1777: The Year of the Hangman

1777: The Year of the Hangman

by John S. Pancake


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 “A revisionist view of the Revolution’s most crucial year… it explodes many of the myths surrounding Burgoyne’s Canadian expedition and Howe’s Pennsylvania campaign. There is a wealth of fascinating detail in this book, including information on arms and supplies, rations for women camp followers, and even the numbers of carts (30-odd) carrying Burgoyne’s luggage.”

--History Book Club Newsletter

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817306878
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 06/28/1977
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 280
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

John S. Pancake (1920-1986) was a native of Virginia, Professor of History at The University of Alabama, and author of studies on Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.

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The Year of the Hangman

By John S. Pancake

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 1977 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-8833-1


The War Begins: 1775

In 1842 Captain Levi Preston, a ninety-one year old veteran of the War of Independence, was interviewed by the historian, Mellen Chamberlain. Captain Preston, it turned out, had never read Sydney or Locke, never drunk tea, nor did he recall ever having seen a stamp. But he was very explicit about why he had fought. "Young man, what we meant in going for those redcoats was this: We always had governed ourselves and we always meant to. They didn't mean we should."


General Thomas Gage is a familiar name to anyone who has read about the War of Independence. After all, Gage started it by sending his redcoats to Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. Yet Thomas Gage is a faceless shadow-man who only gave the orders which sent the soldiers on their desperate mission. He was not at the head of those men when they faced Captain John Parker's militia on the Lexington Common nor when the battered, bloody ranks staggered back to Boston, ripped apart by swarms of minute men. In the American tradition Gage is a villain, but he conjures up no remembered personality. The tall, swarthy Howes, "Sir Billy" and "Black Dick," fat-faced George III, swaggering "Gentleman Johnny" Burgoyne, savage Cornwallis who could turn cannon on his own men to win a battle—these men make pictures in the mind's eye. Gage gave his fateful orders and a few months later left America forever.

Yet Gage ought to be remembered if for no other reason than that he had a thoroughly sound appreciation of the situation of the colonies in the spring of 1775. He had served in North America for twenty years, twelve of them as commander in chief of the British army in America. He had survived frequent clashes with civilians and had displayed a resolute composure in the face of petitions, protests and as bad language as Whig editors could muster, which was bad indeed. In 1773 he had gone to England on leave and had returned in the spring of 1774 not only as commander in chief but as governor of Massachusetts. His first duty was to put into effect the Boston Port Bill, closing the city to all trade until its citizens paid for their very expensive tea party of the previous December.

As tension increased in Boston and the surrounding country side Gage reiterated to the ministry warnings which he had been sounding ever since his return. He was never hostile toward nor contemptuous of Americans (his wife was a native of Brunswick, New Jersey); but he was positive that the authority of the Crown must be firmly asserted. "If you yield to [colonial] menaces there is an End of your Sovereignty; and I shall expect they will very soon make laws for you, and take the same method to enforce them," he wrote in June, 1774. He was also convinced that an overwhelming demonstration of authority "should be effectual at the beginning. If you think ten thousand Men sufficient, send Twenty, if one Million [pounds] is thought to be enough, give two, and you will save both Blood and Treasure in the end." And finally, in December, 1774, mindful that his regulars numbered only about 4,000 men, he urged the ministry to "send me a sufficient Force to command the Country, by marching into it and sending off large detachments to secure obedience through every part of it." Instructions from the Earl of Dartmouth, Secretary of State for the Colonies, arrived in Boston on the 16th of April, 1775. They left no doubt that the ministry expected action and that Gage was free to pursue his own inclination to take a hard line. But there was no mention of twenty thousand men, or even ten.

In dispatching troops to Lexington and Concord on the 18th of April Gage's ostensible purpose was to arrest some of the most notorious Whig leaders and to seize stores of arms which the militia were said to have collected. But his real purpose was undoubtedly to scotch the rebellion by a display of force, "to command the country by marching into it." Before the bloody day was over Gage had to commit one third of his entire force of which seventeen percent were casualties. The Patriots not only turned out by the thousands but pursued the troops to the very outskirts of Boston.

The story of New England farmers springing to arms and besieging the British in Boston is a well-known one. (It also gave birth to the myth that the nation would always turn out enough volunteer citizen-soldiers to fight its wars. American leaders from George Washington to George Marshall knew differently.) To Gage mobs of angry New Englanders were a familiar story. But this time there was a shocking difference. Instead of venting its spleen and dispersing, this mob stayed and its members steadily increased. By early June there were between 12,000 and 15,000 men surrounding Boston and they were loosely organized into an army. It might not have been much of an army by Gage's precise British standards, but every night for six weeks sentry fires winked relentlessly from Roxbury to Chelsea. General Hugh Earl Percy, who had fought the militiamen on April 19, commented, "Who-ever looks on them as an irregular mob will find himself very much mistaken."

