The Worst Day At Work, Ever

The absolute nadir of bad days at work was sketched briefly in a recent book about the Revolutionary War battle of Saratoga – a decisive turning point in that war. There is nothing much new in Dean Snow’s 1777: Tipping Point at Saratoga, save that the author has gone through just about every set of archives, memoirs, and reminisces existing, along with an exhaustive survey of the site itself, and produced an hour by hour account. No mean feat, especially since keeping track of time was an inexact science. (And would be for at least another eighty years, when the developing railways, with requirements for exact timetables over long distances, and necessary scheduling of use on single track routes made it mandatory that scrupulous attention be paid to these matters.)

Briefly, that campaign was series of battles, skirmishes, and clashes on the banks of the Hudson River where it passes through upstate New York; the culmination of a grand plan to slice the rebellious colonies in – if not half – at least thirds. The supreme British commander, General William Howe (rumored to be a backstairs cousin to George III, his granny having had a productive affair with George I), was pleasantly ensconced in New York, where he was assisted in his revolution-suppression duties by General Henry Clinton. The British forces had chased the rebellious colonials out of New York some months previously. All the notable cities of the Colonies were ocean ports; Boston, New York, Charleston, Savannah. Only Philadelphia was an exception – and it sat on the inland reaches of the Delaware River. Still a port – but far inland from the Atlantic Ocean. In any case, the grand scheme was to split off New England from the other rebellious colonies by coming down from Canada with an overwhelming force of British regular troops and hired German mercenaries.

This grand plan was the brainchild of a handsome, raffish adventurer of some military talent and high connections in the British aristocracy, one John “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne. The son-in-law of an influential politician of the time, Burgoyne possessed the favor of influential friends, the reputation of an outspoken military innovator, a mildly distinguished record of active service in the Seven Years War, some talent as a playwright, and membership in the House of Commons. In 1776, upon the lower Colonies in North America becoming quite irredeemably rebellious, Burgoyne was given command of a force charged with recovering British control over Lake Champlain and the Hudson River Valley. Burgoyne’s grand theatrical plan was for three forces – one coming down the Mohawk River from the west, another coming upriver from New York – and a third, commanded by himself advancing south down the Hudson River, all converging near Albany at a date mutually convenient for all three – and that would put an end to this silly revolution nonsense. Against sober consideration of the odds, the territory to be covered and a sincere ignorance of the complications which this plan would fall heir to, Burgoyne was given authority to proceed. Which he did, with full enthusiasm, and an enormous baggage trail, a company which included the wife and daughters of the professional soldier commanding the German element, Colonel Friedrich Reidesel. (Who as a professional, thought rather ill of Burgoyne and Howe, and Mrs. Colonel Reidesel’s opinion was even blunter.) General Burgoyne was so confident of this plan that legend has it that he wagered ten pounds with Charles James Fox that he would return in a year, triumphant, with the rebellion utterly quashed.

The long and the short of it is that Burgoyne’s grand plan came to a grief which would have been – and was – predicted by soberer heads. Loaded down with heavy baggage both real and cultural, Burgoyne and his scheme crashed head-on into brutal reality. Their Indian allies bailed early on, the American Loyalists which he had counted on to report in substantive numbers did not oblige, the force sent along the Mohawk Rover was defeated in a fight at Fort Stanwix, and the large British force moving up from New York never materialized; General Howe went to take Philadelphia instead, leaving General Sir Henry Clinton in charge of New York. The sheer difficulty of moving his enormous baggage and supply train utterly crumbled his grand offensive plan once he met stiff resistance, a little way south from Saratoga.

A month-long series of bitter skirmishes, culminating in battles at Freeman’s Farm, Bemis Heights and the Balcarres Redoubt burned through supplies, horses, ammunition, men, and German/British morale. Gentleman Johnny’s best chance would have been to pack up what was left of his supplies, soldiers, artillery-train and beat a strategic retreat north. But he still held out a hope that General Clinton would send a relief force of 2,000 men to his aid, as General Clinton had promised. Messages between Clinton and Burgoyne were carried by an American Loyalist soldier, a man named Daniel Taylor, who carried them in a hollow silver ball, the size of a bullet as he stealthed his way in ordinary civilian clothing up and down the Hudson. On October 9, Taylor and another Loyalist were just returning from New York, with a message for Burgoyne. Upon approaching New Windsor, Taylor and his companion began seeing heavily armed men – but were they Rebels or Loyalists?

