In his first book, Williams sheds light on the obscure hurricanes that battered America's east coast all the way up to Newfoundland in September 1775. But this account promises more than it delivers: the first vaunted "storm at the deciding moment of the American Revolution" affected the colonies very little, while the second hurricane hit Canada and killed some 4,000 cod fishermen, but is tangential to the American uprising. Williams consequently presses the "storm of war" metaphor and fills out the book with lengthy descriptions of what was going on in various American cities hit by the hurricane. He is on surer ground in his discussions about how weather influenced political affairs and its potent religious symbolism. Were the storms evidence of God's desire to punish the rebels for their insolence toward King George III? If so, then why were the British prevented from attacking Dorchester Heights by a fierce storm, and why was Lord Cornwallis's plan to escape from Yorktown frustrated by a powerful gale? Thinner than his first, this book offers some illumination on the colonial worldview, but little on the Revolution. (Aug.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Hurricane of Independence: The Untold Story of the Deadly Storm at the Deciding Moment of the American Revolutionby Tony Williams
The sleeper history hit of 2008, released in paperback to coincide with the heart of hurricane season
On September 2, 1775, the eighth deadliest Atlantic hurricane of all time landed on American shores. Over the next days, it would race up the East Coast, striking all of the important colonial capitols and killing more than four thousand people. In an era/b>… See more details below
The sleeper history hit of 2008, released in paperback to coincide with the heart of hurricane season
On September 2, 1775, the eighth deadliest Atlantic hurricane of all time landed on American shores. Over the next days, it would race up the East Coast, striking all of the important colonial capitols and killing more than four thousand people. In an era when hurricanes were viewed as omens from God, what this storm signified to the colonists about the justness of their cause would yield unexpected results.
Drawing on ordinary individuals and well-known founders like Washington and Franklin, Tony Williams paints a stunning picture of life at the dawn of the American Revolution, and of the weighty choice people faced at that deciding moment.
Hurricane of Independence brings to life an incredible time when the forces of nature and the forces of history joined together to produce courageous stories of sacrifice, strength, and survival.
A first-time author tracks the 1775 hurricane that pummeled America's Eastern seaboard, echoing the patriotic storm in the colonies.
After forming over Africa's west coast, the Hurricane of Independence touched down on September 1 in New Bern, N.C., where it killed 200, and then proceeded to Norfolk, Williamsburg, Annapolis, Philadelphia, Newport and, having morphed into merely a violent rainstorm, on to New York City and Boston. Sometime around September 10 a second tempest (erroneously thought to be the tail end of the first hurricane) roared ashore in Newfoundland, killing thousands and devastating seaside communities and the British cod industry. Williams dubs this the "Codfishermen's Hurricane," and he uses the progress of both storms to examine the developments in the various colonial regions on the eve of the Revolution: the evenly divided Patriot/Tory town of Norfolk's fear of a British-inspired slave rebellion, the hurricane's destruction of the Annapolis statehouse dome, the drenching of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Washington's assumption of command of the Continental Army in Boston. But for the facts of the hurricanes themselves, Williams offers little new for even casual students of the Revolution, but he charmingly uses the hurricane as a window through which to view the psychology of the Enlightenment; the beginning of scientific inquiry and the demystification of popular superstition, captured in the persons of wealthy Virginia planter and amateur scientist Landon Carter, future Yale president Ezra Stiles and, of course, Benjamin Franklin; and the lingering suspicions among most that the hurricane reflected heaven's judgment on thepolitical upheaval. But what was God saying? Was the tempest a punishment against the tyrannical master or a rebuke to the rebellious subjects? In agreeable prose, Williams recovers the victims' speculation on the hurricane's meaning and its almost poetic commingling of the natural and moral worlds.
An unusual and affecting take on the American colonies at the precipice.
Williams provides an interesting sidebar to the opening of the American Revolution by recalling one of the
deadliest storms ever to hit the North American Atlantic coast, a hurricane that raced northward in
September 1775, drubbing several colonial capitals and causing severe losses. It was closely followed by
another-probably: whether they were one or two storms is still argued-that devastated the
Newfoundland fleet at the height of the cod season and caused more than 4,000 deaths. At a time when
natural disasters and astronomical phenomena were widely believed to be signs of divine will, people on
both sides of the developing colonial conflict wondered what God intended by this deadly portent.
Williams quotes diaries, letters, and other documents of the time, showing how both the well-known and
the well-nigh-forgotten reacted. He acknowledges, however, that the hurricane wasn't the most important
meteorological phenomenon that impinged upon the Revolutionary War. Still, his double tale of natural
disaster and epochal human events makes a good reading.
