Gentleman Johnny: Major General John Burgoyne


John Burgoyne, by Joshua Reynolds (1766)


It is a rare distinction indeed when a commander can claim to have lost one of the most decisive battles in history. “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne was one such commander.

In early 1777 John Burgoyne was a rising star in the constellation of the British military. He was an unlikely prospect: rumored to be the product of an illicit affair, he had a penchant for stylish (and expensive) uniforms, gambling, and the writing of plays. He twice sold his commission, once to clear gambling debts, and once to support the wife with whom he had eloped in 1751. Eventually reconciled with his father-in-law, who used his influence to advance Burgoyne’s career, Gentleman Johnny managed to buy another commission after the outbreak of the Seven Years War. He served with distinction in France and Portugal, and pioneered the concept of light cavalry in the British Army. He was also elected to Parliament, where he gained attention as a critic of the government.

Interestingly, Burgoyne was given the nickname “Gentleman Johnny” by his troops, who appreciated his fairness and concern for their welfare. He was unique in valuing individual thought and self-reliance among his enlisted troops. Whatever the officer corps thought of Burgoyne, he was a general for whom his troops would definitely fight.

When the American War for Independence erupted, Burgoyne was one of three major generals (the others being Howe and Clinton) sent to Boston to “reinforce” General Gage. Frustrated by inactivity, Burgoyne returned to England. In 1776 he commanded the expedition that relieved Quebec from American siege, but was again frustrated when his superior, Carelton, prevented him from pressing an offensive against Fort Ticonderoga in the fall of 1776. Again frustrated, and grieving the death of his wife, Burgoyne returned once again to England.

This time Burgoyne proposed a two-pronged attacked on the Hudson River Valley, with one force attacking north from New York while the other, commanded by him, attacked south out of Canada. It was a decent plan that failed to account for a few things: the vast distances involved, the climate, the rugged countryside, lack of Tory and Indian enthusiasm for his cause, American resilience, and appalling strategic mismanagement. Burgoyne’s plan might just have worked had Lord George Germain articulated an overall British strategy that included the details of Burgoyne’s plan, but he did not. Instead, General William Howe proceeded with his plan to capture Philadelphia. He set sail and spent several critical weeks at sea, this not only deprived Burgoyne of much-needed support, but also allowed Washington to transfer significant forces to the American Northern Department to oppose Burgoyne.


Burgoyne’s Plan

Compounding these errors was Burgoyne’s flair for drama. His attempts to overawe the Americans, and inspire Tories and allied Native American tribes, were absolute disasters. By unleashing several hundred Native American warriors he not only forced potential Loyalist recruits to stay home to protect their families, but he also enraged American sentiment. As he advanced farther south his supply system began to fail and his battlefield fortunes waned. As a result he Native Americans abandoned him, even as American forces converged on the Hudson Valley.



A tree at Freeman’s Farm. Near this spot Morgan’s Rifle Corps fired the first shot of the Battles at Saratoga.

Finally, just north of Stillwater, New York, Burgoyne switched from playwright back to gambler: he rolled the dice two more times, and in battles that would become known as Freeman’s Farm and Bemis Heights, he lost. Defeated, he attempted to retreat, but the Americans were having none of it. Near a place then called Saratoga he soon found himself surrounded, massively outnumbered, and out of provisions. Finally, on October 17th, 1777, Burgoyne surrendered his army of over five thousand men.

The shockwaves of Burgoyne’s surrender were immediately felt across the Atlantic. Saratoga directly precipitated France’s decision to join the American cause, turning the American War for Independence into a global war that threatened the entire British Empire. It also marked the end of Burgoyne’s military career.

John Burgoyne probably deserved a better fate. He was ambitious to a fault, but he also had a keen military mind and took the kind of calculated risks that fortune usually favors. His treatment of his troops was centuries ahead of its time. His superiors failed him, but he reaped the blame for the miscarriage of his campaign. He continued to write plays and be active in politics, but he will forever be best known as the pompous playwright who lost at Saratoga and thus made Britain’s war unwinnable.

Gentleman Johnny will appear in the forthcoming Gideon Hawke #4: A Constant Thunder.

