Two-hundred forty-four years ago, the United States was founded with bravado. Below are three true stories that highlight the bravery and patriotism that defined the founding of our country.
James Forten and the Vow Born to a poor family of American sailmakers, James Forten volunteered to join the fight for independence when he was just 14. As a sailor, he took part in several naval battles aboard the Royal Louis, under famed privateer and patriot Captain Stephen Decatur.
Forten’s luck took a harsh turn when his ship was captured by the Royal Navy. As a black American freeman, he was at risk not only of being a prisoner of war but also of losing his freedom entirely. The British Empire was known to enslave black American prisoners, sending them to the horrific plantations of the West Indies for the remainder of their lives. In a turn of fate, the young Forten befriended the British captain’s son.
The 15-year-old was given a choice: Swear allegiance to the crown and be set free, or refuse and be sent to the notorious prison camps of London. Forten refused to bow to the crown. The captured rebels were then sent to the HMS Jersey, a notorious prison ship kept in Wallabout Bay, off the coast of occupied New York. More than 1,000 men were crammed onto the former warship, kept in darkness, and starved of food and fresh water. About eight corpses a day were buried from the Jersey, as people died from rampant disease and torture aboard the prison ship.
After languishing in the Jersey for seven months, Forten was exchanged for British captives by the Continental Army. As the British forces crumbled across the colonies, Forten was finally able to return to his family who rejoiced at his return, having presumed him dead for months.
Forten went on to live an extraordinary life, working his way up from a laborer to an owner of a large business in Philadelphia. He used his immense wealth to support abolition and civil rights for black Americans. He was also a successful inventor of naval technology.
Mad Anthony Wayne and the Storming of Stony Point The son of Irish immigrants, Anthony Wayne was among the first to answer the calls to fight for independence. A friend of Marquis de Lafayette and Benjamin Franklin, the rowdy Irishman soon gained a reputation for fierceness in battle and became one of Gen. George Washington’s most trusted commanders.
In 1778, Washington’s forces were in dire straits after a string of defeats. Pushing deeper inland, the British forces seized control of the Hudson River as part of a strategy to pin down Washington’s army. The river crossing was protected by a well manned British fort named Stony Point, which was surrounded by water on three sides. The hilltop was further fortified with hundreds of men, cannons, and earthen work defenses.
Washington asked his Irish companion if he could take the fort, despite being outnumbered. Wayne retorted, “Issue the orders, sir, and I will storm hell.”
Lacking the men to take the fort in a conventional assault, Wayne split his forces in three. One was to lead a feint through the swamp by night, up the only path to the fortress in what appeared to be a conventional assault. The other two were ordered to empty their firearms. The night was so dark, the rebels tied white papers to their hats so they could tell themselves apart from the imperial soldiers.
With nothing but bayonets, hundreds of men silently waded through the low tide on each side of the peninsula fortress. Distracted by the forward feint, the British commanders didn’t realize what was happening until the patriots surrounded them. The Irishman’s forces were now too close to the hill for the British to effectively use their cannons. Now in close quarters, Wayne personally charged the fortress with an unloaded musket against a hail of fire.
The unexpected rebel bayonet charge punched through the fortifications on both sides simultaneously, and the terrified British regulars began to surrender en masse. The fort, and the river with it, was again in American hands. In the complete attack, Wayne lost 15 men, and was himself shot in the charge. In total, more than 550 British soldiers surrendered. Despite seeing his own men slaughtered by the British after surrendering earlier in the war, Wayne treated each redcoat with honor, earning praise from both sides. For the extraordinary act of leading a night charge on a high ground fort with only a bayonet, he earned the moniker “Mad Anthony Wayne,” a nickname he’d proudly use for the rest of his life.
When Washington came to the injured general to congratulate him after the battle, Wayne stated, “Our officers and men behaved like men determined to be free.”
Mad Anthony Wayne fought through the remainder of the war as a brigadier general and went on to be one of the nation’s first congressmen from Georgia.
The Emancipation of Elizabeth Freeman The last story occurred at the conclusion of the Revolutionary War. Born a slave in Massachusetts in 1742, Elizabeth Freeman grew up in a world where slavery was legal in essentially every state, nation, and empire.
Freeman and her family were brutally abused by their holders, the powerful Ashley family. In 1780, when Mrs. Ashley attacked Freeman’s young daughter with a heated shovel, Elizabeth Freeman blocked the blows with her own body, leaving a deep wound. Freeman refused to cover the scar on her arm, wearing it as a badge of her family’s mistreatment.
As her town was deeply involved with the Declaration of Independence, Freeman watched closely as Massachusetts ratified its Constitution after the end of the war. The document echoed the famous words of John Adams.
“Mankind in a state of nature are equal, free, and independent of each other, and have a right to the undisturbed enjoyment of their lives, their liberty and property.” These words would inspire her to fight for the emancipation of her family and thousands of others.
Freeman escaped the Ashley household and made her way to Thomas Sedgwick, a close friend of Adams and an early representative. While the Ashleys demanded her return, the two organized her case: that according to the ideas of the Declaration, to be owned by another was fundamentally unconstitutional.
Freeman and Sedgwick won what later became a landmark case against the powerful Ashley family, earning Freeman’s family’s freedom. Using her line of argument, abolitionists went on to entirely abolish slavery in the state, becoming one of the first places in the world to do so. The other northern states quickly followed suit.
Though the Ashley family continually begged her to return as a paid worker, Freeman spurned their offers, becoming a popular and successful nurse. The free American woman lived to the age of 83 with her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
*This article has been corrected since publication.
Author Jonah Gottschalk is a student of Modern History and International Relations at the University of St Andrews.