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Rebellion : (Y50) INF

Rebellion : (Y50) INF



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On the 8th, June, 1381. Yalding is visited by William Gildbourne from Fobbing in Essex.

I have been sent to see you by Wat Tyler. He wants me to tell you what has been happening during the last few days. On the 30th May, the king's tax collector, Thomas Bampton, sent a message to our village that we had to assemble in Brentwood. When we arrived in the town we saw that people from the villages of Corringham and Stanford were also there. Bampton told us that we had to pay our poll tax. We tried to tell him that we had paid the tax in March but he refused to believe us. Thomas Baker showed Bampton the receipt that the tax collector had given to us, but Bampton said it was a forgery. When we refused to pay any more money, Bampton threatened to arrest us. There were over 300 people in Brentwood and we were able to force Bampton and his two soldiers to go back to London.

After Bampton left, we went into the forest and made a camp. We sent out messages about what had happened in Brentwood to other villages in the area. On 2nd June news reached us that the Chief Justice, Sir Robert Belknap, and his soldiers, had arrived in Brentwood. We heard that Belknap only had a few soldiers so armed with scythes, sickles and a few old swords, we went back to Brentwood. When Belknap saw so many angry people he left very quickly.

The next day, we heard how a serf from Rochester called John Belling had been captured by soldiers in Gravesend. Belling was taken back to Sir Simon Burley at Rochester Castle. We decided to march on Rochester and rescue Belling. When we arrived a large crowd led by Robert Cave, a baker from Dartford, had surrounded the castle. Sir John Newton, the constable of the castle, was so frightened he let John Belling go.

Cave told us that John Ball had been imprisoned in Maidstone. He said we should march to Maidstone and rescue him. On the way we broke into several manor houses and destroyed all the documents we could find. For as you all know, without these the lord of the manor will not be able to force serfs to do labour service.

We arrived in Maidstone on 7th June. A meeting was held and we chose Wat Tyler from Colchester to become our leader. We then marched on the prison and freed John Ball. Tyler then asked for volunteers to take Ball's letters to the people of England. Wat Tyler wants you to meet at Maidstone. When we have enough people, we plan to march to London to see the king.

Maidstone, 7th June, 1381

People of Yalding. Now is the time. Stand together in God's name.

John Ball


Did African-American Slaves Rebel?

One of the most pernicious allegations made against the African-American people was that our slave ancestors were either exceptionally “docile” or “content and loyal,” thus explaining their purported failure to rebel extensively. Some even compare enslaved Americans to their brothers and sisters in Brazil, Cuba, Suriname and Haiti, the last of whom defeated the most powerful army in the world, Napoleon’s army, becoming the first slaves in history to successfully strike a blow for their own freedom.

As the historian Herbert Aptheker informs us in American Negro Slave Revolts, no one put this dishonest, nakedly pro-slavery argument more baldly than the Harvard historian James Schouler in 1882, who attributed this spurious conclusion to ” ‘the innate patience, docility, and child-like simplicity of the negro’ ” who, he felt, was an ” ‘imitator and non-moralist,’ ” learning ” ‘deceit and libertinism with facility,’ ” being ” ‘easily intimidated, incapable of deep plots’ “ in short, Negroes were ” ‘a black servile race, sensuous, stupid, brutish, obedient to the whip, children in imagination.’ ”

Consider how bizarre this was: It wasn’t enough that slaves had been subjugated under a harsh and brutal regime for two and a half centuries following the collapse of Reconstruction, this school of historians — unapologetically supportive of slavery — kicked the slaves again for not rising up more frequently to kill their oppressive masters. And lest we think that this phenomenon was relegated to 19th- and early 20th-century scholars, as late as 1959, Stanley Elkins drew a picture of the slaves as infantilized “Sambos” in his book Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life, reduced to the status of the passive, “perpetual child” by the severely oppressive form of American slavery, and thus unable to rebel. Rarely can I think of a colder, nastier set of claims than these about the lack of courage or “manhood” of the African-American slaves.

So, did African-American slaves rebel? Of course they did. As early as 1934, our old friend Joel A. Rogers identified 33 slave revolts, including Nat Turner’s, in his 100 Amazing Facts. And nine years later, the historian Herbert Aptheker published his pioneering study, American Negro Slave Revolts, to set the record straight. Aptheker defined a slave revolt as an action involving 10 or more slaves, with “freedom as the apparent aim [and] contemporary references labeling the event as an uprising, plot, insurrection, or the equivalent of these.” In all, Aptheker says, he “has found records of approximately two hundred and fifty revolts and conspiracies in the history of American Negro slavery.” Other scholars have found as many as 313.

Let’s consider the five greatest slave rebellions in the United States, about which Donald Yacovone and I write in the forthcoming companion book to my new PBS series, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross.

1. Stono Rebellion, 1739. The Stono Rebellion was the largest slave revolt ever staged in the 13 colonies. On Sunday, Sept. 9, 1739, a day free of labor, about 20 slaves under the leadership of a man named Jemmy provided whites with a painful lesson on the African desire for liberty. Many members of the group were seasoned soldiers, either from the Yamasee War or from their experience in their homes in Angola, where they were captured and sold, and had been trained in the use of weapons.

They gathered at the Stono River and raided a warehouse-like store, Hutchenson’s, executing the white owners and placing their victims’ heads on the store’s front steps for all to see. They moved on to other houses in the area, killing the occupants and burning the structures, marching through the colony toward St. Augustine, Fla., where under Spanish law, they would be free.

As the march proceeded, not all slaves joined the insurrection in fact, some hung back and actually helped hide their masters. But many were drawn to it, and the insurrectionists soon numbered about 100. They paraded down King’s Highway, according to sources, carrying banners and shouting, “Liberty!” — lukango in their native Kikongo, a word that would have expressed the English ideals embodied in liberty and, perhaps, salvation.

The slaves fought off the English for more than a week before the colonists rallied and killed most of the rebels, although some very likely reached Fort Mose. Even after Colonial forces crushed the Stono uprising, outbreaks occurred, including the very next year, when South Carolina executed at least 50 additional rebel slaves.

2. The New York City Conspiracy of 1741. With about 1,700 blacks living in a city of some 7,000 whites appearing determined to grind every person of African descent under their heel, some form of revenge seemed inevitable. In early 1741, Fort George in New York burned to the ground. Fires erupted elsewhere in the city — four in one day — and in New Jersey and on Long Island. Several white people claimed they had heard slaves bragging about setting the fires and threatening worse. They concluded that a revolt had been planned by secret black societies and gangs, inspired by a conspiracy of priests and their Catholic minions — white, black, brown, free and slave.

