The 'Headers In Life & Legend
by Russell W. Knight
Tide Is Reversed
|Seventeen-seventy-six was the darkest year of the Revolution -- a year so dark and threatening that General George Washington himself feared that "the game was pretty near up." But before the year ended, the fast ebbing tide of war was reversed, thanks to a regiment of brawny Marblehead mariners.
On the 29th of August, Colonel John Glover and his "webfooted soldiers" succeeded in carrying out a task that General Sir William Howe had considered militarily impossible. Working silently and under cover of darkness, they managed to evacuate 9,500 Continentals that a huge British force had completely penned in on the tip of Long Island. When dawn broke the next morning, the beleaguered Americans were safe in New York, along with all their field guns, horses and equipment. Not a man was lost, nor a boat swamped or upset in that operation -- a tribute to the skills and determination of Glover's veterans!
In the words of England's noted historian, Sir George Otto Trevelyan, it was a master stroke "by which Washington saved his army and his country." Nevertheless, the future of the war was still precarious because one month later, with his army tired, discouraged and its ranks thinned by desertion, sickness and death, Washington once again had his back against the wall. And once again, it was General Howe who strove to trap the patriot forces, this time on Pells Point, a peninsula jutting into Pelham Bay. And once again, the man on the spot was Marblehead's own Colonel Glover.
On this occasion, it was Glover who, on October 18, 1776, first saw some 200 fully-manned enemy boats heading his way. Though he had but 750 men and three field pieces to oppose some 4,000 well-trained and heavily-armed British and Hessian regulars, he never hesitated; he met them head-on. In the battle that ensued, his men, by making good use of every stone wall and gully in the area, held that vastly superior force at bay from dawn till dark.
In the meantime, General Washington managed for the second time in two months to extricate his army from the presumably escape-proof traps General Howe had devised. Once, well beyond the reach of the British, General Washington complimented Colonel Glover and his unit for the part they had played in that critical delaying action. General Charles Lee also praised them "for their gallant behavior [and] for their prudent, cool and orderly and soldierlike conduct in all respects." In short, they had saved the patriot army from an ignominious defeat, and by doing so, had given its spirits another much-needed lift.
But for Colonel John Glover and his Marbleheaders, the best was yet to come. Two months later, those same robust mariners ferried their commander-in-chief and 2500 ragged and shoeless men across the flooded, ice-packed Delaware River. The attack on Trenton lasted an estimated forty-five minutes. It was on Christmas night, 1776, that Glover's muscular oarsmen made possible a mission recounted by Trevelyan when he wrote, that it "may be doubted whether so small a number of men ever employed so short a space of time with greater results upon the history of the world." The crossing of the Delaware River gave the American colonies a sorely-needed shot in the arm. And by the same token, the capture of Trenton, New Jersey, by Washington's ill-equipped and undisciplined Continentals dealt the British high command a shocking blow.
Unfortunately, those three successes were soon followed by a series of disheartening defeats. And on the heels of one of those humiliating drubbings, General Washington blew his top. What the army needed, he said, as he berated his staff for its lackluster performance, was 5,000 Marbleheaders.
"They'd drive the damn Britishers into the sea in a week's time!" he thundered. General Washington then paused and muttered to himself:
"But once those Hagdon-eating fishermen drove the #%*$!!#*! redcoats into the sea ... what'n hell would they do with me?"