Lower Merion Historical Society

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How now General Howe: Radnor Society hears from a Loyalist and Radical about the Philadelphia Campaign

by David Schmidt
Special to Main Line Life

As is often said, the victors get to write the history, and it’s certainly the case with the American Revolution. To hear it, you’d expect everyone whose family was here during that war to be as fiery as Patrick Henry in their support of the cause. It would be nice, but it just wasn’t the case. Especially on the Main Line, there were a lot of very conservative Quakers who weren’t the least interested in upsetting the status quo, let alone allow those irresponsible rebels create some sort of new government.

Letting the common man express his views was one thing, but to permit him decide on laws and governing? Ridiculous! These radicals were mostly city types anyway, with the exception of a few hotheads like Anthony Wayne — who wasn’t called “mad”for nothing. Most rebels were ne’er-do-wells, egged on by intellectuals and those who held a grudge against the king, or against any other ruler. When the British commandeered food and supplies they at least paid for it with sterling, not with promises, or worthless script, like the Radicals. But two centuries later, everyone’s forefathers were Yankee Doodle dandies.

Early in the war, supporters of the revolution were probably very much in the minority. This was especially the case during the Philadelphia campaign when the Americans didn’t seem to do anything right. At Waynesborough recently, the two sides came together as members of the Radnor Historical Society gathered to hear two American officers of the Revolution – one from each side – discuss their perspectives on the rebellion.

The first was Bill Treppman, a captain in Washington’s forces who, in modern life is a National Park Ranger and historian at Valley Forge Park. In his view, the whole revolution was touch and go until the French threw their support behind the revolutionaries. “Until the French were convinced that this was more than an uprising, that the rebels wouldn’t be lured back into the fold through concessions,they were unwilling to back the Americans,” he said. “The best thing that Washington did was to show the French that the Americans would fight to win, no matter what.”

When the French allied themselves with the Americans it wasn’t because they believed strongly in the colonists’ revolutionary ideas. Rather, the two sides shared an enemy in the British. By providing support and training, they made the difference. “The first French soldiers were appalled by the condition and appearance of the American soldiers,” he said. “But they were equally impressed by the condition of their weapons – the rifles were bright and shiny,” he said. “They were also impressed with the American artillery,” he said. Many of those impressive cannons had been forged along the Schuylkill River. But according to the French, the Americans needed training. Prussian advisor General von Stueben was amazed at how differently the Americans were from European soldiers: “According to him, the European soldiers wouldn’t put up with what they had to endure,” Treppman says.

Stueben soon grew frustrated by the American’s inability to just take orders. “He said that you couldn’t just give an order to an American soldier and expect the instant obedience of a European, ” Treppman reports. “You would always get questions. But tell them, and if the Americans agreed, they would do exactly what you wanted.” But they needed training and that’s exactly what the French could provide. “Anybody could be taught to do how to fire a musket,” says Treppman, “It was how to maneuver, that was important.”

According to Treppman, generations of pictures in schoolbooks have perpetuated the myth that the British marched in formation against the Americans who were hiding behind trees and rocks. “That just wasn’t the case. For the most part the English officers knew how to fight against the Americans and it wasn’t the same as a European battlefield.” The Americans’ different method of warfare was more attributable to their disorganization than an established strategy of guerilla warfare. With French help, they would eventually learn how to take advantage of their strengths and reduce the risks from their weaknesses.

Good timing may have changed the world. “The British, at the direction of Lord North, sent the Carlyle Commission to meet with the Continental Congress,” Treppman says. “They were authorized to grant virtually everything the rebels wanted, except full independence from the British. We would even had been given our own local parliament and almost complete autonomy.” But while the commission was at sea, the French alliance was signed, and the bleak picture of the revolution changed. The Carlyle Commission never got to play their part in history. A member of the Waynesborough audience was able to relate to Captain Treppman that the commission had stayed in the Powell house during their time in Philadelphia. But the danger to the British of increased naval involvement led Howe to forego his rather pleasant occupation of Philadelphia with its balls and full social season to return to fighting. Leaving the city with him in June were 3,000 civilians. But what might have the Continental Congress have decided in those dark days?