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The Shot Heard Round the World

Here once the embattled farmers stood,

 And fired the shot heard round the world.

     –Ralph Waldo Emerson, Concord Hymn

Stand Your Ground

Stand Your Ground, by Don Troiani


On April 19th, 1775 the world changed forever. Tensions between the British Government and its American Colonies had reached the boiling point. For some time British forces had been making forays into the countryside to confiscate weapons and ammunition, and American militia units had been turning out to observe, taunt, and intimidate the Crown’s troops. On this particular morning in Lexington, Massachusetts, the tensions metastasized into violence. As British troops maneuvered to outflank and disperse the Lexington Training Band, which had formed up on Lexington Common, shots rang out. In short order eight Americans were dead and one British soldier was wounded. Word of the shooting spread like wildfire, and soon militia units were converging on Concord, the British objective, and the road from Concord to Boston.

As the British troops were searching the Concord area, a British light infantry force guarding the North Bridge found itself confronted by a strong militia force, which advanced on the bridge. The shooting at Lexington might have been an accident, but what happened next at Concord was deliberate. A few shots were fired, and then a British captain ordered his men to fire on His Majesty’s subjects. Then, in the first formal act of rebellion, a Massachusetts militia officer ordered his men to fire on the King’s troops. That volley was the shot heard round the world. British troops fell, the light infantry retreated, and Great Britain and its colonies were at war.


The North Bridge at Concord


In short order the countryside was aflame. Militia forces ambushed the British time and again; they pursued the British column and harried its flanks. At times British soldiers stood back-to-back, loading and firing at fleeting figures and puffs of smoke on either side of the road. At times the British troops simply ran for their lives. By the time the British made it back to Lexington they were in near panic: their ammunition was nearly exhausted and they had miles yet to go. Mercifully for them, a British brigade had marched to their relief and occupied the hills near Lexington. The combined force then battled its way back to Boston, fighting the entire way. As the sun set, campfires sprung up on the hills overlooking Boston and Cambridge: the British garrison was under siege.

When the sun rose over the Atlantic Ocean on April 19th, 1775, it had shed its light on a peaceful countryside. It would be eight years before peace was fully restored in the newborn United States of America.

You can learn about Lexington and Concord from the participants’ perspective in This Glorious Cause.

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Over There: One Soldier’s Perspective on other Soldiers’ Wars

FT-17-argonne-19181Last week I was able to catch much of the live stream of the ceremony marking the Centennial of America’s entry into the Great War. It was wonderfully done, reflected multiple perspectives, and offered insights into the impact that moment had on America and the world. The ceremony wrapped up with a rousing rendition of “Over There.” As I hear the lines “We’ll be over, we’re coming over,” I realized I had tears in my eyes. I wondered, “How could a hundred year-old song move me to tears?” I suppose the reason is because my own experience of war gave me at least a little glimpse into what was in store for the young men and women headed “Over There.”

To be clear, between the Balkans, Iraq, and Afghanistan I never set foot in a trench. (Well, that’s not entirely true: in Kosovo I stood in a two-foot deep decoy trench the Serbs dug to draw attention from the well-camouflaged foxholes they had prepared in the woodline nearby.) I never huddled in a shell crater, never endured a sustained artillery barrage, never dodged machine gun fire while negotiating a barbed wire obstacle, was never gassed, and never had my tank break down or get mired in front of the muzzles of several enemy machine guns. That was not my generation’s experience of war.

Our experience was very different. Several years ago I had the great honor of delivering a Posthumous Bronze Star Medal for Valor to the family of a fallen soldier with whom I had served. Before the ceremony I chatted with a few WWII 10th Mountain Division veterans, and I remarked that their accomplishments in Italy were an inspiration to today’s soldiers. I was surprised by the humble reply: “Are you kidding me? We got there in January and the war was over in May; then we were done! You people today go over there for a year, and then you go back over and over again. I don’t know how you do it.”

So it would seem every war is horrible in its own way, and each participant’s experience of war is different. There are moments of horror, but in the midst of the violence and chaos, many, if not most, participants also find moments of valor, excitement, and exhilaration. These highs and lows leave a lasting imprint, and the longer one is exposed to them, them more imprints are left. I think that is true for all wars.

