Friday, October 25, 2013

"I would that we could have sold them two more hills at such a cost!"

The wooden breastwork
Ammunition was low, the men were exhausted and the heat of that muggy June took its toll on the men who had spent the last twelve hours digging a dirt barricade between them and the British Red Coats. The redoubt was high and gave the men extraordinary cover, the wooden barricade extension they had thrown up gave them cover on their flank leaving not but empty ground, marsh, sand and grass between the battle lines, something that the British would learn to hate.

British Doctrine dictated that battle lines were to advance to within range of their muskets, present arms, fire and then, if the enemy lines were weak enough, present a charge with bayonet to finish off the will of the enemy. In countless battles in numberless countries this formula had paid large dividends against make-shift armies and rabble. Doubtless, this time tested tactic should work here and at 3pm the British tested the theory.The main British force was to form up at the center and advance in glorious fashion toward rebel right flank. The Line of Foot regiments were to engage the rebels at the weakest point in the line, attempt to crack them and turn the flank to envelop the remaining force in the great redoubt. The British Light infantry were sent in first to engage John Stark and his small band of men who held the extreme left on the rebel flank. These men would be counted as the heroes of the day.
The Redoubt

The pum-pararum-pum-pum of drums drowned out the chirping of crickets and the shrill cries of the piccolos cut through the muggy air as the British Light infantry formed up for their attack. They advanced at the double, moving quickly into formation. Theirs was a precarious task, the rebel redoubt on their left, and not but a sandy beach on their right. They were penned in and manouvering would not be east as the men packed in tight formation to advance.

First Attack
Knowing the range of his weapons, Stark had left stacks of painted rocks to mark ranges and as the British advanced into the perfect range, he bellowed the blessed words of battle: "FIRE!" Smoke, fire and lead filled the air as the tightly packed red coats came into range. Where twenty men had been, less than eight now remained in broken lines. Before the British had even formed ranks to fire, their had been cut nearly in half. The main attack advanced blindly in front of the redoubt, drawing sniper fire from the rooftops of Charleston and direct fire from the defenders of the earthworks. Quickly the advance turned into total chaos as officers and men fell in bloody heaps one atop the other under the withering fire of the rebels. British command watched in complete shock as some of their best men were obliterated with almost miraculous accuracy under the defensive fire from the rebels.

Charge of the Grenadiers
Second Attack
A second attack was to break the rebels once and for all. There was no way the rebels could withstand a full frontal assault.With most of their ammunition gone the command was issued down the rebel ranks to hold fire "...until you see the whites of their eyes". This popular quote carries a great weight when you figure that the whites of a person's eyes are only visible at a range of less than thirty yards. Most engagements of the time took place at the 100-140 yard range. This meant that the rebels would hold fire until the British were almost on top of them. The British formed their Grenadiers at the center. They marched boldly, bayonets charged and didn't stop to fire. When the rebels opened fire their ranks were reduced by a full three quarters. The grenadiers fell back completely decimated.

Final Attack
The third assault formed up with the remnants of all the regiments. Again they marched boldly over the same ground, now littered with the dead and dying of the previous brilliant plan. The rebels again held their fire, but, having expended most of their ammunition in the previous two engagements, the rebels were unable to stop the advance. The terrified rebel line melted away, running for their lives as the British poured over the walls of the redoubt, an ominous red wave crashing down on the battle weary defenders.

When the smoke cleared and the sides counted their dead, the rebels had 115 dead and 300 wounded. The Crown suffered 226 killed in service to the King with another 828 wounded. The Rebels had been driven from the field, but the severe loss of some of the Crown's finest troops would serve to haunt the British in later campaigns.

When Nathaniel Greene, one of Washington's closest generals, heard of the battle he said "I would that we could have sold them two more hills at such a cost!"

Friday, October 18, 2013

I said Bunker you fool! Bunker, not Breeds!

The revolution was off to a shaky start. The fate of a nation walked on legs as stable as a newborn horse and the slightest mis-step would send thousands back into subjugation beneath the British Crown. The British had been defeated at Lexington, though the victory meant little considering the British still occupied the whole of Boston Harbor and Proper. The Rebels needed a sound victory if they were going to establish their cause as a right and just one. They would get their first chance on a small peninsula overlooking Boston Harbor, a place called Breeds Hill.
Bunker and Breed's Hill

