10 Unsolved Mysteries of the American Revolutionary War
10 Unsolved Mysteries of the American Revolutionary War

10 Unsolved Mysteries of the American Revolutionary War

Larry Holzwarth - January 3, 2018

10 Unsolved Mysteries of the American Revolutionary War
Jefferson’s Monticello was spared the depredations visited by the British on other Virginia homes and farms. Wikimedia

Why didn’t the British burn Monticello?

In 1781 British troops launched numerous raids throughout the state of Virginia, many of them led by Benedict Arnold, then serving his new masters at the head of both Loyalist and Regular troops. Raids throughout the state were commonplace and with the war having lasted six years, both sides were prone to brutal actions against their enemies. The burning of towns and farms, confiscation of property, release and recruitment of slaves, and wanton destruction of public buildings became a fact of life in Virginia.

In late May a British column thrust into Albemarle County, aimed directly at Monticello, the residence of Thomas Jefferson. With the possible exception of George Washington, there was no more hated rebel from the British perspective than Jefferson, and the opportunity to capture the author of the Declaration of Independence was too good for the British to pass up.

British troops ascended Jefferson’s little mountain outside of the town of Charlottesville on the morning of June 4, 1781. Jefferson was warned as the British were beginning to ascend, he had a leisurely breakfast before departing just ahead of the British troops, relocating to his plantation at Poplar Forest. When the British attachment of cavalry sent from Charlottesville arrived on Monticello’s manicured lawns it was to find slaves busily hiding the silver and other valuables.

The British were commanded by Banastre Tarleton, who had remained in Charlottesville with the bulk of the British troops. The detachment at Monticello was led Captain Kenneth MacLeod. MacLeod thus had the home and property of one of the leading proponents of the Patriot’s cause at his mercy, opposed only by a handful of unarmed slaves.

The British burned a few barns and storage sheds, but other than that they left Jefferson’s home nearly as they found it, an almost inexplicable event given the ferocity they had displayed in Richmond and at other Virginia plantations known to be the property of Patriots. Some have explained the British action – or lack of action – as a result of the chivalry often present in 18th century warfare. Why the British ignored the opportunity for vengeance against Jefferson was a mystery then and a mystery now.

10 Unsolved Mysteries of the American Revolutionary War
The kidnapping and murder of Jane McCrea became a major propaganda coup for the Americans. Wikipedia

Who was Jane McCrea?

During the Saratoga campaign, British General John Burgoyne’s invading army was supported by warriors from the Iroquois Confederation, who were intended from the outset to raid settler’s farms and towns, striking terror in the hearts of the Americans as the British struck south towards Albany. The hope was that the Americans would withdraw in the face of the Indian threat supported by the King’s troops.

When the Indians kidnapped and later murdered a young woman named Jane McCrea, alleged to have been engaged to a Loyalist officer in Burgoyne’s army, it caused an outrage. McCrea had been traveling to join her fiancé when she was attacked. Immediately the American’s exploited the murder as a sign not only of the Indian’s savagery but of the British collusion in brutality. American Commander Horatio Gates sent a letter admonishing Burgoyne and pointing out the damage to the Englishman’s reputation which would result. The ranks of the American army swelled with new volunteers and supporting militia.

After the war and for the more than two hundred years since, the legend of Jane McCrea has continued to grow. Over the years she has become more beautiful, more virtuous, and ever more inclined to support the Patriot cause, rather than the Loyalist cause espoused by her fiancé. Houses have been designated as her residence, signed with hisortical markers, despite no evidence that Jane ever saw the house in question.

Her body, or rather gravesites believed to contain her remains, has been exhumed no less than three times, both for DNA testing and to examine the skeletal remains for evidence of cause of death. Thus far they have been inconclusive.

There is enough contemporary evidence to confirm that Jane McCrea was a real person, and that she died as a result of Burgoyne’s march down the Hudson Valley to his destiny at Saratoga. One member of the community in which she lived described her contemporaneously as “without either beauty or accomplishments.” But there is little evidence to support the story as it was published throughout the United States that summer of 1777, when it did much to garner support for the American Army forming to stop Burgoyne at Bemis Heights. The truth about who Jane McCrea was and what happened to her remains mysteriously veiled.

10 Unsolved Mysteries of the American Revolutionary War
One of Washington’s earliest duties after taking command of the Continental Army was dealing with its traitorous Surgeon General. Wikimedia

What Happened to Benjamin Church?

Dr. Benjamin Church was a Boston physician and surgeon in the days of the Sons of Liberty in that city, active and vocal in his support of the cause of the Patriots. Following the Boston Massacre in 1770 Church treated several of the injured and performed the post mortem examination of the body of Crispus Attucks. He was an early practitioner of cataract surgery, and among his patients was John Adams, then a Boston attorney.

Church was a member of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and its Committee of Safety, exercising responsibility for preparing the rebellious colony for armed conflict by ensuring weapons and supplies were secreted at various points around the countryside, including in Concord. He worked closely with Dr. Joseph Warren to prepare medical supplies for any coming conflict. After the war began he was assigned as a surgeon with the newly formed army. He reported being arrested by the British authorities in Boston (explaining why he had been seen in conversation with General Gage), released for lack of any evidence of his revolutionary activities.

When Washington arrived in Cambridge, problems within the medical department which by then was being run by Church as Director General compelled the new Commanding General to initiate an investigation. Church asked to be relieved of his duties, complaining that he was the victim of professional jealousy. Before Washington could act, information and evidence arose describing Church’s corresponding with the enemy, in the form of coded messages to General Gage describing American troop strength.

Although Church protested his innocence he was removed from his offices and placed in custody, although he was not incarcerated and was at liberty in the camps after a short time of being held in Connecticut. In 1778 he was banished from Massachusetts and left for Martinique on a packet, which was never heard from again after its departure from Boston.

Evidence unearthed from General Gage’s personal papers more than a century later established a long-term correspondence between Church and Gage, containing details about Patriot activities and plans which pre-dated the war. Church was likely motivated by money, his accounts revealed him to have been deeply in debt. Whether he escaped to a British man-of-war and a new life outside Boston or was lost at sea has never been determined.