General Ebenezer Learned: Revolutionary War Commander, Politician and Civic Leader

Ebenezer Learned was born in Oxford, Massachusetts on April 18, 1728, the son of Colonel Ebenezer Learned and Deborah (Haynes) Learned. In his early life, he devoted much of his time to the study of books and as he matured, sat in on the discussions of his father and other men in the community. As a teen developing into manhood, he realized the difficulties faced by the Colonies from an unfriendly governmental ministry in London. He became and earnest advocate of the colonial cause as the crisis developed over taxation and representation. September 29, 1774, Learned became a member of the Provincial Congress which assembled at Concord. The assembly determined that Massachusetts must stand firm for its liberties. The First Continental Congress later met in Carpenter’s Hall, Philadelphia, where the members pledged loyalty to England, but also demanded that their liberties be preserved — and asked Parliament to adjust their difficult conditions. May 1775 was set as a deadline if the government failed to act.

It was April 19, in the meantime, that the battles of Lexington and Concord occurred and the news of them reached all over the Thirteen Colonies — inspiring patriots into action everywhere. The Provincial Congress of Massachusetts was in assembly at the time of Lexington and Concord and at once resolved to raise and equip an army of thirteen thousand six hundred men. Learned was at home in Oxford and not in the assembly. When he heard news of the battles, he immediately marched to Cambridge, leading a substantial force of minute men. Learned had been preparing for the possibility of fighting, so the troops were a disciplined and trained group of men. The Massachusetts Assembly sent messengers and proclamations for the assembling of a large army at Cambridge and within a short time, some thirty thousand men from various parts of New England were camped at Cambridge under the command of Major-general Artemas Ward. The men were eager to serve, but lacked real military discipline. Learned gave much needed assistance to General Ward, and the immediate plan was to contain the British forces in Boston.

General Ward stationed soldiers from Roxbury, Cambridge and to the north, blocking Boston. To strengthen the American position, they made plans to fortify Bunker Hill. On June 17, a careful survey was made and they began to erect fortifications on Breed’s Hill, with plans to fortify Bunker Hill with the thought it would be a good location to cover a retreat if necessary. Officers and men began the work of building the fortifications and by dawn they had established strong entrenchments.

When the British discovered the fort, General Gage, the British commander, called a council of war where it was decided to attack and destroy the American position at once. Following orders, the American soldiers held their fire until the attacking enemy was close to the entrenchments. The Americans held off two separate attempts and on the third ran out of ammunition. They retreated slowly. The British losses were unusually heavy, greater than the American losses. Learned held his position at Roxbury, under fire, but their training prevented panic.

Continental Congress, meanwhile, was assembled in Philadelphia in the state house (Independence Hall). On June 15, 1775, Congress resolved to appoint a general. It was John Adams, a leading delegate from Boston who suggested that the forces all over the colonies form a Continental Army in which the appointed general would be in command. The selection of the general was a difficult task as General Ward was already in command of the forces around Boston. Adams favored Colonel George Washington of Virginia as the most capable and efficient officer. Thomas Johnson of Maryland nominated Colonel Washington and he was unanimously elected. Thus, George Washington became the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. He accepted his appointment reluctantly: “As to pay, sir, I beg leave to assure the Congress, that, as no pecuniary consideration could have tempted me to accept the arduous employment at the expense of my domestic ease and happiness, I do not wish to make a profit from it. I will keep an exact account of my expenses. Those I doubt not, they will discharge, and that is all I desire.”

Washington left for Cambridge June 21 and arrived July 2. He met with various leaders concerning possible military actions in the future and assumed leadership of the army. July 9, Washington summoned a council of war, attended by the higher officers of the army. Learned was not of sufficient rank to attend, but Washington met him and came to know his ability and efficiency as they worked around Boston.

In January 1776, Ebenezer Learned was made Colonel of the Third Continental Infantry. At this time also, Washington was more encouraged to begin carrying out his plans, as a result of the success of Colonel Knox in procuring cannon and military supplies from Ft. Ticonderoga. The army was ordered to begin a bombardment campaign on March 3 and 4, 1776 as well as the seizure of an important position, known as Dorchester Heights. The troops were readied for a potential attack, but heavy rains prevented one.