By early June the first reinforcements had arrived from England. These included parts of six regiments and brought Gage's total effective force to about 6,500 rank and file. The reinforcements also included three major generals, William Howe, Henry Clinton, and John Burgoyne whom the ministry had sent as "advisers" to Gage. Of these the senior was General Howe. He had seen previous service in the Seven Years' War and it was rumored that he might succeed Gage. This created a situation which was both frustrating and embarrassing to Gage, since he had as his junior officer the man who might be promoted in rank and possibly was his successor.

In response to instructions from the ministry and in a last attempt to avoid the cataclysmic course of events, Gage issued a proclamation declaring martial law but offering amnesty to all rebels except the ringleaders, the Adamses, John Hancock, and Joseph Warren. Whatever hopes Gage had for a reconciliation may well have been extinguished when General Burgoyne, sometime London playwright, offered his literary talents in composing the proclamation. The resulting combination of bombast and insult was a literary and diplomatic disaster, "replete with consummate impudence, the most abominable lies, and stuffed with daring expressions of tyranny," according to the Pennsylvania Journal.

It was Burgoyne who had reacted to the idea that the British were besieged by saying, "Well, let us get in, and we'll soon find elbow room." After Bunker Hill he seemed to resent the fact that soldiers on both sides dubbed him "General Elbow-Room," but then Burgoyne was a slow learner on the subject of America and Americans. Henry Clinton, a man of more sober and meticulous mind than Burgoyne, also urged more elbow-room and Howe seems to have concurred. By the second week of June the coterie of generals agreed that their force was too small to break out of the encirclement, especially since there seemed to be no feasible objective beyond the American lines. But the situation did seem to call for the occupation of the two peninsulas, Charlestown and Dorchester, which jutted out into the harbor to the north and south of Boston.

At the American headquarters at Cambridge General Artemus Ward heard rumors from Boston of the British plans. A veteran of the Seven Years' War, Ward had risen from sickbed to take command of the militia after Lexington and Concord. If he appeared cautious and indecisive to some it was because he stubbornly refused to risk his fragile "army" of untrained, undisciplined troops in any madcap offensive. The line he had established from Winter Hill around to Dorchester was formidable, and his bluff, no-nonsense attitude earned him the respect, if not the adulation, of the conglomeration of officers and men who came to (and often left) the crowded camps.

On June 16 Ward finally yielded to the urgings of his subordinates and sent Colonel William Prescott to occupy Bunker Hill on the Charlestown Peninsula. When Prescott reached the ground he decided to fortify Breed's Hill, and by daylight on the 17th his men had entrenched themselves on its crest. Later in the morning the line was extended on the left to the Mystic river where Connecticut militia under Captain Thomas Knowlton hastily threw up a "breastwork" consisting of fence rails, rocks, and hay. About noon Knowlton was joined by Colonel John Stark's New Hampshire militia, bringing the total of Prescott's command to about 1,500 men.

General William Howe took charge of 2,500 redcoats and by early afternoon he had crossed to the peninsula. Howe intended to make short work of this rabble of upstart farmers who were finally offering to make a stand-up fight. He sent half his force under General Hugh Pigot against the redoubt on Breed's Hill, while he himself led an attack on the rail fence defended by Knowlton and Stark.

It was still the age of picture book wars and this battle had thousands of spectators watching from the hills and housetops in Boston. Through the eddying smoke of the British bombardment the double line of redcoats could be seen moving forward, sunlight flickering on bayonets and accoutrements, "one of the greatest scenes of war that can be conceived." As Pigot's line reached the crest of Breed's Hill Prescott's men "rose up and poured in so heavy a fire upon us that the oldest officers say they never saw a sharper action." The British line staggered to a halt and then retreated.

Out of view of the spectators in Boston, beyond the curve of the hill, Howe's right wing was advancing against the rail fence. In a surprising display of discipline most of the militiamen held their fire until the British were within easy musket range. Then "an incessant stream of fire poured from the rebel lines. It seemed a continued sheet of fire.... Our light Infantry were served up in companies against the grass fence and without being able to penetrate.... Most of the Grenadiers and Light Infantry at the moment of presenting themselves lost three-fourths, and many nine-tenths, of their men. Some had only eight and nine men a company left, some only three, four and five." The red line recoiled, "fell into disorder" and retreated.

It was a mind blowing experience for William Howe—"a moment that I never felt before." But he did not waver from his purpose. He pulled his battered lines together and launched a second attack. Again the troops met a shattering fire which "put the regulars to flight who once more retreated in precipitation."

But Prescott, Knowlton, Stark and the militiamen were done. The third assault, reinforced by 400 men under Clinton, found many of the Americans out of ammunition, although a handful met the British bayonet charge with clubbed muskets. Even in retreat the militia "continued a running fight from one fence, or wall, to another," noted Lord Rawdon of the Grenadiers.

