Crossing a body of water at nighttime is one of the most difficult military maneuvers. Unfortunately for George Washington and the Continental Army, who were amateurs in the art of war, they would need to do it twice. If they failed, the army would be destroyed or disappear. Fortunately, the American Revolution had General John Glover on hand. Twice in the pivotal year 1776, the fate of the country and the world was in his hands. Fortunately, they were capable ones. General John Glover would use his special skills to save the war and American independence – twice.
General John Glover: Background
The future General John Glover was born in Salem to a working class family. His father died when he was only four. He nevertheless seized opportunities to move up in society, eventually becoming a merchant who owned several ships. Like so many other veterans of the American Revolution, his anti-British sentiments came during this time, through practical experience. The British frequently searched his ships for contraband without probable cause. The Royal Navy also impressed his sailors and he saw the corruption of British customs officials first-hand.
As a result, John Glover joined the Massachusetts militia. Like Theodore Roosevelt, he believed in the value of preparedness. The militias in those times were not professional, disciplined fighting forces. They elected their own officers, for example. Nevertheless, the experience added to his talent stack, which would become crucial during the American Revolution to come.
The Boston Massacre solidified the sentiments he had formed against Britain a decade earlier. As a result, John Glover joined the local Committee of Correspondence, which coordinated American opposition to Britain’s actions. In 1775, just before the outbreak of war, he was wisely elected lieutenant colonel in his local militia and, just when the American Revolution began, became Colonel of the unit.
He and his men took part in the Siege of Boston in a most unique way. When George Washington arrived to take command, John Glover offered one of his old fishing ships to the Continental Army for $1 per ton per month. General Washington accepted, commissioned the vessel as the USS Hannah, and ordered the crew to raid British seaborne supply lines:
cruize against such vessels as may be found . . . bound inward and outward to and from Boston, in the service of the [British] army, and to take and seize all such vessels, laden with soldiers, arms, ammunition, or provisions . . . which you shall have good reason to suspect are in such service.
John Glover later offered more ships, plugging the gap until the Continental Navy arrived on the scene. The British evacuated Boston in early 1776, but it was the calm before the storm. Meanwhile, John Glover’s unit became the 14th Continental Regiment, and it had a reputation for amphibious feats, because most of its personnel were men of the sea. Though they were not in the new navy, their waterborne experience would prove crucial in one of the pivotal moments of the war, when the Continental Army was close to annihilation.
The Evacuation of Long Island
Despite early successes, 1776 morphed into a disaster for the Patriot cause in the second half of the year, shortly after independence was declared in Philadelphia. The British sent a massive fleet to New York City in retaliation for the events of that winter and spring. It was the largest force to cross the Atlantic until the boot was on the other foot and the United States sent its army east across the Pond during World War I.
The resulting Battle of Long Island was a disaster for the Patriot cause. George Washington’s conduct in setting up his defenses was far from satisfactory, as he had left a crossroads unguarded. It soon became infamous as the Jamaica Pass. When the British General Sir Henry Clinton got word of this pass by Loyalist informers, he drew up a plan to outflank the Continental Army:
The attack should begin on the enemy’s right by signal; and a share taken in it even by the fleet, which (as the tide will then suit) may get under way and make every demonstration of forcing by the enemy’s batteries in the East River, without, however, committing themselves. The efforts to be made by the army will be along the dos d’ane at the points of Flatbush, New Utrecht, etc. These [are] the principle [attacks]; many others small ones to cooperate. They should all be vigorous but not too obstinately persisted in, except that which is designed to turn the left of the rebels, which should be pushed as far as it will go. The moment this corps gets possession of the pass above Howard’s House, the rebels must quit directly or be ruined (1776, pg. 183).
General Clinton, who later commanded the entire British force in North America during the Revolution, was lampooned as the “shy bitch” by his peers, but he had a killer instinct that other redcoat officers in the American Revolution lacked. The attack through the Jamaica Pass on the night of August 26-7th, 1776, was a huge success. The Continental Army was pushed all the way to the East River. Its back was now against a wall of water.
As the British trenches slowly crept toward his lines, General Washington sent for reinforcements from Manhattan. Among them was Colonel John Glover and his 14th Massachusetts Regiment. General Washington had always admired these men because of their discipline. Used to the rigor of maritime life, they had no objections to taking on hardships and working as a team to carry out orders.
General Washington and his officers made the decision to evacuate, and he ordered any available boat in the city to come to him in Brooklyn. However, evacuating without capturing the redcoats’ attention would be almost impossible. It had to be done under cover of darkness, and furthermore, the Royal Navy would need to be avoided. Nobody other than John Glover and his seamen could pull off such a feat.
There was also a blessing and a curse to deal with. A powerful storm with a northeasterly wind had arrived on the 28th and lasted into the 29th. It added to the cover and prevented the Royal Navy from properly patrolling the East River. The problem was that the wind would also prove a serious obstacle to any American retreat. The rain finally stopped as night fell, but the winds were still as rough as ever, preventing a crossing.
