The Indispensables – The Diverse Soldier-Mariners Who Shaped the Country, Formed the Navy, and Rowed Washington Across the Delaware, by the author of, Washington’s Immortals, Patrick K. O’Donnell. While the heroics of the Maryland 400, “the Immortals”, are perhaps better known, this Best-Selling author of war stories has now shed critical light on a no less heroic elite, the Marblehead Brigade. Arguably, the fate of the Revolution, on more than one occasion, turned on their contributions early in the fight for independence. Located on what the has come to be known as the North Shore, above Boston, Marblehead was founded in 1629. The men of Marblehead (and Beverly) at the time of the Revolution were a tough, hearty, and salty lot who had plied their trade as fisherman, from Massachusetts to the Newfoundland Banks for generations. The families were close knit. They were Irishmen, Scots, English, and Black Freemen like Romeo and Manuel Soto, Hispanics and Native Americans. They would fish together, brave storms together, and fight together. They carried names like Glover (Cmdr. of the Marblehead Regiment, close to Washington), Eldridge Gerry, Prentiss, Orne, Bowen, Johannot, Hawkes, Gibbs, Wormstead, and Lee. They were Whigs. The town had its well-known Tories as such as “King” Hooper and Dr. Church. However, as Crown offenses and taxes increased over the 1760s and early 1770s, most of the townsmen leaned Whig, some joining the Sons of Liberty. The author takes us from battle to battle early in the war where members of the Marblehead Regiment fought, from Bunker Hill, to Brooklyn, to Kips Bay, the evacuation across the Hudson after abandoning Ft. Washington, following onto Trenton and Princeton, as well as Saratoga. Time and again, the Marbleheaders would play a pivotal role with their amphibious evacuations of Washington and his Army from Long Island, to ferrying his forces across the ice-filled Delaware River, horses, canons, and men, to surprise the Hessians at Trenton and the Red Coats at Princeton.
Gunpowder was the scarcest resource facing the Revolutionaries. Here again, it would be Marblehead merchants and their personal trading connections with Spanish, Portuguese and Basque merchant families which would make clandestine arrangements for substantial gunpowder to be delivered to Washington and his army. Reluctant at first, Washington was eventually persuaded by John Adams to take the fight to the British at sea as well. Although establishing an official American Navy would require an act of Congress, Washington couldn’t wait and authorized merchant sailors like John Glover of Marblehead to convert one of his trading ships to a ship of war, which would be rented to the Continental Army at a cost of $78.00 a month. Washington paid one dollar per ton, and Glover’s 78-ton merchantman, the Hannah, was outfitted for war, charged with securing gunpowder by whatever means, including seizing enemy ships, thereby establishing Washington’s “covert” Navy by the fall of 1776. By February of 1777, the Continental Congress, at Washington’s behest, promoted Glover to Brigadier General. It would be another Marbleheader, Samuel Tucker, who would captain the frigate Boston, which transported John Adams and John Quincy Adams to France in 1778.
The Marblehead Regiment was racially diverse. Their lives were in each other’s hands, a band of brothers. The cost to the town would prove to be enormous, both in blood and treasure. O’Donnell notes, “…by the end of the war, the town had 378 widows, 35 percent of the female population… and 652 children would never see their fathers again.” The author concludes his book with a quotation from General Henry Knox to the Massachusetts Legislature, “I wish the members of this body knew the people of Marblehead as well as I do – I could wish that they had stood on the Banks of the Delaware River in 1776 in that bitter night… had seen the powerful current bearing onward the floating masses of ice…. I wish that when this occurrence threatened to defeat the enterprise, they could have heard the distinguished warrior demand, ‘” Who will lead us on?”‘ and seen the men of Marblehead, and Marblehead alone, stand forward to lead the army along the perilous path to unfading glories and honors in the achievements of Trenton. There, Sir, went the fishermen of Marblehead, alike at home upon land and water, alike ardent, patriotic, and unflinching, whenever they unfurled the flag of the country.”
These men, like the other intrepid patriotic warriors at America’s Founding, were its first “Greatest Generation”. Once again, Patrick O’Donnell has given us a book that must be read. Huzzah!