General Burgoyne watched the battle from Boston, and said "the day ended with glory," and Rawdon reported that "we have ... given the rebels a signal defeat." But to William Howe it was "what I call this unhappy day.... The success was too dearly bought." Howe was an eighteenth century general whose doctrine was to fight his regulars "under circumstances the least hazardous to the royal army; for even a victory attended by a heavy loss of men on our part, would have given a fateful check to the progress of the war...." The price Howe paid at Bunker Hill was devastating. Of something more than 2,500 men engaged 1,050 had been killed and wounded including 92 officers. This was forty-two percent of his force, a prohibitive loss in any era of warfare. Howe confessed that "when I look to the consequences of it ... I do it with horror." A week after Bunker Hill the British army could muster only 3,400 rank and file, present and fit for duty.

For Thomas Gage it was the final blow to his American career. Lord George Germain, soon to be appointed Secretary of State for the Colonies, had already expressed the opinion that "General Gage ... finds himself in a situation of too great importance for his talents." After the news of Bunker Hill orders were issued for his recall and he returned to England in October, although he was not formally relieved of his command until the spring of 1776. Yet his report to Lord North contained the clearest perception of the significance of this first full-dress battle of the war. Gage's grammar was bad and his blunt language probably either offended or amused his superiors. But Gage knew Americans and he understood the enormity of the crisis. "These people show a spirit and a conduct against us they never showed against the French, and every body has judged of them from their former appearance and behavior when joyned with the King's forces in the last war; which has led into great mistakes.

"They are now spirited up by a rage and enthousiasm as great as ever people were possessed of, and you must proceed in earnest or give the business up.... I have before wrote your Lordship of my opinion that a very large army must at length be employed to reduce these people.... or else to avoid a land war and make use of your fleet. I don't find one province in appearance better disposed than another...."


The Second Continental Congress convened on May 10, 1775, three weeks after Lexington and Concord and a little less than six weeks before the battle of Bunker Hill. Its members were preoccupied with many problems and complexities, not the least of which was that they were in a state of armed rebellion against the Crown while some of its most influential members were convinced that reconciliation could still be achieved. Whig-Loyalists like John Dickinson, James Duane, and Robert Morris could not easily bring themselves to renounce their loyalty to Britain. The radicals, that is, those who were beginning to think of independence, were inclined to move slowly lest they alienate these conservative supporters. It must be remembered that the Congress was an illegal body and the Whig movement which sanctioned it represented a minority of the American people. To propose such a portentous issue as independence its advocates had to be sure, not just of a majority vote, but of virtual unanimity in Congress. It was not until a year had passed that Jefferson, the Adamses and other radicals were to feel confident enough to propose separation from England.

Meantime, there was the war. Congress, which had originally assembled for the purpose of confronting the home government with an organized protest, found itself willy-nilly forced to govern. It is a commentary on the rising spirit of American nationalism that the members never considered leaving the conduct of the war to the individual colonies. John Jay went so far as to advocate that the "Union depends much upon the breaking down of the provincial Conventions."

From the beginning the Massachusetts assembly and the Committee of Safety assumed that Congress would take over the responsibility for the army, and on May 16 a petition was dispatched to Philadelphia urging "to your consideration the propriety of your taking the regulation and general direction of it, that the operations of it may more effectually answer the purpose designed for it." There is no record of formal action by Congress, but on June 17 James Duane noted that "Congress have agreed to raise, at the Continental expense, a body of fifteen thousand men," and the next day John Hancock referred to a Congressional appropriation for "a Continental Army."

Having adopted an army Congress next set about selecting its commander. In later years John Adams remarked somewhat petulantly, that when the history of the American Revolution was written, "The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklins electrical rod smote the Earth and out sprang General Washington." If Adams was then perturbed that his own career would be lost in the giant shadow of the father of his country he might reflect that he had only himself to blame, for it was he who proposed that Washington command the new army. In 1775 Adams was not so much concerned about creating America's first authentic hero as he was with finding a commander in chief who was both capable and politically acceptable. No one was more aware than Adams that colonial unity was a fragile thing, and the new general and his army would be the principal instrument through which this unity would be forged and strengthened. He, more than any one else, would personify the American cause.


Excerpted from 1777 by John S. Pancake. Copyright © 1977 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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1777: The Year of the Hangman 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
ksmyth on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I've had this book hanging around for years, and sat down to read it after McCulloch's 1776. Pancake provides a great overview of the campaigns of 1777. Though it doesn't focus on Saratoga, or Oriskany, or Brandywine, it puts them into a larger context that helps the reader understand the goals of the British high command, and how the Continental army responded to them. It reinforces my view of Washington as a great commander.
glauver More than 1 year ago
Many years ago I bought this book from The History Book Club and was dumb enough to let it get away. I recently bought a paperback copy and just finished re-reading it. Pancake was one of our most astute writers on the Revolution. It is too bad he only published this title and its companion volume about the Southern campaign, This Destructive War. He was the rare author who understood the links between decisions made in London and battles in the American wilderness. His character sketches of both American and British leaders are balanced and fair. Students of this period in our history should track both books down.