An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Who was John Glover, and how did he help “win the war”?

Jul 15, 2020 by

Appletons' Glover John.jpg
John Glover

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

  1. Professor Elder, obviously George Washington could not have won the American Revolution without help from his generals and their leadership. One of those generals, John Glover, is somewhat unrecognized by our history books. Where and when was he born and what do we know about his early life?

While we have only a passing knowledge of the early life of John Glover, historians believe that he was born in Salem, Massachusetts on November 5, 1732. His father made his living as a carpenter in that community. Unfortunately, Glover lost his father at the age of four. His death prompted the family to relocate to Marblehead, Massachusetts, a coastal community located a few miles from Salem. Glover would call Marblehead home for the rest of his life.

  1. John Glover, before becoming a general, was known as a cordwainer (please explain!) a fisherman, a rum trader, and a merchant.  What other events prepared him for the American Revolution?

Before he became involved in the American Revolution, Glover plied many trades. One of his pre-war occupations involved making shoes. English tradition drew a distinction between making shoes and repairing them. Cordwainers did the former task, while cobblers performed the latter.

At some point in time, Glover then became a sailor. Even before the Pilgrims established their colony at Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620, English fishermen had made their way to New England to cure fish they had caught in the area known as the Grand Banks, before taking their cargo back to England. After Massachusetts became a colony, many residents took up that profession, including Glover. Not everyone involved in sailing made a living from fishing, however. Indeed, many ships leaving New England ports carried cargoes of rum distilled in those colonies.

Evidently, Glover had a stint in this trade as well. Displaying an impressive business acumen, Glover then became a merchant in his own right. Married at 22, Glover seemed to have an idyllic life ahead of him. His fortunes, and those of Massachusetts, soon took a turn for the worse, however. A conflict known in North America as the French and Indian War began in 1754, and soon Massachusetts began to feel its effects.

A significant portion of the adult male population of Massachusetts, including Glover, served in the militia, and the colony suffered a high casualty rate. After the conflict ended, Great Britain began to impose taxes on the colonies to help pay down the debt in had incurred.

These attempts at “taxation without representation” angered many Massachusetts residents, because they felt that many of their fellow residents had died during the war—literally paying with their lives. Taxing them therefore seemed like a personal affront to the residents of Massachusetts. Throughout the colony, communities organized committees of correspondence to coordinate a response to the British actions, and Marblehead chose Glover to serve on its local branch.

In a similar fashion, Marblehead selected him to serve on a committee to enforce a non-importation policy that the First Continental Congress enacted in the fall of 1774. By the outbreak of the American Revolution, then, Glover had proven that citizens could trust him with positions of authority. Not surprisingly, the people of Marblehead chose him for the position of lieutenant colonel in the militia regiment drawn from the area. When the regiment’s colonel died, Glover received his rank.

After the battles of Lexington and Concord, Glover marched his unit to Boston, and became part of the army that George Washington would soon command.

  1. In a sense, John Glover’s ship, the Hannah, was the precursor of the United States Navy, or am I off on this?

After the two became acquainted, Washington learned of Glover’s nautical background, including the fact that Glover owned a vessel. Named after Glover’s daughter, the Hannah had a shallow draft, making it a perfect craft to operate in coastal waters. For that reason, Washington requisitioned the vessel, and sent it out under the command of an experienced ship captain serving in Glover’s regiment. The success that the Hannah enjoyed in capturing British vessels prompted the Continental Congress to create a navy under its direct command. Because of this, many historians regard the Hannah as the first ship in the United States Navy.

  1. Many men died in the American Revolution, yet Glover, due to his nautical skills, apparently saved many men. What do we know about this?

In August of 1776, Washington suffered a potentially crushing loss at the Battle of Long Island. It seemed likely that the British would capture the remnants of Washington’s army, but he decided that he would try to save his force through a desperate measure. Washington called upon Glover to have the men in his regiment gather up all the boats that they could find and use them to ferry his army across to Manhattan. Using muffled oars and benefiting from a fog that blanketed the region the night of the evacuation, Glover and his men managed to ferry virtually all of Washington’s men to safety. Much as Dunkirk saved the British cause during World War II, the actions of Glover and his men allowed the American cause to live on during the American Revolution.

  1. Did Glover’s “Marblehead Mariners” make any other direct contributions to the Patriot cause?

After Washington evacuated New York in the fall of 1776, he retreated across New Jersey to the Delaware River. There, Glover’s regiment (nicknamed the “Marblehead Mariners” by author George Bilias in his 1960 book on Glover) ferried Washington’s army to safety on the Pennsylvania shore. Recognizing the dire situation that he faced, Washington decided to risk everything on an effort to make a surprise attack on a Hessian force guarding Trenton.

To accomplish this task, Washington wanted to assault the Hessians at daybreak on the morning of December 26, 1776. That timing would require his army to cross the Delaware in the middle of the night. As he had four months earlier, Washington called upon Glover to effect a nighttime crossing.

While Glover’s men had fog to contend with in August, in December they faced ice floes and a snow storm on the Delaware River. But once again, Glover’s men overcame the elements, and successfully transferred Washington’s men to the New Jersey shore. Glover’s regiment then took up arms, and joined Washington’s main force for its successful attack on the Hessians.

  1. Apparently, he had to return home to tend to a sick wife, but a personal appeal from none other than George Washington encouraged him to return to duty. What were the details here?

During the Revolutionary War, most American volunteers’ term of service ended on December 31st of the year of their enlistment. For that reason, in early January of 1777 virtually all of Glover’s regiment—Glover among them—opted to return to civilian life after their enlistments expired. Even the offer of a promotion to the rank of brigadier general could not convince Glover to remain with the Continental Army.

At that moment, Washington interjected himself into the situation, personally asking Glover to return to military service. Moved by his entreaty, Glover did reenlist, and accepted promotion to the rank of brigadier general and command of a brigade. Assigned to the army commanded by Horatio Gates, Glover’s brigade participated in the campaign that resulted in the capture of the British-Hessian army commanded by General John Burgoyne. He then became a part of an expedition in 1778 to regain control of Providence, Rhode Island.

Although the campaign failed, the men under his command fought well. In this manner, Glover certainly proved worthy of the confidence that Washington showed in him by asking that he rejoin the army with the rank of brigadier general.

  1. Part of his “tour of duty” was guarding the Hudson River. Why was this so important, and what were his duties?

Throughout the American Revolution, the British recognized that gaining control of the Lake Champlain-Hudson River corridor from Canada to New York City could seriously jeopardize the hopes of the United States to achieve independence.

Conversely, the leaders of the fledgling nation recognized the importance of keeping that route in its hands. For that reason, Washington had to commit valuable resources to the corridor, Glover among them. Although he saw no action during his time there, Glover nonetheless helped the American cause by providing a deterrent to ant thoughts that the British might have had about attempting another campaign like Burgoyne’s.

  1. In closing, there is a statue of John Glover in Massachusetts honoring his life, his sacrifices and his accomplishments. Where is the statue? And in closing, what can you say to honor this great man who gave so much to Washington and the American Revolution?

Visitors to Boston can find a statue honoring John Glover on Commonwealth Avenue. The state of Vermont has a city named after him. Even though he served in the US Army, the Navy recognized his nautical contributions to our nation by naming a frigate after him. Outside of these commemorations, Glover’s name is scarcely remembered today.

Ironically, Elbridge Gerry, a person that served with him on a committee of correspondence prior to the American Revolution, will live forever in the national consciousness through his association with the term “Gerrymandering.” An officer who helped save the American cause on two separate occasions through his nautical abilities deserves to be much better known by the American people.

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