Howe decided to evacuate Boston. They were receiving threats of attack and retaliated with the threat of the destruction of the city if they were molested as they evacuated Boston. Four influential Boston citizens [John Scollay, Timothy Newell, Thomas Marshall and Samuel Austin] secured an appointment with the British that the city would not be destroyed if the Americans assured Howe that the troops would not attack as they evacuated. Howe gave his promise and the conditions were written down. The letter was taken to Colonel Learned at Roxbury, who in turn, carried it to Washington at his headquarters. Since the letter set forth no official obligation from the Select Council of Boston, nor Howe, he could not receive it officially. So, Learned returned to Roxbury and wrote the Council the following letter: “Agreeably to a promise made to you at the lines yesterday, I waited upon his Excellency General Washington and presented to him the paper handed to me, by you, from the Selectmen of Boston. The answer I received from him was to this effect: — That as it was an unauthorized paper, without an address, and not obligatory upon General Howe, he would take no notice of it, I am with esteem and respect, Gentlemen, your most obedient servant, Ebenezer Learned”. Nevertheless, Learned’s work created an unofficial plan for the evacuation of the British from Boston on March 17, 1776. Learned was given the honor to unbar the gates of Boston which admitted Washington’s army into the city. His force also kept a careful watch upon the British fleet until it sailed away.

Washington decided that he must protect New York, for if the British got hold of it, they would have the best port to carry out expeditions all over the thirteen colonies. Washington moved his army to New York to protect the city and the Hudson River. Colonel Learned traveled to New York with his regiment. However, as a result of the campaign in Boston, he had to return home to Oxford due to ill health. Learned helped the American cause as best he could at home and was anxious to return to service as he learned of the victories of Washington at Trenton and Princeton. On April 2, 1777, news reached Learned that Congress had promoted him to Brigadier-General in the Continental Army.

Late spring 1777: General Burgoyne organized his forces from Canada by way of Lake Champlain and the Hudson River. General Learned and his troops were ordered north to save the militia at Fort Edward and Fort Anne. He was successful in the removal of supplies from Ticonderoga. Burgoyne’s forces numbered about 6700 requiring them to carry a lot of baggage, which slowed them down. The Americans, numbering approximately 4000 under General Schuyler, slowed them down even more by felling trees across roads, trails and paths. General

Schuyler urged the rural residents to burn their crops and hide their cattle. In time, Burgoyne began to feel the shortage of food and supplies. The British in New York did not realize Burgoyne’s position was becoming precarious. General Howe in the meantime decided to make a move towards Philadelphia, ordering General Clinton in New York to make a drive toward the north to scatter the American army, believing Burgoyne would decisively defeat the Americans at his location. Burgoyne, sent forces against Bennington, Vermont, where American supplies were stored — he no longer had enough. The Americans defeated the British there.

A second invasion was rebuffed when the troops under General Herkimer held off the British troops under St. Leger at Ft. Stanwix. The British forces heard that General Learned and his troops were coming to aid the fort, and they fled in confusion.

In the meantime the American army was maneuvering for battle. Additional forces increased their number so they were in a position to fight the British. The Americans were at Bemis’ Heights, south of Saratoga. The first struggle took place on September 19. Each army waited upon its conclusion — the Americans could wait because of their position and knowledge that the British supplies were exceptionally low. Eventually, on October 17, Burgoyne was compelled to surrender after being pushed back to Saratoga. Burgoyne and his men were marched away…under the Stars and Stripes, the flag officially adopted on June 14, 1777. Learned and his men were commended publicly and later ordered south to join Washington north of Philadelphia.

Valley Forge Monument

At Valley Forge, Learned is ordered to form one division with General Patterson’s Brigade under Baron DeKalb. Learned was Brigade Major for Christmas day, serving several times after that as well. In the spring of 1778, Learned’s health failed and he was forced to resign his commission. He returned home to Oxford and served his community and state in various capacities as a member of the state constitutional convention 1779, state legislature, selectman, assessor, justice of the peace, moderator of town meetings, and was deeply interested in church affairs.

General Ebenezer Learned died on April 1, 1801 in Oxford.

Source: http://www.ushistory.org/valleyforge/served/learned.html

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