On October 19, 1781, Gen. George Washington attained his apex as a soldier. Straddling a spirited charger at the head of a formidable Franco-American army, Washington watched impassively as 6,000 humiliated British, German, and Loyalist soldiers under the command of Lt. Gen. Charles, Second Earl Cornwallis, emerged from their fortifications to lay down their arms in surrender outside Yorktown, Virginia. The following day, Washington voiced the elation filling his heart in a general order congratulating his subordinates “upon the Glorious events of yesterday.” Ordinarily a stickler for discipline, Washington authorized the release of every American soldier under arrest “In order to Diffuse the general Joy through every breast.”[1]

Five days later, October 25, the Continental Army’s commander-in-chief issued quite a different order. Thousands of Virginia slaves—“Negroes or Molattoes” as Washington called them—had fled to the British in hopes of escaping a lifetime of bondage. Washington directed that these runaways be rounded up and entrusted to guards at two fortified positions on either side of the York River. There they would be held until arrangements could be made to return them to their enslavers. Thus, with the stroke of a pen, Washington converted his faithful Continentals—the men credited with winning American independence—into an army of slave catchers.[2]

This is not the way that Americans choose to remember Yorktown. When President Ronald Reagan attended the festivities marking the battle’s bicentennial in October 1981, a crowd of 60,000 nodded in approval as he described Washington’s crowning triumph as “a victory for the right of self-determination. It was and is the affirmation that freedom will eventually triumph over tyranny.”[3] For the African Americans who constituted one fifth of the young United States’ population in 1781, however, Yorktown did not mark the culmination of a long and grueling struggle for freedom. Rather, it guaranteed the perpetuation of slavery for eight additional decades.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Washington’s fugitive-slave roundup is that the document authorizing it has lain hidden in plain sight for more than two centuries. A copy exists among Washington’s papers at the Library of Congress, and more can be found at other archives in the surviving compilations of daily orders maintained by every Continental brigade and regiment under the dauntless Virginian’s immediate command. Most historians who cover Yorktown are content to celebrate Washington’s military genius. The blinders imposed by the lingering effects of American exceptionalism deter them from grappling with issues that would complicate the traditional triumphalist narrative. A clear-eyed look at the sources—including those recorded by British and German participants—reveals that for the 200,000 African Americans who composed 40 percent of the Old Dominion’s population, freedom wore a red coat, not blue, in 1781.[4]

In the leadup to the War of Independence, prominent white colonists feared that British authorities would liberate their enslaved persons in retaliation for rebellion. The African American population certainly hoped that would be the case. After conversing with two Blacks in service to a Pennsylvania family fleeing the Redcoats’ advance on Philadelphia, Rev. Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, a Lutheran minister, confided to his diary on September 20, 1777: “They secretly wished that the British army might win, for then all Negro slaves will gain their freedom. It is said that this sentiment is almost universal among the Negroes in America.”[5]

These aspirations struck George III’s soldiers with shocking force once the war’s focus shifted from New England and the Middle Colonies to the South in 1778. Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton, the hell-for-leather British cavalryman, bore witness to this phenomenon following the capture of Charleston, South Carolina, in May 1780. “All the negroes,” he testified, “men, women, and children, upon the approach of any detachment of the King’s troops, thought themselves absolved from all respect to their American masters, and entirely released from servitude: Influenced by this idea, they quitted the plantations, and followed the army.”[6] Lord Cornwallis, who would soon take command of British forces in the South, expressed his irritation at this road-choking Black exodus as he penetrated the prostate Palmetto State. “The number of Negroes that attend this Corps,” he complained, “is a most serious distress to us.”[7]

This pattern of behavior continued after Virginia became the conflict’s decisive theater in 1781. The Old Dominion—the largest, most populous, and richest of the young republic’s thirteen states—absorbed three British invasions that year. On December 20, 1780, nearly 1,800 troops under Benedict Arnold, who had betrayed the Continental cause to become a British brigadier general, set sail from Sandy Hook, New Jersey, for Chesapeake Bay. Without pausing to give the Virginia militia a chance to mobilize, the Connecticut-born Arnold swept up the James River and became the first Yankee general to capture Richmond, the state’s new capital, on January 5, 1781. Arnold then retired downstream to Portsmouth on the Elizabeth River, which he converted into a fortified naval base. More than 2,000 British reinforcements landed at Portsmouth on April 1, which facilitated another amphibious lunge up the James that culminated at Petersburg twenty-four days later. Lord Cornwallis showed up at Petersburg on May 20 with the survivors of the arduous winter campaign he had conducted in North Carolina.[8]

