Honor and Valor – Historical Insights

Does your book provide any new contributions to our understanding of history? Most historians and people with degrees in history ask this of me when they learn of the research behind my books. It’s also an excellent weed-out question for those who like to read, whether it’s narrative-history, biography, or historical novels.

In Honor and Valor, I divide the contributions to historical understanding into two categories:  New Inferences from existing documents, and first tellings of these inferences.

First Tellings:

  • 40 Man Scout: In Chapter 6, I assembled the following:
    • A name by name composition of the forty-man scouting party from the rolls of all five of the regiments under Enoch Poor.
    • A plausible route from Louden’s Ferry to where they were ambushed.
    • Plausible reasons for undertaking the scouting mission in the first place.

The route came from military terrain analysis, and the site of the ambush from the Mohawk perspective was far and away the best option given the terrain, giving the Mohawk warriors cover, concealment, high ground, and placing their adversary in likely swampy lowland terrain. Luck was on my side for identifying men in the scouting party.  They left on September 4, 1777, and returned the following day.  Most regiments took their rolls on the fourth and noted the members as “On a Scout” or “On Command.” The total of such references from all five regiments was forty men.  No additional rolls were taken until January 1, 1778, but those rolls confirmed the results. My narrative of the battle combines the terrain analysis with Thomas Anburey’s account from within Burgoyne’s camp and Gavin Watt’s description that provided casualties on the Mohawk side, which implied the possibility of an attack on the caravan itself – in particular, John Deserontyon’s wounding; he was already wounded and I thought it unlikely for him to lead the ambush.

  • Battles of Saratoga from the perspective of being embedded in Isaac Frye’s company: The descriptions of these battles I’ve read are all akin to a bird’s eye view on a military-style walkthrough description. Those are necessary to form a basic understanding. Read enough of them and one can become rather immersed. But, do so with the intention of putting yourself in the shoes of a specific participant, and now your point of view changes radically, narrowing and becoming grounded, literally. What this person saw, heard, and might have done, minute by minute for several hours.  In particular, I am indebted to the work in Don Troiani’s Campaign to Saratoga – 1777: The Turning Point of the Revolutionary War in Paintings, Artifacts, and Historical Narrative. As a compilation of the most recent historical insights on these battles, it proved invaluable context for the specific accounts offered by members of the New Hampshire regiments in their letters and journals. I walked Isaac’s likely path through those battles Saratoga National Historical Park for an entire day to get the perspective of a six-foot-tall captain attempting to make sense of a chaotic battle over uneven terrain and through clouds of smoke from musket- and cannon-fire. Try putting yourself in a regiment commander’s place – I found smoke to be the first enemy you might face when making decisions to commit your men or to avoid losing your men.
  • The Fever at Valley Forge:  In cursory histories of battles, there is an assumption that because a regiment was present, they fought, and that every man in the regiment participated. Very early in my research, I figured Isaac fought in the Battle of Monmouth based on such thinking.  Instead, I learned he was sick. In Chapter 13, after analyzing the monthly rolls, I was able to piece together a far larger and more significant pattern of sickness in May, June, and July at Valley Forge.  I analyzed all rolls from March through September from the five regiments under Enoch Poor (1st, 2nd, and 3rd NH; and 2nd and 4th NY). Isaac’s company was percentage-wise the hardest hit.  There was no way to give a name to the disorder, or even to assume that it was just one disorder. I suspect the men who came back with William Adrian Hawkins carried it into camp, though Hawkins either avoided it or like Henry Dearborn only had a mild case that wasn’t reported in the rolls; Dearborn noted his case in his journal. An additional theory is all the fordings of the Schuylkill River, which must have been chilly, even in May, may have progressively undermined the men’s immune systems.

New Inferences from Known Documents:

  • Recruiting a Company in 1777:  In Chapter 2, I had to set aside my initial assumption that Isaac traveled around to each town. New Hampshire had organized its militia by county and assigned muster masters who knew the composition of their county’s militia and who might be good candidates for the Continental Army.  Major Abiel Abbott is who Isaac would have relied upon to expedite the recruiting of his company.
  • 24 hours in Schaghticoke: In Chapter 5, I got lucky.  After doing my initial research, I had a good narrative. I  was also in contact with Christina Kelly, the Town Historian for Schaghticoke, NY, starting with a 2011 blog on Major Van Veghton, then sharing Joseph Gray’s narrative for what had occurred.  Christina dug in and found a much richer story, and shared Schaghticoke in the American Revolution: A New Perspective on the Death of Major VanVeghten in August of 2018.  I combine these to tell a full version from Isaac’s narrative perspective.
  • Final Siege at Saratoga and the Surrender:  It seems to me this part of the victory at Saratoga is never told in full, and I enjoyed piecing it together.
  • Captain Beal at Fishkill:  This is important for the build-up of circumstances, particularly the lack of pay for the New Hampshire Continentals. For years, an incorrect account of Captain Beal circulated on the Internet and I am happy to report I can no longer find it.
  • Battle of Barren Hill: Also written from the perspective of those on the ground. This is a plausible telling of these events, as they are not as extensively documented. However, it became clear after piecing together the timeline for regiments learning Von Steuben’s new manual of arms that Captain Daniel Livermore, as senior officer, would likely have had command of the 3rd Regiment as Dearborn and Scammell, who were both in camp confirmed their presence in camp in their writings. There are a long series of untold and remarkable instances where junior officers had to assume command of their regiments due to the senior officers being otherwise engaged. I was glad for the opportunity to tell how Livermore and Isaac likely stepped into larger roles in this instance.