- Frieda Murray
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Read an Excerpt
Hurricane of Independence
The Untold Story of the Deadly Storm at the Deciding Moment of the American Revolution
By Tony Williams
Sourcebooks, Inc.Copyright © 2009 Tony Williams
All rights reserved.
Throughout the summer of 1775, the sun scorched the desert sands of the Sahara. Easterly jets of wind raced a few miles up over the barren African terrain across thousands of bleak miles. As the winds hurtled toward the coastline, they became highly unstable and broke into pulsing waves. The waves stretched for up to a thousand miles and flew regularly over the shores of the coast every few days. The people of western Africa were left unawares of their existence except for the barest hint of a gentle breeze. But these winds eventually built into an explosive force half a world away.
The blowing winds jetted out over the blue waters of the Atlantic looking for just the right mysterious conditions to grow into a tropical depression. Some became troughs curving counter-clockwise because of the unfelt rotation of the earth. The infant storms needed desperately to feed on warm water if they were to survive.
The summer sun granted their wish, boiling the cauldron of equatorial Atlantic waters past eighty degrees. The heat sucked water right off the gently roiling ocean. It shot upward, cooling as it rose higher and higher. The vapor lifted miles into the air until it condensed into tiny water droplets that plummeted back toward the ocean whitecaps from whence they came.
Dark cumulonimbus clouds formed, menacing any sailors within sight. The intimidating thunderstorm hurled forked lightning bolts while thunder cracked raucously. Heavy downpours inundated hapless ships as the clouds were seemingly wringed all at once by Mother Nature.
Old, weather-beaten captains at the helms of their ships learned to expect these regular storms off the coast of Africa. The winds provided the propulsion necessary to transport their invaluable consumer and human cargoes across the wine dark sea. Frightened slaves were chained together and packed aboard the holds of ships, soon to replace those who were worked to death under sadistic masters in the brutal climate of the Caribbean sugar islands. Captains of slave ships calculated the profits that each piece of human property would bring — if they made it to the islands.
When squalls erupted suddenly near the Cape Verde Islands, sailors likely were not surprised by this common occurrence, despite the troughs that deceptively hid the storms behind crystal clear weather for many miles in front of them. The storms dropped torrential rain on the soaked men and replenished the water that they had skimmed off the ocean. The storms were harrowing, and many men were lost at sea, but the vast majority of ships came through and continued on to their tropical destinations. As bad as they were, most thunderstorms were spent after a few hours. They soon were replaced by more storms, pounding against other ships sailing along the same path.
A few storms survived, however. The growing tempests gobbled up enormous amounts of warm water that was fed into a swirling vortex that spiraled 'round and 'round, its pressure steadily dropping. The swirling storm bulged into a monster with a giant eye in the middle of it. It hobbled along patiently around ten miles per hour, paralleling the equator, drawing more ferocity before it struck.
The natives of the Caribbean had a healthy respect for hurricanes and an uncanny understanding of nature. According to their beliefs, the wicked god, Hunraken, annually victimized the island people, inflicting them with destructive winds and deadly floods. The natives were terrified whenever he made an appearance. They beat drums, shouted curses, and did everything possible to thwart the god and drive him away. Sometimes they successfully frightened him off; at other times his fury could not be withstood and they suffered the consequences.
The natives depicted the fearsome deity on primitive carvings as a hideous creature with swirling arms, ready to whip his winds and claim his prey. Natives had acquired a great store of knowledge through centuries of experience. Pale foreigners who settled on the tropical paradises, though, did not have the same meteorological understanding despite their advanced technology. Hunraken, however, had no regard for skin color: All were quarry for his wrath.
On August 25, 1775, the evil god's arms stretched out hundreds of miles, packing winds with furious gusts. The god's arms were bands of rain that engulfed the islands of Martinique. Fierce winds bent trees, littering the ground with their tropical fruit. Large waves of clear water collided against reefs and beaches. Buildings and homes were easily ripped apart and blown down. Two days later, the storm descended upon the island of Santo Domingo. Both islands experienced "much damage" as a result of the "violent gale." The dwindling native population kept its traditions alive by ritualistically fighting the god of winds. But the beating drums of the natives were not strong enough to weaken the storm, nor was the small landmass of the islands. Hunraken gorged himself on the tepid waters and increased in intensity.