Along with additional British reinforcements from New York that reached Cornwallis almost immediately, he now mustered more than 6,500 fit officers and men—a big enough force to march almost anywhere in Virginia that he desired while still retaining his hold on Portsmouth. With the king’s soldiers able to penetrate parts of the Old Dominion that had hitherto escaped the touch of war, more and more enslaved persons rose to meet them. As Robert Honyman, a local physician, scribbled in his diary: “Many Gentlemen lost 30, 40, 50, 60, or 70 Negroes besides their stocks of Cattle, Sheep & Horses. Some plantations were entirely cleared, & not a single Negro remained.” Richard Henry Lee, a prominent leader in the independence movement, confided fearfully to his brother, “Tis said that 2 or 3000 negroes march in their train, that every kind of Stock which they cannot remove they destroy.”[9]

Just one year earlier, Cornwallis had regarded fugitive slaves as impediments to his operations. Once he reached Virginia, however, he gave clear indications that he now viewed these Black freedom seekers as military assets. After the earl’s army reached Dr. Honyman’s neighborhood, the latter observed, “Where ever they had an opportunity, the soldiers & inferior officers likewise, enticed & flattered the Negroes, & prevailed on vast numbers to go along with them.”[10]

These runaways contributed immeasurably to Cornwallis’ mobility by bringing him the choicest thoroughbreds from their enslavers’ stables. This steady infusion of prime horseflesh gave the earl the most fearsome cavalry force fielded during the Revolutionary War, and he had enough horses left over to mount hundreds of his infantry. Some Blacks found jobs as officers’ servants, and others worked as foragers or menial laborers. Black labor raised the fortifications that protected Portsmouth and later encircled Cornwallis’s second base at Yorktown. A few fugitive slaves served the British as guides, and one daring man assumed the role of a double agent, helping to lead a force of Continentals and militia into a costly ambush at Green Spring on July 6, 1781.[11]

A few weeks after that engagement, Gov. Thomas Nelson wrote Cornwallis to enquire if there were any way Virginia planters could recover what they considered to be their property. The British commander responded with a politely worded note that gave Nelson scant comfort: “Any proprietor not in Arms against us, or holding an Office of trust under the Authority of Congress and willing to give his parole that he will not in future act against His Majesty’s interest, will be indulged with permission to search the Camp for his Negroes & to take them if they are willing to go with him.” In other words, Cornwallis declared he would force no enslaved person to return to an enslaver—even those claimed by Loyalists. Had the earl prevailed in Virginia, this de facto emancipation proclamation might have drastically altered the course of U.S. history. Washington and the French squelched that prospect three months later, however, when they trapped the British at Yorktown.[12]

Historians still debate over the exact number of Virginia Blacks who sought British protection in 1781. Thomas Jefferson, the Old Dominion’s governor during the first half of that year, claimed that the state lost 30,000 enslaved to Cornwallis—a gross exaggeration. A database compiled from affidavits filed by Rebel planters in nineteen counties and residents of Portsmouth yielded a list of 1,119 runaways, but that figure is only a partial sample of the whole.[13]

Even if Cornwallis had achieved military success, things would have still ended tragically for many Black fugitives who joined their fortunes to his. Smallpox, possibly the eighteenth century’s greatest killer, marched in the earl’s ranks, and African Americans sickened and died in droves after he entered Virginia. Brig. Gen. Edward Hand, one of Washington’s senior staff officers, recorded this trenchant comment during the Yorktown siege: “almost every Thicket Affords you the Disagreable prospect of a Wretched Negroes Carcase brought to the earth by disease & famine. the Poor deluded Creatures are either so much Afraid of the displeasure of their owners that they voluntarily starved to death or were by disease unable to Seek Sustenance.” Among the inhabitants of Revolutionary America who gave their all for liberty, these “Wretched Negroes” should join those in the forefront.[14]

