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This Month: December and the American Revolution

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By Edited Aug 6, 2016 1 1

Washington Crossing the Delaware

Events of December 1773 to 1783

December was a month of hardship and opportunity for both sides of the war for independence. The harshness of cold winters began taking its toll in the early years of the American Revolution. Severe weather caused greater adversity for the colonials than the British. The British forces took what supplies they wanted from the cities and towns. They housed themselves in the communities, forcing colonists to give up their homes or rooms within their homes. Both sides, however, shared in the difficulties of troop movements.

Neither side was prepared for a long drawn-own war. Troop numbers were limited for both: the British Army never expected to face any serious competition from the rebel forces in the colonies; Colonials believed they could quickly prove themselves more than capable to push the empire’s forces out of America. December marked the end of the term of service for thousands of colonial militia. Britain decided to rely on hiring mercenaries recruiting American Indians, black slaves and black freemen, and colonials still loyal to the crown. The colonials found themselves in a similar predicament. Volunteer militiamen only expected to serve a few months to one year, and then return home. Such was the case in 1776, when as result of short sightedness by the Continental Congress, and after presenting the Declaration of Independence, they recruited thousands of volunteers with a term of service ending on 31 December of that same year. Therefore, when the hardships of winter hit against the hard reality of warfare, many volunteers chose to leave at the first opportunity, even if doing so was considered desertion.

George Washington at Princeton, 1779

Realities of War

General George Washington knew the realities and uncertainties of warfare and eventually convinced the Continental Congress to expand the size of the Colonial Army, as well as, levy each colony to provide additional militia forces. Washington and Benjamin Franklin recognized that they would have to extend their hands to the American Indians and foreign nations (France and Holland) for manpower. As for foreign aid, Holland chose to stay neutral after being threatened by Britain; France, on the other hand, had no love for Britain and was more than willing to help with funding, supplies and, eventually, a small number of warships to help level the playing-field.

Year 1773

December 16: One of the most famous precursor events of the American Revolution is the infamous Boston Tea Party. In protest against the Tea Act (Tax) colonial activists disguised as Mohawk Indians boarded British ships in Boston Harbor and dumped 342 crates of British imported tea into the water.[1]

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Year 1774

December 1:  The Continental Congress ordered the creation of patriot committees whose job it was to enforce the boycott of British goods.

December 13:  Paul Revere’s ride on this date maybe considered even more important than the ride made famous by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem. Revere discovered that a new English Order prohibited import of arms and ammunition into any part of North America. A large store of ammunition was located in Portsmouth at Fort William and Mary on New Castle Island and the fort defenses were limited. Revere learned that British General Thomas Gage intended to seize the fort and take possession of the war supplies. With this information, Revere rode to Portsmouth, New Hampshire to locate Major John Sullivan of the colonial militia. Sullivan attacked the fort with four hundred men and confiscated the supplies. One hundred barrels of gunpowder taken during that raid on the fort were eventually used by the Patriots to cover their retreat at Bunker Hill.

Year 1775

December 1:  A separate company of artillery was authorized by Virginia.

December 2:  John Paul Jones hoists the Grand Union Flag on the first ship to fly that flag, the USS Alfred.

December 5:  Henry Knox transports artillery from Fort Ticonderoga to Cambridge, Massachusetts.

December 9:  The Battle of Great Bridge was fought near the place Great Bridge/Chesapeake, Virginia. The victory by the Continental Army and militia resulted in the departure of British power from the Colony of Virginia during the early days of the war.

December 12:  Colonial Army General Lee leaves his forces in the field and decides that he will spend the night at White's Tavern in Basking Ridge, New Jersey; three miles away from his army. The following morning, a British patrol from Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton command, find Lee writing letters in his dressing gown, and captured him. 

On December 28: The Continental Congress requested four additional regiments from Virginia.

December:  During this month a force of 3,000 colonial militia troops under the command of Colonel Richard Richardson attacked Loyalist recruiting centers in South Carolina. The militia successfully disrupted the Loyalists from organizing and ended their viability as a threat to the colonial revolution efforts. This “Snow Campaign” (named for the severe snow fall that winter) in the southern colonies was one of the first major military operations of the American Revolutionary.

