Author Archives: Lars D. H. Hedbor

The Perfect Storm: Bernardo de Gálvez and the Gulf Coast Campaign

One of the genuine pleasures of research is the discovery of someone whose contributions are barely noticed in classroom histories, but without whom, events would have turned out dramatically differently.

The Spanish Governor-General of Louisiana, Bernardo de Gálvez, is one such figure.  His energetic and often brilliant contributions to the American Revolution ensured that the new United States would not be hemmed in on its West and South by stubborn, Loyalist-controlled colonies, but would have free access to the important shipping channel of the Mississippi, and, later, opportunities for expansion.

Even prior to Spain’s entry into the war in support of the American rebels, alongside their French allies , Governor Gálvez had exhibited sympathy with the rebel cause.  Spain held New Orleans at that time and claimed the territory to the west of the Mississippi. While turning a blind eye to patriot smuggling past New Orleans, in 1777 he took the occasion of a British crackdown on rebel-aligned traffic to seize British smugglers’ boats, and ordered all British subjects to leave Louisiana.

When Spain formally declared war on England in May of 1779, Gálvez was already preparing an attack up the river, having intercepted British communications that revealed that they planned to strike New Orleans.  As his fleet gathered in August of 1779, a hurricane struck, sinking nearly every ship he had planned to use to transport his forces.

A lesser man would have given up the attack, or would at least have waited for reinforcements from the Spanish colonial capital at Havana.  Gálvez, however, was keenly aware of the need for surprise, and so he mustered his 1,400-strong force and marched them overland 115 miles.

They arrived at Fort Bute, only to find a skeleton garrison, which they quickly overcame, suffering no losses.  Learning that the British forces had retreated upriver to Baton Rouge, Gálvez and his forces continued to the new fortification there, and found it much more formidably constructed and staffed.

Here, Gálvez demonstrated his cleverness as a military commander.  Perceiving that the fort had a potential weakness on one side, but that getting his artillery into position would mean exposing his men to withering British fire, he devised a ruse.  He sent a detachment into a wooded area on the opposite side of the fort with instructions to draw British fire and attention, and the British forces fell for it completely.

While the cannon bombarded a mostly-empty stretch of woodland, Gálvez and his forces moved their artillery to within a few hundred feet of the walls of the fort — on the opposite side from where the British were paying attention.  Protected by the terrain, the Spanish opened fire on the fort, and in a matter of hours, they wreaked enough destruction that the British commander had no choice but to surrender.

Gálvez pressed his advantage, demanding that the last British fort upriver, at Natchez, also be surrendered, and the British commander assented, securing the Mississippi River entirely into Spanish hands.

Having accomplished this much, Gálvez then wrote to General Washington, notifying him of his plans to attack Mobile, further along the Gulf coast toward his ultimate goal of the capital of the West Florida colony, at Pensacola.  In January of 1780, he set out with 1,200 men on fourteen ships, intent on a quick strike at the second-largest remaining British settlement in the colony.

As he and his forces reached Mobile Bay, though, another hurricane roared into the armada, killing 400 men.  Further calamity struck as several of his ships were wrecked on a sandbar in the perilous entry into the bay.  Despite these losses, Gálvez set up camp and sent urgent requests to Havana for reinforcements.

Once those reinforcements arrived, he began positioning his artillery, and sent a demand for surrender to the British commander.  As the fort was in disrepair, and its garrison was undermanned, Gálvez felt sure that he could come to terms with the British, but despite a polite, even collegial, exchange of letters, he was obliged to open fire.  Again demonstrating his ability to employ unconventional approaches, Gálvez sent a detachment to burn the British commander’s own plantation, to sap his will (and remove the military hospital on its grounds).  In the end, the British capitulated, and Gálvez sailed in triumph for Havana.