Certainly there were coherent ethnic groups who might have led a resistance, among them the Papa, from the Slave Coast near Whydah (Ouidah) in Benin the Igbo, from the area around the Niger River and the Malagasy, from Madagascar. Another identifiable and suspect group was known among the conspirators as the “Cuba People,” “negroes and mulattoes” captured in the early spring of 1740 in Cuba. They had probably been brought to New York from Havana, the greatest port of the Spanish West Indies and home to a free black population. Having been “free men in their own country,” they rightly felt unjustly enslaved in New York.

A 16-year-old Irish indentured servant, under arrest for theft, claimed knowledge of a plot by the city’s slaves — in league with a few whites — to kill white men, seize white women and incinerate the city. In the investigation that followed, 30 black men, two white men and two white women were executed. Seventy people of African descent were exiled to far-flung places like Newfoundland, Madeira, Saint-Domingue (which at independence from the French in 1804 was renamed Haiti) and Curaçao. Before the end of the summer of 1741, 17 blacks would be hanged and 13 more sent to the stake, becoming ghastly illuminations of white fears ignited by the institution of slavery they so zealously defended.

3. Gabriel’s Conspiracy, 1800. Born prophetically in 1776 on the Prosser plantation, just six miles north of Richmond, Va., and home (to use the term loosely) to 53 slaves, a slave named Gabriel would hatch a plot, with freedom as its goal, that was emblematic of the era in which he lived.

A skilled blacksmith who stood more than six feet tall and dressed in fine clothes when he was away from the forge, Gabriel cut an imposing figure. But what distinguished him more than his physical bearing was his ability to read and write: Only 5 percent of Southern slaves were literate.

Other slaves looked up to men like Gabriel, and Gabriel himself found inspiration in the French and Saint-Domingue revolutions of 1789. He imbibed the political fervor of the era and concluded, albeit erroneously, that Jeffersonian democratic ideology encompassed the interests of black slaves and white workingmen alike, who, united, could oppose the oppressive Federalist merchant class.

Spurred on by two liberty-minded French soldiers he met in a tavern, Gabriel began to formulate a plan, enlisting his brother Solomon and another servant on the Prosser plantation in his fight for freedom. Word quickly spread to Richmond, other nearby towns and plantations and well beyond to Petersburg and Norfolk, via free and enslaved blacks who worked the waterways. Gabriel took a tremendous risk in letting so many black people learn of his plans: It was necessary as a means of attracting supporters, but it also exposed him to the possibility of betrayal.

Regardless, Gabriel persevered, aiming to rally at least 1,000 slaves to his banner of “Death or Liberty,” an inversion of the famed cry of the slaveholding revolutionary Patrick Henry. With incredible daring — and naïveté — Gabriel determined to march to Richmond, take the armory and hold Gov. James Monroe hostage until the merchant class bent to the rebels’ demands of equal rights for all. He planned his uprising for August 30 and publicized it well.

But on that day, one of the worst thunderstorms in recent memory pummeled Virginia, washing away roads and making travel all but impossible. Undeterred, Gabriel believed that only a small band was necessary to carry out the plan. But many of his followers lost faith, and he was betrayed by a slave named Pharoah, who feared retribution if the plot failed.

The rebellion was barely under way when the state captured Gabriel and several co-conspirators. Twenty-five African Americans, worth about $9,000 or so — money that cash-strapped Virginia surely thought it could ill afford — were hanged together before Gabriel went to the gallows and was executed, alone.

4. German Coast Uprising, 1811. If the Haitian Revolution between 1791 and 1804 — spearheaded by Touissant Louverture and fought and won by black slaves under the leadership of Jean-Jacques Dessalines — struck fear in the hearts of slave owners everywhere, it struck a loud and electrifying chord with African slaves in America.

In 1811, about 40 miles north of New Orleans, Charles Deslondes, a mulatto slave driver on the Andry sugar plantation in the German Coast area of Louisiana, took volatile inspiration from that victory seven years prior in Haiti. He would go on to lead what the young historian Daniel Rasmussen calls the largest and most sophisticated slave revolt in U.S. history in his book American Uprising. (The Stono Rebellion had been the largest slave revolt on these shores to this point, but that occurred in the colonies, before America won its independence from Great Britain.) After communicating his intentions to slaves on the Andry plantation and in nearby areas, on the rainy evening of Jan. 8, Deslondes and about 25 slaves rose up and attacked the plantation’s owner and family. They hacked to death one of the owner’s sons, but carelessly allowed the master to escape.

That was a tactical mistake to be sure, but Deslondes and his men had wisely chosen the well-outfitted Andry plantation — a warehouse for the local militia — as the place to begin their revolt. They ransacked the stores and seized uniforms, guns and ammunition. As they moved toward New Orleans, intending to capture the city, dozens more men and women joined the cause, singing Creole protest songs while pillaging plantations and murdering whites. Some estimated that the force ultimately swelled to 300, but it’s unlikely that Deslondes’ army exceeded 124.

The South Carolina congressman, slave master and Indian fighter Wade Hampton was assigned the task of suppressing the insurrection. With a combined force of about 30 regular U.S. Army soldiers and militia, it would take Hampton two days to stop the rebels. They fought a pitched battle that ended only when the slaves ran out of ammunition, about 20 miles from New Orleans. In the slaughter that followed, the slaves’ lack of military experience was evident: The whites suffered no casualties, but when the slaves surrendered, about 20 insurgents lay dead, another 50 became prisoners and the remainder fled into the swamps.

By the end of the month, whites had rounded up another 50 insurgents. In short order, about 100 survivors were summarily executed, their heads severed and placed along the road to New Orleans. As one planter noted, they looked “like crows sitting on long poles.”

5. Nat Turner’s Rebellion, 1831. Born on Oct. 2, 1800, in Southampton County, Va., the week before Gabriel was hanged, Nat Turner impressed family and friends with an unusual sense of purpose, even as a child. Driven by prophetic visions and joined by a host of followers — but with no clear goals — on August 22, 1831, Turner and about 70 armed slaves and free blacks set off to slaughter the white neighbors who enslaved them.

In the early hours of the morning, they bludgeoned Turner’s master and his master’s wife and children with axes. By the end of the next day, the rebels had attacked about 15 homes and killed between 55 and 60 whites as they moved toward the religiously named county seat of Jerusalem, Va. Other slaves who had planned to join the rebellion suddenly turned against it after white militia began to attack Turner’s men, undoubtedly concluding that he was bound to fail. Most of the rebels were captured quickly, but Turner eluded authorities for more than a month.

On Sunday, Oct. 30, a local white man stumbled upon Turner’s hideout and seized him. A special Virginia court tried him on Nov. 5 and sentenced him to hang six days later. A barbaric scene followed his execution. Enraged whites took his body, skinned it, distributed parts as souvenirs and rendered his remains into grease. His head was removed and for a time sat in the biology department of Wooster College in Ohio. (In fact, it is likely that pieces of his body — including his skull and a purse made from his skin — have been preserved and are hidden in storage somewhere.)