I suppose the most important thing to remember is that when a soldier comes back fromBob and Junood “Over There,” a little bit of “Over There” comes back HERE. Some return better people than when they left. Some returned shattered by their experiences. For most, it is somewhere in between. I can only imagine what went on the minds of veterans of the Great War; I know that I carry a bit of my wars with me wherever I go. If I move over when I pass a broken-down car on the side of the road, it’s to give me room in case the car explodes. If I duck during the weekly tornado siren test, it’s not because I was startled, it’s because in Afghanistan sirens meant a rocket was inbound. If I spend an hour and a half on the phone with someone I’ve not spoken to for years, it’s because at one time he and I were ready to give our lives for each other, and that is a bond that will never be broken.

There is another complicating factor for me: while my military service is over, my wars go on. The dirty roadside where I found my first IED (to be fair, it found me) is still in the hands of Daesh. There is still fierce fighting in Afghanistan. American service members are in harm’s way every day…and I have a son who is seventeen years-old. A hundred years ago he would have been in the target age group to go “Over There,” and I still worry that someday he is going to decide to follow in my footsteps. Maybe that perspective is really why I had tears in my eyes last week.

I did not serve in the Great War and I did not serve in the American Revolution; I can’t claim to know what soldiers experienced in those wars. But I did serve in the Balkans, Iraq, and Afghanistan and I am beginning to understand what I experienced in those places. When I write about Gideon Hawke’s involvement in the American War for Independence, I hope that my involvement in other wars can help illuminate some universal experience of war. Perhaps people will better understand what it means to go “Over There.” If so, then perhaps I will have truly accomplished something.

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100 Years On: America Decides to Go “Over There”

WHEREAS, The Imperial German Government has committed repeated acts of war against the Government and the people of the United States of America; therefore, be it

Resolved, by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the state of war between the United States and the Imperial German Government, which has thus been thrust upon the United States, is hereby formally declared; and

That the President be, and he is hereby, authorized and directed to employ the entire naval and military forces of the United States and the resources of the Government to carry on war against the Imperial German Government; and to bring the conflict to a successful termination all the resources of the country are hereby pledged by the Congress of the United States.”

               -U.S. Declaration of War against the German Empire, April 6th, 1917

100 years ago today the U.S. Senate passed a Declaration of War on the German Empire.

When America entered the war, it was totally unprepared. While combatant armies in Europe numbered in the millions, the U.S. Army consisted of fewer than 135,000 troops. These American soldiers were devoid of much critical modern military equipment: for example the Army had ZERO steel helmets, ZERO tanks, ZERO gas masks, and very little modern artillery. Furthermore, in spite of the Wright Brothers inventing powered flight, American military aviation was virtually non-existent. TO make matters even worse, the U.S. military had little or no appreciation of the skills and training it would need to survive and win on the Western Front.


Liberty Memorial, Kansas City, MO

Once committed, the United States made a concerted national effort to get itself on a war footing. The government consolidated control over broadcasting, industry, and transportation, and the size of the military exploded. By Armistice Day the U.S. military had grown to over 4 Million members, and the American Expeditionary Force in France included over a million troops, about half of whom saw combat. The Americans relied heavily on the British and French for equipment, but made good use of the equipment received, putting dozens of artillery battalions and even four tank battalions into action against the Germans. Sadly, these American troops had to learn things the hard way. At Cantigny, Chateau-Thierry, Belleau Wood, Saint-Mihiel, and the Meuse-Argonne they would pay in blood for the expertise the British and French had earned at such high cost at places like Verdun, the Somme, the Marne, the Aisne, Passchendaele, Ypres, and Arras.

But all of that was in the future. In April 1917, a visitor to the 400+ miles of trenches along the Western Front might be forgiven for not knowing that America had entered the war; there was no immediate material effect. There was, however, a psychological effect: now the Allied troops had a glimmer of hope, because now they knew “The Yanks are coming.”

Post on America’s slide toward war:

National World War I Museum page on America’s Entry into the Great War:

US Department of State Historian website:

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Historical Figures Great and Small

A great challenge and joy of writing historical fiction is learning about historical figures, both great and small, and working them into my novels. Sometimes I only know them as names on a centuries-old roster, but those names represent real people who once participated in monumental events.