There, he gathered the largest force he had led yet, toward the ultimate aim of removing the British forces completely from the West Florida colony.  A fleet of fourteen warships and a number of smaller transports, carrying 3,800 men, sailed for Pensacola in October of 1780.  It seems unbelievable, but once again, a hurricane struck his forces, scattering the armada and sinking several ships.  He had no choice but to reluctantly retreat to Havana and regroup.

Following a lengthy period of preparation on both sides of the line between the Spanish and British forces, the Battle of Pensacola finally began in earnest on May 8, 1781.  A lucky strike of a Spanish grenade outside a powder magazine touched off an enormous explosion, killing or wounding a hundred defenders in an instant.Gathering a force of 3,000 from Havana onto a convoy of 32 ships, together with reinforcements from Mobile and New Orleans, Galvez led his men into a perilous landing under the British guns at the mouth of Pensacola Bay, demonstrating such personal bravery that he was nearly challenged to a duel by an embarrassed naval officer.

Taking advantage of the destruction attending the explosion, the Spanish forces set up cannon on the high ground that had housed part of the now smashed British fortifications, and quickly forced the remaining defenders to raise the white flag.  Within days, the surrender of the whole of West Florida to Spain was negotiated, and the remaining British forces were taken as prisoners of war.

The role of the Spanish in ensuring the success of the American revolution is scarcely acknowledged in most classroom histories, but it was a key factor in that struggle.   Crucial to their success in assisting us was one storm-plagued Spanish general, who is primarily memorialized today only in the name of the city of Galveston, Texas, and who deserves to be better known.

(This post was originally published at the Journal of the American Revolution.)

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I Write Dead People

I, like many authors, am sometimes taken to task for killing off favorite characters.  While I’m no George R. R. Martin, my stories (being set in a time of war, and a period of far more medical uncertainty than today) often rack up a body count.

It is well to remember that no matter how happy their endings, my characters (real or imagined) are two hundred years in the grave.

Elisabeth-Louise Vigée le Brun, Self-Portrait with daughter, 1786

Elisabeth-Louise Vigée le Brun, Self-Portrait with daughter, 1786

Sometimes, as when I’m researching period art, and I come across a particularly striking portrayal of someone who clearly loves being alive, who lives and smiles on from the canvas, and yet is no more than moldering bones today, this gives me a sharp, even unbearable pang of grief.

It also helps to remind me that we are, all of us, short-lived, mortal, and bound to the same fate that overtakes our characters.

What matters, though, is what they — and we! — do with the days that are granted in this human experience, and in telling their tales, I am helping to extend my characters’ time in the company of the living.

So, rather than mourning the deaths of the characters who people my pages, I encourage you to celebrate their lives, and the fact that through my words, you have had the opportunity to know them and to keep the flame of their memory alive.

As an author, I certainly prefer that to being pelted with rotten fruit, at least.

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National Television Appearance

10801579_788021257908183_7853454459465713474_nAs many of you may have already heard, my focus on little-known stories of the Revolutionary era recently brought me a really exciting opportunity. I’ll be appearing as a featured expert commentator on an upcoming miniseries on the Discovery Network’s American Heroes Channel (formerly the Military Channel), which will premiere nationwide on the 15th and 16th of December:

Rise of the Patriots
Premieres Monday, December 15 at 9/8c
Five unsung patriots strike pivotal blows for American liberty as unrest between Britain and the colonies explodes into a war for independence. A Boston doctor named Joseph Warren spearheads the rebellion with inspiring oratory and an underground spy network; a Rhode Island merchant, John Brown, leads a daring raid against a British customs ship; Samuel Prescott visits his fiancée and suddenly finds himself completing Paul Revere’s secret mission; Samuel Whittemore, an elderly farmer, becomes an unlikely hero on the first day of hostilities; and a former slave named Salem Poor rallies American militia fighters at Bunker Hill.

