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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Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Meanwhile, in New York Harbor

This is the anniversary of a major turning-point in the Revolutionary War. Not because in 1776 the Continental Congress was debating how to publicly declare independence from Britain, as it had voted to do the day before. Rather, on 3 July 1776 the British military returned to the thirteen colonies in force, raising the conflict to a new level.

When Gen. William Howe evacuated Boston in March 1776, all thirteen colonies that had delegates in Philadelphia became basically free of royal control. Patriot leaders knew that situation wouldn’t last, but they enjoyed de facto independence and moved toward formalizing that status.

That spring Gen. Henry Clinton and Comm. Sir Peter Parker commanded a force off the Carolina coasts. In June they tried to take Charleston, South Carolina, the fourth-largest port on the Atlantic coast. In the Battle of Sullivan’s Island on 28 June, American troops fought off that force, but it was relatively small: about 2,200 British soldiers and no more than a dozen ships.

However, the next day a larger British fleet arrived in New York harbor. Gen. Howe had already sailed there from Halifax with most of his 9,000 troops to follow. But on 29 June his older brother, Adm. Richard Howe, arrived from Britain with the largest expeditionary force the Crown had yet assembled: 21,000 soldiers (12,000 British and 9,000 German). Soon Clinton and Parker would join the Howes.

Eventually the British naval force at New York included 73 warships and 300 other ships for transporting soldiers and supplies. But even on the first day the admiral’s fleet was imposing. On 29 June Pvt. Daniel McCurtin of Maryland wrote in his diary:
This morning as I was up stairs in an outhouse I spied, as I peeped out the Bay, something resembling a Wood of pine trees trimed. I declare at my noticing this that I could not believe my eyes, but keeping my eyes fixed at the very spot, judge you of my surprise, when in about 10 minutes, the whole Bay was as full of shipping as ever it could be. I do declare that I thought all London was in afloat.

Just about 5 minutes before I see this sight I got my discharge.
McCurtin headed for home.

On 3 July, on the advice of Gen. James Robertson, the Howes began to land troops on Staten Island. The Continental troops on that island quickly retreated to New Jersey, taking a few prominent Patriot families with them. By the next day, the British had 9,000 soldiers on friendly territory in position to threaten New Jersey, the American positions on Long Island, and New York City itself. And more ships and men were still arriving.


John L Smith Jr said...

I had always been led to believe that Daniel McCurtin's mentioned "discharge" had to do with a bodily function play on words while he was in the Necessary?

J. L. Bell said...

McCurtin does have a sense of humor as a diarist, but I think the joke would be better if he experienced that sort of “discharge” right after seeing all the ships arrive.

Pointing toward the bureaucratic reading of the word ‘“discharge” is the fact that McCurtin’s journal of military experiences ends right there. As a rifleman, he had signed up to the end of June.

And could the “outhouse” he wrote of be a necessary if he was “up stairs” in it? [At the very least, I wouldn’t want to be downstairs in such a privy.] By that word he might have meant some other sort of outbuilding where he bunked or a building that was out near the shore to watch the harbor.

But I wouldn’t put it past McCurtin to have tried to enliven his experience with wordplay and allusions to body functions.

J. L. Bell said...

I just looked up the use of “outhouse” at Founders Online. (I think that might be most convenient, no-sign-in-necessary way of finding a big pool of prose from Revolutionary America.)

Most of the uses are plural and apparently refer to all types of outbuildings on an estate. Our current understanding of “outhouse” to mean one particular type of outbuilding might have developed later.

John L Smith Jr said...

Oh how the media can edit something! In the 1997 PBS production "Liberty!", roughly based upon the Thomas Fleming book, in the third chapter on the DVD, they start off showing a red-haired young lad (who I took to be Joseph Plumb Martin because of the wise crack but its never attributed in the segment)sitting inside of a boarded room from neck up. He says to the camera "I'm sitting in the outhouse which has a good view of the harbor. I get my discharge and then I look out the window..." He goes on to say the famous phrasing about the "forest of pine trees out there...". My, my. How the media can manipulate a good historic quote!