Of his fellow rebels, 21 went to the gallows, and another 16 were sold away from the region. As the state reacted with harsher laws controlling black people, many free blacks fled Virginia for good. Turner remains a legendary figure, remembered for the bloody path he forged in his personal war against slavery, and for the grisly and garish way he was treated in death.

The heroism and sacrifices of these slave insurrectionists would be a prelude to the noble performance of some 200,000 black men who served so very courageously in the Civil War, the war that finally put an end to the evil institution that in 1860 chained some 3.9 million human beings to perpetual bondage.

Fifty of the 100 Amazing Facts will be published on The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross website. Read all 100 Facts on The Root.


Satsuma Rebellion: Battle of Shiroyama

The Battle of Shiroyama was the final engagement of the Satsuma Rebellion (1877) between the samurai and the Imperial Japanese Army.

Battle of Shiroyama Date:

The samurai were defeated by the Imperial Army on September 24, 1877.

Armies & Commanders at the Battle of Shiroyama:

Imperial Army

Battle of Shiroyama Summary:

Having risen up against the repression of the traditional samurai lifestyle and social structure, the samurai of Satsuma fought a series of battles on the Japanese island of Kyushu in 1877.

Led by Saigo Takamori, a former highly respected field marshal in the Imperial Army, the rebels initially besieged Kumamoto Castle in February. With the arrival of Imperial reinforcements, Saigo was forced to retreat and suffered a series of minor defeats. While he was able to keep his force intact, the engagements reduced his army to 3,000 men.

In late August, Imperial forces led by General Yamagata Aritomo surrounded the rebels on Mount Enodake. While many of Saigo's men desired to make a final stand on the mountain's slopes, their commander wished to continue their retreat back towards their base at Kagoshima. Slipping through the fog, they managed to elude Imperial troops and escaped. Reduced a mere 400 men, Saigo arrived in Kagoshima on September 1. Obtaining what supplies they could find, the rebels occupied the hill of Shiroyama outside of the city.

Arriving in the city, Yamagata was concerned that Saigo would once again slip away. Surrounding Shiroyama, he ordered his men to construct an elaborate system of trenches and earthworks to prevent the rebel's escape. Orders were also issued that when the assault came, units were not to move to each others support if one retreated. Instead, neighboring units were to fire into the area indiscriminately to keep the rebels from breaking through, even if it meant hitting other Imperial forces.

On September 23, two of Saigo's officers approached the Imperial lines under a flag of truce with the goal of negotiating a way to save their leader. Rebuffed, they were sent back with a letter from Yamagata imploring the rebels to surrender. Forbidden by honor to surrender, Saigo spent the night in a sake party with his officers. After midnight, Yamagata's artillery opened fire and was supported by warships in the harbor. Reducing the rebel's position, the Imperial troops attacked around 3:00 AM. Charging the Imperial lines, the samurai closed and engaged the government conscripts with their swords.

By 6:00 AM, only 40 of the rebels remained alive. Wounded in the thigh and stomach, Saigo had his friend Beppu Shinsuke carry him to a quiet spot where he committed seppuku. With their leader dead, Beppu led the remaining samurai in a suicidal charge against the enemy. Surging forward, they were cut down by Yamagata's Gatling guns.

The Battle of Shiroyama cost the rebels their entire force including the renowned Saigo Takamori. Imperial losses are not known. The defeat at Shiroyama ended the Satsuma Rebellion and broke the back of the samurai class. Modern weapons proved their superiority and the path was set for the building of a modern, Westernized Japanese army that included from people of all classes.


Excerpt from "America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s" by Elizabeth Hinton. Copyright © 2021 by Elizabeth Hinton. Reprinted with permission of Liveright, an imprint of W. W. Norton & Company.

New York Times: "Opinion | It's Police Violence That Spurs Black Rebellion" &mdash "The fires that engulfed dozens of cities over the past year seem tame by comparison to the extreme protests that defined American life roughly a half-century ago, when the nation endured domestic violence on a scale not seen since the Civil War."

New York Times: "Recasting ‘Riots’ as Black Rebellions" &mdash "America memorializes the civil rights movement’s modern era in sepia-toned images. Through the retrospective lens that valorizes this past even as it obscures essential aspects of it from the present, John Lewis, one of the peaceful demonstrators who faced down horrific violence as a Freedom Rider and on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, was acknowledged by the end of his life as an icon of personal dignity and civic virtue."

TIME: "Los Angeles Had a Chance to Build a Better City After the Rodney King Violence in 1992. Here's Why It Failed" &mdash "A peace movement took hold in Los Angeles during the most deadly and destructive rebellion in American history. The uprising was a reaction to systematic injustice rather than a direct response to police violence."

Boston Review: "Reclaiming the Power of Rebellion" &mdash "Protests are filled with symbolic figures. Four-minute die-ins on warm pavements to represent each hour that Michael Brown’s lifeless body lay in the August sun."

This program aired on May 24, 2021.


Unearthing the Roots of Black Rebellion

In “America on Fire,” the historian Elizabeth Hinton offers a sweeping reconsideration of the racial unrest that shook American cities in the 1960s and 70s.

Elizabeth Hinton wants history to help break cycles of police violence. &ldquoWe&rsquore never going to get out of this until we understand how we got here.&rdquo Credit. Ike Abakah for The New York Times

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — For her first book, “From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime,” the historian Elizabeth Hinton spent years digging through government archives, piecing together how bipartisan tough-on-crime federal legislation had funded an expansion of policing and set the stage for the mass incarceration we live with today.

She had been pursuing a classic directive — follow the money. But shortly after she finished the book, a chance conversation set her archival antennae quivering in a different way.

At a backyard barbecue, she met a political scientist who mentioned he had the archives of the Lemberg Center for the Study of Violence, a short-lived enterprise founded in 1965. Soon she found herself sorting through box after box of newspaper clippings documenting the racial disturbances across the country in the years that followed.

There were reports from the famous uprisings that rocked Watts, Newark, Detroit and other urban centers, including more than 100 that erupted after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968. But there were also articles documenting disturbances stretching well into the early ’70s, in Greensboro, N.C. Sylvester, Ga. Ocala, Fla. York, Penn. Waterloo, Iowa, and hundreds of other smaller cities and towns — events that had all but fallen out of public memory.

“It was just story after story after story after story,” Hinton recalled earlier this month, during a long interview on her back porch not far from the campus of Yale University, where she is a professor. “It was fascinating to see them come alive.”

