Harsh Weather Or Not, We Won The Revolutionary War

August 7, 2018
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By Rick Geffken | 

Historian Elaine Lent points to a picture of Gen. William Alexander, aka Lord Stirling, before an audience at the Middletown Historical Society on July 16. Lent spoke about his role at the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse, Freehold, in June of 1778. Photo by Rick Geffken

Did the weather play an overlooked part in the Patriot victory during the War for Independence? Elaine Lent thinks so. Lent, the historian for Middletown’s Old First Church, posited just that in her “Skies of the American Revolution” talk to the Middletown Township Historical Society Monday evening, July 15.

Lent’s premise during her fascinating talk at the Poricy Park Nature Center was that a certain Maj. Gen. William Alexander, the self-styled Lord Stirling, who distinguished himself during the Battle of Monmouth in 1778, was an amateur astronomer. His recorded observations are almost our only source about weather during the late 18th century American Revolutionary War battles.

The Historical Society’s president emeritus, Randall Gabrielan, introduced Lent by telling the 20 or so folks at the meeting, “So often, when we think about the Revolution, we think about the military or political events, but tonight Elaine Lent will offer a real change of pace – science in the Revolution.”

Yes, patriotic spirit, French and German support and superior tactics were all part of our founding forebearers’ victory in Revolutionary War, just as we were all taught in grade school. But according to Lent, the weather, and even the sky conditions, played a role, too. “The weather during the Revolution was quite distinctive. We haven’t had anything quite like it since,” she noted.

William Alexander, Lord Stirling, played a crucial role in several Revolutionary War battles in the Two River area when he was a major general under the command of George Washington. Courtesy Public Domain

Lent is past vice president of the New Jersey Astronomical Association and a former teacher in the Basking Ridge schools where she became interested in William Alexander. Quite the character, Alexander was born in New York in 1726 and he fell in love with stargazing and soldiering. In 1763 he built a mansion in Basking Ridge, largely with inherited money and profits from slave trading. On a trip to England in 1756 when he was 30, William Alexander claimed distant heir to the Scottish title Earl of Stirling, though many doubted the actual connection. Though denied an official title by the British government, Alexander called himself Lord Stirling from then on.

Early in the Revolutionary War, Stirling was in the Two River area. In January 1776 he directed a crew of men in a stolen whaleboat to capture a British ship off New Jersey’s shores. Hoping the ship might have British armaments which the Patriots desperately needed, Stirling commandeered the ship and took it to Perth Amboy. To his chagrin, he discovered it was full of kegs of sauerkraut for the Hessian mercenary troops. These same Hessians described Stirling as “fighting like a wolf” during the Battle of Long Island.

Despite that embarrassment, Stirling, the so-called “Master of the Lightning Strike,” became one of George Washington’s favorite generals. Perhaps his most heroic moment came when he directed his artillery battery while repulsing a British attack during the June 28, 1778 Battle of Monmouth, fought in what is Manalapan today. Stirling Court, a minor tribute to him, is a residential street not too far from where he made his stand.

As for the influence of weather during the Revolution, Lent referenced notes in Stirling’s writings. During the unbearable battlefield heat on a summer day in 1778, Washington’s forces and Stirling’s heroics delayed the British march from Philadelphia. Also called the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse (which was in modern Freehold Borough), temperatures on that day apparently exceeded 95 degrees Fahrenheit, causing more fatalities due to heat exhaustion than from cannon fire or musket balls.

Lent also alluded to the extreme cold suffered by Washington’s troops during the winter of 1779-1780 when they “sheltered” at Jockey Hollow in Morristown, quite near Lord Stirling’s land holdings. Stirling used a telescope to observe sunspots during the Transit of Venus, the infrequent passage of the small planet in front of the sun. While he may not have known it then, sunspots are associated with colder weather on earth. His observations helped future meteorologists understand the harsh conditions during the 1770s and 1780s.

Stirling died in January 1783, just a few months before the end of the Revolutionary War. He predicted its ultimate outcome. Elaine Lent suggests he played an important part in that victory.

This article was first published in the August 2 – 9, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.

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