Saturday, July 03, 2010

July 3, 1778

Two hundred and thirty-two years ago, an operation was launched to cut off an important source of agricultural provisions to the Colonial Army during the American Revolution. The target was an isolated valley in Northeastern Pennsylvania, once considered the "southern door" to the Longhouse of the Iroquois Confederation, now claimed by Connecticut. An army of Tories - Americans loyal to the crown - along with Iroquois allies (who did not represent or act on behalf of all of the Iroquois tribes) stole into the outskirts of the Wyoming Valley, with the objective to destroy all agricultural supplies and empty the Valley of its rebellious population. Their approach was not entirely unexpected, as advance scouts had been spotted in the region for some time, and the residents of the Wyoming Valley had set about defending themselves as best they could. But this was a task made difficult by the fact that the Valley had already been largely stripped of its population of able-bodied fighting men, including those who had trained specifically as a regional militia; all were needed in the War for Independence, and all responded. Some of these soldiers, upon hearing of the impending invasion of their homeland, resigned their commissions and made haste to assist in the defense of the Wyoming Valley. But the force that marched out to meet the invaders on July 3, 1778 was not made up primarily of trained soldiers, but was mostly a motley crew of the old, the young, and those otherwise unfit to serve in Washington's army. With more fervor and valor than discretion and prudence, they marched on the superior invading force of Butler's Rangers and their Iroquois allies - and were slaughtered.

The Battle of Wyoming became known as the Wyoming Massacre, and it well deserved that name for the atrocities that were performed on the captured Colonial soldiers. But according to the popular accounts of the day*, the civilian survivors of the Wyoming Valley were rounded up after the battle into their forts and burned alive - which must have come as something of a surprise for the refugees from the Wyoming Valley as they heard these accounts in the weeks that followed. The truth was more humane, though only a little less horrible: civilians were allowed to flee, though all of their Earthly possessions were destroyed, along with the settlements that had once made up the Wyoming Valley. But the story of the Wyoming Massacre made a great propaganda tool, and helped to turn global sympathies to the Colonial cause, as well as serve as a rallying cry for Colonial forces who saw in this tale the ultimate fate of their own homelands should their efforts fail. While a technical success for the British side, the Battle of Wyoming played a key role in turning the tide of the war.

I highly recommend Mark Dziak's excellent history The Battle of Wyoming: For Liberty and Life, which was first recommended to me by my friend and fellow blogger Jennifer D. Wade. (See her review here.)

*See the entry for "August 3d" here, which reads in part:
"Colonel Dennison, on whom the command of the fort had devolved, defended himself till most of his men had fallen by his side, when he went out with a flag, to inquire what terms would be granted him on surrendering the garrison? He received from the ferocious Butler a reply in two words, 'the hatchet.' Colonel Dennison was finally obliged to surrender at discretion, still retaining a hope of mercy. But he was wofully mistaken; the threat of Butler was rigorously executed; after selecting a few prisoners, the remainder of the people, including women and children, were inclosed in the houses and barracks, which were immediately set on fire, and the whole consumed together. Another fort was near at hand, in which were seventy continental soldiers; on surrendering without conditions, these were, to a man, butchered in a barbarous manner; when the remainder of the men, women and children were shut up in the houses, and the demons of hell glutted their vengeance in beholding their destruction in one general conflagration!! This tragical scene being finished, the merciless authors of it spread fire and sword throughout the settlement, sparing, however, the houses and farms of the tories; they extended their cruel hands to the cattle in the field, shooting some, and cutting out the tongues of others, leaving them alive. The additional particulars, from their unparalleled enormity, would not be recited here, were it not that they have been already promulgated from authentic sources."

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