J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, May 09, 2009

Storms with Revolutionary Consequences

The September 1775 hurricane that got dubbed the “hurricane of independence” didn’t actually affect the course of the Revolutionary War. But other storms did.

Boston, 5 Mar 1776. Having spotted the new Continental Army artillery batteries on Dorchester Heights, Gen. William Howe ordered an amphibious assault on that peninsula. But, as Boston selectman Timothy Newell recorded, “a Hurrycane, or terrible sudden storm,” arrived, battering the boats and rendering firelocks useless. The general called off the attack. By the time the weather cleared, the American position was too strong, and Howe chose to evacuate Boston, ending the war’s oldest campaign with an American victory.

Trenton, 25 Dec 1776. Because of freezing temperatures and a mix of sleet, snow and icy rain, the Hessian troops at Trenton felt secure enough to pull back their picket sentries. Desperate for a victory, Gen. George Washington led columns of Continental Army soldiers across the icy Delaware River under cover of that same storm. Though not all the American forces managed to get across, those that did routed the Hessians and broke a long string of demoralizing battlefield losses.

Newport, 11-12 Aug 1778. A French fleet and an American army were supposed to collaborate on driving the British military out of Rhode Island. Adm. d’Estaing chose instead to engage the British fleet. Then a heavy storm hit the area, scattering and damaging the French ships. D’Estaing headed to Boston for repairs rather than try another attack, and the British drove back an American advance at the end of the month. Newport remained in British hands.

Yorktown, 16-17 Oct 1781. In a desperate move, Gen. Cornwallis started to have men ferried across the James River from Yorktown to Gloucester Point to counterattack the French and American forces. But after the first trip, the general wrote, “the weather from being moderate and calm, changed to a most violent storm of wind and rain,” and scattered the British boats. With no other options, the next day the British commander opened negotiations with Gen. Washington to surrender.

And there are probably other examples as well, especially when it came to the war at sea. Plus, long-term meteorological or environmental events, such as famine in India, the loss of good farmland in New England, and a dip in the “little Ice Age,” probably had even bigger long-term effects.

TOMORROW: The biggest storm of all.

[The portrait of D’Estaing above comes from this webpage describing how Haitian soldiers fought alongside Americans at Savannah.]


RJO said...

In the almost-changed-everything category, I think you'd have to include the Great Colonial Hurricane of 1635, which wrecked the Angel Gabriel at Pemaquid, Maine. The passengers just barely made it to shore, as the ship sank and all their goods were lost.

The Angel Gabriel was one of the only ships destroyed in the whole of the Puritan migration. Among the passengers who survived the wreck were John Cogswell and his family. After living for a time in tents near the beach, they eventually made their way to Boston, and then finally settled in Ipswich, where John died in 1669. John's teenage son William survived the wreck as well. Good thing, as William's great-great-grandson was John Adams.

Bloomfield Bob said...

Although not quite a storm, my favorite weather-related incident has to be the August 1776 evacuation of Long Island. Moving 9,000 men across the East River under cover of a thick fog to escape the British was indeed a stroke of great luck, or providential. Take your pick. Either way, if the Americans don't get out of there, the rebellion surely would have taken a different direction.