Gideon Hawke is a fictional character. His name, description, and character traits are all products of my imagination. Ruth Munroe is a fictional character, but her surname has roots in Lexington, Massachusetts. By contrast, Andrew Johnston was a real person. I know absolutely nothing about the real Andrew Johnston…aside from the fact that he was one of the original members of Thompson’s Rifle Battalion/the 1st Continental Regiment, he was promoted to sergeant , and [SPOILER ALERT…READERS MAY WANT TO AVERT THEIR EYES] eventually he became an officer, reaching the rank of First Lieutenant on May 12th, 1779. Everything else about him, from the image in my mind to the description on my “character chart,” is fiction, roughly based on my limited knowledge of Johnston’s life and times. Fictional Andrew Johnston is one of my favorite characters; real Andrew Johnston was one of the “winter soldiers” who stayed with Washington during the bad times; through his stubbornness and determination he helped keep the dream alive.

I have recently enjoyed getting to know a few other real characters, all of whom appear in Gideon Hawke #4: A Constant Thunder.

  • Lieutenant Colonel Richard Butler. Butler grew up in his father’s Pennsylvania gunsmith business, and prior to the war was very active in trading with Native American tribes. He was held in high esteem by, and spoke the languages of, several nations, so in the early years of the war he played a key role in keeping some tribes from going over to the British side. He was later commissioned in the Continental Army. A physically strong, hot-tempered man, and pre-war friend of Colonel Daniel Morgan, he served as Morgan’s second-in-command in the Rifle Corps during the Saratoga Campaign. He will play an increasingly large role in Gideon’s life.
  • Captain James Parr. Parr was another original member of Thompson’s Rifle Battalion. When Morgan formed his rifle corps, Parr joined it, commanding the company drawn from the 1st Continental/1st Pennsylvania Regiment. I know very little about Parr aside from his service record. One thing I do know is the tantalizing fact that in the summer of 1777, in small-scale skirmishing, he was personally credited with killing four enemy soldiers in close combat, running at least one through with his sword. Clearly he led from the front! Parr and Gideon will get to know each other very well.
  • Lieutenant Ebenezer Foster. Ebenezer Foster hailed from southeast Massachusetts. He joined the militia in 1777 and served in the Siege of Boston, being involved in the fortification of the Dorchester Heights in March 1776. Commissioned as an officer in the summer of 1777, his service ultimately took him to the Hudson Valley, where he joined Dearborn’s Light Infantry Battalion. Dearborn’s unit worked under Morgan’s command in support of the Rifle Corps. Together, these two units made an incredibly effective team, whose impact at Saratoga was far out of proportion to its numbers. But the price these units paid, especially the Light Infantry, was very dear indeed. In A Constant Thunder, Ebenezer Foster and Gideon Hawke are boyhood friends who meet again in the shadow of great events.

It gives me pause when I realize that I am appropriating the names of people who fought in the great struggle for Independence. I pray that I do them justice. I cannot pretend to be delivering true-to-life portrayals, but I can say I do my best with the information I can find. Perhaps by shedding new light on their names I am at least helping to keep alive their memory I am certainly expressing my gratitude for their toils and sacrifices.

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100 Years On: America Slides Toward the Great War

 “He kept us out of war.”

-Woodrow Wilson Re-election Campaign Slogan, 1916

“The world must be made safe for democracy.”

-Woodrow Wilson to a special session of Congress, requesting a Declaration of War, April 2nd, 1917

One hundred years ago public opinion in the United States was nearing the culmination of a seismic shift. When the First World War broke out in 1914, popular opinion was overwhelmingly against American involvement in “Europe’s war.” Two years later, President Woodrow Wilson successfully campaigned for re-election based on his record of achievements, especially his maintenance of American neutrality. But less than six months after the election, Wilson was the leader of a united nation, asking for Congress to declare war. What happened in those few months?

