American Elephants


The War Against England Begins: by The Elephant's Child

WilliamDiamond's Drum
July 2, 1775

General Washington arrived in Cambridge. The next morning, without ceremony, he took over command from General Ward. For the following two or three days he toured the lines, appraising his forces, their camps and their fortifications. He was accompanied by General Charles Lee who wrote to his old friend Robert Morris in Philadelphia: “We found e everything exactly the reverse of what had been represented. We were assured at Philadelphia that the army was socked with engineers. We found not one. We were assured that we should find an expert train of artillery. They have not a single gunner, and so on…”

 Two weeks later, he remarked of the army, “I really believe not a single man of ’em is capable of constructing an oven,” Lee was a soldier of fortune who had seen a variety of troops in several parts of the world. He was described by a Yankee clergyman as “a perfect original, a good scholar and soldier, and an odd genius, full of fire and passion and but little good manners; a great sloven, wretchedly profane, and a great admirer of dogs.” Lee said of New England’s enlisted men:

…they are admirable — young, stout, healthy, zealous, good-humoured and sober.  Had we but uniforms, compleat arms, more gentlemen for officers, I really believe a very little time and pains would render ’em the most invincible army that have appeared since the first period of the Roman Republic …The more we consider the affair of Bunker’s Hill the more wonderful it appears…

July 27, 1775

Three and a half weeks after his arrival at Cambridge, Washington summed up his efforts and the general situation in this way:

My whole time since I came here has been impolyed in throwing up lines of defence at these three several places; to secure, in the first instance, our own troops from any attempts of the enemy; and, in the next, to cut off all communication between their troops and the country …Their force, including Marines, Tories, etc., are computed, from the best accounts I can get, at about 12,000 men. Ours, including sick, absent, etc., at about 16,000 …

The enemy are sickly and scarce of fresh provisions…I have drove all the live[stock] within a considerable distance of this place back into the country, out of the way of the men-of-war’s boats. In short, I have, and shall continue to do, everything in my power to distress them. The [British] transports are all arrived, and their whole reinforcement is landed, so that I can see no reason why they should not, if they ever attempt it, come boldly out and put the matter to issue at once. If they think themselves not strong enough to do this, they surely will carry their arms (having ships of war and transports ready) to some other part of the continent, or relinquish the dispute; the last of which the Ministry [in England] unless compelled, will never agree to do. Our works and those of the enemy are so near and quite open between that we see every thing that the other is doing.

August 14, 1775

Reinforcements continued to arrive.  A newspaper report stated:

Last night arrived at the camp, …Swashan the chief, with four other Indians of the St. Francis tribe, conducted by Mr. Reuben Colburn, who has been honorable recompensed for his trouble. The above Indians came to offer their services to the cause of American liberty, have been kindly received, and are now entered the service. Swashan says he will bring one-half of his tribe and has engaged four or five other tribes, if they should be wanted.

Other new arrivals at Cambridge were additional riflemen from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia. Dr. Thacher described them:

They are remarkably stout and hardy men, many of them exceeding six feet in height. They are dressed in white frocks or rifle-shirts, and round hats. These men are remarkable for the accuracy of their aim, striking a mark with great certainty at two hundred yards distance…They are now stationed in our  line, and their shot have frequently proved fatal to British officers and soldiers who expose them selves to view, even at more than double the distance of common musket-shot.

Late in August, Washington wrote:

…As we have now nearly compleated our lines of defence, we [have] nothing more, in my opinion, to fear from the enemy, provided we can keep our men to their duty and make them  watchful and vigilant. But it is among the most difficult tasks I ever undertook in my life to induce these people to believe there is, or can be, danger till the bayonet is pushed at their breasts…

The stalemate in Boston was to drag on until the following spring. But a second front was moving to attack Quebec. The province was largely inhabited by Frenchmen who were not all reconciled to having British masters.  In the summer of 1775 there were only about eight hundred regulars in the whole of Canada. One expedition under General Philip Schuyler and General Richard Montgomery assembled at Ticonderoga prepared to boat northward on Lake Champlain, hoping to capture St. Johns and Montreal before heading on to Quebec. The second expedition under Colonel Benedict Arnold proposed to go up through the wilderness, up the Kennebec River.

This is the point at which you have to read Kenneth Roberts Arundel and Rabble in Arms, historical novels written in the 1930s that turned many a young man into an historian. They follow Steven Nason of Arundel, Maine, as he joins Benedict Arnold in his march to Quebec. I have always loved those books.

From Voices of 1776 and Rebels and Redcoats


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