Monday, November 2, 2015

American History 101: The Court Martial of Paul Revere

"The British are coming!  The British are coming!"

Four words ingrained in every American school student as they study the American Revolution.  Legend has it that
on April 18. 1775 Paul Revere rode his horse gallantly from town to town warning the residents that the British were bringing troops to bear.  In reality, Revere did ride his horse to warn people but he did not shout these famous words as he did so.  Most historians agree that since the people in the towns were British and British troops were hidden all over the countryside, plus that the people he was trying to alert would need to remain hidden, the message was conveyed much more discreetly than our history books have taught us.  But this is how most Americans are introduced to Mr. Revere who was a silversmith, engraver, watchmaker and (shudder) amateur dentist.  In fact, the Revere Silver company is still rooted to Paul's original shops.  He is also known for fighting bravely for America's independence in the Revolutionary War.  What most people do not know is that he served in the Massachusetts Militia after the war, and that he stood for a court martial!

In June of 1779, the British seized the village of Castine in Maine just off the shores of Penobscot Bay.  It was clear to the Americans that this would be a keen spot to establish a naval base to launch attacks on New York and Halifax.  The Massachusetts legislature ordered a military expedition to head north and push the British out.  Lieutenant Colonel Paul Revere was among the leaders of this expedition.  Revere was leading a rag-tag bunch of boys and old men, according to his own assessment, into battle alongside the impressive Continental Naval Force of over 40 vessels.

When the American flotilla hit Penobscot Bay on July 25, 1779, they launched a strong amphibious assault.  It wasn't long before Revere and his 600 men found themselves within striking distance of the British fort.  It was at this time that the American land and naval forces began to bicker about the offensive strategy.  Commanding General Lovell refused to storm the fort without naval support from Commander Saltonstall's ships, and Saltonstall refused to attack the British ships until the fort was taken.  This stalemate went on for two weeks until the British reinforcements arrived and pinned down the Americans on August 13th.  The American forces fought valiantly to run away up the Penobscot River, burning their entire flotilla to avoid being captured by the British.  Revere' and his men ran into the Maine wilderness to escape, and were left to their own devices to find their way back to Boston.  With the attack a dismal failure, and hundreds captured or killed, it was one of the worst fiascos attached to the Revolutionary War effort.

Someone had to be blamed.  That someone was Lieutenant Colonel Paul Revere.  He was terribly unpopular among the troops because of his rough and aggressive style of command, and his fellow officers found him troubling and difficult to deal with.  The charged him with insubordination, neglect of duty and cowardice.  General Wadsworth claimed that Revere disobeyed his direct order to relinquish his ordnance, and instead evacuated his own troops.  Revere claimed the boat that Wadsworth wanted to use was his own, and that Wadsworth had no standing to command him to do anything.  In addition, Major Todd said that Revere refused the order to bring a cannon from one of islands in the bay for his use.  Revere said he initially ignored the order, but then followed it.

When he returned to Boston, Revere found himself under house-arrest while the failed operation was investigated.  Revere wasn't the only one on the hot-seat, as Saltonstall was court-martialed and dismissed from the Continental Navy.  However, in the end nothing was said about Revere's responsibility in the mess and the chatter about his inability to lead and lack of bravery continued.  After the report came out, Revere pushed for his own court martial in order to clear his name.

Revere's day in court would come two years later, after the British has surrendered Yorktown.  Within the court martial, the charges were that he refused to deliver his boat to Wadsworth and then fled Penobscot Bay without orders to do so.  Revere argued that after the bumbling of the military leadership, he did everything necessary to evacuate his men safely.  The military court agreed with Revere and cleared him on all charges, stating that in such a confused state regular orders could not have been given by Wadsworth.


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Bruce holds a degree in Computer Science from Temple University, a Graduate Certificate in Biblical History from Liberty University and is working towards a Masters Degree in American History at American Public University.  He has worked in educational and technology for over 18 years, specializes in building infrastructures for schools that work to support the mission of technology in education in the classroom.  He also has served as a classroom teacher in Computer Science, History and English classes.  

Bruce is the author of five books: Sands of TimeTowering Pines Volume One:Room 509The Star of ChristmasPhiladelphia Story: A Lance Carter Detective Novel and The Insider's Story: A Lance Carter Detective Novel -- with a new book, Learn the Basics: Digital Forensics, due soon. 

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