Revolutionary War Historical Article
Resolving a Revolutionary War Mystery
by Donald N. Moran
Editor's Note: This article was reprinted from the September 2002 Edition of the Liberty Tree Newsletter
Many of your author's readers are aware that I am preparing manuscripts for two books. The first will be on the life of Major Caleb Gibbs, Commandant of the Commander-in-Chief's Guards and the second on the Guard itself. Both subjects have been grossly neglected by historians.
I thought that it would be of general interest for my. readers to retrace my efforts to resolve one of the many historical questions regarding Major Gibbs.
First understand that the majority of our Revolutionary War veterans were too busy building our nation to concern themselves with their memoirs. Further, the typical 18th century man exhibited a great deal of humility in his writings and often wrote in the briefest form and in the third person. Time has also taken a severe toll on the preservation of these documents. The most frustrating factor in regard to researching primary documents, is finding them. There is no central index, and far too many of these valuable documents are hidden away in private collections. Many are found in libraries or Historical Society collections, but are only accessible in person and copying them is all too often forbidden. Much of our precious history is lost to petty "turf" concerns.
To fully understand this search for an answer to this historical question, we strongly suggest that you read Commander Charles R. Lampman's (USN Ret.) extremely good article on the Siege at Yorktown, which is available on this Web site. This will give you an fe overview of events in which this historical mystery takes place.
It is important to understand the mind set of those who participated in the Siege of Yorktown. The average American officer or soldier was aware that after six years of war, England was both war weary and had it's resources stretched to their limits. The American Revolution had become a world war for the English.
Lieutenant General Lord Charles Cornwallis and his army had been trapped at the coastal town of Yorktown, Virginia. A rescue attempt by Lieutenant General Sir Henry Clinton and the Royal Navy had failed when it was defeated by French Admiral De Grasse.
The Americans and the French facing Cornwallis were completely aware of two important factors. Time was on Lord Cornwallis's side - - it was only a matter of time until a second, stronger, rescue attempt. would be made, and secondly, with the political situation in England, if Generals Washington and Rochambeau could defeat and capture Cornwallis's army, it was very probable that it would be the end of the war, at least the last battle fought in America.
In the 18th century, sieges were usually done in steps. You did not want to make a frontal attack as it would be cost prohibitive in terms of men killed or wounded. So you set up your artillery at maximum range to bombard the fortifications of the enemy. Then, under cover of night, you would start digging trenches, bringing your troops closer to the enemy's main defenses. This is precisely what Washington had done. The first line of trenches had been completed, about 500 yards from Cornwallis's main defensive lines. A second trench was started, about 250 yards closer to the British main fortifications. There were two major obstacles to completing this trench: Redoubts Number 9 and 10. Each of these Redoubts was an advance fortification made of earth about 15 feet high, protected with extensive use of abatis (sharpened stakes buried into the face of the redoubt facing outwards, an 18th century form of barbwire). There was a firing platform within each redoubt which protected the defenders and gave them a tremendous advantage over any attackers.
Generals Washington and Rochambeau agreed that both Redoubts had to be taken. To keep casualties at a minimum, a night attack with unloaded muskets, bayonets only, would be made. The unloaded muskets would prevent "friendly fire" incidents. The French were to capture Redoubt Number 9 and the Americans Redoubt 10. Number 9 was the stronger of the two, however, Number 10 had its south side protected by a very steep slope to the James River, thereby restricting attacks to only three sides. The allied Generals also knew that both Redoubts would have to be taken simultaneously, as they protected each other and the British could reinforce them much faster then the Allies. If one attack failed, both would fail. If both succeeded, their capture would make further defense of Yorktown impossible.
To the 18th century officers and soldiers, the glory of victory was all important. So, when the orders were issued for the capture of these two Redoubts, this could well be their last chance for "glory". Young officers like Lt. Colonels Alexander Hamilton and John Laurens, long time Aide-de-Camps to General Washington, eagerly wanted a piece of the action.