 The peninsula served little importance from a tactical standpoint but for the fact that the two hills, Breed's and Bunker, overlooked Charleston and the rest of Boston Harbor. Rebel artillery could easilly be placed on those hills and pose a great threat to the British ships who held Boston in an economic choke-hold. It was for this reason and out of hope for redemption that Gage chose to engage the Rebel forces there. On the 16th of June, elements of rebel militia under numerous commanders began marching into the peninsula, a gutsy move as a landing force would easilly trap them on the thin neck of land were they to land in the flanks.

the Redoubt at Breed's Hill
Original orders were to have the men set up defensive positions on Bunker hill, the hill closest to the narrow neck of land that would allow the rebels to withdraw should the British attempt to flank and block them in the peninsula. To say that there were miscommunications would be a generous understatement. New York officers sent orders to New Hampshire troops and Connecticut militia received orders from officers from Massachusetts. In the end, the men ended up at the smaller of the hills and began their preparations. Their numbers stated at nearly 3,000 men from varying places. They dug all night, throwing up earth to make a rampart (redoubt) with a wooden breastwork to protect from any advancing enemy.
HMS Somerset

Long into the night the men toiled with little sleep, less food and even less water. They were exhausted, but they had done it. The sight to which the British awoke on the morning of the 17th alarmed the British high command. Over night the rebels had thrown up what appeared to be an insurmountable fortification. The first order of the day was "FIRE!"

Asa Pollard Memorial, Billerica MA
The command, bellowed from the lungs of the surely gunnery mates aboard the HMS Somerset set match to fuse and the cannons belched their brimstone, fire and damnation upon the unsuspecting rebels. The first round did little in the way of actual physical damage, but the headless form of Asa Pollard served as a gory foreshadowing of what the rebels were about to face. The man was quickly interred and the rebels went on with their preparations. Men began to desert to behind the lines; fatigue, thirst and fear driving them far from the almost certain clash to come.

The next six hours would be the most tense of those men's lives as the British formed on the opposite shore and began their ferry trip to their staging grounds near the base of Breed's hill.

Friday, October 11, 2013

To the victor - The spoils

Ft. Ticonderoga as seen from Mount Defiance
With a commission from Congress, the enthusiastic and patriotic Arnold began his trip north toward Ticonderoga. He stopped in as many towns as he could trying to drum up enlistees for the attack on the British Arsenal. His hopes were to attract enough men to be a formidable force once the fort was taken and that he would retain his commission as their Brigadier General for the rest of the war. Arnolds hopes were high and his zeal for the patriot cause was only to be rivaled by that of General George Washington. Arnold found gathering recruits difficult, however, as many of the towns and cities stopped in had already sent many men to join up with the newly appointed Commander-in-Chief.

En route to Ticonderoga, Arnold received a bit of discouraging news. He was to be joined by another commander, the famous Ethan Allen. Arnold would no longer be the Brigadier to his recruits but would be co-commander of any troops raised. In truth, Allen was more veteran in both experience and rank. Allen had been fighting for years in the Vermont-New York Grants war where Allen had lead the Green Mountain Boys, a crack unit of some of the harshest and crudest mountain-men patriots the fledgling US had to offer. These men had grown up in the back woods, making their living as trappers, hunters, loggers and farmers. They were used to the territory and most had weapons that had been tested in combat against the encroaching New Yorkers. They now served the US but more importantly, they served Allen.
Flag of the Green Mountain Boys Militia

To add insult to injury, Arnold, who had hoped to recruit 400 men, arrived with himself and two other men who had set out with him. They joined ranks with Allen and a little over 100 Green Mountain Militia. Allen became the default leader of the group and Arnold knew it.

After preliminary scouting, Allen found out that the fort was garrisoned by only a handful of troops whose powder had been ruined by the heavy rainfall and whose ammunition had dwindled to shockingly low levels. He was also able to gather inteligence that the British were to be reinforced any day by a force of unknown size. The time to act was upon them. he two leaders laid out plans to assault the fort. Arnold suggested a bold attack, but was quickly countermanded by Allen who dismissed Arnold's ideas as foolish and glory seeking. They settled on their best strategy, a sneak attack on the garrison at three points along the fort.

Modern view of Ticonderoga
The plan was exicuted almost perfectly. The attack was launched mid-day just after tea time when the garrison was in the process of winding down for the day, relaxing and getting ready to change the guard. The militia poured over the walls of the fort and captured it in a bold stroke aided partly by briliant planning and partly by blind dumb luck. Upon seeing the commosion, the British commander of the fort called out "By whose authority do you enter this fort?!" to which Allen replied "In the name of the Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress!"