At this point in the fighting, not very many Rebels or Loyalists wore distinguishing uniforms. Taylor and his companion were challenged almost at once. Who were they, and what were they doing? Well, said Taylor, who are you and what are you doing? We’re guards for General Clinton, replied the men. Why – Taylor had just departed from Clinton’s camp, the day before! Hurrah, for Clinton making swift work of the distance. Much relieved, Taylor asked to be taken to the General, obviously assuming General Clinton might have additional messages for Burgoyne. The guardsmen obliged by escorting Taylor into the august presence of the general … and that was the point where the day became The Very Worst Day At Work Ever for Daniel Taylor.

Because this was not the British General Sir Henry Clinton … but the American rebel, George Clinton; a commander of militia, governor of New York (who would be re-elected to that office five times), brigadier general in the New York volunteer militia – and also a dear personal friend and supporter of George Washington. Taylor – whom one might assume was frozen in horrified realization for a brief moment and whose interior monologue might be imagined with some accuracy – grabbed the silver ball containing the message to Burgoyne from where he had it concealed on his person and swallowed it.

Too late. Orders were given, Taylor was separated from his companion (nothing is said of what happened to that man) a doctor was sent for, and an emetic administered – likely by force – and nature took its course. He vomited up the silver ball containing the message, and when it was opened, and the message read, there was no hope at all for him, save for dictating a confession to an obliging militia officer, and composing his soul; an enemy courier, carrying theater-commander-level messages, and out of uniform – such as they were at the time. He was hanged the following Sunday morning, from the branch of an apple tree near the church in Kingston, north of New Windsor, as the Rebels evacuated the area, in anticipation of the British advance. When Sir Henry Clinton’s troops did briefly reoccupy Kingston, they found Taylor’s body, and burnt the town in reprisal.

All to no purpose, as it turned out. Burgoyne surrendered within days – a precursor to the larger surrender at Yorktown, four years later, when the world turned upside down and Britain relinquished control of thirteen rebellious colonies in the New World.

19 thoughts on “The Worst Day At Work, Ever”

  1. Mom, if only W Durant wrote as you do….

    My wife and I were talking to a friend today. Knew she had grown up in Texas. Learned that she knew a little German. Asked and found out that her grandparents had spoken German. I began talking about the German settlers in Texas, adding that some had serious problems because they refused taking sides in the Civil War. The friend, surprised, wondered where I had learned that. I said I had stopped to read the history markers in many business trips into Texas, and had the good fortune to read history snippets from a writer who made history readable. Added as an aside to my wife that it was the author I keep mentioning who posts on Chicagoboyz.

  2. George Clinton was later Vice President; one of two who served under two different Presidents. Between honors to him and his nephew DeWitt (also governor), there are more places named “Clinton” than any other presidential name.

  3. Why hanged instead of hung? Are irregular verbs being eliminated from the English language?

  4. Mrs. Davis, in this era, not only has “hung” a bad odor about it, people are confused to which the strong conjugation applies: execution or pictures on the wall.

  5. Thanks, Roy – for the kind words! I added the link about George Clinton rather than go down another rabbit hole, outlining his later career…
    One of those things, Mrs. D.

  6. (Edited by Sgt. Mom. Yes, Penny, I meant it about treading on my last nerve.)

    Penny blurps out a total irrelevancy to the subject at hand, probably hoping to ignite an off-topic discussion regarding … oh, h*ll, whatever. Frankly, it’s been nearly 20 years since I gave a rat’s *ass about the Poor Pitiful Palestinians. Play stupid games, win stupid prizes … like a lot of retaliatory gunfire.

    This post is about the American Revolution, and the bad luck experienced by a Loyalist spy. Deal with it.

  7. Oliver Wiswell, Kenneth Roberts’s work of historical fiction, gives a good presentation of the Loyalist point of view. A lot of Loyalists ended up in Canada. (This is not the only work of Kenneth Roberts available at the Internet Archive.)