At 7:30 p.m., October 14th, 1781, right after dark, the attack started, and within one half hour it was all over - - both Redoubts had been captured.
Our mystery starts right here. Major Gibbs was held in reserve, with the Massachusetts Light Infantry, in the first trench, about 250 yards west of Redoubt number 10. He was wounded in the ankle? Several primary documents state that he was wounded, including one from his wife, and one from George Washington himself. But, there is no mention of his being wounded in the surviving official records. Certainly The Marquis de LaFayette, who knew Gibbs personally, and Alexander Hamilton, who was Gibbs' closest wartime friend would have mentioned it - - but they didn't.
The next question is how was he wounded in the ankle standing in a trench 250 yards away from the fighting. The British "Brown Bess" musket had a maximum range of less then 200 yards, in fact it was an unlucky soldier indeed that was killed at 100 yards. Obviously something was wrong.
A visit to Yorktown National Battlefield resulted in this writer pacing off the distances from the first trench to what is left of redoubt number 10 as part of it has eroded into the James River. The distance is about 250 yards, at a downward grade of about 5 to 7 degrees, making Gibbs position completely out of range of a British musket in the Redoubt.
The orders that General Rochambeau gave to his own officers regarding their attack on Redoubt Number 9, specifically prohibited officers to leave assigned commands and volunteer to join the attack. The glory factor. General Washington did not issue written orders to the same effect, but undoubtedly the same mentality existed among the American officers.
Since it was impossible for Major Gibbs to have been struck by a musket ball at his assigned post, we must assume that he violated his orders, joined his buddy, Alex Hamilton, and participated in the attack. Being satisfied with that explanation, I assumed the mystery to be resolved. How wrong I was!
From reading several letters of the period, referring to manuscripts, papers and letters loaned to a Reverend William Gordon, a Boston Minister and a self appointed historian of the Revolution, I knew he had communicated with Gibbs. Both resided in Boston after the war, so interviews were very possible. Who better to ask questions of than an officer who protected General Washington himself for eight years!
Gordon published his book, entitled: "The History of the Rise, Progress and Establishment of the United States of American, including an account of the late war". This three volume set was printed in New York in 1794.
Almost every mention of the Rev. Gordon in private letters complained about his intrusiveness, his not returning papers loaned him, and his misinterpreting incidents and personalities. He applied literary license so liberally that young Alexander Hamilton had challenged him to a duel in 1779! After the war another letter to Gibbs sought his assistance in retrieving a manuscript loaned to Gordon. Gibbs' reply stated he could not get his own back, so he held out little hope.
Nevertheless, I thought that I might be able to find information about the Commander-in-Chief's Guards, and hopefully about Gibbs himself in these books. However, these are extremely rare, and I could not find a set in Los Angeles, nor did I want to spend the time sitting in the Library of Congress reading three volumes. Additionally, these books were neither indexed, or footnoted.
In 1998, I was able to purchase the set, only because this particular set had the bindings destroyed. Had it not been for that fact, I would have had to expend one year's book purchasing budget for three books!
The only reference to Major Gibbs I could find was a short but important notation. "Major Gibbs, the commander of the men that formed the guards for Washington's person, received a small contusion in his leg by a grape shot. His manu script of the transactions before and after the siege, are often used in this narrative."
First, I was pleased that my conclusion that Gibbs had joined the attack was confirmed, by quotes of what was said in the Redoubt. I was further pleased that the information came from Gibbs himself. I was completely frustrated in knowing that he had prepared a manuscript that no longer exists. And, lastly, totally confused by his having been struck by grape shot.
The following summer, it was off to the Yorktown a National Battlefield again. If anyone had the answer, it would be the Yorktown Park Historians.