The institution of slavery’s victory at Yorktown reveals the corruption that infected the American Revolution. Throughout United States history, liberty and opportunity have been purchased for some through the oppression of others. Our revered Founders—intent on rallying mass support for a revolt intended to replace one set of colonial elites with another—indulged in egalitarian rhetoric that most of them did not believe. What redeemed the Revolution is the fact that so many common Americans took that rhetoric literally. Over the centuries, various outgroups have agitated to expand the frontiers of freedom, and their efforts have made this country a fitter place to live. If we think of the Revolution as an ongoing process rather than a sanitized relic to be cloaked by myth, that movement can still serve as a positive force in American society and its professed principles remain worthy of celebration.

Gregory Urwin


The cunning man steals a horse, the wise man lets him alone.”[1]

It had been less than three months since Congress had adopted a Declaration of Independence, but George Washington was already warning that the Articles of War governing the behavior of troops was in desperate need of an update, “otherwise the Army, but for the name, might as well be disbanded.”

In a lengthy letter to the president of congress, John Hancock, Washington bemoaned the collapsing state of discipline in the Continental Army. Much of the difficulty stemmed from Congress’s well-meaning attempt at altruism. When the Second Continental Congress initially adopted the Articles of War in June 1775, legislators had endeavored to establish humane limits on punishment. In an age when some armies punished malefactors with 500 or even 1,000 lashes, Congress limited the number of lashes that could be administered to thirty-nine.

Washington, however, found that inconsistent administration of punishments only encouraged further lawless behavior. Washington informed Hancock that “For the most atrocious offences (one or two Instances only excepted) a Man receives no more than 39 Lashes, and these perhaps (thro the collusion of the Officer who is to see it inflicted) are given in such a manner as to become rather a matter of sport than punishment.”

In particular, Washington was dealing with mounting incidents of, as he likened it, “the infamous practice of Plundering.” Under the pretense of seizing Tory property, explained Washington, “no Man is secure in his effects, & scarcely in his Person . . . in order that the Villainy may be more effectually concealed, some Houses have actually been burnt to cover the theft.” Washington did his best to put a stop to the crimes, but without effectual means of punishment, he felt that “I might almost as well attempt to remove Mount Atlas.”[2]

In fact, lawmakers had already obliged. On September 20, 1776, Congress adopted revised Articles of War which increased potential floggings from thirty-nine to one hundred lashes. Additionally, the private property of the “good people of the United States” was to be shielded from theft and destruction. Wanton acts of outright plunder could be punished with death.[3]

But the Continental Army, like virtually any army in history, was regularly plagued with crimes that ranged from petty theft to dangerous violations of the articles of war such as plundering. Surviving court-martial proceedings reveal that almost anything and everything was stolen at one time or another: money, clothing, cheese, sheep, hogs, handkerchiefs, cucumbers, and pocket watches. Mundane non-violent crimes were regularly punished by flogging with the cat-o-nine-tails. More egregious violations, including violent home invasions, could result in a death sentence.

Following a particularly egregious rash of plunder and theft in the autumn of 1778, Washington gave vent to his frustrations in general orders on October 23. The commander-in-chief was “Shocked at the frequent horrible Villainies of this nature committed by the troops of late, He is determined to make Examples which will deter the boldest and most harden’d offenders—Men who are called out by their Country to defend the Rights and Property of their fellow Citizens who are abandoned enough to violate those Rights and plunder that Property deserve and shall receive no Mercy.”[4]

All of You Will be Hung

The first inklings that members of George Washington’s Life Guard had gone astray occurred on October 6, 1778, when Elijah Fisher returned to duty after a five-day pass to visit relatives. Fisher noticed that John Herrick was wearing some new clothing, and told Herrick he was glad for it, as Herrick had clearly received some money from home. “I hoped we should not be so putout for money to bye things with,” quipped Fisher, “and that you will be able to pay me that trifill you owe me (Sixteen Dollars).”

Fisher’s suspicion mounted, however when several more soldiers joined them. All of them seemed to be wearing new clothing and Fisher pressed them on the matter. “Have you had money sent you from home too?” he asked, “I fear that you have taken them some other way to git it than that.”