Falling pressure raised the ocean beneath the storm into a small dome of water that was hurled against the shallow shoreline of any landmass. For every inch the pressure dropped, the ocean lifted a foot. The hurricane created swells that projected far out to lap against the sands of the North American coastline. But swimming was not yet a leisure sport, and no one gathered on beaches for long vacations. Sailors were the only witnesses to the hurricane that was beginning to make its way up the North American coastline. Even if Hunraken spared their lives, though, they could not outrun the storm to warn anyone of its impending arrival.
Interestingly, while the Hurricane of Independence gathered incredible amounts of energy for its assault on North America, the sinister formula of winds and rain began to shape another swirling beast: A second hurricane was slowly forming. The tropical storm soon became organized and started to swirl, assuming its characteristic shape. It voraciously consumed enormous amounts of warm water and burgeoned in size. It followed the Hurricane of Independence and prepared a deadly follow-up blow that promised to be even worse than its predecessor.
The Hurricane of Independence was aimed directly at the American colonies. But for some reason — whether unseen winds, the arms of Hunraken or the hand of God, or a cruel twist of fate — the second tempest followed the Hurricane of Independence for a time but then veered off slightly. It was also on a collision course with the American colonies, but its ultimate destination was still unknown. Perhaps revolutionaries in Virginia and Massachusetts would be punished simultaneously — or chastised to learn virtue — for leading the colonial resistance.
The hurricane might simply have found other prey in America's enemy. Maybe God was directing this ferocious storm against the British to punish them for their tyrannical actions during the last decade. On the other hand, there were a lot of innocents who did not really care one way or another whether America stayed in the British Empire. They were neutral about the matter and just wanted to be left alone to raise their crops or head out to sea to catch the fish that supported their families. It would remain to be seen what the purposes of these two hurricanes were when they ravaged North America soon enough.
In early September 1775, no one in the American colonies knew about or was prepared for the coming storm. Hurricanes were learned about only after they hit. Besides, the attention of the colonists was consumed by matters of taxation and tyranny rather than the weather.
Americans did not believe in the storm god of the Caribbean peoples. Rather, most — Anglicans, Baptists, Congregationalists, Catholics, and Jews, to name a few — believed in the God of Abraham. Their God was a providential God who worked through human agency — saints and sinners alike — and nature. Most of the time, Providence acted through a benevolent confluence of events. At other times, it intervened directly in nature, performing miracles or controlling the weather.
Later, John Witherspoon reminded his patriotic congregation on a Fast Day in 1776 that, "We are told that, 'fire, hail, snow, vapor, and stormy wind, fulfill his word,' in the course of nature ... are yet perfectly subject to the dominion of Jehovah." He continued, "The power of divine providence appears with the most distinguished luster, when small and inconsiderable circumstances, and sometimes, the weather and seasons, have defeated the most formidable armaments, and frustrated the best concerted expeditions." Citing the stormy destruction of the Spanish Armada off the coast of England, the minister stated his belief that God would similarly strike down the British foe. He thanked God "for his favors already bestowed on us, respecting the public cause."
Yet Americans were not to "sit with folded hands and expect that miracles should be wrought in your defense," he said. They must renounce sin and corruption and virtuously act with justice, prudence, firmness, selflessness, and patience. Thus, he exhorted them to the virtue that would "make you truly independent in yourselves," thereby correctly fashioning their characters for self-government. Only then, even "while the storm continues, his mercy and kindness shall appear."
The Hurricane of Independence was headed for the American coast. The God of Abraham was seemingly about to chastise his people with a storm to make them righteous enough to become independent and enjoy the blessings of liberty.CHAPTER 2
IMPENDING DOOM ON THE OUTER BANKS
On Friday, September 1, 1775, almost all talk in New Bern, the capital of North Carolina, was of the distant war in Boston. That spring, when riders brought the news, they celebrated the whipping the minutemen had given the British at Lexington and Concord. A few months later, they learned of another stunning victory at the Battle of Bunker Hill. The post-riders had been agonizingly slow and frustratingly scant with many of the details. Ship captains coming into port had brought additional word, but rumor still was more common than fact. It stirred heated conversation and rousing orations in New Bern denouncing British tyranny.
The warm summer air that September night was cooled nicely by gusting winds from the Atlantic. The moderate weather on the coast was what attracted the gentlemen planters of the town and caused their annual summer migrations from their tobacco plantations to escape the stifling inland humidity.
They also were drawn by a desire to serve the public in the legislature, though they traditionally devoted a significant amount of time to dancing at balls, attending horse races, and gambling at the card tables. They escorted their wives to important social gatherings and were accompanied by their black servants.