And then a miraculous event occurred, with John Glover there to take advantage of it. We are given some of the details in 1776:
It was about eleven o’clock when, as if by design, the northeast wind died down. Then the wind shifted to the southwest and a small armada of boats manned by more of John Glover’s Massachusetts sailors and fishermen started over the river from New York, Glover himself crossing to Brooklyn to give directions.
Glover’s men proved as crucial as the change in the wind. In a feat of extraordinary seamanship, at the helm and manning oars hour after hour, they negotiated the river’s swift, contrary currents in boats so loaded with troops and supplies, horses and cannon, that the water was often but inches below the gunnels – and all in pitch dark, with no running lights. Few men ever had so much riding on their skill, or were under such pressure, or performed so superbly (pg. 188).
John Glover and his men accomplished something truly extraordinary that night. An orderly withdrawal of defeated troops is a formidable enough task, let alone over water, let alone at night, let alone with a hostile navy in the area. A major in the Continental Army, Benjamin Tallmadge, summed it up:
To move so large a body of troops, with all their necessary appendages, across a river full a mile wide, with a rapid current, in face of a victorious and well-disciplined army nearly three times as numerous as his [Washington’s] own, and a fleet capable of stopping the navigation, so that not one boat could have passed over, seemed to present most formidable obstacles (pg. 187).
Indeed, the failure of the Royal Navy to adequately patrol the waters that night, after the storm passed, was one of Britain’s biggest of the American Revolution, but the opportunity would have mattered little if John Glover and his men were not there to take advantage.
For all their skill, John Glover and his men were still behind schedule as daybreak came. But fortune aided them again in the form of a thick fog that settled over the area. The last troops evacuated at about 7:00 AM. General Washington was among the last. The British were stunned when they at last discovered what had happened.
John Glover and his men had saved the American Revolution on August 29-30th, 1776. It would not be the last time in that pivotal and disastrous year.
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The Ferry Across the Frozen Delaware
The defeat at Long Island was the beginning of a string of disasters for the Continental Army. The force which had once numbered in the tens of thousands disintegrated over months of casualties and desertion. By the end of the year, it was a pathetic rump, and most of the remaining enlistments would expire in days.
By this time, General George Washington understood that the army was the beating heart of the American Revolution. If it existed, the cause would go on. If it met destruction, the American Revolution would end. Unfortunately, that cause faced almost certain destruction in the last days of December, 1776. The army’s general needed to pull off a magic trick to restore morale, or the remaining enlistments would expire.
To save the American Revolution, Washington decided to launch a surprise attack on the Hessians in Trenton, New Jersey, who were confident that the campaign was over and were particularly hated by the Patriots. Attacking them would require another nighttime crossing of a river, though, and this time in freezing temperatures. Once again, George Washington relied on the capable John Glover. He and his men decided to shuttle the troops across at a narrow point called McConkey’s Ferry. Yet, it was a most difficult crossing nonetheless:
Under normal conditions the width of the river at McConkey’s Ferry was about eight hundred feet, but with the water as high as it was that night, the distance was greater by fifty feet or more, and the current strong, the ice formidable, as all accounts attest (pg. 274-5).
General Henry Knox, later the first Secretary of War, described John Glover and his regiment’s labors as “almost incredible,” given the “almost infinite difficulty” of shuttling the horses and cannon to the other side. In other boats, men were crammed in as tightly as possible, as the mariners ferried them over using poles and oars, navigating the ice.
General Washington was an early crosser. Soon, a storm arrived, and while this gave him cover (as had been the case during the crossing at Long Island), it made the crossing more difficult. Nevertheless, John Glover and his men were experienced seamen, and accomplished their mission, albeit three hours behind schedule.
The subsequent attack on Trenton is of course, world-famous, and I covered those details in my chapter on it in the “Critical Battles Series” on Patreon here.
John Glover would later be promoted to Brigadier General. No promotion was more well-earned. He served with distinction in the Saratoga campaign which proved so pivotal in eventually bringing the American Revolution to a successful close. He spent most of his remaining military service stationed along the Hudson River to keep the British bottled up in New York City. No one would be more adequate at such a task, even if it meant he missed the “exciting” parts of the war from 1778 onward.
After the American Revolution, General John Glover returned to his home in Marblehead. There, he was elected to local office and was part of the Massachusetts convention that ratified the Constitution.
He died in 1797. The houses he frequented still stand, including his wartime home (now a national historic landmark) and retirement farm, which was once an inn and then a restaurant before being abandoned in the 1990s.
General John Glover seems to not have been a man concerned about his personal glory, but that is why he won it all the same. By saving the American Revolution, the country is his monument. He built up valuable skills and trusted them. Sometimes, it is as simple as that.
Be a good man, build your skills, and prepare to take advantage of good fortune. Look for it even in the worst circumstances. Lives of the Luminaries is packed full of other examples.
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