The Empire Fights Back
Premieres Monday, December 15 at 10/9c
Time after time, American independence seems like a lost cause as George Washington’s Continental Army teeters on the brink of annihilation. The heroics of five little-known patriots help the colonies live to fight another day. John Glover, a tough New England mariner, saves 9,000 soldiers from certain capture on Long Island; a shadowy double agent, John Honeyman, helps Washington score a stunning victory at Trenton; a teenage girl named Sybil Ludington rides to the rescue of rebels under fire in Connecticut; a Pennsylvania sharpshooter named Timothy Murphy fires a bullet that turns the tide of the war; and an Indian warrior called Han Yerry leads a rescue mission to starving soldiers at Valley Forge.

Return of the Rebels
Premieres Tuesday, December 16 at 9/8c
The American Revolution seems doomed as the British army launches a bold new campaign in the south, but five unsung patriots help reverse the course of the war and shock the world. Nancy Hart, a Georgia mother of eight, battles a patrol of loyalists singlehanded; Elizabeth Burgin attempts a daring rescue of American POW’s in Brooklyn; a supersized soldier named Peter Francisco becomes a legend on the battlefield; a Virginia slave, James Armistead, steals key secrets leading to a stunning victory at Yorktown; and a frontier teenager called Betty Zane runs a gauntlet of death in the Revolution’s final battle.

You can use the AHC Channel Finder to find your local listings. As the AHC is not carried in all cable plans, I will keep you all apprised as the DVD edition of the show becomes available.

I’m very excited about getting to share my knowledge of the our nation’s history with a wider audience, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to explore this interest to its fullest through telling tales from a most singular revolution. I hope that you’ll watch and enjoy this terrific series, and share it with your friends and family who may be interested—and thank you in advance!

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Connections

In The Light, set in Trenton, New Jersey, I depicted the wild scene that greeted the arrival of news of Lexington and Concord. In terms that are nakedly inflammatory, the Committees of Safety transmitted the account from town to town, spreading it as quickly as horse and rider could bear it:

A tumult outside the shop caught both men’s attention then, as a small crowd surged past the door to the smithy.  Robert and Charles caught shouts from the crowd, “War!  War has begun!” and hurried out to hear what the cause of the ruckus might be.  At the head of the crowd was a rider, with dried foam crusting his horse’s flanks, attesting to a hard drive.

Hurrying to catch up, Robert asked a man rushing along at the periphery of the crowd, “What is this about?”

“He carries an account of a fierce and deadly battle between a militia of men in Lexington, near Boston, and a brigade of the British.  Blood has been spilled, and the war has begun!” The bell of the nearest church began to toll now, bringing more people into the streets to learn what had happened.

The rider was being directed to the home of the organizer of the local militia, the self-styled “Committee of Safety,” where he dismounted and carried his post within.  Milling about with the crowd that had gathered, Robert heard angry voices trading ever-wilder rumors.

The British had slaughtered a militia, bringing canon to bear against light arms.  No, they had caught the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts in their deliberations, and begun hanging them on the spot for treason.  They had gone house to house in Lexington, looking for weapons and powder, and had killed all who gave any resistance.  A church in Concord was in flames, and the fellowship locked within.

Nothing seemed too outrageous to be passed along, from one person to the next, as they awaited the true contents of the missive.   Finally, the door opened, and the rider took a fresh horse someone had fetched for him, and rode off at a full gallop, leaving a small, persistent group of well-wishers and rumor-mongers who had streamed out behind him.

The local committeeman emerged now, and began reading from a sheet held in trembling fingers, his voice carried away by a fitful breeze.

“Received this morning, four o’clock and forwarded by the committee in Princeton, a letter addressed to various and sundry persons, including the delegates from Connecticut and Massachusetts now in Philadelphia, dated this Wednesday near ten of the clock, in Watertown.

“To all friends of American liberty be it known that this morning before break of day, a brigade of some one thousand to twelve hundred men under arms landed at Cambridge and marched to Lexington.  They there found a company of our colony militia in arms, upon whom they fired with no provocation whatever, killing six men outright, and wounding four others.