Now, in a new book, “America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s,” Hinton offers a sweeping account of the turmoil. From May 1968 to December 1972, by her count, some 960 Black communities across the country saw 1,949 separate disturbances, resulting in nearly 40,000 arrests, with more than 10,000 people injured and at least 220 killed.

These incidents, which were often violent, were labeled “riots,” a label which has stuck, including in the scholarship. But Hinton argues that they must be understood as “rebellions” — part of a “sustained insurgency” against entrenched inequality and the harsh policing of the escalating war on crime.

It’s a lost chapter of history, she argues, but also one that’s crucial to understanding the mass protests against police violence in our own time, from Ferguson, Mo., in 2014 to seemingly everywhere in 2020 after the police killing of George Floyd.

“We are still living in the aftershocks of this period,” Hinton said. “The threat of Black rebellion,” she added, “is a key to understanding U.S. history, but especially to understanding the post-civil rights period, and how we get to mass incarceration.”

“America on Fire,” which will be published on May 18 by Liveright, comes trailing enthusiastic endorsements from a raft of prominent scholars, including Henry Louis Gates Jr., Jill Lepore and Eric Foner. It’s a mark both of the book’s timeliness, and Hinton’s stature as a rising star in a historical profession that is increasingly seeking to understand the explosive growth of the carceral state.

A decade ago, carceral history felt like “a few of us working in a basement,” said Heather Ann Thompson, a longtime friend and mentor to Hinton and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy.” Today, it’s a buzzing subfield, in which Hinton’s work, Thompson said, stands as “canonical.”

“Her first book really showed us where the punitive police apparatus came from,” she said. “Here, she shows us the importance and power of resistance.”

Hinton, 37, grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich. Her father, Alfred Hinton, is a retired art professor. Her mother, Ann Pearlman, is a therapist and writer.

As a child, she loved hearing stories about her father’s family, who arrived in Saginaw, Mich., during the Great Migration and became autoworkers. And she was fascinated by the history of Inkster, a declining town near Detroit where Henry Ford had set up what she called a system of “urban sharecropping” for his Black employees (and which later became the site of one of the rebellions recounted in “America on Fire”).

“It sounds corny, but history was always part of who I am,” she said.

So was questioning racism and injustice. In high school, she wrote a paper arguing that slave rebellions were justified under the ideas of the Declaration of Independence (an argument echoed in the introduction to “America on Fire”). For another paper, which challenged the stereotype of Black people as inherently violent, she found herself debating the white supremacist David Duke.

“I challenged something horrible he wrote online, and he actually wrote back,” she said. “So I included it in my paper.”

In graduate school at Columbia, she didn’t always feel like the origin of the war on crime was a hot topic. “A lot of people thought I was crazy,” she recalled. “My Black Studies friends said, ‘Why would you want to study federal policy?’”

Then, in 2010, when Hinton was in the middle of her dissertation research, Michelle Alexander published “The New Jim Crow,” which became a surprise best seller and helped galvanize a bipartisan reconsideration of mass incarceration. That same year, Thompson published “Why Mass Incarceration Matters,” an influential article in the Journal of American History asking why historians had largely ignored the subject, despite its vast impact on American life.

Research on mass incarceration has since exploded on American campuses, even if the activism that scholars like Hinton bring to the subject has sometimes been an uneasy fit.

At Harvard, where she taught from 2014 to 2020, she was part of a group of scholars pushing the university (so far unsuccessfully) to establish a prison education program, like those at many other institutions. She also championed the application of Michelle Jones, an incarcerated woman who was admitted to the university’s Ph.D program in history near the end of her sentence, only to have the administration rescind the admission after some faculty members raised concerns that Jones had downplayed her crime during the application process.

Asked about that period, and her departure last year for Yale (where she has a secondary appointment in the law school), Hinton gave a lengthy pause before speaking carefully.

“Expanding educational opportunities to people who have been systematically undereducated seems like it should be a basic goal of all educators,” she said, calling Harvard’s lack of a prison education program a “stain on the university.” (Hinton is now on the board of the Yale Prison Education Initiative, which recently received a $1.5 million grant from the Mellon Foundation.)

Hinton says that when she first encountered the Lemberg material, she saw it as countering books like Michael Javen Fortner’s recently published “Black Silent Majority,” which argued that the push for the tough-on-crime laws that ushered in mass incarceration came not just from whites, but from African-Americans concerned about growing crime and addiction in their neighborhoods.


Changing Fortunes

Boudicca's army had counted on seizing Roman food stores when the tribes abandoned their own fields to wage rebellion, but Suetonius had strategically burned the Roman stores. Famine thus struck the victorious army, greatly weakening it.

Boudicca fought one more battle, though its precise location is unknown. Boudicca's army attacked uphill, and, exhausted and hungry, was easily routed by the Romans to rout. Roman troops—numbering just 1,200—defeated Boudicca's army of 100,000, killing 80,000 while suffering only 400 casualties.


15a. Shays' Rebellion


The modern day Northampton courthouse, built in 1884 on the same site as the courthouse where Shays' Rebellion occurred.

The crisis of the 1780s was most intense in the rural and relatively newly settled areas of central and western Massachusetts. Many farmers in this area suffered from high debt as they tried to start new farms. Unlike many other state legislatures in the 1780s, the Massachusetts government didn't respond to the economic crisis by passing pro-debtor laws (like forgiving debt and printing more paper money ). As a result local sheriffs seized many farms and some farmers who couldn't pay their debts were put in prison.

These conditions led to the first major armed rebellion in the post-Revolutionary United States. Once again, Americans resisted high taxes and unresponsive government that was far away. But this time it was Massachusetts's settlers who were angry with a republican government in Boston, rather than with the British government across the Atlantic.

The farmers in western Massachusetts organized their resistance in ways similar to the American Revolutionary struggle. They called special meetings of the people to protest conditions and agree on a coordinated protest. This led the rebels to close courts by force in the fall of 1786 and to liberate imprisoned debtors from jail. Soon events flared into a full-scale revolt when the resistors came under the leadership of Daniel Shays , a former captain in the Continental Army. This was the most extreme example of what could happen in the tough times brought on by the economic crisis. Some thought of the Shaysites (named after their military leader) as heroes in the direct tradition of the American Revolution, while many others saw them as dangerous rebels whose actions might topple the young experiment in republican government.


Patriots or traitors? Farmers from western Massachusetts followed petitions for economic relief with insurgency in the fall of 1786. A group of protestors, led by Revolutionary War veteran Daniel Shays, began a 6 month rebellion by taking over the Court of Common Pleas in Northampton the goal was to prevent the trial and imprisonment of debt-ridden citizens.