What happened was that Germany made a number of strategic decisions that made war with the United States a near certainty. The year 1916 had been a costly one for Germany: its effort to bleed France to death at Verdun had proven futile, the months-long battle on the Somme had sapped away even more blood and treasure, and there had even been setbacks on the Eastern Front with Russia going on the offensive. While Germany was still strong, some of its allies were growing shaky, and the long-term strategic outlook was bleak. As long as France and Great Britain were being sustained by American loans, food, and war materials, it seemed unlikely that the balance would swing Germany’s way. In Berlin, a return to unrestricted submarine warfare seemed worth the risk: if Germany could starve Great Britain into submission it could win the war.


Sinking of the Lusitania

So, what was ‘unrestricted submarine warfare? Simply put, it was what you probably think of when you hear the term “U-Boat:” it means submarine crews attacking merchant ships without warning. By the rules of maritime warfare, warships were supposed to warn merchant ships, and allow the crews to abandon ship, before sinking them. For a vessel as small and fragile as a submarine this was a risky proposition. If the merchant ship had a hidden deck gun, or if it could alert a nearby friendly warship, the tables would quickly turn on the German U-Boat crew. In 1915 the outrage caused by the sinking of the passenger ship Lusitania had caused the Germans to suspend unrestricted warfare. In 1917, the benefit seemed to outweigh the cost. Fully aware that the United States might declare war once its ships started sinking again, the Germans tried to minimize the effect of US entry with a very clumsy diplomatic maneuver: the Zimmerman Telegram.

Knowing that Mexico still resented its loss of territory to the United States resulting from their 1848 war, German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmerman sent a telegram to the Mexican government offering it American territory (from California east into Colorado) if it joined the war on the side of the Central Powers. British intelligence intercepted the telegram and was only too happy to pass it along to the Wilson Administration. This telegram, coupled with the sinking of several American merchant ships in March, 1917, turned the tide of public opinion.

Many Americans had been uncomfortable with Germany’s perceived atrocities, such as its invasion of Belgium, execution of civilians, bombardment of cultural sites, espionage and sabotage in America and Canada, incitement of labor riots in the United States, introduction of weaponized poison gas, and Zeppelin raids on London. With the rapid-fire events of January to March 1917, discomfort changed to outrage. On Main Street, USA, it seemed that in spite of America’s strict policy of neutrality (a neutrality Germany would dispute) Germany was deliberately picking a fight. And, so the thinking went, if the Germans wanted a fight, then by God they were going to get it.

National World War I Museum–Learning materials on America’s Entry into the War:

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Resources Big and Small: The Internet

“The Internet is like a magic eight ball of the 21st century. You can always get an answer there. It may not be true, but you can always get an answer.”

-Stephen King (

Stephen King is absolutely right! The internet is a wonderful resource for writers…you’ve just got to be careful out there!

Much of what you find on the internet these days is garbage. Anyone and everyone can say anything they want about anything they want. Imagine my surprise last week when I was researching a topic and Google pointed me towards a blog post by ME! (talk about an unreliable source!) A fun game you can play is to try to figure out where various website get there information; I find it fascinating how so many pages are simply copy/paste jobs. One user writes something, or copies something from a book or online resource, and then website after website copies the same information verbatim. There is no comment, no assessment, no analysis…just copy/paste. The same questionable material can be reproduced over and over like a virus. (hmmmm…this sounds like the premise for a sci-fi horror novel) When it comes to internet research, it is definitely USER BEWARE!

That said the internet can connect people in new and exciting ways. My favorite recent example: I was doing research on Hudson River navigation in the 1700s, and trying to learn more about the bateau, the “eighteen wheeler / Pullman car” of Eighteenth Century North America. After running into a few brick walls, I stumbled upon a website called The Big Row (, which catalogues the adventures of reenactors who put bateaux through their paces every year. Not only did I learn a great deal, but I also established contact with the websites creator/bateau captain, Dave Manthey! Dave’s insights were invaluable to me in understanding the people and craft of the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers, thus adding authenticity to my work in progress, A Constant Thunder. Persistence and creativity in searching can pay off handsomely!