“An express from Boston informs us that another brigade marches from there, supposed to be about another thousand men…  I have spoken with several persons who have seen the dead and wounded…  ‘Tis signed by one J. Palmer of the local Committee of Safety there.”

He lowered the page in his hand and bowed his head.   “May God grant mercy to their souls and receive them in their honor.”  Lifting his eyes to the crowd again, his manner changed suddenly now, and he roared, “To arms, men!  Prepare yourselves!  The war is begun and ‘tis only a matter of time before the King’s men are here as well.  If you have a weapon and will not use it—” his gaze fell upon Robert and Charles, marked as Quaker by their hats “—I beseech you to make it available to those  who will.  Likewise, if you have powder or bandages or other useful materials, come and speak with me to ensure that I know if it.”

He surveyed the crowd, taking their measure. “We must stand together now, as patriots all, lest the British find us unprepared, an easy target for their object of putting us down into abject servitude.  Now is the moment we have been preparing for; now is the time to set aside our factions and our bickering and to come together.   The King has made plain his intent—he means to crush us, to make the streets run red with our blood, that he may then squeeze us wholly dry with his taxes.  Will you have it?”

A ragged shout in answer rose from the crowd, “No!”

“He means to deny us the most basic rights of an Englishman, and yet demand that we enrich his treasury with the sweat of our brow.  Will you have it?”

He led the crowd this time, his fist shooting into the air as he shouted with them, “No!”

“He means to send his agents into every home, seek out every voice that dared question his tyranny and still it forever.  Will you have it?”

The crowd lifted fists into the air and roared back as one, “No!”

He roared back, “Then let us stop it!” His fist still raised, he marched down the steps of his home and led the crowd down the street toward the meeting-house where the militia had been gathering for the past months.  Robert and Charles split away from the crowd and started back to the smithy, somber and quiet.

Recently, I’ve discovered that my great-great-great-great-great grandfather was active in the Revolution, serving on Philadelphia’s Committee of Correspondence, in Pennsylvania’s Convention, marching with Benedict Arnold to Montréal, and finally, accepting the duties of Barrack-Master General to the Continental Army (after having been dismissed from service for cussing out President Hancock and the Continental Congress). Quite a colorful character, my forebearer was.

Let’s go back to that first item in his list of service, though… I just found a transcription of the letters passing along the news from that fateful April day in Massachusetts, and immediately after it passed through the town of Trenton, as I wrote, its very next stop was in Philadelphia, where it was received, acknowledged, and sent on its way by four men… one of whom was my direct ancestor.

My novels have always been personal, focusing on the circumstances and experiences of regular individuals who lived through and took part in the events I depict. But this — this is bringing it right home.  Ooof.

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A Taste of Things to Come

Believe it or not, the next novel in the Tales From a Revolution is slated for release soon, and I wanted to share with you a brief excerpt, in the form of a letter penned by an anguished Loyalist in Massachusetts to her dear friend in exile in Nova Scotia.

The events at Plymouth Rock related in this letter took place as described, and it is hard to escape the thought that those who came around and saw the broken stone in the morning would have shuddered at what they portended, no matter which side they were on in the conflict.