At that, Herrick spilled the beans. The previous night, John Herring, who possessed a special pass so that he could leave camp to secure supplies for Washington’s guard, came to the home of John Hoag, but he would not “Let him have any thing.” While he was there he caught sight of a number of items that interested him. After returning to camp, he enlisted the help of Moses Walton, Elias Brown, and John Herrick to return to Hoag’s home on a plundering expedition.

While on the way there, Herrick had second thoughts, but was threatened by the other three men. Once back at Hoag’s, the men broke into the house and had a field day, making off with silver spoons, hard currency, miscellaneous clothing and household items, as well as £450 in Continental scrip. After Fisher heard the story, he warned the four thieves that whether or not Hoag was a Tory, “If it should be found out (which such things as Robery seldim is) some or all of you will be hung.” As it turned out, it was the second robbery the men had committed.

The following day, John Stodgel, another member of Washington’s guard, happened to call at the home of Prince Howland. Howland let it be known that he had been robbed several nights before. He couldn’t identify the culprits because they had blackened their faces, but they had been wearing distinctive rounds hats with a piece of bearskin attached. It was a dead give-away that men from Washington’s Life Guard were involved. Howland asked if any of Washington’s guard was “more fuller of money than usual.” He then told Stodgel that “he Did not want any man hurt upon his account for he knew that they would be hung if they were found out.” If Stodgel could quietly arrange for the return of his goods, Howland graciously promised to hush the matter up.

John Hoag was less understanding. He arrived at camp that very day, protesting to Life Guard officers that he had been robbed. After they looked into the matter, word leaked out that Stodgel had information. When questioned by officers, Stodgel “tried to hide what he Could,” but when it became apparent that he could end up in serious trouble for simply being quiet, “he up and tells all that he knew Consarning the affare.”[5]

On October 23, the army convened several courts-martial to look into an unfortunate rash of plundering and insubordination. Forced to deal with a spate of criminal activity, the high command was clearly intent on making an example of the guilty and restoring order to the army. Herrick agreed to testify against his accomplices, but considering the weight of evidence, there was little doubt as to the verdict. Walton, Herring, and Brown were sentenced to death. Herrick was sentenced to receive “one hundred lashes on his bare back well laid on.”[6]

Ultimately, only one of the condemned, Herring, would face the noose. Walton escaped his guard soon after the court-martial. Brown, while being transported to New Milford, Connecticut, for execution, slipped away from his guards and disappeared.[7]

An Officer and a Gentleman . . . and a Toy Thief

For George Washington, one of the most outrageous incidents of theft perpetrated by his troops occurred during the middle of September 1776, when a Captain Ramsay[8] caught sight of a group of about twenty soldiers outside of Harlem loaded down with plunder. They were carrying quite a collection, including furniture, poultry, two large mirrors, kettles, kitchen utensils, china, delftware, and, oddly enough, ladies’ garments. A disgusted Ramsey “told them they had been acting exceeding wrong, and would have to answer for their conduct.”

He then exchanged words with the groups’ obvious ringleader, Ens. Matthew Macumber of Col. Paul Dudley Sargent’s Massachusetts regiment. Macumber brushed it off, telling Ramsay that he operated under the orders of Colonel Sargent and that “he had a right to take any thing outside of our lines.” Ramsay wasn’t impressed. Peeking out of Macumber’s bulging knapsack was a pair of children’s wax toys. Ramsay apparently tapped on the toys and sarcastically “jested with him on his having such a pretty sort of plunder.”

Macumber ignored him and went about his business. About that time Brigade-Major Daniel Box arrived on the scene with a handful of men intent on enforcing Washington’s orders proscribing plunder. “I ordered him to lay it down,” said Box, “or carry it back to the place he took it from.” Macumber refused, claiming that he was acting under orders from Colonel Sargent. Box persisted, identified himself, and reminded Macumber of “how express the General’ s orders were about plundering.”

