Revolutionary War Historical Article
SOMETIMES HISTORIANS ADD TWO PLUS TWO AND GET FIVE
By Donald N. Moran
Editor's Note: This article was reprinted from the April 2001 Edition of the Liberty Tree Newsletter
Over the years we have concentrated our editorials on the dangers of revisionism and multiculturalism and its disastrous affect on our history. Those advocates believe that by rewriting our history they can elevate certain ethnic groups by ignoring others. Case in point: give equal printed space to the valet that helped dress the General to the great victory he won. Most common in our modern history books is that the amount of space given a specific group is not determined by their accomplishments and impact on our history, but rather based on an equal percentage of space.
There is another problem with the writing of
history, and that problem is misinterpreting available
reference material. Simply put, a historian finds a
single document and bases his opinion solely on it. We
will use Major Caleb
Gibbs of the Guards
as a classic example.
We have often
wondered why Gibbs,
holding the unique
position of being a
combat line officer,
charged with the protection
George Washington and being an Aide-de-Camp to the Father of our Country, has been neglected by our historians - - nothing of significance has been written about him.
Well known and highly respected Revolutionary War historian. Thomas, Fleming, wrote in his book The Forgotten Victory - The Battle for New Jersey - 1780, "Caleb Gibbs was a war lover, a type of soldier whose popularity has waxed and waned more than once in the course of American history. (Fortunately for the nation, the popularity has coincided with times when such men were most needed,) Gibbs had obviously been itching to get into the fight and led the Guard against the Jaegers with a ferocity that sent the Germans reeling. .the next morning at 6:00 a.m. he told Washington, 'I had the happiness to give the Hessian lads a charge just before sunsett & drove them thoroughly. (We gave them after they gave way, about eight rounds).' "
Thomas Fleming based his opinion that Gibbs was a "war lover" on the report written by Gibbs. In truth, the report was written in a very bravado manner, and not typical of the writings of Gibbs - in fact, it is the only letter found wherein Gibbs wrote in such style.
Further investigations revealed that at the time of the Battle of Connecticut Farms, June 7th, 1780, Washington's Headquarters was at the Ford Mansion in Morristown. The Mansion had been the home of Colonel Jacob Ford, who had died during the disastrous 1776 campaign. Mrs. Ford was struggling financially, with a very uncertain future. When Hessian General Knyphausen invaded New Jersey, Washington ordered his Guard, commanded by Gibbs and the First Rhode Island Regiment to race to the high ground at Connecticut Farms and hold until the entire Continental Army arrived. For some reason, Gibbs permitted young Jacob Ford, Jr. to accompany the Guard. Ford was shot twice in the thigh during the battle. Obviously, Mrs. Ford would be very upset that her surviving young son was there at all, and secondly that he was badly hurt. Major Gibbs' report, with all its fanciful descriptions of the battle was not written for General Washington, but rather for Mrs. Ford! It was an attempt to appeal to her pride and patriotism and put aside her motherly concerns. Proof of that is that the letter was found, not in the records of Washington's headquarters, but rather a Ford family "treasure".
For the historical record, the charge of the 154 men of the Guard at Connecticut Farms was so ferocious that the Guard not only held the high ground when it was over, but had actually stopped the British invasion. Three Guardsman were killed in the action, and in addition to young Ford, three were wounded. One, John Slocum, was shot in the leg, which was later amputated.
The second incident, involving Major Gibbs, apparently soured his reputation in the historian community. He appeared to have been fired by Washington! The incident was the result of some misfortune that befell a tent - - no details survive. It appears that General Washington reprimanded Gibbs, who in turn ripped into his second in command, Captain William Colfax. For reasons that have not been recorded, it appears that not only was Major Gibbs threatening to transfer, but so was Captain Colfax. General Washington wrote to Colfax on October 2nd, 1779.
"Sir: What Major Gibbs's plan is, and what his
present line of conduct tends to, I shall not take upon me
to decide; nor shall I at this moment enquire into them. I
mean to act coolly and deliberately myself, and will therefore give him an opportunity of recollecting himself. He has been guilty of a piece of disrespect; to give it no
worse term; such an one, as I much question if there is
another officer in the line of the army would have
practiced: and because I wou'd not suffer my orders to be
trampled upon; . . . . nor has there been anything said or done by me, which
could be construed to a meaning, that I
wished to remove you from my table. When
there were four Officers belonging to the
guard, the number
was too great to have
them all there; when
they were reduced to
two, I refused to increase
those two might
always be there, and
this ever since has
been my design and
expectation, which is
now revealed to you, least misconception, or misinformation
should be the cause of your present separation.
After having made this explanation, I shall add, that if it
is your choice to follow the Major's example, it rests altogether
with yourself to do so.
I am, etc. G. Washington"
This is a very negative letter, and standing by itself, really questions Gibbs' value. However, historically, many of Washington's Aide-de-Camps had difficulties with him. He is known to have had a nasty temper. We are also referring to men, who lived together, shared totally inadequate and cramped quarters, worked with each other eighteen hours a day, seven days a week, disagreements were inevitable.
This letter was in one of Washington's letter books and has been available to historians from the very beginning of our Country's recorded history. With the heroic statue of Washington, an officer who had a conflict with the Great General would be relegated to an obscure footnote in history.
However, the facts are that Major Gibbs did not leave the Guards until early in 1781, over a year later, and that transfer appears to have been only on paper. The Guard was reduced to fifty men, a command requiring only a Captain. Had Gibbs stayed on as Commandant, he would have suffered a reduction in rank, as would his subordinate, William Colfax, who would be demoted from Captain to Lieutenant.
Gibbs was transferred to the 2nd Massachusetts Regiment, with a promotion to Lieutenant Colonel. But it appears he never left General Washington's headquarters. He continued to perform many of the headquarters duties he did prior to the transfer.
In fact, he was
with the Guard
when the attack on
10, at Yorktown took
place, two years
We have numerous
references to Gibbs after Yorktown,
denoting him as still being a Major in the Guards by officers that were serving with him at the time. At the same time we have not found a single reference to him as a Lt. Col. Of the 2nd Massachusetts, except after the Guard was disbanded in November of 1783, Gibbs stayed in the Army (2nd Massachusetts) for another year, until November 1784.
Additionally; several very warm and friendly letters were exchanged between the General and Gibbs until the General died in 1799 and between Gibbs and Colfax. Washington, when President, referred to Gibbs as his "eyes in New England". It is obvious that one piece of information, looked upon without benefit of supporting documents, or out of context, can present a very distorted image. How often this happens is hard to say, but every historian should be careful to confirm every fact.