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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Friday, May 08, 2009

Thick and Stormy

These days, we track storms and hurricanes with planes, radar, and satellites. We all have experience watching big storms pass over Caribbean islands and head for the U.S. mainland, gaining alphabetical and increasingly inclusive names along the way.

Before radio, however, storms seemed to blow out of nowhere. People couldn’t track a hurricane at sea in real time. Any ship lucky enough to survive an encounter with such a storm would limp into port after the storm itself had arrived or passed by. Only in retrospect might scientists string together a series of reports from various islands, ships, and seaboards and posit that they were all about the same storm.

There’s just such a series of reports of bad weather from the late summer of 1775, starting in Santo Domingo and the Outer Banks of North Carolina in late August and then moving to Williamsburg, Annapolis, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston in early September. But the British colony hit worst by far was Newfoundland, where 4,000 people died on 9-11 Sept 1775, mostly fishermen. Waters rose so high there, in fact, that some latter-day scientists suggested there was an undersea earthquake and tsunami, though no one reported shaking.

That storm was labeled the “Independence Hurricane of 1775” in David M. Ludlum’s Early American Hurricanes, 1492-1870. The label might be older, but I haven’t found it in earlier books. It doesn’t seem appropriate to name Canada’s deadliest natural disaster after a political development in the U.S. of A., but that’s cultural imperialism for you.

Tony Williams heard about that storm on television, got intrigued, and started researching it. The result was a book published last year, Hurricane of Independence: The Untold Story of the Deadly Storm at the Deciding Moment of the American Revolution. It tracks the 1775 storm that from its appearance off Santo Domingo to rainstorms in Newfoundland on 4-5 September.

And then the book argues that a second, more destructive hurricane hit Newfoundland a few days later, causing all those deaths—more than 90% of the total. The first hurricane, Williams posits, kept going north from Philadelphia and blew itself out in upstate New York and Upper Canada. So we might have a use for both labels: America’s “Independence Hurricane” and Canada’s “Newfoundland Hurricane of 1775.”

Hurricane of Independence attempts to justify its title by tying the meteorology to the development of the American independence movement. For instance, Chapter 15 is titled “General Washington Battles the British and the Weather.” There’s an ongoing discussion of how Washington and his contemporaries thought of “providence,” a way of thinking about both natural and political events that seemed beyond humans’ control.

The problem with that approach is that this hurricane really didn’t affect the American independence movement. Its biggest impact on the war? A Royal Navy ship called the Otter was washed ashore in Hampton, Virginia, and some locals plundered and burned it.

There was rain in Philadelphia, but the Continental Congress wasn’t in session and that city didn’t see any deaths. In the main military theater around Boston, here’s how the weather played out according to the diary of Pvt. Caleb Haskell of Newburyport:

September 3rd, Sunday.—This morning there was a storm of rain. In the afternoon had several shells thrown at us from Bunker's Hill. Our guard killed and 15 of the enemy.

September 4th, Monday.—This morning is thick and stormy. Clears off pleasant in the afternoon.

September 5th, Tuesday.—A pleasant morning after a long storm. All still here. At night I went on guard at P[rospect]. Hill.
Big whoop.

On the 11th Haskell left with Gen. Benedict Arnold on his march north through the Maine wilderness. In October that column encountered terrible weather, but the “independence hurricane” was long gone.

It’s also difficult to see how early September 1775 was “the Deciding Moment of the American Revolution,” as the book’s subtitle would have it. That was about five months after the war had started, three months after the Congress had adopted the army around Boston and sent Washington north, and half a year before the colonies moved toward independence. What big events occurred in that month, and how did the storm affect them?

Hurricane of Independence spends many pages on quick summaries of what led up to the Revolutionary War, which are generally what we find in many other books. (One glitch: Page 178 mixes up Dr. Samuel Prescott with Col. William Prescott.) But I didn’t see evidence that the hurricane(s) of September 1775 affected even one American’s thinking about the political conflict, or for that matter about providence.

In sum, the old label “hurricane of independence” seems more hysterical than historical. That storm happened to hit a number of American ports near independence, and got a great publicity boost about two centuries later. Williams didn’t come up with the “independence” label, but it was what intrigued him about the topic, so he was stuck with it. He might have been better off setting it aside and looking at how some storms really did shape the Revolutionary War.

TOMORROW: How some storms really did shape the Revolutionary War.


Anonymous said...