December:  Members if the “Secret Committee” established by the Second Continental Congress met secretly this month with a French intelligence agent (Julien Alexandre Achard de Bonvouloir) who visited Philadelphia under cover as a Flemish merchant. The context of the meeting would have been in regard to French support to eh colonists as well as transferring correspondence from Britons and Scots sympathetic to the American cause. Original members of this committee included: Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Harrison, and Thomas Johnson and James Lovell. Lovell is particularly noteworthy as being the father of American cryptanalysis.

December 31:  The Battle of Quebec was the first major defeat of the war for the Americans. Losses for the Colonial army were heavy. General Richard Montgomery was killed. Benedict Arnold was wounded. And, Daniel Morgan along with more than 400 men, were taken prisoner by British forces.

Year 1776

December 7:  Washington escapes across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania only after General Lord Cornwallis is ordered by General Howe to break-off the pursuit of Washington’s army.

December 7:  Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, is appointed as a major general in the Colonial Army.

Trivia:  Lafayette was only 13 years old when he received his first commission as an army officer. However, some records claim he was 14 when he entered the military; other sources have him being commissioned as a Captain in the French Black Musketeers in 1763). At age 17, he became a Freemason. And, he was only 19 years old when he was commissioned as a Major General of the Colonial Army by George Washington.[2]

Gilbert du Motier Marquis de Lafayette

Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette

December 14:  Local militia ambush a company of British dragoons near Ringoes in Amwell Township, Hunterdon County, New Jersey.  The skirmish known by the name “The Ambush of Geary,” resulted in the death of the dragoons’s commander, Cornet Francis Geary, the eldest son of Admiral Sir Francis Geary Baronet.

December 19:  The American Crisis, one of a series of pamphlets was published by Thomas Paine in The Pennsylvania Journal.

Carl Aemil Ulrich von Donop (1732-1777)

December 22-23:  Mount Holly, New Jersey was the site of a series of minor skirmishes between Colonial militia under command of Colonel Samuel Griffin against 2,000 Hessians and British regulars under the command of Hessian Colonel (Count) Carl von Donop. The engagement is known by the names “The Battle of Iron Works Hill” and “The Battle of Mount Holly.” According to the local history of this area, Colonel Griffin’s action against Colonel von Donop was an intentional effort to spit the British forces in order to set-up favorable odds for General Washington’s plan to cross the Delaware River and attack the British at Trenton.

Trivia:  Colonel von Donop had another reason for travelling to and staying in the Mount Holly area: according to Hessian Captain Johann Ewald’s diary, the Count had a special interest in an “exceedingly beautiful widow" in the area; thus, he decided to “rest up” for the night in town.[3]

December 25:  The Battle of Trenton:  After being chased out of New Jersey by General Charles Cornwallis, Washington took 2,400 of his men and made the famously hazardous crossing of the Delaware River. Washington conducted a surprise raid on 1,500 British-Hessians at Trenton, New Jersey. After little more than an hour, the Hessians surrendered. Nearly 1,000 Hessians were taken prisoner by the Colonial Forces. The victory boosted American morale, encouraged soldiers and militia to reenlist and instilled greater confidence by the Congress in their choice of Continental Army Commander, General Washington.

Battle of Trenton, a painting
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On December 27, Washington was given authority to raise additional regiments. This is above the 88 regiments of infantry authorized by Congress a few months earlier that year. The add units consisted of:  16 Infantry Regiments, 3 Artillery Regiments, a unit of Engineers, and 3,000 Light Horsemen. Other than these new units, Washington’s forces included two Canadian Regiments and the well-known Seth Warner's Regiment of Green Mountain Boys. No less than 110 regiments were authorized for the Continental Army of 1777. Actual numbers have been projected at 119 regiments as a result of colonies exceeding their quotas.[4]

December 31 should have marked a critical and potentially damaging date for the colonial troops and militia troop numbers. The previous year the Continental Congress established enlistment duration for new units to serve from January 1 through December 31, 1776. The lack of combat success, along with the new winter, militiamen in particular bore the brunt of the lack of winter clothing and food. Colonial army and militia troops shared in the misery of the severe cold weather and its demoralizing effects and illness. The success of the Battle of Trenton could not have come at a better time; otherwise, the term of service end-date would have had a crushing effect on Washington’s ability to continue the fight. Before Trenton, and December 26, many of these militiamen were ready to go home.