Within minutes the fort had been taken without a shot fired. The only recorded casualty was a slight wound suffered by an american who had tried to wrest a rifle from one of the sentries on guard duty. Quickly the fort filled with over 400 men who began looting and pilfering anything that was not bolted down. Arnold tried to stop it all and when he saw that he could not, he retired to the captain's quarters and began to write his action report. Allen, who was now seeing to the transportation of the over 30 artillery pieces entered the quarters and inquired as to the nature of the document at which Arnold was feverishly writing. When the reply came that it was an action report, Allen snatched the page, glanced over it and burned it in the fireplace declaring that it was his right, as commanding officer to detail the actions of the day. It is no doubt then, to see why Allen was hailed as the hero of Ticonderoga and Arnold was largely marginalized in the dispatches back to Congress.

This would not be the last time Arnold would be snubbed where credit was due.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Off on the wrong foot

Less than a month after the astounding victory at Lexington and Concord, the fledgling government of the Rebellious States of America found themselves faced with the painful realization that the road to independence would not be paved with hopes and good intentions. Rather that road would be one much like the British took from Concord back to Lexington, one fraught with chaos, casualties, loss depression. The truth of the matter was that this haphazard gaggle of militia, rebels and patriots was engaged in a war against the super power of its day - Britain.

The saying was that the sun never set on the British Empire and the British lived up to the Latin proverb of "Empires are not kept through timidity". Their soldiers had fought hard for years to carve out their empire at the point of sword, spear bayonet and by the flash of musket, cannon and horse hoof.
It was this ugly realization that aroused the new continental congress in the days following Lexington. They ordered a full accounting of all available stores, munitions, guns, powder, cannon and wagons. They found themselves severely wanting in all regards. Ammunition, powder and guns would be easy to come by as most of the men who had already volunteered would bring their own weapons, and what the men would not supply, the continental government would contract from some of the best gunsmiths in the world - the Quakers whose fabrication and rifling technique was begining to be duplicated in the southern colonies, could fabricate. The terrain was unforgiving to the use of cavalry who relied on large open spaces to maneuver into the flanks of the enemy, thus leaving only one issue - cannons.

Cannons were vital to any siege or defense of a city as cannons could fire heated shot* into blockading ships. They were also effective at long range engagements of tightly packed troops, the common formation of the day. The issue was that when the Americans tallied the total number of artillery in their possession, they found less than twenty pieces and only five of which were larger caliber than a 4pound gun**. 

Fort Ticonderoga
Something had to be done and the best solution is often the simplest. What do you do when you don't have something and don't have an easy way to get it? Find someone that does have it and take it from them. That someone just happened to be the British. The were the best soldiers and they knew it. This air of superiority served to be their arrogant downfall. Just across the border from modern day Vermont was a fort called Ticonderoga. The fort served as an arsenal and housed over thirty pieces of heavy artillery. The best part of the situation was that there were more cannons defending the fort than there were Red Coats.

Benedict Arnold
Ethan Allen
Congress had its desired target, all it needed was a leader for the attack and the men to carry it out. Congress appointed a young officer whose only desire was to gain fame and glory in the revolution - Benedict Arnold. Arnold was to go north and gather as many volunteers as he could, attack the fort and bring back the much needed guns to aid in the siege of Boston. Congress, however, like any true gambler, chose to hedge its bets. Why send one man with a mission when you can send two? Enter Ethan Allen - the rough-neck backwoods hero of the Hampshire Grants and veteran of the New York/Vermont boundary war and leader of the Green Mountain Boys.

Join us next week as we find how the Patriot started down the path to infamy and how the Backwoods hick became a hero.

*Heated shot was an ammunition type where gun crews would put the cannon ball into a furnace and heat it till it glowed read. The shot was then loaded into the cannon which was quickly fired at an enemy ship. The glowing shot would act as a tracer round and when it struck the ship that was highly sealed with pine tar and coated in oil to keep the wood from rotting, the round would explode into firey fragments that would send the ship up like a torch. This tactic was only employed by gun crews on the ground as no ship commander would be silly enough to allow a red hot glowing ball of death to have the possibility of slipping out of a crewman's control and rolling around a crowded gun deck.

** Cannon gun calibers were designated by the weight of the shot it fired. A 3# gun fired a cannon ball that weighted 3 pounds. A 6# gun fired a 6 pound shot and so on. While this may not seem like a large difference, the weight of the shot determined the distance the round could accurately be fired and the destructive capability the round would have when it arrived at its target. To paint the contrast, Americans were dealing with 3-6 pound guns where the British had whole batteries of 6 pound, 12 pound and 24 pound guns. To say that the Americans were out gunned would be an apropos pun.