Freeman’s Farm: The more I read …

For the past few weeks, I’ve been writing the scenes during the Battle of Freeman’s Farm. The perspective is from inside the 3rd New Hampshire Regiment; imagining what it was like to be in the ranks, commanding platoons and companies, and orchestrating the positioning of a regiment on that battlefield.

Most histories are written from a birdseye view with the occasional tidbit coming from the diary or memoir of one of the men on the field. No complaints as those are great reads for getting introduced to the events and people involved. That said, between such histories and paintings of these battles, both new and old, something has been troubling me. How is it, given that each side had roughly 3,000 men, each man roughly twenty cartridges, and fired most of them over the 4-6 hours they were on the battlefield, that there were only a little over 1,000 total casualties?

Do that math:  The Americans fired upwards of 60,000 bullets and maybe 1,000 found an enemy soldier. The British fired about the same number and only hit half as many Americans.

For having fired a musket and demonstrated, hundreds of times, how a firelock works, while explaining the range and just how far off target they could be at a distance of 75 yards, I was still surprised by these numbers.

As I considered the possible reasons for this, some notions of what must have been going on, strategy and tactics-wise began to develop.  First is the 18th-century battlefield was more like a chess match than a shooting gallery. Colonels and captains had to preserve their troops by maneuvering on the field with the dual intent of catching their enemy within range of their muskets.

Sidebar:  Is the right word musket or firelock?  If Google’s NGram Viewer is reliable, it looks like it was similar to “flip phones” versus “cell phones”. It seems that firelocks were a specific new form of the musket class of weapon. 

Smoke from firing volleys providing the fog of battle to hide movements was only the beginning. Advancing or retreating while firing volleys by platoon allowed for relatively high rates of sustained fire to push groups of enemy troops out of the way, or respectively slow their advance.  Getting close enough, perhaps by flanking (coming around to the side of an enemy’s formation), to warrant a bayonet charge while your enemy reloads was a tempting and dangerous goal. Execute poorly and the tables could be turned rather quickly.

Given that, my respect has risen considerably for the American Colonels (Cilley, Scammell, Cook, Adams, and Hull) who directed their men in the field around Freeman’s farm against Burgoyne and Hamilton on this day 241 years ago. These men did not just rush onto the field ala Mel Gibson (as Benjamin Martin or William Wallace) and clash with their enemy. One of the consistent recollections by the men who were there was of the tremendous amount of musketry.  That meant firing volley’s, advancing, wheeling, and retreating if no advantage was gained.

Another thing to take into account was the likelihood that Morgan’s riflemen, and the Jaegers who carried rifles, accounted for a double-digit percentage of the casualties. There were points during the battle where the fighting came to hand-to-hand combat. Both of these facts imply those muskets accounted for even fewer casualties than the 1 in 60 easy math I began with.

Consider that not all men on either side were killers. Aiming a firearm with the intent of taking a life is no small thing. Given all the smoke, there were certainly times when finding a target was impossible–just point into the smoke and pull the trigger when commanded to fire.

It seems only one man in five or even six fired a shot that struck an enemy that day. The credit for keeping the American casualties so low goes to the officers who guided their troops on the field and in the woods while they fought for something more than a six pence.*


* From a Henry Dearborn quote: “But we who had Something more at Stake than fighting for Six Pence Pr Day kept our ground til Night, Closed the scene, & then Both Parties Retire’d”

Here’s a great article, following up on the intersection of Joseph Gray’s narrative and the Van Veghton family’s accounts of the New Hampshire Continental troops assisting in the evacuation of Schaghticoke, NY in August of 1777.

I am re-writing that part of Book 2 in Duty in the Cause of Liberty for the third time now.  Hoping that is the proverbial charm.


How do we accurately know and report what happened in the past? We learned in school that we should consult primary sources- oral histories; diaries; newspaper reporting; birth, death and marriage certificates, etc. – things created by the people who participated in the events. Of course, we know that everyone experiences an event differently, […]

via Schaghticoke in the American Revolution: A New Perspective on the Death of Major VanVeghten — History of the Town of Schaghticoke

Schaghticoke in the American Revolution, Major VanVeghten scalped

Got to love the Internet for providing the basis to connect the threads of history! See my comment proposing the connecting the thread at the end.

History of the Town of Schaghticoke

          In the last post, I related a Knickerbocker family legend that the fort near the Mansion was occupied by Hessian soldiers at the time of the battle of Saratoga. Though I doubt very much that that was true, there is no doubt that there were bands of Tories, Indians, and perhaps Hessians and British roaming through the area during the summer of 1777 before the battle of Saratoga. Major Dirck VanVeghten of the  local militia unit, the 14th Albany County, was killed by one band when he came from Saratoga just before the battle to check on his home in Schaghticoke. One source states that VanVeghten came home on “an intelligence gathering mission.” In either event,  he was accompanied only by Solomon Acker, one of  the soldiers in his company of the 14th Albany County Militia.

            The story of Major VanVeghten really illustrates the great variety…

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