The struggle for freedom from England had many unlikely heroes. After all, defeating the most powerful nation on earth with a rag tag army and no real navy was a herculean task with very little chance of success. If Las Vegas would have existed in 1776 the betting line would likely have been infinity:1 against the colonists.
Most everyone is familiar with the main leaders, the so-called “Founding Fathers,” such as Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, and Hancock, among others. This blog, however, will focus on eight heroes who are less well-known, but whose contributions were pivotal to the success of the Revolution. So, read on, and be edified.
- Caspar Rodney – In July, 1776 the Continental Congress was voting on whether or not to adopt the Declaration of Independence. It had been agreed that a unanimous vote of all the colonies would be required for adoption. Rodney was a delegate from Delaware, but he was not in Philadelphia. He was at home, gravely ill with cancer. When he learned that his vote was urgently needed to break a tie among the other Delaware delegates he rode all night to arrive in Philadelphia in the “nick of time” to cast the deciding vote in favor, even though he was so weak he could barely stand. “All sensible and honest men are in favor of independence,” he stated. Rodney’s dramatic ride from his deathbed in the dead of night makes him a unsung hero in my book.
- Culper Spy Ring – Reliable intelligence is a necessity in any war. General Washington needed it urgently. He organized the Culper Spy Ring under the direction of Major Benjamin Talmadge. The Ring was based in Setauket, Long Island and operated primarily in NYC and LI. Key players included Abraham Woodhull and Robert Townsend, who were known by the aliases Samuel Culper, Sr. and Jr., respectively, Caleb Brewster, Austin Roe and Anna Strong. They operated under the noses of the British, who occupied NYC and LI for most of the war, and provided much valuable intelligence. The Ring was the subject of a book by Alexander Rose and a cable tv series.
- Benedict Arnold – Why, you may ask, is a person whose very name has become synonymous with treason, included in a blog about heroes? Well, before he became a traitor he was a hero of the Battle of Saratoga, which was one of the turning points of the War. By late 1777 the Continental Army was in trouble. It had lost battle after battle. Morale was low. Most soldiers were not being paid. Many had no decent clothes. Food was scarce. Desertion was rampant. Most of the army consisted of volunteers with a fixed end to their enlistment, and many of them were not re-enlisting. Against this backdrop, the British hatched a plan for a decisive victory that would, perhaps, end the war. General Howe, who commanded a sizeable force in NYC, was to march up the Hudson. General Burgoyne was to march down from Canada. They were planning to meet in the Albany-Saratoga area, catch the colonial army in a pincer, and cut the colonies in two. General Arnold was the second-in-command of the Continental forces at Saratoga under General Gates. Gates was a timid, perhaps even cowardly, leader. He was reluctant to fight. Arnold was brave and aggressive with a grating personality. Also, he felt strongly he had not been given his due credit for prior successes. He was irate over the fact that others who were inferior leaders but better connected, politically, had been promoted over him. He kept agitating Gates to attack, which annoyed Gates. The two men despised each other. Finally, Gates sent Arnold’s unit on a mission with very little chance of success. His aim was to have Arnold either fail and be discredited or killed. But, Arnold led his troops to an unlikely victory over Burgoyne’s numerically superior force. Inexplicably, Howe’s army never showed up, so the colonials had the major victory they sorely needed. However, to Arnold’s dismay, Gates took all the credit. This likely started Arnold down the path to his ultimate treason.
- Deborah Sampson – Sampson was one of a very few women who served in combat during the war. What was so unusual was that she fought disguised as a man named Robert Shirtliff. She was able to pass as a man, because she was 5′ 9″ (The average height for a man of that time was only 5′ 6″.) and stout of build with small breasts that were easily hidden. She served in a light infantry unit, which was considered an elite force that often participated in very dangerous missions. She was wounded three times. Her ruse was discovered while she was being treated for those wounds. Nevertheless, she received an honorable discharge and was approved for a small pension for her service.
- Lafayette and von Steuben – In the first few years of the war the colonial soldiers, who were primarily farmers and laborers, were a ragtag fighting force, lacking the precision, discipline, and training of a real, professional army. Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette was a very wealthy teenage French aristocrat. He was so determined to fight for the colonials that he purchased his own ship to travel to America. Once there, he joined General Washington’s army at Valley Forge. Baron Friedrich Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard Augustin von Steuben was an experienced professional Prussian soldier who was recommended to Benjamin Franklin by the French minister of war. Franklin, in turn, recommended him to Washington. Together these two men transformed the aforementioned ragtag group into a professional fighting force in just a few months during the winter of 1777-78. Without them, it is doubtful the colonials would have succeeded.
- General Nathaniel Greene – It’s been said “an army travels on its stomach.” As discussed, during the winter of 1777-78 the colonials were very short of food, clothing and other basic supplies. The situation was dire. Washington appointed Greene as quartermaster general, making him responsible for procurement. He aggressively scoured the countryside and one way or another acquired enough supplies to sustain the army through the winter.
- Jack Jouett – Jouett’s contribution was subtle, but crucial. The British army was continually hunting for the key leaders of the revolution. In January 1781 a company of dragoons was closing in on the entire group of Virginia legislators who were in hiding near Charlottesville. This group included Thomas Jefferson and three other signers of the Declaration of Independence. Killing or capturing them would have been a substantial coup. At one point, the dragoons stopped at a tavern for rest and refreshment. Jouett, a patron at the tavern, happened to overhear them conversing. Discerning their mission, he jumped on his horse and rode through the night to where he knew the legislators were located. In a Virginia version of Paul Revere’s ride he warned the legislators, thus enabling them to avoid capture.
- Elizabeth Hutchinson Jackson – Jackson was a widow living in the Carolinas. During a cholera outbreak among American prisoners of war she volunteered as a nurse at the prison. Her oldest son had died in the war and the other two had been captured and imprisoned by the British some distance away. The older of the two, Robert, was seriously ill; the younger of the two, Andy Jr., just 14, had been severely injured. Determined not to lose them too, she traveled to their prison and somehow convinced their jailers to include them in a prison exchange, which no doubt saved their lives. Then, they made the long trip home with only two horses for the three of them. Robert, being delirious, rode. Andy walked. Soon after they returned home Robert died, but Andy survived. “Andy” was Andrew Jackson, who, as we know, became the hero of the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812, arguably one of the most significant battles in US history, and the seventh President of the US.
In my opinion, the American Revolution was one of the biggest “upsets” in history. There is no way a ragtag fighting force with no navy at the beginning of the war and very little financing should have been able to defeat the finest fighting force in the world, particularly when it had to battle half of its own citizenry as well as the British. But, it did, and in no small part to the contributions and sacrifices of ordinary patriots, such as the ones outlined above.