James Bowdoin , the governor of Massachusetts, was clearly in the latter group. He organized a military force funded by eastern merchants, to confront the rebels. This armed force crushed the movement in the winter of 1786-1787 as the Shaysites quickly fell apart when faced with a strong army organized by the state. While the rebellion disintegrated quickly, the underlying social forces that propelled such dramatic action remained. The debtors' discontent was widespread and similar actions occurred on a smaller scale in Maine (then still part of Massachusetts), Connecticut, New York, and Pennsylvania among others places.

While Governor Bowdoin had acted decisively in crushing the rebellion, the voters turned against him in the next election. This high level of discontent, popular resistance, and the election of pro-debtor governments in many states threatened the political notions of many political and social elites. Shays' Rebellion demonstrated the high degree of internal conflict lurking beneath the surface of post-Revolutionary life. National leaders felt compelled to act to put an end to such popular actions that took place beyond the bounds of law.


Limited Use of Charges

Although there are frequent concerns about statements made by media figures, on social media, or even by members of the government itself, there are two aspects of the crime of insurrection and rebellion that tend to limit its use.

The first is that, since insurrection and rebellion is a crime, private citizens do not have standing to file charges against someone. Only the government itself, acting through the Office of the Attorney General, can bring charges.

The second reason that rebellion and insurrection are rarely charged is because of the strength of the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment protection of free speech. A certain amount of hyperbole is tolerated, where there aren't accompanying overt acts. The general language of the crime also lends itself to interpretation, making prosecutions a chancier proposition.

Where possible, the government tends to level charges that are based more on actions than words. Notorious Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy's many armed confrontations with the federal government resulted in a long list of criminal charges, but none for rebellion and insurrection. Their reason for choosing not to charge the crime might be evident in the outcome of the federal criminal prosecution of his sons, Ammon and Ryan Bundy, who were acquitted of similarly vague conspiracy charges after holding an Oregon wildlife refuge in an armed standoff.


Myths of the American Revolution

We think we know the Revolutionary War. After all, the American Revolution and the war that accompanied it not only determined the nation we would become but also continue to define who we are. The Declaration of Independence, the Midnight Ride, Valley Forge—the whole glorious chronicle of the colonists’ rebellion against tyranny is in the American DNA. Often it is the Revolution that is a child’s first encounter with history.

Related Content

Yet much of what we know is not entirely true. Perhaps more than any defining moment in American history, the War of Independence is swathed in beliefs not borne out by the facts. Here, in order to form a more perfect understanding, the most significant myths of the Revolutionary War are reassessed.

I. Great Britain Did Not Know What It Was Getting Into

In the course of England’s long and unsuccessful attempt to crush the American Revolution, the myth arose that its government, under Prime Minister Frederick, Lord North, had acted in haste. Accusations circulating at the time—later to become conventional wisdom—held that the nation’s political leaders had failed to comprehend the gravity of the challenge.

Actually, the British cabinet, made up of nearly a score of ministers, first considered resorting to military might as early as January 1774, when word of the Boston Tea Party reached London. (Recall that on December 16, 1773, protesters had boarded British vessels in Boston Harbor and destroyed cargoes of tea, rather than pay a tax imposed by Parliament.) Contrary to popular belief both then and now, Lord North’s government did not respond impulsively to the news. Throughout early 1774, the prime minister and his cabinet engaged in lengthy debate on whether coercive actions would lead to war. A second question was considered as well: Could Britain win such a war?

By March 1774, North’s government had opted for punitive measures that fell short of declaring war. Parliament enacted the Coercive Acts—or Intolerable Acts, as Americans called them—and applied the legislation to Massachusetts alone, to punish the colony for its provocative act. Britain’s principal action was to close Boston Harbor until the tea had been paid for. England also installed Gen. Thomas Gage, commander of the British Army in America, as governor of the colony. Politicians in London chose to heed the counsel of Gage, who opined that the colonists would “be lyons whilst we are lambs but if we take the resolute part they will be very meek.”

Britain, of course, miscalculated hugely. In September 1774, colonists convened the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia the members voted to embargo British commerce until all British taxes and the Coercive Acts were repealed. News of that vote reached London in December. A second round of deliberations within North’s ministry ensued for nearly six weeks.

Throughout its deliberations, North’s government agreed on one point: the Americans would pose little challenge in the event of war. The Americans had neither a standing army nor a navy few among them were experienced officers. Britain possessed a professional army and the world’s greatest navy. Furthermore, the colonists had virtually no history of cooperating with one another, even in the face of danger. In addition, many in the cabinet were swayed by disparaging assessments of American soldiers leveled by British officers in earlier wars. For instance, during the French and Indian War (1754-63), Brig. Gen. James Wolfe had described America’s soldiers as “cowardly dogs.” Henry Ellis, the royal governor of Georgia, nearly simultaneously asserted that the colonists were a “poor species of fighting men” given to “a want of bravery.”

Still, as debate continued, skeptics—especially within Britain’s army and navy—raised troubling questions. Could the Royal Navy blockade the 1,000-mile-long American coast? Couldn’t two million free colonists muster a force of 100,000 or so citizen-soldiers, nearly four times the size of Britain’s army in 1775? Might not an American army of this size replace its losses more easily than Britain? Was it possible to supply an army operating 3,000 miles from home? Could Britain subdue a rebellion across 13 colonies in an area some six times the size of England? Could the British Army operate deep in America’s interior, far from coastal supply bases? Would a protracted war bankrupt Britain? Would France and Spain, England’s age-old enemies, aid American rebels? Was Britain risking starting a broader war?

After the Continental Congress convened, King George III told his ministers that “blows must decide” whether the Americans “submit or triumph.”

North’s government agreed. To back down, the ministers believed, would be to lose the colonies. Confident of Britain’s overwhelming military superiority and hopeful that colonial resistance would collapse after one or two humiliating defeats, they chose war. The Earl of Dartmouth, who was the American Secretary, ordered General Gage to use “a vigorous Exertion of. Force” to crush the rebellion in Massachusetts. Resistance from the Bay Colony, Dartmouth added, “cannot be very formidable.”

II. Americans Of All Stripes Took Up Arms Out Of Patriotism

The term “spirit of 󈦬” refers to the colonists’ patriotic zeal and has always seemed synonymous with the idea that every able-bodied male colonist resolutely served, and suffered, throughout the eight-year war.

To be sure, the initial rally to arms was impressive. When the British Army marched out of Boston on April 19, 1775, messengers on horseback, including Boston silversmith Paul Revere, fanned out across New England to raise the alarm. Summoned by the feverish pealing of church bells, militiamen from countless hamlets hurried toward Concord, Massachusetts, where the British regulars planned to destroy a rebel arsenal. Thousands of militiamen arrived in time to fight 89 men from 23 towns in Massachusetts were killed or wounded on that first day of war, April 19, 1775. By the next morning, Massachusetts had 12 regiments in the field. Connecticut soon mobilized a force of 6,000, one-quarter of its military-age men. Within a week, 16,000 men from the four New England colonies formed a siege army outside British-occupied Boston. In June, the Continental Congress took over the New England army, creating a national force, the Continental Army. Thereafter, men throughout America took up arms. It seemed to the British regulars that every able-bodied American male had become a soldier.