Then there is the little trick of knowing the resources available. A few days ago I was writing a scene in which Gideon Hawke is an officer of the guard; it is nighttime, and being a good officer he ventures out to check on his sentries. At his first stop he is challenged! The sentry tells him to halt, and challenges him with the “parole” word. “Wait,” I asked myself, “What would be a good parole word?” I considered making something up, but then I remembered that the National Archives, in cooperation with the University of Virginia Press, have digitized a tremendous number of primary source documents from the Founding Fathers. The Continental Army’s daily General Order contained the parole and countersign, so a simple Bing search (sorry, Google, you didn’t find the document I needed) for “General Orders April 18, 1777” brought me to General Washington’s General Orders for the 18th of April, 1777. Boom! When Private George Houseman directs Lieutenant Hawke to advance and be recognized, his challenge doesn’t just sound authentic, it REALLY IS AUTHENTIC! It is the actual challenge used in the American camp at Morristown in 1777. ( ; and in case you are wondering, the parole was “Georgia” and the Countersign was “Samptown.”) How’s that for research?

Thirty years ago it would have required a prodigious effort for an author living in the Midwest to gather the kind of information I just discussed. Now it is a few keystrokes and clicks away. I am deeply indebted to folks like Dave Manthey, and the folks behind the keyboards at the University of Virginia Press—by doing valuable work and sharing it online, they are making the internet a useful tool, not just a “Wretched hive of scum and villainy.” I am still very wary of information I find out on the net, but it is definitely worth sorted through the garbage to find the gems.

A Nest of Hornets on Amazon:


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A Constant Thunder: Time

Time. That’s the killer!

If I could plug a USB cable into my head, I could probably download A Constant Thunder in its entirety. Unfortunately that is not how it works! (Actually, I’m pretty glad it doesn’t work that way. Who knows what weirdness might spill out of my head!)

In my mind’s eye I can see pretty much all of Gideon Hawke #4. The march north from New Jersey, the water journey up the Hudson, Gideon’s first encounter with his native American enemies (OK, I wrote that part already), the skirmishing in the primeval forests, the savage fighting at Freeman’s Farm and Bemis Heights, etc. But it is so hard to scrape together the time to commit it all to digits! And all the while, my self-imposed deadline races closer and closer.

And you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it’s sinking / Racing around to come up behind you again.*

I know that somehow it will get done. It always does.

I am incredibly excited about this novel, even more so than the first three. Maybe it is because of how the Saratoga Battlefield spoke to me—unlike Boston, the Raritan Crossing, Trenton, or Princeton it has not been developed. Certainly it has changed dramatically in nearly 240 years, but at Saratoga you can peer out from behind a tree and almost see the red coats and gleaming muskets emerging from the Great Ravine. I so want to get this novel written!

Besides that, I have another problem: A Constant Thunder is jostling for room in my head with Gideon Hawke #5 and #6! Yes, in large part I already have them roughly outlined in my head, and I have some brilliant ideas for individual scenes. I have more research to do for each, but before long they will be ready for USB download as well! So much writing to do! So little time! Will I get it all done?

Every year is getting shorter, never seem to find the time / Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines*

No. I will not fail. I will bring these novels to life! If nothing else I owe to the characters who live in my head, and to my small but wonderful group of loyal readers!

So…enough blogging. Pink Floyd and I need to get back to writing historical fiction. Until next week!

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* Props to Roger Waters for the lyrics from Time: Poetry at its finest.

Where Armies Go, the Pox Follows: Smallpox in the American Revolution

The Number 1 killer of soldiers and civilians during the American Revolution was smallpox.

Now that this disease has been eradicated the name “Smallpox” no longer invokes the terror it once did. During the American Revolution however, 90% of deaths in the Continental Army were due to disease, and the two strains of Variola smallpox virus were the most brutal of these afflictions. Smallpox was also the target of the first military inoculation campaign in history.

Smallpox is a highly contagious disease characterized first by a rash and then by raised, fluid-filled blisters over the entire body. The mortality rate could be up to 35%. Over 60% of survivors suffered from scarring, and some might experience blindness, arthritis, or even limb deformation. This disease plagued humanity since at least the time of Ancient Egypt, and by the 1700s it was killing hundreds of thousands of Europeans annually. Having had no prior exposure to the disease, and thus no immunity, smallpox devastated Native American tribes when Europeans infected them (sometimes deliberately).

