Monthly Archives: September 2016

Saratoga: The Vain Victory


September 19, 1777 marks the opening battle at Freeman’s Farm that ultimately led to the decisive American victory a few weeks later, known as the Battle of Saratoga. The British lost at Saratoga primarily due to the vanity, pride, and self-absorption of British Generals Howe and Burgoyne. American Generals Benedict Arnold and Horatio Gates were not far behind their British counterparts when it comes to putting self-interest over the good of the cause. In short, all involved forgot that there is no “I” in “TEAM”.


John Burgoyne – portrait by Joshua Reynolds 1766

John Burgoyne was a British general known for his vanity, earning the name Gentleman Johnny. In 1737, at the age of fifteen John entered the army by buying an officer’s commission as a sub-brigadier in the Third Troop of Horse Guards. A notorious gambler, Burgoyne had to sell his officer’s commission in 1741 presumably to pay gambling debts. A few years later, Burgoyne reenlisted as a cornet in the First Royal Dragoons (British cavalry) and saw action in the War of Austria Succession. He was promoted to lieutenant and then in 1747 somehow came up with 2,000 pounds (probably more gambling) to buy a commission as a captain with the Royal Dragoons. Notably charming and handsome, John won the affection of his best friend’s sister Charlotte Strange, daughter of Lord Derby. Lord Derby would not approve the marriage given Burgoyne’s lower class status, but the two eloped spending time in France. Lord Derby eventually warmed to Burgoyne as his son-in-law and helped in John’s quick rise in the British army. After winning military glory in Portugal, Burgoyne returned to England and was seated in the British Parliament in 1762. Not only a Parliamentarian, Burgoyne also became a playwright. Indicative of his character, Burgoyne was known for his boastful statements. Upon arriving in Boston in 1775, now a major general, Burgoyne reportedly stated: “Ten thousand peasants keep five thousand king’s troops shut up! Well, let us get in and we’ll soon find elbow-room.”


General Sir William Howe

British General William Howe started his military service as a cornet with the Duke of Cumberland’s Dragoons in 1746. Howe was of noble birth as son of Viscount Emanuel and had close ties to royalty which helped advance his military career. During the French and Indian War, Howe was recognized for his ability to lead men in battle and was promoted to General. Howe then became leader of British troops in the American Revolution. Howe successfully captured New York in 1776, but was unable to land a decisive victory against the American army and end the war.

It is well-known that Howe did not like Burgoyne, considering him to be a grandstander of low birth. When plans were made for Burgoyne to march south from Canada down the Hudson Valley, with Howe moving north from New York, Howe wanted no part in seeing Burgoyne obtain military acclaim through a successful campaign. Howe wanted his own success and so instead of marching to meet Burgoyne’s army, Howe headed south to Philadelphia where he intended to capture the rebel capital. Burgoyne, confident that Howe would join him from the south, continued his march into the wild interior of New York. Howe of course never came. Burgoyne’s army was no match for the wily wilderness fighters that made up the Northern American army. Daniel Morgan and his expert riflemen relentlessly picked off British officers throughout the fighting at Freeman’s Ford with British losses totaling 600 hundred men. Instead of retreating back to Fort Ticonderoga, Burgoyne, always the gambler, continued to attempt to break through the American lines. Burgoyne eventually surrendered his entire army on October 17, 1777.


American General Horatio Gates

The northern division of the American army was also plagued with leaders bent on self-advancement. With Washington trying to keep Howe from taking Philadelphia in the south, General Horatio Gates was in command of the northern army. A disgruntled Benedict Arnold served alongside Gates. Congress had recently passed over Arnold for promotion despite his efforts in Quebec and Ridgefield, Connecticut. As Burgoyne advanced into New York, Arnold wanted to fight and Gates did not. Over the course of the Saratoga battles, Gates and Arnold fought incessantly among themselves. Eventually Gates removed Arnold from field command. Throughout Saratoga, Gates never left the safety of his headquarters. Arnold could no longer stand Gates’ inaction and on October 7, 1777 rode out of camp onto the battlefield in what has been described as a drunken rage. Arnold was later wounded in an attack on a British redoubt. While Arnold recovered from a shattered femur, Gates took the credit for the victory at Saratoga and would use it as a tool to attempt to unseat Washington as Commander-in-Chief. Snubbed once again, Arnold began down his path of treason.


Trumbull’s painting of Burgoyne surrendering to Gates. Benedict Arnold is notably missing from the painting.

Saratoga has been touted as the turning point in the war. The Americans captured an entire division of British soldiers. The victory also helped secure French naval support. While Saratoga was an important American victory it is also a reminder of what can happen when self-promotion becomes the ultimate goal. Had Howe marched north instead of selfishly heading to Philadelphia, the course of history may have been forever changed. Had Gates allowed Arnold to fight, and shared credit for the victory, Arnold may not have committed treason. While it’s not uncommon for military leaders to seek glory and promotion through actions on the battlefield, Saratoga is an example of egos on steroids. It displays some of humanity’s worst character qualities and serves as a lesson for us all.

For more on the stories of Saratoga check out: The Generals of Saratoga: John Burgoyne and Horatio Gates by Max M. Mintz and William Howe and the American Revolution, by David Smith.

The Attack of the Turtle


In the early morning hours of September 7, 1776, General Washington ordered a secret attack on Lord Admiral Howe’s British ship, the HMS Eagle, anchored near New York Harbor. The attack was to be made by a secret weapon called the Turtle. To a creative 21st century mind, visions of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle (my favorite Leonardo) hopping aboard Howe’s ship with his swords whirling come to mind. This, however, was not the Turtle of Washington’s day. Washington’s Turtle was the first submersible weapon ever used in war.