But as the colonists discovered how difficult and dangerous military service could be, enthusiasm waned. Many men preferred to remain home, in the safety of what Gen. George Washington described as their “Chimney Corner.” Early in the war, Washington wrote that he despaired of “compleating the army by Voluntary Inlistments.” Mindful that volunteers had rushed to enlist when hostilities began, Washington predicted that “after the first emotions are over,” those who were willing to serve from a belief in the “goodness of the cause” would amount to little more than “a drop in the Ocean.” He was correct. As 1776 progressed, many colonies were compelled to entice soldiers with offers of cash bounties, clothing, blankets and extended furloughs or enlistments shorter than the one-year term of service established by Congress.

The following year, when Congress mandated that men who enlisted must sign on for three years or the duration of the conflict, whichever came first, offers of cash and land bounties became an absolute necessity. The states and the army also turned to slick-tongued recruiters to round up volunteers. General Washington had urged conscription, stating that “the Government must have recourse to coercive measures.” In April 1777, Congress recommended a draft to the states. By the end of 1778, most states were conscripting men when Congress’ voluntary enlistment quotas were not met.

Moreover, beginning in 1778, the New England states, and eventually all Northern states, enlisted African-Americans, a practice that Congress had initially forbidden. Ultimately, some 5,000 blacks bore arms for the United States, approximately 5 percent of the total number of men who served in the Continental Army. The African-American soldiers made an important contribution to America’s ultimate victory. In 1781, Baron Ludwig von Closen, a veteran officer in the French Army, remarked that the “best [regiment] under arms” in the Continental Army was one in which 75 percent of the soldiers were African-Americans.

Longer enlistments radically changed the composition of the Army. Washington’s troops in 1775-76 had represented a cross section of the free male population. But few who owned farms were willing to serve for the duration, fearing loss of their property if years passed without producing revenue from which to pay taxes. After 1777, the average Continental soldier was young, single, propertyless, poor and in many cases an outright pauper. In some states, such as Pennsylvania, up to one in four soldiers was an impoverished recent immigrant. Patriotism aside, cash and land bounties offered an unprecedented chance for economic mobility for these men. Joseph Plumb Martin of Milford, Connecticut, ac­knowledged that he had enlisted for the money. Later, he would recollect the calculation he had made at the time: “As I must go, I might as well endeavor to get as much for my skin as I could.” For three-quarters of the war, few middle-class Americans bore arms in the Continental Army, although thousands did serve in militias.

III. Continental Soldiers Were Always Ragged And Hungry

Accounts of shoeless continental army soldiers leaving bloody footprints in the snow or going hungry in a land of abundance are all too accurate. Take, for example, the experience of Connecticut’s Private Martin. While serving with the Eighth Connecticut Continental Regiment in the autumn of 1776, Martin went for days with little more to eat than a handful of chestnuts and, at one point, a portion of roast sheep’s head, remnants of a meal prepared for those he sarcastically referred to as his “gentleman officers.” Ebenezer Wild, a Massachusetts soldier who served at Valley Forge in the terrible winter of 1777-78, would recall that he subsisted for days on “a leg of nothing.” One of his comrades, Dr. Albigence Waldo, a Continental Army surgeon, later reported that many men survived largely on what were known as fire cakes (flour and water baked over coals). One soldier, Waldo wrote, complained that his “glutted Gutts are turned to Pasteboard.” The Army’s supply system, imperfect at best, at times broke down altogether the result was misery and want.

But that was not always the case. So much heavy clothing arrived from France at the beginning of the winter in 1779 that Washington was compelled to locate storage facilities for his surplus.

In a long war during which American soldiers were posted from upper New York to lower Georgia, conditions faced by the troops varied widely. For instance, at the same time that Washington’s siege army at Boston in 1776 was well supplied, many American soldiers, engaged in the failed invasion of Quebec staged from Fort Ticonderoga in New York, endured near starvation. While one soldier in seven was dying from hunger and disease at Valley Forge, young Private Martin, stationed only a few miles away in Downingtown, Pennsylvania, was assigned to patrols that foraged daily for army provisions. “We had very good provisions all winter,” he would write, adding that he had lived in “a snug room.” In the spring after Valley Forge, he encountered one of his former officers. “Where have you been this winter?” inquired the officer. “Why you are as fat as a pig.”

IV. The Militia Was Useless

The nation’s first settlers adopted the British militia system, which required all able-bodied men between 16 and 60 to bear arms. Some 100,000 men served in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. Probably twice that number soldiered as militiamen, for the most part defending the home front, functioning as a police force and occasionally engaging in enemy surveillance. If a militia company was summoned to active duty and sent to the front lines to augment the Continentals, it usually remained mobilized for no more than 90 days.

Some Americans emerged from the war convinced that the militia had been largely ineffective. No one did more to sully its reputation than General Washington, who insisted that a decision to “place any dependence on Militia is assuredly resting on a broken staff.”

Militiamen were older, on average, than the Continental soldiers and received only perfunctory training few had experienced combat. Washington complained that militiamen had failed to exhibit “a brave & manly opposition” in the battles of 1776 on Long Island and in Manhattan. At Camden, South Carolina, in August 1780, militiamen panicked in the face of advancing redcoats. Throwing down their weapons and running for safety, they were responsible for one of the worst defeats of the war.

Yet in 1775, militiamen had fought with surpassing bravery along the Concord Road and at Bunker Hill. Nearly 40 percent of soldiers serving under Washington in his crucial Christmas night victory at Trenton in 1776 were militiamen. In New York state, half the American force in the vital Saratoga campaign of 1777 consisted of militiamen. They also contributed substantially to American victories at Kings Mountain, South Carolina, in 1780 and Cowpens, South Carolina, the following year. In March 1781, Gen. Nathanael Greene adroitly deployed his militiamen in the Battle of Guilford Courthouse (fought near present-day Greensboro, North Carolina). In that engagement, he inflicted such devastating losses on the British that they gave up the fight for North Carolina.

The militia had its shortcomings, to be sure, but America could not have won the war without it. As a British general, Earl Cornwallis, wryly put it in a letter in 1781, “I will not say much in praise of the militia, but the list of British officers and soldiers killed and wounded by them. proves but too fatally they are not wholly contemptible.”

