This Day in History: John Glover, unsung Revolutionary War hero
Updated: Nov 6, 2019
On this day in 1732, an American Patriot is born in Massachusetts. You may or may not know John Glover’s name, but you do know about the Revolutionary War events in which he participated.
Glover led a unique regiment of men from Marblehead and other fishing villages: His men were professional sailors. The skill set would prove invaluable.
Glover and his “Marbleheaders” arrived outside Boston soon after the “shot heard round the world” at Lexington and Concord. Glover was well-equipped, and he ensured that his men were, too. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, George Washington was quick to trust Glover in an effort to create a Navy. This small fleet of vessels—“Washington’s Cruiser’s”—would work to harass British shipping early in the war.
But that was just the beginning of Glover’s contributions.
Perhaps you remember that Washington’s army was trapped in Brooklyn in August 1776? All seemed lost, until the soldiers made a miraculous midnight escape across the East River. (See August 29 post.) Guess who ferried the army from Brooklyn to Manhattan? Glover and his men, of course. They spent the whole night rowing through waters made violent by recent rains.
“In a feat of extraordinary seamanship,” historian David McCullough writes, “at the helm and manning oars hour after hour, they negotiated the river’s swift, contrary currents in boats so loaded with troops and supplies, horses and cannon, that the water was often but inches below the gunnels—and all in pitch dark, with no running lights. Few men ever had so much riding on their skill, or were under such pressure, or performed so superbly.”
The entire army made it across!
A few months later, Glover helped Washington escape—again. Washington’s army was then in retreat from Harlem Heights. Meanwhile, British General William Howe was trying to land troops nearby, at Pell’s Point. Glover witnessed the landing and decided to attack, despite being outnumbered. “I would have given a thousand worlds to have had General Lee, or some experienced officer present to direct, or at least to approve what I had done,” Glover later wrote.
Nevertheless, Glover’s decisive action was enough. Howe was delayed while Washington escaped. (See October 18 post.)
Finally, Glover and his men made one last middle-of-the-night trip that you will recognize. On Christmas night in 1776, Glover ferried Washington’s army across a nearly frozen Delaware River. One American officer later described the “almost infinite difficulty” that the men had in getting across the icy Delaware that night.
And yet they made it! As you know, Washington won an important victory at Trenton the next day. That victory gave new life to the Patriot cause.
It wouldn’t have been possible without Glover.
Glover served with distinction at other battles, including the important Battle of Saratoga, but his war service was interrupted after his wife passed away in 1778. He needed to care for his children.
Maybe you won’t be surprised to hear that Glover rejoined the army when he could.
After the war, Glover again returned home and worked to rebuild his fishing and trade businesses. Both had suffered greatly during the war.
Until recently, Glover’s story seemed almost forgotten. Isn’t this so typical of our founding generation? Another hero, making sacrifices that our history books forget to mention. And yet all of these unsung heroes and sacrifices added up to something pretty great. FREEDOM!
Cody K. Carlson, This week in history: George Washington retreats from Long Island (Deseret News; Aug 27, 2014) (quoting Chernow)
David Hackett Fischer, Washington’s Crossing (2004)
David McCullough, 1776 (2005)
Glover's Rock: History (New York City Department of Parks & Recreation website)
John C. Fredriksen, Revolutionary War Almanac (2006)
John Ferling, Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence (2007)
Letter from George Washington to Brigadier General John Glover (Apr. 26, 1777)
Michael Schellhammer, Overlooked Hero: General John Glover (Journal of the American Revolution; July 8, 2013)
Nathan Perkins Sanborn, Gen. John Glover and His Marblehead Regiment in the Revolutionary War: A Paper Read Before the Marblehead Historical Society (May 14, 1903)
Overlooked Hero: John Glover and the American Revolution (National Park Service website)