  8. “Why hanged instead of hung? ”

    One reason might be that there are other definitions for “hung” such as “Gary Cooper was hung like a horse.”

    In fact Tallulah Bankhead was quoted as requesting an invitation to meet him so she could inquire,

  9. It’s a fools game if the suffering have brought it on themselves in their words and actions over the last seventy years, Penny. And I doubt that you really care at all, unless it’s to score a point. What was it just last week, you were all indignant about those who were upset about the treatment of Alfie Evans?

  10. PenGun is a troll in the classical definition. He posts comments to attract attention.

    There are several, more nasty and obscene, over at Althouse who she tolerates for some reason.

    Best ignored.

  11. Its a rather important part of what I call my religion. Compassion for all that suffer. It has many parts, but the unity of all that is, kinda requires it.

    Its certainly appropriate to question my sincerity though.

  12. When I was a young sprout, lo these many years ago, I was taught that a man is hanged but a picture is hung. Also, a cigarette is lighted, but a light is lit. Strange, but I never looked into the reason.

  13. “and that was the point where the day became The Very Worst Day At Work Ever for Daniel Taylor.”

    A good read regardless but this gave me a good chuckle

  14. ‘Hanged’ is proper English usage for a method of execution, as in: “Hanged until death…”. ‘Hung’ is what you did to your laundry or your partner in crime: “Willy the horse-thief was captured and hanged after his partner hung him out to dry. As the hanging was cause for some degree of celebration, many spectators hung around afterwards….”

    The distinction is important in that the method of execution involves more ceremony than is due, say, to being in a precarious situation with respect to a cliff.

    The error is egregious enough that I correct it when grading essays, although it does not rise to the level of a hanging offense.

    The diversity, flexibility, and idiomatic nature of the English language is a real treasure…

  15. May come in handy. I will be visiting at Fort Ticonderoga and Saratoga in less than a week. We always read the historical markers – the sons complained, but the eldest went on to become a history major – and this will give me fresh background.

    Side note to Roy: the Czechs had a Texas presence as well, which we followed up on when we visited our son in Houston a few years ago.

  16. For Roy, re: the Germans in Texas at the time of the Civil War – an interesting spot to visit, if you are in the area, is the “Treue der Union” monument in Comfort, Texas – supposed to be the only monument to Federal Sympathizes in the formerly Confederate States.

    in 1862, 61 German speaking conscientious objectors chose to leave Texas and head to Mexico; a group of Confederate sympathizers chased them, caught them, and massacred 34 of them. Interesting little bit of unknown (mostly) history.

  17. I am told German immigrants in Texas were responsible for introducing chicken-fried steak, a culinary delight, to America. I believe it is called schnitzel, or Vienna schnitzel, or wiener schnitzel in the old country. Whatever. It’s good eating with some nice white gravy (a peppered mix of flour and milk, sometimes including bits of sausage). Can’t find it here in the North. Oh, duh, the schnitzel meat can be beef or pork. Hammer the meat down to half its original thickness, milk wash, dredge in bread crumbs, egg wash, more bread crumbs, fry in your oil of choice. Suitable for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Don’t forget the gravy, which also goes well over buttered biscuits.

  18. Ass’t Idiot: While doing field tech repair of computerized controls of machinery in a factory in Shiner, TX (not the beer brewery; that’s across the highway), I enjoyed a surprise. With the workers away for the day, a plant maintenance man and I had no need to work around production schedules and had, best of all, not a noisy factory, but quiet. That allowed me to clearly hear the intercom’s big speakers. They played what I learned was usual fare selected by the workers: a local radio station. I heard of local fundraising events, engagement announcements, church activities, sales ads for farm animals, and concern for some farmer to come get his cow from a public road, said cow getting a detailed description. These spot ads interspersed through what I thought was German oompah bands, with both brass and accordion music. I thought this an interesting example not only of small town life, but of cultural adaptation. It became even more of the latter when the language shifted from English to what I knew was not German. Yep. The maintenance man told me it was Czech, that there were many locals who used that language at home.

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