Brig. Gen. Samuel Birch and the Ambiguity of the American Revolution

TOPICS: 50 Years of Editing, Editor’s Perspective, Espionage, George Washington, GW’s Views, Revolutionary War, Short Biography, Slavery

by Jeffrey L. Zvengrowski, Assistant Editor
December 14, 2018

Passport for Cato Ramsay, one of the many enslaved individuals that Birch helped free. Courtesy of the Nova Scotia Archives.

In my opinion, one of the most interesting stories that began in an earlier volume of the Papers of George Washington is the career of Samuel Birch, a British officer who first appears in volume 20 of the Revolutionary War Series. Patriot spy Abraham Woodhull (alias Samuel Culper) wrote Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge an intelligence report from Setauket, N.Y., on Feb. 26, 1779, listing “The 17 Regm. Drago[o]ns Coll Burch” among the British regiments stationed on Long Island.1 Gen. George Washington received that report, and his guards would narrowly avoid battling Birch’s dragoons a year later when the British attempted an abortive operation to apprehend Washington.2 Birch’s effort to capture Washington was certainly one of the more colorful episodes of the Revolutionary War, but I am also interested in Birch because his career vividly illustrates the many ironies of that complicated conflict.

Lieutenant Colonel Birch of the 17th Light Dragoons had been a British officer since 1772. Timothy Newell, a Boston selectman, wrote in his diary on Oct. 27, 1775, that in British-controlled Boston, “The spacious Old South Meetinghouse [was] taken possession of by the Lighthorse 17th Regiment of Dragoons commanded by Lieut. Colo. Samuel Birch. The Pulpit, pews, and seats [were] all cut to pieces and carried off in the most savage manner as can be expressed and destined for a riding school.”3 In 1776, moreover, Birch’s dragoons razed the Long Island home of Francis Lewis, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and New York delegate to the Continental Congress.4 Lewis would note in an August 1779 letter to an unofficial United States diplomat in Europe, “I have been early a great sufferer by the British depredators having all my effects to the Amount of at least £12000 Sterling plundered by a party under the orders of a Lieut Col. Burch of the Light Dragoons.”5

Washington subsequently received an intelligence report in 1780 that Woodhull wrote Tallmadge from Setauket on Sept. 12 detailing that “Coll Birch hath left the Regt and is appointed [New York City’s] Commodant.”6 The New-York Gazette, and Weekly Mercury (New York City) for Sept. 25 accordingly printed an item dated Sept. 19:

His Excellency the Commander in Chief [Gen. Henry Clinton] has appointed LIEUTENANT COLONEL BIRCH, of the 17th Light Dragoons, COMMANDANT of New-York, with the Rank of Brigadier General.

Governing New York City in a somewhat draconian fashion, Birch warned various rule-breakers that they would be “prosecuted with the utmost Rigour,” pay “such Fine as may be adjudged,” or “put in confinement, and expelled the lines, as soon as an opportunity offers for that purpose.”7 Yet he also threatened other lawbreakers with the “forfeiture of Five Pounds for every offence, one half of which will be given to the informer, the other for the use of the alms house,” issuing regulations as well to punish price speculators who were operating “to the manifest injury of the inhabitants, particularly those in indigent circumstances.”8

Birch, moreover, freed and sheltered several thousand slaves in New York City who had fled Patriot masters, although he did not attempt to emancipate slaves owned by Loyalists.9 More than 1,500 of the freed slaves who sailed from New York City for Nova Scotia in 1783 established Birchtown, which was the largest settlement of free blacks in North America at the time.10

Should we regard Birch as a hero or villain? Washington’s verdict seems clear. He never corresponded with Birch but wrote Maj. Gen. William Heath on Aug. 22, 1782:

As this is the second instance in which Genl Birch has contravened my Intentions in granting Flaggs to come from the Enemys Lines by other Routes than that of Dobbs Ferry—you will be pleased to write to that Gentleman on the Subject, & inform him that if any other Flags are granted any other Way than that of the Established post of Dobbs Ferry, they will be positively detained as prisoners.11

Yet can we really answer the preceding question about Birch or, for that matter, anyone else who participated in the Revolutionary War? To me, at least, Birch’s career illustrates the complex, ironic, and messy nature of the American Revolution and, indeed, of history as a whole.


1. For this letter and GW’s reception thereof, see GW to Benjamin Tallmadge, Feb. 5, 1779, n.1, Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 19:130–32. See also Tallmadge to GW, Dec. 3, 1779, and n.1 to that document, Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 23:516–19.
2. See assistant editor Benjamin L. Huggins’ Oct. 6, 2018 blog post on the subject.
3. Quoted in The British in Boston: Being the Diary of Lieutenant John Barker of the King’s Own Regiment from November 15, 1774 to May 31, 1776; with Notes by Elizabeth Ellery Dana (Cambridge, Mass., 1924), 59.
4. See Board of War to GW, Nov. 8, 1776, n.1, Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 5:115.
5. Francis Lewis to Stephen Sayre, Aug. 4, 1779, in Paul H. Smith et al., eds. Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774–1789, 26 vols. (Washington, D.C., 1976–2000), 13:451–53.
6. Abraham Woodhull (Samuel Culper) to Benjamin Tallmadge, Sept. 12, 1780, enclosed in Tallmadge to George Washington, Sept. 13, 1780, Library of Congress: Papers of George Washington (subsequently DLC:GW). See Washington to Tallmadge, Sept. 16, 1780, State University of New York at Stony Brook.
7. “Proclamation,” in New-York Gazette, and Weekly Mercury, Nov. 6, 1780; “Proclamation,” in New-York Gazette, and Weekly Mercury, Jan. 15, 1781; and “Market Regulations,” in New-York Gazette, and Weekly Mercury, June 11, 1781.
8. “Proclamation,” in New-York Gazette, and Weekly Mercury, Jan. 15, 1781, and “Market Regulations,” in New-York Gazette, and Weekly Mercury, June 11, 1781.
9. See “Market Regulations,” in New-York Gazette, and Weekly Mercury, June 11, 1781.
10. See Maya Jasanoff, Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World (New York, 2011), 172. See also Mary Louise Clifford, From Slavery to Freetown: Black Loyalists after the American Revolution (Jefferson, N.C., 1999); Simon Schama, Rough Crossings: The Slaves, the British, and the American Revolution (New York, 2009); and Ruth Holmes Whitehead, Black Loyalists: Southern Settlers of Nova Scotia’s First Free Black Communities (Halifax, Nova Scotia, 2013).
11. GW to William Heath, Aug. 22, 1782, DLC:GW. See Heath to Samuel Birch, Aug. 22, 1782, DLC:GW. See also Heath to GW, Aug. 22, 1782, DLC:GW.