Year 1777

December 2-4:  As was common during this period, a British officer would displace colonists from their home for use as officer quarters or for use as a headquarters and meeting room. This was the case in September for Mrs. Lydia Darragh and the Darragh’s neighbor John Cadwalader. Cadwalader’s home was taken for the use by General Howe, while a part of the Darragh’s home was used as meeting rooms for the British officers. Because, Lydia’s second cousin was one of the British officers, she was permitted to stay in the home; although the rest of the family had to be moved out. Lydia had an ulterior motive for staying in the home: the largest room in her home being used by the British officers was connected to a closet in another room. From that closet, Lydia would listen in on the military planning and write down what she heard. With the help of her fourteen year old son and her husband they would get those messages transferred surreptitiously to an American officer. One of those officers just happened to be another of the family members, her eldest son Lieutenant Charles Darragh of the Colonial forces.

William Howe

On December 2, Howe’s officers met in the Darragh’s house to discuss an upcoming operation against the colonial forces. Lydia listened in from her closet hiding place and recorded what she heard. Noting that the British attack was planned against Washington's army at Whitemarsh in two days, she and her family quickly sent that message to the American forces. They were successful and the American forces  

There is significantly more detail to the story and legend on Lydia Darragh’s heroic effort to provide intelligence to the colonial army; far more than is practical or within the scope of this article. One of the problems with retelling her story is conflicting details as to how the information was recorded and transmitted to the colonial army. Regardless of any discrepancies on the details, the end result of what happened and who the original source for the intelligence remains the same; Lydia was a key self-appointed spy for the benefit of the American army.[5]

December 5-8: The Battle of White Marsh (also known as Battle of Edge Hill) was a series of skirmishes between Washington’s and Howe’s forces. This was meant to be Howe’s attempt to crush Washington and bring an end to the rebellion. This is also the very battle Lydia Darragh warned the Colonial Army about from here spying on Howe’s officers discussing the plan while occupying her home in Philadelphia on December 2nd.  Washington was thus not taken by surprise and Howe’s plan was frustrated into the inconsequential skirmishes. Eventually Howe disengaged his attack and returned to Philadelphia. Howe realized that somehow Washington was warned. One of Howe’s officers suspected the Darragh’s yet could not prove it and, considering Lydia’s cousin was one of their officers, it is likely they were not about to jump to conclusions.

December 11:  The Battle of Matson's Ford was another skirmish that accomplished little. This was more of an accidental battle as a result of Pennsylvania militia patrol running into a unit of British foragers in the area of the Conshohocken and West Conshohocken. The militia patrol was overrun and the Continental Army, also in the area, made their way across the Schuylkill River destroying the bridge behind them. Thus, the British had to continue their foraging in a different direction.[6]   

December 17-19:  With Howe choosing to give up the chase of Washington after the failed attack at Whitemarsh, Washington settled in for the winter at Valley Forge in Pennsylvania. The Colonial forces stayed for the next six months. The winter was as deadly and destructive to the Colonial forces as was any major battle against the British troops. “Over the winter, 2,500 men (out of 10,000) died from disease and exposure and the army was reduced to 4,000 effectives.”[7]

Year 1778

December 29:  The Battle of Savannah (aka The Capture of Savannah) resulted in Savannah, Georgia falling into British hands. Local Patriot Militia and Continental Army units faced, and lost the fight against Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Campbell with his expeditionary corps of 3000 British soldiers from Clinton's army in New York. The British leadership was under the impression that there was a significant Loyalist following in the south; a following that could be levied in the form of Loyalist fighters and resources. This, however, was not the case and only served to spread the British forces thinner across the colonies.[8]

Year 1779

December:  General Washington’s Continental Army moved into winter quarters at Morristown, New Jersey in an area called “Jockey Hollow.” Again, Washington found himself operating in a position of constrained resources, money and supplies as well as a weak, cold and exhausted army. This was a winter of rest and recovery in a defensive posture. The location was a smart choice for this purpose since its sits several hundred feet above and to the east of any known British position. Therefore, the colonial troops could monitor any threat troop movements in the direction of their encampment. In any case, the winter conditions were harsh and the colonials would stay based at this location until the summer of 1780.[9][8]