Although New Bern was a small, provincial capital of only a thousand souls, the gentry usually dressed in some of the latest English fashions and imported many fineries. In recent years, however, the price of tobacco fell steadily and the land was exhausted. Many planters were deeply in debt. The British added to their financial woes by taxing them. The planters of New Bern preserved their public reputation and honor by continuing to press their British agents to acquire more goods on credit.
But the war that summer had turned fashion into a political statement. Whereas the wealthy formerly imported their finest clothes from London to display their wealth ostentatiously, many now conspicuously went out publicly in their "simple republican garb" to show their virtuous patriotism. Dressed in their new clothing, the gentlemen used their classical learning from their tutors and academies to deliver speeches in the capital. The speeches were filled with classical allusions to the Greeks and Romans in addition to calls to defend the ancient liberties of Englishmen. Most of all, they denounced British taxes and talked of mobilizing for war. Excited townspeople listened intently, crowding around open windows.
When they were not giving grand speeches, most of the planters and merchants spent time at the docks overseeing the loading of the thousand-pound hogsheads of tobacco. On September 1, the scene at the docks was hectic. The Second Continental Congress had passed a ban on exports going to Great Britain, and the ban was going into effect the following week. The New Bern merchants had only a few more days to trade with the enemy and bring in money before the coming troubled times. They rushed to ship out one final crop of the valuable weed.
Most of the gentlemen planters and merchants had joined an association boycotting British goods. That afternoon, they read in the newspaper of a resolution to confiscate all the firearms of anyone who had refused to join with the boycott and therefore had questionable patriotic credentials. Moreover, those who did not join were ostracized and risked becoming the victims of mob violence, including such painful punishments as tarring and feathering. They were seen as the enemies of American liberty.
The docks were filled with several ships from different ports of call in America and abroad. The colonists had a vigorous coastal trade from Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston, and New Bern was an important port for lumber, naval stores, tobacco, and provisions. Captains sailed into Pamlico Sound by braving the dangerous currents and shallows of Ocracoke Inlet at the bar. They sailed up the Neuse River with goods to trade at New Bern. At the confluence with the Trent River, several wharves awaited their arrival. West Indian vessels brought sugar, molasses, rum, and sometimes human cargo in the form of African slaves.
Captains and their crews freely shared rumors of war and of the hurricane season. Many sailors were loading the ships with their new cargoes and supplies for the dangerous Atlantic journey to England. One ship that completed its preparations and set sail earlier that day was the brig Susanna, commanded by Captain Nichols. He was bound for the island of Dominica. Despite the large swells and approaching storm, the Susanna was able to set off and sail out into the Atlantic. It was sailing into the jaws of a monster.
The gentlemen of New Bern often were present at the docks to gather news because they generally had a vested interest in foreign trade, either as planters or as merchants. The sailors occasionally may have whispered comments about the gentlemen, perhaps an old ditty ending with the verse ridiculing them: "As I've often been told/But by his civil robberies/He's laced his coat with gold."
When not at the docks, the wealthy planters and merchants relaxed at home. The houses of the wealthy were made of brick rather than of the typical wood and usually had a second floor topped by a cupola. (Wealthy merchants such as John Wright Stanly could afford to build an opulent Georgian mansion by John Hawks, the same architect who designed Royal Governor William Tryon's palace.) Once arrived home on the night of September 1, they likely pulled out their gilded imported snuffboxes and quaffed a little tobacco. They went inside and dined at the long tables prepared by servants. They hoped that there might be a ball for dancing later in the evening and perhaps some surreptitious card-playing (for the men) over rum punch. Toasts were drunk in support of patriotic ideals, and enthusiastic discussions followed about the latest pamphlets and broadsides against British tyranny. No one expected the destruction the night would bring.
Of course, not everyone in New Bern was wealthy; most were artisans and laborers. On a typical afternoon in the capital, artisans banged away on metal or tinkered carefully on exquisite handmade items. Their shops had large signs hanging by the doors indicating what kind of trade they were plying inside — printers, blacksmiths, carpenters, hatters, coopers, tailors, or wigmakers. Customers haggled over price and some offered a trade because money was hard to come by in the colony. Passers-by could hear German as well as English coming out of open doors as they walked along the cobblestone streets. Closer to the docks and situated on the Neuse River, foul smells were emitted by the tannery that made leather goods from backcountry livestock. A distillery turned imported molasses into rum.
Excerpted from Hurricane of Independence by Tony Williams. Copyright © 2009 Tony Williams. Excerpted by permission of Sourcebooks, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Tony Williams taught history and literature for ten years and has a master's in American History from Ohio State University. He is currently a full-time author who lives in Williamsburg, Virginia, with his wife and children.
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