Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be
Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be

Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be

Khalid Elhassan - October 27, 2021

Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be
George Washington leading his troops to Trenton. British Battles

An Enemy Commander’s Mistake That Saved the American Revolution

On December 23rd, 1776, George Washington informed his staff of his decision to cross the Delaware River and attack Trenton on the 26th. It was to be a three-pronged operation, in which Washington would personally lead the largest contingent to attack the town’s Hessian garrison, while two smaller contingents crossed the river as a diversion, and to close off an escape route. Despite inclement weather and icy river conditions, the crossing was accomplished, and Washington was among the first to reach the New Jersey side. He and his men then had to march nine miles to Trenton, in the midst of sleet and driving snow. Fortunately for the colonial cause, the Patriots completed the march without alerting the enemy.

Early in the morning of December 26th, 1776, the Americans surprised the Hessians. In a swift victory, Washington’s men killed, wounded, and captured about a thousand foes, for the loss of only two dead and five wounded. The Hessian’s commander, Johann Rall, was mortally wounded. In Rall’s pocket was discovered a note from a Loyalist farmer, who had spotted the Americans and sent a warning. Fortunately for the colonial cause, Rall had not read the warning, and the note was still unopened when it was recovered. Trenton was a small battle, but one with great consequences. It inspired the Patriots when they desperately needed a morale boost, saved the colonial army from disintegration by attracting new recruits, and stemmed the tide of desertions by convincing many veterans to stick around.

Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be
Benedict Arnold. Smithsonian Magazine

Colonial America’s Greatest Traitor

American Revolutionary War General Benedict Arnold (1741 – 1801) is the most infamous traitor in the history of the United States. Indeed, his name has become an epithet, synonymous with treason and betrayal. That was quite a turn from his early war career, when he had been a major hero for Patriots in their fight for independence. Arnold had been a highly regarded Patriot in the fight against the British, and was perhaps the colonial side’s most capable combat leader.

That all changed when a combination of resentments over slights, coupled with financial distress, led him to sell out to the enemy. Before he turned traitor, Arnold had provided valuable service to the Americans, and played a key role early in the war in the capture of Fort Ticonderoga. He then led an expedition through extremely rough terrain in an attempt to capture Quebec. The expedition ultimately failed, but to even get his men to the outskirts of Quebec was a great exhibition of leadership on Arnold’s part.

Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be
Benedict Arnold at the Battle of Saratoga. American Digital Public Library

For a Time, This Traitor Was the Patriots’ Best Fighting General

In 1776, Benedict Arnold demonstrated his enterprise when he constructed a fleet from scratch at Lake Champlain. With it, the colonial forces defeated a vastly superior British fleet. While lionized as a hero by the public, Arnold’s successes, rash courage, and driving style aroused the jealousy and resentment of other officers, who backbit and schemed against him. When Congress created five new major generals in 1777, Arnold was stung when he was bypassed in favor of some of his juniors, and only George Washington’s personal entreaties prevented his resignation.

Soon thereafter, Arnold successfully beat back a British attack in Connecticut, and was finally promoted to major general. However, his seniority was not restored – another slight that gnawed at him. He again sought to resign but was prevailed upon to remain. He performed brilliantly in the fight to halt the British advance into upstate New York in 1777, and played a key role in its defeat. It culminated in the British surrender at Saratoga, where Arnold fought courageously and suffered a serious leg injury.

Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be
A 1780 French map of West Point. Wikimedia

An Infamous Turncoat

Crippled by his wounds at Saratoga, Benedict Arnold was put in charge of Philadelphia. There, he began to socialize with families loyal to the British. He also took to an extravagant life with lavish expenditures, which he financed with questionable methods that led to scandal. Arnold also married a much younger woman of loyalist sympathies and spendthrift habits, that soon drove him into deep indebtedness. Between resentments and financial difficulties, he secretly approached the British to offer his services. Arnold was well positioned to deal the Patriots a fatal blow, because he was placed in charge of colonial fortifications at West Point on the Hudson River, that lay upstream from British-occupied New York City and barred them from sailing upriver.

Arnold plotted to sell plans of the fortifications to the enemy, and contrived to deliver them into British hands for £20,000. However, his British contact was captured, along with documents that incriminated Arnold. He fled just in time to evade arrest. He was made a brigadier general in the British Army, and led soldiers against the Patriots for the rest of the war. The British never fully warmed to him however, and he was unable to secure a regular commission after the war. He pursued a variety of ventures, including privateering and land speculation in Canada, before he finally settled down in London, where he died in 1801.

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Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Argus Leader, November 17th, 2016 – Beer Played an Important Part in Pilgrim Life

Arnold, Isaac Newton – The Life of Benedict Arnold: His Patriotism and His Treason (1880)

Baltimore Sun, March 25th, 2005 – English Civil War Led to Battle on Severn

Business Insider, November 21st, 2018 – The Pilgrims Landed on Plymouth Rock For More Beer

Chernow, Ron – Washington: A Life (2010)

Clarke, R.J. – Impostress: The Dishonest Adventures of Sarah Wilson (2019)

Cracked – The Charleston Tea Parties: The Dumber Cousins to Boston’s Tea Party

Demos, John Putnam – Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England (1982)

Dictionary of National Biography – Rainborow, Thomas

Encyclopedia Britannica – Benedict Arnold

Encyclopedia Britannica – William Kidd

Fischer, David Hackett – Washington’s Crossing (2004)

History Collection – 16 Surprising Facts About Colonial America’s Mail Order Brides of Jamestown

Levack, Brian P. – The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America (2013)

New York Times, July 3rd, 2010 – America’s Revolution: The Prequel

Straight Dope – Did The Pilgrims Land on Plymouth Rock Because They Ran Out of Beer?

Teaching American History in South Carolina Project – Charleston Tea Party

Tyler, John W. – Smugglers and Patriots: Boston Merchants and the Advent of the American Revolution (2019)

University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law – Salem Witchcraft Trials of 1692

Wikipedia – Boston Tea Party

Wikipedia – Salem Witch Trials

Wikipedia – Sarah Wilson (Imposter)

Zacks, Richard – Pirate Hunter: The True Story of Captain Kidd (2002)

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