The view of a New Hampshire man fighting for the British was different: Captain Paul Sanborn of the Queen’s Own Rangers discussed another perspective at the Radnor meeting. He’d been at Waynesborough earlier, when the British had been searching for General Wayne. “We didn’t burn or loot the property because Howe had issued adirect order not to,” he says. “”He considered himself an American general.” It’s Captain Sanborn’s view that within the British military there were two schools of generalship: the “American” generals had fought in the American Colonies during the Seven Years War (known locally as the French and Indian War): the”German” generals had European backgrounds and experience with the continental armies. The latter group included the Hessians who fought for the Hanoverian King George and others who were loosely aligned against the French influence in Europe.

For Captain Sanborn, British General Howe fought his campaign here as a civil war because of his identification as an “American” general. Eastern Pennsylvania was settled primarily by British and German religious sects whose religious views were rather tolerant compared to the standard religions of Europe. They also tended to be pacifistic, and were, on the whole, very conservative people. So the war here was fought with the expectation by the British military that when the rebels were putdown, things would return to normal.

“Howe wanted to come to Philadelphia to gather information and capture the Radicals – he didn’t burn Philadelphia, didn’t burn Boston, while the Radicals burned down half of New York City to deny it to the British,” Sanborn says. “That issurely a despicable thing to do.” Sanborn points out that “Mad” Anthony Wayne was “a Radical, a tanner, he was hard drinking, argumentative and a thoroughly delightful Pennsylvanian,” he said. ” But he was also a slow learner. That led to two massacres of his troops – in Paoli and again at Tappan in New York, where an entire unit of Dragoons was wiped out because they didn’t know the enemy’s strength or location.

General Howe believed in the value of good intelligence and information, knowing that it led to success, but he wasn’t doing so well back in England and was replaced. As the Americans began to learn how to fight professionally, things began to change. “Of the Radical’s generals, Washington brought to the American army the importance of information,” Sanborn says. “As that information gathering improved, so did the American’s success.”

It’s not unusual to expect that Revolutionary War fight Captain Paul Sanborn would expound the value of intelligence. In his modern iteration he comes from a family in New Hampshire, but plays a character that could have been real. Now he’s an information specialist at Devon Prep and alumnus of the school himself. During the Cold War, Sanborn was an intelligence consultant for the Navy and Marines. He developed “characters” to help troops grasp the psychology of the Soviet officer they might be facing. “My field was tactical intelligence, what’s actually happening on the battle field, not the James Bond stuff, ” he says. He discovered playing roles to explain how others react to a situation worked. “I would appear before them as a Russian officer, and try to let them see things from his point of view, ” he recalls. “It was fairly successful, because it put a face to what they were trying to learn about.”

In the military, the intelligence career field normally requires training as a linguist as well. Sanborn studied Russian at the Defense Language School in Monterey, California. Here students are taught to speak a language by native speakers – in the case of Russians that included émigrés, as well as defectors and those who had escaped from Soviet control. So Sanborn had the role models he needed to develop a character, and discovered he enjoys the process of role playing. He now plays nearly 20 characters, including the Paul Sanborn who was a captain in the Queen’s Own Rangers.

Both Sanborn and Treppman dress appropriately to their characters, although they don’t attempt to speak in accents (which would both sound like British to our modern ears). They also make learning about our past much more fun that a dusty drive through the facts. They wear real swords and uniforms as scruffy as one would expect of a real instead of a parade ground soldier. Interestingly, their characters are more alike than different. Both are Americans fighting for what they believe in and both recognize that right wasn’t all on their side. But the revolutionary Captain Sanborn had come from Nova Scotia, where his family lived in exile with other Loyalists, to the now peaceful – and free – Waynesborough.