Year 1780

December 29:  The Commanders-in-Chief of the Royal forces in North America, Sir Henry Clinton and Vice-Admiral Mariot Arbuthnot, were appointed as the Crown’s commissioners "for restoring Peace to the Colonies and Plantations in North America.” They were given the authority to grant pardons to anyone involved in the rebellion that asks for it and swears allegiance to the King. A formal document to that affect was published in Massachusetts and Georgia early in 1781. [10][9]

Year 1781

December 1:  Major General Nathanael Greene attacked a British force and drove them into Charlestown. British troops at Fort Dorchester had limited defenses with only 350 defenders. The British commander saw Greene’s approach and ordered the destruction of all stores and guns. Then the British fled the fort and the only things left for the Greene’s troops to find were two iron artillery pieces. What the British commander’s did not know was that Greene was actually outnumbered by the British and he was low on supplies and ammunition. British Colonel Stewart, with additional forces, returned to the fort in an expectation of engaging in battle with Greene’s American army. However, Greene and his troops left the now stripped fort and returned to their camp near, present day Colleton County.  

Year 1782

December 12:  A naval engagement fought off the coast of Spain by British HMS Mediator and a convoy of five armed ships consisting of French and American privateers convoying supplies for the American colonists. The British navy succeeded in capturing the American ship the “Alexander,” and the French “La Ménagère.”

Year 1783

December 4:  At Fraunces Tavern in New York City, U.S. General George Washington bids farewell to his officers. Washington addressed the officers expressing his great appreciation for their service and reflected on the brotherhood of soldiers. Witnesses of the moment described Washington as "suffused in tears," as he embraced his officers one by one. After spending some time his officers and saying goodbyes, Washington left the tavern for Annapolis in preparation to officially resign his commission.  

Washington's Farewell by Alonzo Chappel 1866

December 22-23:  With the nation’s independence secured, George Washington journeys from New York to Annapolis, Maryland to present himself before Congress and formally resigned his commission. He had decided it was time to return to private life with his family in Mount Vernon, Virginia.  Ironically, in 1789, he was coaxed back into the spotlight to serve as the President of the United States until 1797.

Final Word

Winter weather favored neither side; held no allegiance to Patriot or Brit. Winter was an enemy and obstacle to both sides of the contest. The cold will eat into men’s bones as fast as a bullet through muscle and bring down the hardiest, fiercest, and skilled warrior.

Unrelated to the weather was the benefit of good and timely intelligence. As demonstrated by the efforts of Mrs. Lydia Darragh and her family in December of 1777, patriots were willing to risk their own safety to gather information and transport that critical intelligence to the Colonial Commanders.

As for battles on water, the British continued to own the seas no matter where they were. Supplies intended for the colonies were routinely cut-off by the British Navy, whether they were coming from Spain, France, or the West Indies.

When opportunity to gain an upper-hand in the fight showed itself, even a win was of limited value and often unproductive. The harsh winter weather was a greater enemy to everyone and a deadly one.



Dec 2, 2014 4:18pm
Great piece with detail. Enjoyed the read, thanks. As an aside, I had no idea the Marquis de Lafayette was so young when appointed!
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  1. "Boston Tea Party." The History Place. 23/11/2014 <Web >
  2. "Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette." Wikipedia. 23/11/2014 <Web >
  3. "Revolutionary War Sites in Mount Holly, New Jersey." Revolutionary War New Jersey. 23/11/2014 <Web >
  4. Wright, Robert K. The Continental Army. Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, 1983.
  5. "Battle of White Marsh." Wikipedia. 23/11/2014 <Web >
  6. "Battle of Matson's Ford." Wikipedia. 23/11/2014 <Web >
  7. "Valley Forge." Wikipedia. 23/11/2014 <Web >
  8. Andrew "Andy" Stough "The American Revolution Month-by-Month December 1779." Sons of Liberty Chapter: Sons of the American Revolution. 23/11/2014 <Web >
  9. "The Colonial Records Project." North Carolina Office of Archives & History. 23/11/2014 <Web >
  10. John Phillip Reid Constitutional History of the American Revolution, Abridged Edition. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1995.

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