washington needed something that would rally Americans whose patriotism was flagging. He found his answer in the stirring words of writer Thomas Paine's (1737–1809) The Crisis. An excerpt appears in this chapter. (A brief biography of Paine and a description of his earlier work, Common Sense, also appear in chapter 1.)

The first battles of the Revolutionary War took place mainly in the north. In 1778–79, the scene shifted to the south for some fierce fighting. Sixteen-year-old Eliza Wilkinson was present at the looting of her sister's South Carolina home by British soldiers. Her firsthand account of that dreadful experience has been preserved and an excerpt appears in this chapter.

The fighting in the south climaxed with the decisive American victory at Yorktown, Virginia, on October 18, 1781. This chapter contains writer and politician Horace Walpole's (1717–1797) comments on what he considered a "disgraceful" British surrender. Many Americans believed the war ended at Yorktown, but George Washington was not so sure. He did not trust the British and could not feel secure until a peace treaty had been signed. When that happy event finally occurred in 1783, Washington was able to say goodbye to his troops. His heartfelt farewell ends this chapter.