Sounds like a fascinating book. However, even if the event(s) didn't specifically influence political events, it may have had some indirect influence.

After Katrina, and the tremendous outpouring of donations vis-a-vis criticism of the local, state and federal governments' responses,
I stumbled across Alexander Hamilton's letter, widely circulated in the Colonies around 1771 or 1772, about the Hurricane that struck St. Croix when he was a teenager, as well as comments by the Rev. John Witherspoon in one of his lectures about the Earthquake that struck Portugal circa 1770, and the moral obligation to help out the victims. In a debate in Congress during the Washington Administration, Elias Boudinot (who of course was one of young Hamilton's sponsors who helped bring him to the Colonies and supported his admission to what is now Columbia University) made some interesting comments about the "original intent" of the "General Welfare" clause in the Preamble to the Constitution being justifiable grounds to use government assistance to treat displaced Native Americans. (Sorry, I don't remember the specific context.)

Not long ago, I read that interesting account of the 1793 epidemic in Philadelphia, "Bring Out Your Dead," and was struck by references to the effect it had on politics at the time. (Again, mindful of the parallels to the anthrax scare in 2001/2002.) I got out some of the primary sources from Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Oliver Wolcott, and found it quite interesting how the government reacted to such a crisis.

My point is, from the support of Boston by the other Colonies following the Intolerable Acts and o Valley Forge, to eventually the Abolition movement and the Underground Railroad, there has been an underlying "moral suasion" to act based on the suffering of others, which sometimes coalesces on a grass roots-level into political action.

J. L. Bell said...

I agree that sometimes major disasters can change the social climate, producing political effects such as unity or the choice of more drastic action.

For example, in the early 1760s Boston suffered a massive fire, a smallpox epidemic, and a spate of bankruptcies (described in my Mass Banker article). Those events probably made townsfolk feel more on edge and vulnerable when news of the Stamp Act arrived.

The Boston Port Bill had a similar effect, more acute because it was man-made. Boston Patriots successfully portrayed that law as a disaster for the town, especially for the poor, and thus gained the sympathy of the New England countryside and many other British colonies. If Parliament could do that to Boston, people began to feel, they could do that to any of us.

But I don’t see evidence of such an effect with the hurricane(s) of autumn 1775. The war had already started. The biggest damage was in Newfoundland, a distant colony only tangentially involved in the conflict. The book talks about people’s thoughts on “Providence” in general, but there aren’t examples of people changing their thinking on “Providence” or the political struggle because of this storm.

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

Thanks for the review — your analysis seems right on. I just wanted to point you toward John Boyle's take on the Newfoundland Hurricane, which I included in a post on Boyle's providentialism. The hurricane did not change his view of Providence or politics, but he did see it as an example (one of many) of God intervening on the side of the revolutionaries:

In a violent Storm on the 9th of September last, tis said that 4000 Persons were lost in the several Harbours of Newfoundland, who had nearly compleated their fishing Voyages. Most of them belonged to Great Britain, and intended to inlist into the Regular Service when their Fares were finished.To Boyle, the storm that killed a few thousand potential British recruits seemed like divine reinforcements at a time when the Cambridge barracks were still less than half full of American soldiers.

This, of course, does not contradict your point — this was a minor event that went practically unnoticed by mainland colonists. It certainly didn't change John Boyle's mind about anything.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the Boyle quote! The Rev. Dr. Ezra Stiles says about the same in his diary entry for 7 Dec 1775.

Isn’t it wonderful how Providence is always on your side until you’ve finally and completely lost, and then it inexplicably isn’t.

I wonder what evidence Boyle or Stiles had that any of those drowned men planned to join the British army.

Anonymous said...

"The problem with that approach is that this hurricane really didn’t affect the American independence movement. Its biggest impact on the war? A Royal Navy ship called the Otter was washed ashore in Hampton, Virginia, and some locals plundered and burned it."

It was actually called Liberty, see "Hurricanes of the Middle Atlantic States" by Rick Schwartz

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the tip about Schwartz’s book. I see he does indeed call the Royal Navy ship that ran aground the Liberty. Williams calls what must be the same ship the Otter.

I did some calisthenics to warm up, and then pulled out the relevant volume of the Naval Documents of the American Revolution. It appears that the captain of the Otter, Matthew Squires, took the lead in demanding that Hampton return the supplies taken off the grounded “sloop tender,” which therefore had to be another ship. I’m not seeing any mention of that sloop by name, either the Liberty or anything else.