V. Saratoga Was The War’s Turning Point

On October 17, 1777, British Gen. John Burgoyne surrendered 5,895 men to American forces outside Saratoga, New York. Those losses, combined with the 1,300 men killed, wounded and captured during the preceding five months of Burgoyne’s campaign to reach Albany in upstate New York, amounted to nearly one-quarter of those serving under the British flag in America in 1777.

The defeat persuaded France to form a military alliance with the United States. Previously, the French, even though they believed that London would be fatally weakened by the loss of its American colonies, had not wished to take a chance on backing the new American nation. General Washington, who rarely made optimistic pronouncements, exulted that France’s entry into the war in February 1778 had introduced “a most happy tone to all our affairs,” as it “must put the Independency of America out of all manner of dispute.”

But Saratoga was not the turning point of the war. Protracted conflicts—the Revolutionary War was America’s longest military engagement until Vietnam nearly 200 years later—are seldom defined by a single decisive event. In addition to Saratoga, four other key moments can be identified. The first was the combined effect of victories in the fighting along the Concord Road on April 19, 1775, and at Bunker Hill near Boston two months later, on June 17. Many colonists had shared Lord North’s belief that American citizen-soldiers could not stand up to British regulars. But in those two engagements, fought in the first 60 days of the war, American soldiers—all militiamen—inflicted huge casualties. The British lost nearly 1,500 men in those encounters, three times the American toll. Without the psychological benefits of those battles, it is debatable whether a viable Continental Army could have been raised in that first year of war or whether public morale would have withstood the terrible defeats of 1776.

Between August and November of 1776, Washington’s army was driven from Long Island, New York City proper and the rest of Manhattan Island, with some 5,000 men killed, wounded and captured. But at Trenton in late December 1776, Washington achieved a great victory, destroying a Hessian force of nearly 1,000 men a week later, on January 3, he defeated a British force at Princeton, New Jersey. Washington’s stunning triumphs, which revived hopes of victory and permitted recruitment in 1777, were a second turning point.

A third turning point occurred when Congress abandoned one-year enlistments and transformed the Continental Army into a standing army, made up of regulars who volunteered—or were conscripted—for long-term service. A standing army was contrary to American tradition and was viewed as unacceptable by citizens who understood that history was filled with instances of generals who had used their armies to gain dictatorial powers. Among the critics was Massachusetts’ John Adams, then a delegate to the Second Continental Congress. In 1775, he wrote that he feared a standing army would become an “armed monster” composed of the “meanest, idlest, most intemperate and worthless” men. By autumn, 1776, Adams had changed his view, remarking that unless the length of enlistment was extended, “our inevitable destruction will be the Consequence.” At last, Washington would get the army he had wanted from the outset its soldiers would be better trained, better disciplined and more experienced than the men who had served in 1775-76.

The campaign that unfolded in the South during 1780 and 1781 was the final turning point of the conflict. After failing to crush the rebellion in New England and the mid-Atlantic states, the British turned their attention in 1778 to the South, hoping to retake Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia. At first the Southern Strategy, as the British termed the initiative, achieved spectacular results. Within 20 months, the redcoats had wiped out three American armies, retaken Savannah and Charleston, occupied a substantial portion of the South Carolina backcountry, and killed, wounded or captured 7,000 American soldiers, nearly equaling the British losses at Saratoga. Lord George Germain, Britain’s American Secretary after 1775, declared that the Southern victories augured a “speedy and happy termination of the American war.”

But the colonists were not broken. In mid-1780, organized partisan bands, composed largely of guerrilla fighters, struck from within South Carolina’s swamps and tangled forests to ambush redcoat supply trains and patrols. By summer’s end, the British high command acknowledged that South Carolina, a colony they had recently declared pacified, was “in an absolute state of rebellion.” Worse was yet to come. In October 1780, rebel militia and backcountry volunteers destroyed an army of more than 1,000 Loyalists at Kings Mountain in South Carolina. After that rout, Cornwallis found it nearly impossible to persuade Loyalists to join the cause.

In January 1781, Cornwallis marched an army of more than 4,000 men to North Carolina, hoping to cut supply routes that sustained partisans farther south. In battles at Cowpens and Guilford Courthouse and in an exhausting pursuit of the Army under Gen. Nathanael Greene, Cornwallis lost some 1,700 men, nearly 40 percent of the troops under his command at the outset of the North Carolina campaign. In April 1781, despairing of crushing the insurgency in the Carolinas, he took his army into Virginia, where he hoped to sever supply routes linking the upper and lower South. It was a fateful decision, as it put Cornwallis on a course that would lead that autumn to disaster at Yorktown, where he was trapped and compelled to surrender more than 8,000 men on October 19, 1781. The next day, General Washington informed the Continental Army that “the glorious event” would send “general Joy [to] every breast” in America. Across the sea, Lord North reacted to the news as if he had “taken a ball in the breast,” reported the messenger who delivered the bad tidings. “O God,” the prime minister exclaimed, “it is all over.”

VI. General Washington Was A Brilliant Tactician And Strategist

Among the hundreds of eulogies delivered after the death of George Washington in 1799, Timothy Dwight, president of Yale College, averred that the general’s military greatness consisted principally in his “formation of extensive and masterly plans” and a “watchful seizure of every advantage.” It was the prevailing view and one that has been embraced by many historians.

In fact, Washington’s missteps revealed failings as a strategist. No one understood his limitations better than Washington himself who, on the eve of the New York campaign in 1776, confessed to Congress his “want of experience to move on a large scale” and his “limited and contracted knowledge . . . in Military Matters.”

In August 1776, the Continental Army was routed in its first test on Long Island in part because Washington failed to properly reconnoiter and he attempted to defend too large an area for the size of his army. To some extent, Washington’s nearly fatal inability to make rapid decisions resulted in the November losses of Fort Washington on Manhattan Island and Fort Lee in New Jersey, defeats that cost the colonists more than one-quarter of the army’s soldiers and precious weaponry and military stores. Washington did not take the blame for what had gone wrong. Instead, he advised Congress of his “want of confidence in the Generality of the Troops.”

In the fall of 1777, when Gen. William Howe invaded Pennsylvania, Washington committed his entire army in an attempt to prevent the loss of Philadelphia. During the Battle of Brandywine, in September, he once again froze with indecision. For nearly two hours information poured into headquarters that the British were attempting a flanking maneuver—a move that would, if successful, entrap much of the Continental Army—and Washington failed to respond. At day’s end, a British sergeant accurately perceived that Washington had “escaped a total overthrow, that must have been the consequence of an hours more daylight.”