My dear friend Susannah,
I was filled with Joy at receiving your letter; it was a most unexpected pleasure to have had Communication from your outpost so soon after your sad Departure. I feel keenly your absence, and am fairly bursting with things to tell you about. Paper is dear in these troubled Days, however, so I will restrain myself to only a few anecdotes. I am happy to relate that my especial Friend Ezekiel has taken up a Position of some responsibility, helping to guard the King’s custom house at the docks. He looks fine and tall standing watch, and he has bravely and patiently borne the Taunts of the rebellious rowdy boys who come around from time to time. Some of those selfsame rowdy boys or their Brothers in Spirit have committed a heinous Act, which I hesitate to relate, but which is so much on my mind in these days at the end of the year that I cannot but spare a few lines with which to unburthen myself to you. As you know, not far down the Coast from our formerly happy home is that precious Relic of the Arrival, the very Rock at which the Pilgrims alit at the end of their perilous Voyage hither. A crowd of Rowdy Boys determined to take it Prisoner to their own cause, and made to spirit it away to stand at their accursed so-called Liberty Tree. In the process of moving the Rock, they instead broke it into two pieces, and being of little Fortitude, suffered Half of the rock to lie in state where it fell, bringing the other to their blasphemous Shrine. I cannot but think that this is a Sign that they will find some measure of success in their efforts, but will in the process Break our People into Two Parts, transporting one part to places distant and foreign to us. As I write this Line, I realize that this Cruel Fate has already befallen my dear friend and correspondent, and my Tears threaten to pollute this Page. I shall turn now for a few lines of happier news. Our friend Louise, whom you will recall had been courting with a fine Man from nearer the Frontier, has announced her Promise to be joined with him in the happy Institution of matrimony this spring next. My heart overflows for her everlasting Joy, and I hope only that she is not contaminated by his family’s Whiggish Tendencies. No mean political difference can stand in the way of the heart’s true Desire, though, and I know that you will join me in wishing her all possible Joy of her engagement and hope for her fulfillment without regard for these Troubled Days. Please write soon and pour out the Inmost secrets of your heart to me without fear. I am particularly Intrigued by the details of your new Tutor, about which you were most mysterious in your former letter. Until I shall again hold your words to my breast, I am, your friend,
Emma

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Cover Reveal

On May 20, 1775, the Committee of Safety in Mecklenburg, North-Carolina met and it was long claimed that they declared independence that day, penning the Mecklenburg Declaration.

The text of that Declaration was lost to time, but if it were to be found in a South Carolina attic, that discovery would validate long-held claims about where and when the first formal break in the American Revolution took place.

In The Declaration, coming this July 2nd, I’ll tell the story of that discovery, and how it bound together the lives of two distant generations of one family.

Today, to mark the anniversary of the Mecklenburg Declaration, I’m proud to reveal the cover of my fourth novel.

The Declaration

I am eager to share the story behind it with you!

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The Smoke: Tales From a Revolution – New-York

EBook-Cover

 

I’m happy to announce that the third novel in my set that explores the small stories of the Revolution is now available in both paperback and ebook editions.  In The Smoke, we meet Joseph Killeen, a young soldier in the Patriot Militia, tasked with scouting out the territory of the Iroquois Confederation as the Continental Congress is planning retribution for British-spurred attacks on frontier settlements in New York and Pennsylvania.  A shocking turn of events brings him face-to-face with the Indians — and forces him to examine not only where his loyalties lie, but who he really is.

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Christmas Lists

With the swift approach of the Christmas gifting season, I wanted to share with my readers a few of my suggestions for great books (or series) that I’ve loved.  Some of these have inspired my own storytelling, while others have simply caught my heart or informed my thinking.  All are wonderfully written, and I think that every book on this list is worth your time:

The Aubrey-Maturin Series: No other historical novels have ever surpassed Patrick O’Brien’s epic set of novels following the misadventures of an officer of the British Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, and his eccentric physician companion.  The sweep of history worked into the stories, the sincerely heartfelt emotions of the characters, and the amazing detail O’Brien wove into his tales all make these must-read books.

The Harry Potter Series: A wholly different series of books, I am quite certain that these books will still be as much read and beloved a hundred years from now as they are today.  Ostensibly aimed at children, but featuring characters who must struggle with some of the deepest questions of right and wrong, these books will light up your imagination, and touch your heart.

The Source: As an author of historical fiction, both O’Brien and Michener intimidate me deeply, and Michener is at the height of his powers in making a coherent and fascinating story out of the long history of the Levant.  If you want to understand why Israel has wound up at the center of so conflict, both in the past and in the present, I cannot think of a better introduction to that land’s background.