The conversation rapidly turned ugly. Box, wielding a cocked pistol, ordered then men to lay down their plunder or he would fire on the first man that refused. Macumber glanced back at his men, then barked “may lads, stand to your arms and form.” Glaring at Box, Macumber then said “we’ll see who has the strongest party.” Box and his men, badly outnumbered, seem to have leapt over a fence for protection, but were surrounded. Macumber’s men were “clamorous”; several cocked their firelocks and threatened to “blow out Major Box’s brains, if he cocked his pistol again.”

Captain Ramsay, watching the whole unpleasant scene unfold, was afraid a gunfight would break out and accordingly said, “I stood on my guard.” Macumber insisted that he would take the plunder to Colonel Sargent, “who might act with them as he pleased.” Worked up into quite a dander, Macumber declared that he would rather “spill his blood” than give up his arms and plunder on the spot. With little choice, Box backed down.

Not surprisingly, Macumber faced a court-martial on September 19, “accused of plundering and robbery, and also of mutiny.” But several of his men testified on his behalf, insisting that Macumber had expressly forbidden his men to plunder, that a number of men perpetrated the deed out of his sight, and that he ordered them to return the plunder to Colonel Sargent. The court found Macumber not guilty of plundering, robbery, and mutiny, but guilty of offering violence to Major Box. He was sentenced to little more than a reprimand, and ordered to offer an apology to Box.

For his part, George Washington was less than pleased with the verdict. Clearly convinced that the weight of evidence pointed to Macumber’s guilt, the general was annoyed that too much weight had seemingly been given to the testimony of Macumber’s accomplices. “It is to be observed,” he wrote, “that the men who were to share the plunder, became the evidence for the prisoner.”

At Washington’s insistence, a second court-martial was held on September 21. Although Captain Ramsay had not testified during the first trial, his testimony at the second, paired with obvious pressure from the commander-in-chief, resulted in a reversal of the initial verdict. The presiding officers found Macumber guilty of plundering and mutiny and expressed their opinion “that the prisoner be cashiered for said offence; and he is accordingly cashiered.”[9]

In a letter reporting on the matter to John Hancock, Washington expressed disgust at petty thievery countenanced by officers, and that Macumber had been caught with stolen goods “which one would think, could be of no use to him.”[10]

Grand Theft Goose

Military table fare during the Revolution could be somewhat unappetizing, an indignity which Capt. John Baptist Allen was disinclined to endure. A company commander in the 1st Canadian Regiment, Allen’s military career met an ignominious end due to the sordid theft of a hapless goose.

The tragic saga unfolded when Sgt. Zachariah Holsapple appeared in camp bearing a plump goose. Lt. Andrew Peppin asked him where he got it. Holsapple claimed that he purchased the bird about three miles from camp. Unconvinced, Peppin asked if “he did not steal it.” Holspapple denied stealing the bird, but remained under a cloud of suspicion.

The sergeant then offered the bird for sale to his commanding officer. Clearly licking his lips, Allen inquired where the goose came from. According to Holsapple’s later testimony, he openly admitted that he stole it a mile and a half outside of camp and wanted a dollar for it. Allen readily agreed to the purchase, but apparently paid Holspapple with a half-pint of rum from the company stores. Although court records fail to indicate the ultimate fate of the goose, it can be safely assumed that Allen devoured it.

Despite the complete destruction of the evidence, a suspicious Ens. John Gates looked into the incident and had Holsapple placed under arrest. According to Gates, Holspapple confessed to the theft and implicated Captain Allen in receiving stolen goods. Shockingly, when Holspapple was given permission to have a private meeting with Allen, he offered two more geese for sale. A voracious Allen reportedly admitted that he’d love to purchase the birds, but was afraid that “he should be found out” and that his fellow officers “would be offended with him.”

Indeed they were. Although Allen had a reputation for bravery under fire, he also had a checkered history that seems to have nettled his subordinates. The accusations had included drunkenness, drunkenness while on duty, and drunkenness with enlisted men. His gastro-felonious purchase of the goose was simply the last straw.