The Turtle was designed by a young Yale graduate by the name of David Bushnell. Bushnell was only 21-years-old when he began experimenting with detonating gun powder under water. Bushnell took this idea and envisioned a submersible vessel with the ability to deliver a timed explosive charge next to a ship’s hull, causing massive damage, and sinking the ship. While we take this torpedo technology for granted today, Bushnell’s idea was revolutionary and nearly one-hundred years ahead of his time.


The Turtle’s design was an engineering marvel. At 7 feet long, 6 feet high, and 3 feet wide, the Turtle was just large enough for a man to fit inside. It was made from two large halves of an oak tree. The huge oak slabs were hollowed out, and then joined together with tongue and groove construction. With a generous application of oakum sealant (hemp, jute, and tar), the Turtle was nearly watertight. Bushnell also designed a propeller, which he called an oar, that was manually turned by the operator using a spinning wheel type foot pedal. A tiller was mounted for steering and a ballast tank was added to allow the Turtle to travel underwater. To surface, the operator would need to manually pump out the water in the ballast tank. Glass mounted at the top of the vessel allowed the operator to maneuver.


While the Turtle’s design was a marvel, it had a significant limitation. It relied solely on human power to move. This problem was compounded by the fact that there would be a limited supply of oxygen contained inside the Turtle once under water. Pedaling the Turtle out into the tides and currents of New York Harbor would be a difficult and dangerous task. This danger is exactly what the Turtle’s operator, Ezra Lee, volunteered for as he began his journey on September 7, 1776.


Ezra Lee – the Turtle’s Pilot

Ezra was to pilot the Turtle under the HMS Eagle’s hull and then attach an underwater timed explosive to the ship. Ezra would need to use an auger drill fastened to the top of the Turtle to drill a hole to attach the explosive to the Eagle. Ezra took nearly two hours to reach the Eagle, and once there was exhausted and likely suffering from oxygen deprivation. He could not get the auger to drill into the Eagle’s hull. British ships had a metal plate connected to the rudder hinge, which may have prevented Ezra’s drill from working. Ezra’s failure may have also been due to his fatigue and inability to think clearly form a lack of oxygen. With dawn fast approaching and fear that he would be discovered, Ezra abandoned his mission. He let his explosive charge loose, which floated into the East River where it exploded without causing any damage to British ships. Ezra made it safely back to Patriot whaling ships.

The Turtle never was able to deliver an explosive charge under a British ship. A second attempt was made without success and the Turtle project was abandoned. It would be nearly another century before Bushnell’s design was revisited and used as weapon. Although it’s mission failed, the design was pure genius. Lucky for Lord Admiral Howe, Washington used the submersible Turtle, and not the Teenage Mutant kind.

For more information about the Turtle check out Arthur Lefkowitz’s book The American Turtle Submarine: The Best-Kept Secret of the American Revolution.

Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Shrapnel


I learned something today, which is always a good thing. I find it inherently thrilling to find the historical meaning behind an everyday phrase. Today I discovered the origin of the term “shrapnel”. The dictionary definition of shrapnel is “fragments of a bomb, shell, or other object thrown out by an explosion.” It’s a word everyone knows, but few ever ponder how bomb fragments came to be called shrapnel. The answer to the origin of this puzzling term comes from the name of its inventor Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Shrapnel.

Henry Shrapnel was born in 1761 in Wiltshire, England. Wiltshire County is in the southwest part of England, and home of Stonehenge. Henry was the youngest of several brothers, all of whom died relatively young. At the age of eighteen, Henry began his military career with the Royal Artillery as a Second-Lieutenant. He served abroad in Newfoundland, Gibraltar, and the West Indies, but did not see any action in the American Revolution. Over the course of his career as a gunner, Shrapnel began to experiment with the hollow spherical cannon projectiles that were designed to explode sending out small shot, usually musket balls. Up through the late 18th century, these explosives were crudely designed and imprecise. Grape Shot was the most common type of exploding projectiles used at the time. It was nothing more than musket balls tied up in a canvas bag and fastened to a wooden plug for firing out of a cannon. As the canvas bag ripped open after being shot from the cannon, it would spew its projectiles in a deadly swath, but with a relatively short range. Grape Shot got its name because it looks like a bag full of grapes.


Various sizes of Grape Shot

Case or Canister Shot was a bit more complex with a thin metal cylinder filled with musket or iron balls. When fired, the thin cylinder would be peeled back by the force of the explosion, sending shards of the casing and balls with a killing range of about two hundred yards.

Canister Shot

Canister Shot

Henry Shrapnel realized that Grape and Canister Shot was lethal but imprecise. He wanted a shell that would explode at some point after being fired. He therefore came up with the idea for a timed fuse that would light a small charge of gun powder inside the hollow case with enough force to open the case and send the smaller musket balls out in the same trajectory as the exploded casing. His idea increased the scattered projectile range from 300 yards to 1000 yards. A significant and deadly improvement.


Shrapnel’s design was embraced by the British Army and used extensively in the Napoleonic Wars between England and France in the early 19th century. The only issue with Shrapnel’s design was the occasional premature lighting of the charge inside the spherical case which would ignite from the friction created as the casing traveled down the cannon barrel on discharge. Over the years, Henry Shrapnel’s design was improved upon but the basic design remained the same all the way through World War I.


Henry’s weapon was so revered by the British Army, and in particular General Arthur Wellesley – Duke of Wellington, that after Henry’s death in 1842, the British Board of War issued an order that the “spherical case shot” be called “shrapnel shells”. So the next time you’re watching that bloody war-time movie and someone says, “I caught a piece of shrapnel” you can know it’s all thanks to Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Shrapnel and his amazing and deadly invention.


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