Untold Stories: Washington Single-Handedly Ends Dangerous Infighting in the Revolutionary Army
“‘Here, bloodshed, imprisonments, trials by court-martial, revengeful feelings between the different corps of the army, were happily prevented by the physical and mental energies of a single person, [George Washington].’”
There are so many inspiring, beautiful stories about the great heroes of American history which are scarcely ever told. One happens on them accidentally—buried in a thick, out-of-print biography, in small print on a museum sign, casually and fleetingly mentioned in an obscure educational video. America cannot return to greatness in the future if we do not truly understand the greatness of our past. That is why I am writing an article series to tell a few of these little-known but moving or illustrative “untold stories” of American greatness.
My first two articles in this series were both about the Civil War, and my third article was about the slave, patriot, double agent, and American hero James Armistead Lafayette. My story today may be less heartwarming or “moving” than my past stories, but it provides a great insight into the operation of the American Revolutionary Army—and how it all depended on one man.
The sailors, merchants, fishermen, and laborers of Marblehead, Massachusetts had been key players in colonial America’s fight for freedom against the British even before the first shots were fired at Lexington and Concord. The “Marbleheaders” were so important to the survival and success of the Revolutionary Army (for instance at the first Battle of Trenton) that they have been called the “Indispensables.” In his book The Indispensables, Patrick K. O’Donnell describes one time, however, when the Marbleheaders started some potentially serious and dangerous infighting in the Continental Army. Gen. George Washington single-handedly ended a free-for-all fight that involved hundreds of men, ensuring that two of his best regiments would thereafter keep their animosity under control.
This story very clearly illustrates how absolutely essential Washington was to the Revolution’s success—not just because he could outsmart the British, but because he alone could keep his army together. While the story of one big brawl and Washington’s intervention may not seem terribly significant to some Americans today, the infighting of the Continental Army was just as big a threat to the Revolution’s success as the British Army was. Often rowdy, undisciplined, and aggressively independently-minded, the American Continental soldiers could only be kept together and led to victory by George Washington.
“Two groups of men eyed each other uneasily from either side of Harvard Yard in Cambridge. On one side stood a regiment of Daniel Morgan’s Virginia riflemen, backwoods frontiersmen with a reputation for brawling and lack of discipline. . .Facing them were the Marbleheaders. . .Adding to the tension, a few of the Virginians owned slaves, while the Marblehead Regiment contained several free African Americans. Some of the outsiders, however, may have taken issue with the easy mixing of the races. . .
After the Marblehead Regiment had departed Washington’s headquarters at the Vassall House, their duties included manning the siege line around Boston. . .One of [their] diversions was to mock the newly arrive Virginians’ attire [‘half-Indian’ hunting shirts]. Israel Trask, a young Massachusetts boy who had gone to war with his father and was present that day, later wrote that ‘the riflemen bore [the jokes] with more patience than their wont’ at first. But the Marbleheaders soon grew tired of merely hurling insults and started pelting the Virginians with snowballs, as well. The riflemen naturally reciprocated.
Hurling snowballs rapidly devolved into exchanging punches. Soon ‘both sides were reinforced, and in a little while at least a thousand were at fisticuffs, and there was a tumult in camp worthy of the days of Homer.’ In their anger, the rioting mass resorted to ‘biting and gouging’ as the situation escalated.”
Such a massive fight would seem to demand a good deal of effort and intervention to stop, but the fight was stopped even more quickly than it had begun (emphasis added).
“To everyone’s shock, General Washington appeared on the scene at the height of the tumult, accompanied by his African American servant, William Lee. For two decades, Lee stood by Washington. The body servant did everything from laying out Washington’s clothes to organizing his papers to fighting by his side in battle, and he became something of a minor celebrity in colonial America. Without hesitation, the two men [Washington and Lee] rode their horses into the mob as far as they could. Then, ‘with the spring of a deer, [Washington] leaped from his saddle, threw the reins of his bridle into the hands of his servant, and rushed into the thickest of the melees, with an iron grip seized two tall, brawny, athletic, savage-looking riflemen by the throat, keeping them at arm’s length, alternately shaking and talking to them.’
Within seconds, the throng stopped fighting. A hush descended upon the scene as the men turned to watch the general reprimand the two Virginians he had singled out. ‘In this position the eye of the belligerents caught sight of the general,’ Trask wrote. ‘Its effect on them was instantaneous flight at the top of their speed in all directions from the scene of the conflict. Less than fifteen minutes time had elapsed from the commencement of the row before the general and his two criminals were the only occupants of the field of action.’ So great was their respect for their general that the ‘hostile feelings between two of its best regiments. . .[were] extinguished by one man.’ In the words of another observer, ‘Here, bloodshed, imprisonments, trials by court-martial, revengeful feelings between the different corps of the army, were happily prevented by the physical and mental energies of a single person, and the only damage resulting from the fierce encounter was a few torn hunting frocks and round jackets.’”
Both the Virginian riflemen and the Marbleheaders were key fighters in the success of the American Revolution—but they might well have damaged instead of helped the cause of freedom if Washington had not intervened. The Marbleheaders were the indispensable regiment in the American Revolution, but George Washington was undoubtedly the indispensable man.
(The quotes in this article are from Patrick K. O’Donnell’s The Indispensables, p. 179-181.)