Image courtesy of Colonial National Historical Park, Yorktown.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Meeting Notes: September 18, 2013

“The Revolutionary War Leadership of Major General William Heath: A Reassessment,” Sean Heuvel

While most American Revolution historians have chosen to minimize the military contributions of General William Heath, or to ignore him altogether, historian Sean M. Heuvel told the American Revolution Roundtable of Richmond that Heath “deserves to be remembered more than he has.”

“He was on the edge of greatness but something seemed to hold him back,” said Heuvel. “He is known and stereotyped for one incident and that hides his real contribution.”

Indeed, William Heath was a man who was devoted to the American Revolution. When the War broke out at Lexington and Concord, Heath was the first American general to appear on the scene during the last stage of battle, commanding his Massachusetts militia forces. When the War ended, Heath was still serving as an American army general and in fact served as the army’s last general officer of the day.

Heath came from a family that had lived in Roxbury, Massachusetts (near Boston) since 1636. Prior to the War he was mainly a farmer but was also a man with ambition and according to Heuvel, “Heath was very good at marketing himself and schmoozing people.”

One of Heath’s early pastimes was reading books on military history from Henry Knox’s bookstore. He became a book-educated officer in the Massachusetts militia and rose up the ranks until he was named a brigadier general shortly before the start of the Revolution. “They didn’t have ROTC in those days,” joked Heuvel. “Officers had to learn on the run.”

Heath participated in the siege of Boston by helping to train troops now under the overall command of George Washington. He later fought in the New York campaign at Long Island, Harlem Heights and White Plains. However, for most of the War he tended to hold administrative positions in New England and New York, and can generally be called a “political general,” according to Heuvel.

“Even though he didn’t see many battlefields, it wasn’t by his choice,” said Heuvel. “However when he did fight, he was generally seen as being too cautious.”

Seen by some of his troops for being a bit pompous, they nicknamed Heath “The Duke of Roxbury”, in honor or his Roxbury, Massachusetts roots. “He was a spit and polish type of guy,” said Heuvel.

Heath is probably best known in America’s history books for the Fort Independence campaign. In January 1777 Washington ordered Heath to launch a feint against Fort Independence in conjunction with Washington’s campaign in New Jersey against Trenton and Princeton. Heath’s army, consisting mainly of militia, had approximately 6,000 troops and greatly outnumbered the 2,000-troop Hessian garrison which held Fort Independence.

When Heath’s army reached the outskirts of the fort, they easily captured a few Hessian outposts. Heath then proceeded to order the Fort Independence commander to surrender the fort immediately, to which the Hessian commander replied with a large burst of his garrison’s artillery. Heath wasn’t aware that the Hessians had any artillery so the surrender talks promptly ended and a campaign to capture the fort began.

Over the next few days Heath tried to maneuver his army so that it would encircle the fort, however the terrain was difficult and movement slowed by half-frozen creeks. During this time additional British forces arrived to assist the fort, and skirmished with Heath’s army. Finally, with the approach of a major snowstorm Heath ordered a retreat and left Fort Independence in Hessian hands.

After Washington learned the details about the Fort Independence campaign he sent two letters to Heath, a public one which also went to Congress and a private one. In the public letter Washington was diplomatic and expressed his regret over Heath’s inability to capture Fort Independence. In the private letter Washington expressed anger over the way Heath managed the campaign and censured him, saying that Heath retreated too quickly. Heath attempted to defend himself by blaming the failure on poorly trained militia and the pending snowstorm, however Washington apparently wasn’t persuaded because he never gave Heath another field command.

While Heuvel agrees with Washington’s accusations concerning Heath’s timid nature as a field commander, Heuvel thinks most historians have ignored Heath’s major war contributions in four important areas away from the battlefields.

The first of these contributions was Heath’s ability to supply his army. Nearly all historians agree that Heath was a very good administrator, and quite successful in obtaining supplies and recruiting troops throughout the War. In fact at one point in the War when overall army supplies were unusually low and troop morale was sinking toward mutiny, Washington dispatched Heath to take a tour of state capitols in the Northeast and plead with the legislatures for the immediate need for more supplies. Heath undertook the mission and was quite successful with the legislatures.

A second area where Heath contributed to the American war effort was the manner in which he handled the surrendered troops of General John Burgoyne. Heath was in charge of the Convention Army and successfully managed to keep order among the surrendered troops. When the exchanged British officers were marched to Boston in order to board a ship to England, the officers were protected by Heath’s troops from any physical and verbal abuse coming from civilians. In fact Burgoyne was so shocked at how Boston’s civilians remained quiet as Heath’s troops and the British officers marched through the streets, he later told Heath that if the American/British prisoner roles had been reversed and in London, the people of London would have thrown tomatoes at captured American officers. Certainly Burgoyne left North America with a more favorable opinion of his war adversaries.

Heath also applied his diplomatic skills in a third area which contributed to winning the War. Shortly after the arrival of French troops in Newport, Rhode Island the Americans needed a general to serve as their senior liaison with the Comte de Rochambeau, commander of the French army. Even though Heath didn’t speak French, he was quite successful at forging a close friendship with Rochambeau and cementing the alliance between America and France. This contributed to the close working relationship which Rochambeau and Washington later enjoyed during the Yorktown campaign.

A fourth area where Heath served the American cause was via his constant loyalty to Washington. Even after being censured by Washington over the Fort Independence debacle, Heath cheerfully served Washington and followed orders. “Heath worshipped Washington,” said Heuvel. “He was no Charles Lee.” Apparently Washington appreciated Heath’s loyalty when he trusted Heath to take command of the West Point military district shortly after Benedict Arnold’s treason.

After the War Heath returned to his Roxbury farm and served in several public capacities during the first few years of the new American nation. He was a member of the Massachusetts Convention that ratified the U.S. Constitution, and later served in the state senate and as a judge. Although he was a Federalist, Heath tended to drift toward the Democrat-Republican viewpoints. A few years before his death Heath was elected lieutenant governor of Massachusetts but declined the job, citing health concerns.

Heath and Washington remained friends for the rest of their lives. After Heath published his memoirs from a diary he maintained throughout the War he sent a copy to Washington, who cordially replied with a thank you note. Washington kept the Heath book which was later discovered in his Mount Vernon library after his death.

In summarizing Heath’s relationship with Washington, Heuvel joked, “Heath was the kind of friend who can get on your nerves!”

Heuvel is a distant descendant of Heath’s and has relatives who still live in the Boston area. He is a faculty member at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, where he teaches in the Department of Leadership and American Studies. Heuvel is also the author or co-author of four books:
Christopher Newport University
Life After J.E.B. Stuart: The Memoirs of His Granddaughter, Marrow Stuart Smith
The College of William & Mary in the Civil War
Remembering Virginia’s Confederates

-Bill Seward

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