Later, Washington was painfully slow to grasp the significance of the war in the Southern states. For the most part, he committed troops to that theater only when Congress ordered him to do so. By then, it was too late to prevent the surrender of Charleston in May 1780 and the subsequent losses among American troops in the South. Washington also failed to see the potential of a campaign against the British in Virginia in 1780 and 1781, prompting Comte de Rochambeau, commander of the French Army in America, to write despairingly that the American general “did not conceive the affair of the south to be such urgency.” Indeed, Rochambeau, who took action without Washington’s knowledge, conceived the Virginia campaign that resulted in the war’s decisive encounter, the siege of Yorktown in the autumn of 1781.

Much of the war’s decision-making was hidden from the public. Not even Congress was aware that the French, not Washington, had formulated the strategy that led to America’s triumph. During Washington’s presidency, the American pamphleteer Thomas Paine, then living in France, revealed much of what had occurred. In 1796 Paine published a “Letter to George Washington,” in which he claimed that most of General Washington’s supposed achievements were “fraudulent.” “You slept away your time in the field” after 1778, Paine charged, arguing that Gens. Horatio Gates and Greene were more responsible for America’s victory than Washington.

There was some truth to Paine’s acid comments, but his indictment failed to recognize that one can be a great military leader without being a gifted tactician or strategist. Washington’s character, judgment, industry and meticulous habits, as well as his political and diplomatic skills, set him apart from others. In the final analysis, he was the proper choice to serve as commander of the Continental Army.

VII. Great Britain Could Never Have Won The War

Once the revolutionary war was lost, some in Britain argued that it had been unwinnable. For generals and admirals who were defending their reputations, and for patriots who found it painful to acknowledge defeat, the concept of foreordained failure was alluring. Nothing could have been done, or so the argument went, to have altered the outcome. Lord North was condemned, not for having lost the war, but for having led his country into a conflict in which victory was impossible.

In reality, Britain might well have won the war. The battle for New York in 1776 gave England an excellent opportunity for a decisive victory. France had not yet allied with the Americans. Washington and most of his lieutenants were rank amateurs. Continental Army soldiers could not have been more untried. On Long Island, in New York City and in upper Manhattan, on Harlem Heights, Gen. William Howe trapped much of the American Army and might have administered a fatal blow. Cornered in the hills of Harlem, even Washington admitted that if Howe attacked, the Continental Army would be “cut off” and faced with the choice of fighting its way out “under every disadvantage” or being starved into submission. But the excessively cautious Howe was slow to act, ultimately allowing Washington to slip away.

Britain still might have prevailed in 1777. London had formulated a sound strategy that called for Howe, with his large force, which included a naval arm, to advance up the Hudson River and rendezvous at Albany with General Burgoyne, who was to invade New York from Canada. Britain’s objective was to cut New England off from the other nine states by taking the Hudson. When the rebels did engage—the thinking went—they would face a giant British pincer maneuver that would doom them to catastrophic losses. Though the operation offered the prospect of decisive victory, Howe scuttled it. Believing that Burgoyne needed no assistance and obsessed by a desire to capture Philadelphia—home of the Continental Congress—Howe opted to move against Pennsylvania instead. He took Philadelphia, but he accomplished little by his action. Meanwhile, Burgoyne suffered total defeat at Saratoga.

Most historians have maintained that Britain had no hope of victory after 1777, but that assumption constitutes another myth of this war. Twenty-four months into its Southern Strategy, Britain was close to reclaiming substantial territory within its once-vast American empire. Royal authority had been restored in Georgia, and much of South Carolina was occupied by the British.

As 1781 dawned, Washington warned that his army was “exhausted” and the citizenry “discontented.” John Adams believed that France, faced with mounting debts and having failed to win a single victory in the American theater, would not remain in the war beyond 1781. “We are in the Moment of Crisis,” he wrote. Rochambeau feared that 1781 would see the “last struggle of an expiring patriotism.” Both Washington and Adams assumed that unless the United States and France scored a decisive victory in 1781, the outcome of the war would be determined at a conference of Europe’s great powers.

Stalemated wars often conclude with belligerents retaining what they possessed at the moment an armistice is reached. Had the outcome been determined by a European peace conference, Britain would likely have retained Canada, the trans-Appalachian West, part of present-day Maine, New York City and Long Island, Georgia and much of South Carolina, Florida (acquired from Spain in a previous war) and several Caribbean islands. To keep this great empire, which would have encircled the tiny United States, Britain had only to avoid decisive losses in 1781.Yet Cornwallis’ stunning defeat at Yorktown in October cost Britain everything but Canada.

The Treaty of Paris, signed on September 3, 1783, ratified the American victory and recognized the existence of the new United States. General Washington, addressing a gathering of soldiers at West Point, told the men that they had secured America’s “independence and sovereignty.” The new nation, he said, faced “enlarged prospects of happiness,” adding that all free Americans could enjoy “personal independence.” The passage of time would demonstrate that Washington, far from creating yet another myth surrounding the outcome of the war, had voiced the real promise of the new nation.

Historian John Ferling’s most recent book is The Ascent of George Washington: The Hidden Political Genius of an American Icon. Illustrator Joe Ciardiello lives in Milford, New Jersey.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story placed Kings Mountain in North Carolina instead of South Carolina. We regret the error.


A.D. 70 Titus Destroys Jerusalem

Gessius Florus loved money and hated Jews. As Roman procurator, he ruled Judea, caring little for their religious sensibilities. When tax revenues were low, he seized silver from the temple. As the uproar against him grew, in A.D. 66, he sent troops into Jerusalem who massacred 3,600 citizens. Florus&rsquos action touched off an explosive rebellion&mdashthe First Jewish Revolt&mdashthat had been sizzling for some time.

Launching the Revolt

The Jewish Revolt began&mdashand met its bitter end&mdashat Masada, a hunk of rock overlooking the Dead Sea. The Romans had built a virtually impregnable fortress there. Yet the atrocities of Florus inspired some crazy Zealots to attack Masada. Amazingly, they won, slaughtering the Roman army there.

In Jerusalem, the temple captain signified solidarity with the revolt by stopping the daily sacrifices to Caesar. Soon all Jerusalem was in an uproar, expelling or killing the Roman troops. Then all Judea was in revolt then Galilee.

Cestius Callus, the Roman governor of the region, marched from Syria with twenty thousand soldiers. He besieged Jerusalem for six months, yet failed. He left six thousand dead Roman soldiers, not to mention weaponry that the Jewish defenders picked up and used.

Emperor Nero then sent Vespasian, a decorated general, to quell the Judean rebellion. Vespasian put down the opposition in Galilee, then in Transjordan, then in Idumea. He circled in on Jerusalem. But before the coup de grace, Nero died. Vespasian became embroiled in a leadership struggle that concluded with the eastern armies calling for him to be emperor. One of his first imperial acts was to appoint his son Titus to conduct the Jewish War.

Crushing the Revolt

By now, Jerusalem was isolated from the rest .

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