Guns, Germs and Steel: The widely disparate lifestyles of peoples in different parts of the world seem to defy explanation – why did some societies turn toward organized agriculture and more advanced technologies, while others found that the hunter-gatherer lifestyle was better suited to their needs?  When civilizations came into contact and conflict with one another, what determined which ones would prevail?  Diamond provides some provocative and thoughtful explanations, and along the way, teaches us a great deal about our history.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress: Robert Heinlein is best known for his seminal work Stranger in a Strange Land, but some of his lesser-known works are no less revolutionary and powerful.  This novel appears on the surface to be a mere action-adventure about a revolution in a penal colony on the Moon, but along the way, Heinlein delves into some of the basic questions of how societies are – and can be – structured, as well as what it means to be a person at all.  A surprisingly moving novel, this is Heinlein at his best.

Starship Troopers: Another Heinlein novel, this one is best known for inspiring the vapid gore-and-slime movies of the same name.  Rest assured that the novel bears no resemblance to the films.  Instead, in this novel, Heinlein explores the questions of what it means to offer one’s service in defense of what one holds dear.

Anthem: Ayn Rand isn’t to everyone’s taste, though it helps to remember that she is a Russian novelist, despite writing in English.  However, this slim novel is a departure from the dense, difficult complexity of some of her better-known works, and is the story of the emergence from a dystopia and the meaning of what it is to be an individual.

Bridge to Terabithia: A deeply moving novel, this is both a coming-of-age story and a novel that ventures into the fraught waters of childhood love and loss.  I’m not ashamed to admit that the ending makes me weep every time I read it.

Journal of the American Revolution: A collection of some of the best articles from the Journal, this book collects details of the American Revolution of interest to both armchair scholars and serious students of the era, in an approachable and highly readable way.  Also, I would hardly be an author if I didn’t encourage my readers to buy a book that I contributed to.

The Light and The Prize: Again, I cannot call myself an author if I don’t remind you to buy my books, too.  These two novels are the first in the Tales From a Revolution Series, each of which recounts the events in a different colony during the American Revolution, and all of which focus on how the Revolution was experienced by ordinary people, few of whom set out to change history, but all of whom contributed in one way or another to the outcome.

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The Light: Tales From a Revolution – New-Jersey

I know it’s been a long time coming, but it’s here at last!  Available in paperback or ebook format of your choice, my second novel of the American Revolution has already been lauded for its beautiful prose and attention to historical detail.

See what all the excitement is about, and get your copy today!

The-Light-Cover-Design-SmallThe Light: Tales From a Revolution – New Jersey

206 pages
Brief Candle Press, 2013

As his world erupts in open warfare, Robert Harris’ Quaker faith guides him away from the use of violence for any purpose, even if the war could lead to the loss of his freedom to practice that faith. Finding a balancing point between this existential threat and the commands of his inner light, while struggling against the chance effects of war, Robert must also face the challenge of an implacable foe, determined to destroy him at any cost. He must rely on the quiet guidance of his conscience to keep his family safe, and lead them to freedom.

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Packing and Preparing

Now that I’ve done all of the hard work toward getting The Light into your hands (okay, there’s still the small matter of fulfilling the Kickstarter rewards – I expect to have those out next week!), I am increasingly feeling the itch to start writing again….

Scenes bubble up in the back of my head, and I want to start delving into what they look like, what they smell like, how they taste.  Characters are whispering to me, begging me to start writing down their words, their thoughts, their lives… I just have to reassure them: “Soon, my friends, soon you will live and breathe on the page.”

It’s akin to the anticipation leading up to a long road trip–there’s some inconvenience attendant to making sure that things will be taken care of in your absence, and a few things to be loaded up that you’ll need along the way, but there’s also the thrill of heading into the unknown.  I don’t know what I’ll find along the way, exactly, but I do know that there will be wonders, detours, delays, frustrations… and tremendous discoveries.

Meanwhile, I’m reading history, thinking about what sort of story I will tell this time, hoping that it is an easy labor, without the need for massive interventions, and that the result is beautiful, sparkling, informative and that my readers find it worth spending a few hours with it.

Just a few more weeks…

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