Allen ultimately faced a court-martial for “purchasing a Goose of Serjt Holsapple, when it appeared, he must have known, or suspected the said goose was stolen.” After Holsapple, Gates, and Peppin testified against Allen, the verdict was harsh and to the point. The officers who made up the court found Allen to be “of a notorious bad character and of opinion that the stealing of the Geese was under his direction, & that he be cashiered with infamy.”[11]

On September 26, Allen penned a desperate letter to Maj. Gen. John Sullivan in an attempt to salvage his commission and his honor. Insistent that he did not deserve “Such a disgrace,” an indignant Allen claimed that he had been “Condamn’d without having the opportunity of producing what Evidances I had in my favour.” In truth, it was an unfortunate situation. Allen explained that “I have left my Wife, Childrin and all my properties in Canada to pursue the Cause of America.” After asking for another court-martial to be convened so that he could produce further evidence, Allen assured Sullivan that “I have not deserved such a disgrace.”[12]

Higher authorities would have none of it. When Congress received Allen’s appeal, it was rejected out of hand.[13] The commander-in-chief was of the same mind, and in a letter to Sullivan explaining his thinking, George Washington refused to intervene. “The evidence so materially contradicts” Allen’s defense, explained Washington, “that I cannot see any objections to confirming the Sentence.”[14]

Check This Out

The crack troops of the Delaware Regiment were easily identified by their distinctive blue uniforms faced in red, a color scheme that was apparently inadequate for one unlucky soldier who possessed flashier stylistic sensibilities. On March 1, 1777, a regimental court-martial was convened to try James Pemberton, accused of stealing an irresistible swatch of checked linen.

While on march earlier that spring, Ens. Griffith Jordan noticed that Pemberton was headed down the wrong road and called him back. As a hesitant Pemberton returned to the column, Pvt. James Moones noticed that Pemberton was fumbling with a piece of checked cloth that he was trying to hide under his uniform coat. In an apparent attempt to conceal the conspicuous bulge of cloth, Pemberton attempted to shift the goods around to the backside of his coat. Unimpressed by the ploy, Moones advised Pemberton to hide the cloth in the snow or he would be found out. In fact, Pemberton did a poor job of hiding his treasure. Pvt. Hugh Coffel also noticed the cloth, and observed that it was brand new material, with “fringes or thrumbs on it, as is common from the loom.”

At his court-martial, Pemberton claimed that he simply had an old checked shirt and that “he had nothing with him that he was afraid of being detected with.” Another soldier, Cornelius Grimes, testified that Pemberton “told him” that he owned a checked shirt, but apparently hadn’t seen it.

The officers who tried the case weren’t impressed with the defense and found Pemberton guilty, sentencing him to “receive thirty nine lashes on his bare back well laid on with the cat o nine tails; & also to make restitution for the linen.”[15]

Blaze of Glory

The recollections of aged revolutionary veterans, often recorded decades after the war, are generally not considered as entirely reliable. The passage of time can serve to cloud memories, conflate precise facts, and exaggerate personal experience. But for the history of any war, veterans’ accounts can record priceless glimpses of the day-to-day minutia of soldiering that would otherwise be lost to history.

On October 8, 1832, Ohio resident and Virginia veteran John Hutt applied for a pension for his Revolutionary War service. Hutt gave a lengthy and detailed account of his service, which was largely in a Virginia state artillery outfit. Hutt’s unit was eventually attached to an infantry regiment under the command of Lt. Col. Charles Porterfield in Nathanael Greene’s southern army, and he later saw service in the state militia during the siege of Yorktown. Hutt certainly didn’t exaggerate his own exploits, bluntly explaining that although he heard “a few whistling bullets” when he was stationed Gloucester Point, “I never was in any battle but marching.”

Near the end of his pension application, Hutt left a curious anecdote regarding his service in the southern theater. The fantastic story might be too good to be true, but nevertheless records a humorous glimpse at Revolutionary War campfire gossip.

Another tale and a part I know to be a fact that a cannon was fired at a late hour of one night while Porterfield commanded and was encamped on a dense settlement of Tories. It was said to alarm and awe them, a report next morning spread abroad that one of Col Porterfield’s regiment had stolen a shirt and trousers and for safe keeping had put them in the gun that was fired. The wide spreading sheet of flaming light spread over the encampment and the loss of the soldier’s shirt and trousers was the cause of much sport and laughter amongst the soldiers in camp.[16]

Joshua Shepherd, Journal of the American Revolution