Book Review: The Indispensables: The Diverse Soldier-Mariners Who Shaped The Country, Formed The Navy, And Rowed Washington Across The Delaware

  • Tuesday, June 18, 2024
  • Scott S. Smith

Patrick K. O'Donnell has written 13 narrative histories about war, many of them bestsellers, based on diaries, interviews with participants and experts, records in obscure libraries, and personal experience, which reveal little-known details that fundamentally change the understanding of events, even among academic experts. The Indispensables was another landmark of scholarship about the American Revolution when it was published in 2021 and should be read by everyone to appreciate just how truly remarkable and relevant those events remain today.

The focus of this book is a heretofore overlooked group of deep sea fishermen from the Marblehead-Beverly area of Massachusetts without whom the Revolution would never have succeeded. The cover shows a corner of the famous 1851 painting by Emanuel Leutze "Washington Crossing the Delaware," as these mariners use poles to push away ice on the night of December 25-26, 1776 in order to attack the Hessian allies of Britain in Trenton, N.J. 

It was a desperate gamble by Washington based on having three groups cross, but the two others failed because of the seemingly impossible challenges (among them a massive storm as they tried, then the extremely difficult terrain if they did land on the other side). It's no wonder the countersign for the operation was "Victory or Death." Even those of us who have written about this turning point in the Revolution will be impressed by the numerous fresh details.

Many from Marblehead would go on to play critical roles during and after the Revolution, some becoming Washington's personal guards. Other leaders from the area included Brig. Gen. John Glover, future vice president Elbridge Gerry (after whom "gerrymandering" is named), and Dr. Nathanael Bond (who saved the army by vaccinating it against smallpox). Because of their experience in the dangerous fishing in the Grand Banks area near Newfoundland, Canada, the Marbleheaders also laid the foundation for the Continental Navy, which evolved into the U.S. Navy.

One of the most surprising elements of their story is that the Marblehead Regiment was so diversified, including Blacks and Native Americans. A muster role described a third as light complexioned, a third dark, and a third not labeled. Deep sea fishing demanded that everyone depend on each other to survive, making performance in crisis, not background, all-important.

"Their diversity would prove their strength as they would work together as a team to overcome seemingly impossible situations, unified by their belief in a cause greater than themselves," O'Donnell wrote. 

At the time of the Revolution, Great Britain actually dominated the slave trade (it would not outlaw slavery in its colonies until 1833, while Massachusetts would abolish it in 1783). 

Turning Points in the Early Revolution
When the American colonies passed a law in 1774 forbidding all trade with Britain, it was the first step towards war. The colonists realized that if there was going to be a military confrontation they desperately needed much more gun powder and began hiding it, firearms, and cannon at Lexington and Concord.  As O'Donnell documents, there remains much confusion about who fired the "shot heard round the world" and other details of these first battles. 

One constant theme of the book is how often the outcome of the war could have been changed by small events, such as the response by both sides to those first shots or which way British reinforcements turned at a fork in the road to both towns. 

The struggle to get adequate powder continued throughout the war, since domestic manufacturing and importation remained extremely challenging and the Americans were largely dependent on Marbleheaders smuggling it past British ships or capturing those loaded with it, often against great odds. Part of the problem was getting sailors paid, while privateers were getting rich. 

Washington and Glover gradually created a navy and, coupled with brilliant tactics at Bunker Hill, forced the British out of Boston in March 1776. The British planned a new base on Manhattan island and the Americans rushed to defend against this effort from all sides, seemingly impossible and undermined by its large loyalist population. The British never fully trusted the loyalists, however, so this advantage was never exploited.

"Eventually, a large portion of the British Army, along with Hessian allies, some 32,000 troops, and nearly half the Royal Navy, over 70 warships and more than 500 transports, would take part in the largest invasion of North America in history," O'Donnell wrote. 

In August, the Crown forces began defeating the patriots in one battle after another. After the Marblehead Regiment reinforced Washington on Long Island, the Americans were forced back to fortifications in Brooklyn. Washington's ability to repeatedly expose himself to fire and not be killed prompted his soldiers to believe their cause was divinely sanctioned. 

"A single British ship on the East River could cut off the retreat to Manhattan at the nearest beaches, where it was a mile wide and known for its treacherous currents, while the Washington faced a victorious, well-disciplined army nearly three times as numerous as his own," O'Donnell wrote. 

In a chapter entitled "American Dunkirk," he lays out how the Marbleheaders managed the seemingly impossible task on a short summer night to not only transport the 9,000 patriot troops, but their horses, ammunition, some cannons, and baggage in heavy rain that had been falling for two nights and had made mud of the other shore. Of course, this not only left them without a way to defend themselves if attacked, but the boats were not even appropriate for these tasks, as was the case during the crossing of the Delaware on Christmas eve. If they had not been successful, the Revolution would have been stopped cold. 

Battles continued on Manhattan in August and September and the Marblehead Regiment, led by Col. Glover, played a critical role in holding back the British and Hessian assaults against mostly militia, who usually retreated quickly. In the chapter "The Forgotten Battles That Saved Washington's Army," the author shows how the Americans courageously fought back despite the odds and lack of gunpowder, increasingly using guerrilla tactics. They reached White Plains 25 miles north of Manhattan with the Marbleheaders as the rearguard. After the Americans were defeated there, though they inflicted heavy casualties on the British, their battered army retreated to New Jersey where they prepared for the winter of 1776. 

Many enlistments would expire on New Year's Day, 1777, which is why Washington decided on a desperate effort to save the Revolution with a counterattack on Trenton's Hessians, detailed in the final chapters. 

British historian Gorge Trevelyan summed up their effort: "It may be doubted whether so small a number of men ever employed so short a space of time with greater or more lasting results upon the history of the world."

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