I asked my question to the Park Ranger at the reception desk, which he could not answer. He called for one of the Park Historians, a Diane Depew. She was visibly pleased to be asked a serious question. I can only assume that most questions asked are a rather mundane and very basic. My question was anything but mundane. She lead my wife Linda and me into the private section of the Visitors Center - - a very impressive library of between 2 and 3 thousand books on the Revolution, numerous file cabinets and several small private offices. She asked for a couple of other historians to assist her. After restating my question, one of these Park Historians, smiled, and said "Friendly Fire". Now I was completely confused. Why would the Americans or the French be firing grape shot into the darkness of night when they had launched a massive bayonet charge?
He answered the question.
First, the absolute range of grape shot is 300 to 400 yards. Gibbs' assigned position was 100 yards further away, and up hill. Therefore, it was impossible for him to have been struck while in the first trench. Lt. Colonel Hamilton (and presumably) Major Gibbs, attacked in a column on the center and far right. Lt. Colonel John Laurens, with 80 picked men, were to advance around the left side and seal off the exit so none of the British could escape.
Because of the heroism of Hamilton's men, who climbed over the abatis, rather than wait for the Forlorn Hope (the lead soldiers) and the Sappers to chop paths for them, as the French did at Redoubt Number 9, and suffered severe losses, the American frontal attack was several minutes ahead of schedule. Laurens and his men were not in position in time to seal off the escape route. Further, a group of British soldiers instantly saw the situation was hopeless, made a dash for the exit and ran for their main fortifications.
The British in the main lines, who had been expecting the "final assault" at any moment, heard the commotion at the Redoubts. They were instantly on the alert. In spite of the darkness, the British could see a number of troops rushing at them, and assuming that their men garrisoning the Redoubts, would have fought to the last man defending their position, had to assume this was the anticipated main assault, the British opened fire with everything they had, muskets and artillery.
To stop infantry at close range in the 18th century, artillery used a diabolical type of ammunition, grape shot. It consisted of a couple of dozen oversized musket balls in a canvas bag. Once fired, the bag would rupture and the grape shot would scatter, exactly like a present day shot gun. One round of grape shot would put a sizable gap in any advancing battle line.
The historian went on, saying that apparently, after British Major P. Campbell, of the 71 st Regiment of Foot, had surrendered, Hamilton and Gibbs went to rear exit of the Redoubt to see what had become of Lt. Col. Laurens. While standing there, the British opened fire. The unlucky Gibbs was struck by one of the grape shot.
His theory was probably right on target, but there is no truth without proof.
I then asked if they had anything to confirm the theory. After a few minutes, they produced a typewritten document, entitled: "Notes on the Skeletal Remains, Together with Their Associated Artifacts, Uncovered During the Restoration of Redoubt Number 10. From September 1936 to September 1937."
The lead paragraph states: ". . . . There can scarce be a shadow of doubt that the skeletons recovered, with the exception of one, possibly a trench worker, are those of soldiers killed during the assault of October 14, 1781. The locale from which they were taken in relation to the restoration, together with such artifacts as were associated with them or recovered in the immediate vicinity, would seem to preclude any other opinion. No artifact herein described or listed postdates the period of the siege. II"
From this record it appears that the soldiers killed, retreating from the Redoubt, were buried in shallow graves right where they fell. The artifacts, which included buttons, regimental insignia, etc, proved that the remains were those of British soldiers of the 33rd, 43rd and 71st Regiments."
On the reverse slope of Redoubt Number 10, they found a number of iron shot, including a variety of grape shot as well as cannon balls.
Since the reverse side of Redoubt Number 10 faced the British lines, the only way these expended munitions could have been imbedded on that side is if they were fired by the British. Hence, the British casualties and Major Gibbs
were killed or wounded by "Friendly Fire."
We can now safely state that Major Caleb Gibbs was wounded during the attack on Redoubt Number 10, and was present in the Redoubt. The reason I believe that he was not mentioned in the "Official Reports" is that would have constituted acknowledging his violation of his orders. Gibbs was too well connected to have been placed in that kind of jeopardy.
In my book, a few paragraphs will describe his participation in the attack, and not mention the three years it took to reach the conclusions! Such is the life of a historian.