During the Siege of Boston in 1775-1776 a smallpox outbreak struck the British garrison in Boston, and threatened to cross the siege lines to infect the American forces. Because of its prevalence in Europe and relative scarcity in the Americas, the British troop population, was less susceptible to the disease than the Americans. A significant percentage of British troops had either survived the disease or been inoculated (exposed to a less deadly strain), and were thus immune. Far fewer colonists had any prior exposure to smallpox, thus they were highly susceptible to infection. The Continental Army was lucky outside Boston, but the pox made its full fury felt among the American troops sent to invade Quebec in 1775. During the Siege of Quebec the British intentionally released numerous sick Canadian civilians, who subsequently infected the besieging Americans. This outbreak seriously weakened the attackers, contributing to the expedition’s ultimate failure. It also served as a loud and clear warning to the Commander-in-Chief, General George Washington.

During a trip to Barbados as a young man, Washington had contracted and survived smallpox, so he was keenly aware of the disease’s effects. He was also aware of the risks of inoculation: not only would inoculated troops be sickened, but some would die. There was also the potential that inoculated troops could actually spread the disease, causing an outbreak. Fear of inoculation was so great that in 1776 the Continental Congress forbade military surgeons from so treating the troops, but in February of 1777 Washington made the momentous decision to inoculate the 75% of the Continental Army who had not previously been exposed to the disease. Currently serving troops would receive the jab, as would new recruits, who would not join their units until healthy and immune. All of this was done in the greatest secrecy; had the British discovered that large numbers of American troops were sick due to inoculation, they might have attacked, dealing Washington’s Army a fatal blow.

In spite of the risks, Washington’s inoculation program, the first in military history, was a complete success. Subsequent to 1777, at no point were the British able to benefit from the ravages of smallpox in American units. In fact, the few smallpox outbreaks that did occur were very localized, and had minimal impact on Continental Army operations. The British and their Hessian allies were not defeated until 1781, but by combining cutting edge medical technology with a daring command decision, Washington won a decisive victory over smallpox in 1777.

Gideon Hawke and Ruth Munroe will witness firsthand the ravages of smallpox in the forthcoming Gideon Hawke #4: A Constant Thunder.

Library of Congress article on George Washington and Smallpox inoculation:

Mount Vernon article on Smallpox, including an informative video:

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The Forage War: Spanktown

On February 23rd, 1777 the British and Americans fought one of the largest battles of the Forage War at Spanktown, near modern-day Rahway, NJ.

Increasingly frustrated by American attacks on their foraging parties, the British command unleashed Lieutenant Colonel Charles Mahwood, the aggressive British commander who very nearly won the day at Princeton. With four British infantry regiments, plus a battalion each of light infantry and grenadiers, Mahwood was well-equipped to challenge any American Continental or Militia units that stood in his way.

Happening upon a small American foraging party covered by a brigade of New Jersey Continentals on a nearby hilltop, Mahwood deployed his troops for battle. He launched a grenadier company on a wide flanking movement, preparatory to a massed bayonet assault. The British moved confidently, prepared to overcome American resistance with cold steel. Then the Americans sprang the trap.


Possible deployments at Spanktown, from A Nest of Hornets

The New Jersey units were bait. Hiding in ambush was a Pennsylvania Brigade including Colonel Edward Hand’s 1st Pennsylvania (formerly called both Thompson’s Rifle Battalion and the First Continental Regiment). The grenadier company unwittingly marched across the front of the hidden Pennsylvanians, who sprang from concealment and fired a volley which annihilated the flanking force. Both the New Jersey and Pennsylvania brigades now maneuvered aggressively against Mahwood’s remaining troops who, outnumbered and outflanked, fell back. The light infantry and grenadier battalions fought a brief rearguard action as the infantry regiments withdrew. Lieutenant Colonel Mahwood must be credited with escaping with most of his force intact, but the retreat soon turned into a route.


The British were not only driven from the field with significant losses, but the Americans pursued them all the way to the British stronghold in the Amboys. It must have been an agonizing defeat for the British hero of Princeton. More importantly, it foretold the successes of a Continental Army that, in eight months’ time, would bring General John Burgoyne to heel at Saratoga.

You can experience the Battle of Spanktown from a participant’s point of view in the novel A Nest of Hornets.

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