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Slayton: The Royalton Raid

12/02/10 7:55AM By Tom Slayton
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(HOST) Commentator Tom Slayton says a new book offers a fresh perspective on events in Vermont during the American Revolution.

(SLAYTON) If asked what they know about the Revolutionary War in Vermont, not many would respond with "The Royalton Raid." That’s because we usually think of the Royalton Raid - if we think of it at all - as an Indian attack. That’s the common perception.

However, as a new book from the Vermont Historical Society makes clear, the Royalton Raid was a British military action, part of an ongoing campaign of guerilla warfare and 18th century terrorism that took place across the Northeast late in the Revolutionary War.

Terrorism? Guerilla warfare? That doesn’t sound like the Revlutionary War as we usually think of it. But that is the brilliance of the book, We Go As Captives, by Neill Goodwin.

The Royalton Raid took place in 1780, when most of the major battles of the American Revolution were being fought far to the south of New England, in North and South Carolina.

The Raid was conducted by a war party of 265 Mohawks and Abenakis, commanded by a British officer, Lieutenant Richard Houghton, who was operating under orders from the British high command in Canada, Lieutenant General Frederick Haldemand. It was all part of the British War effort.

Royalton at that time was a collection of a couple dozen log cabins scattered along the Second Branch of the White River. The Raid would provide valuable captives, and would spread fear and disorder along the northern frontier - all desirable benefits for the British military - which by 1780 was all too certain it was losing the war.

And so, early on October 16th, the British-led Indians attacked, burning cabins, capturing hostages, and killing four residents of the White River Valley. Royalton school children still learn the amazing story of Hannah Handy, the plucky frontier wife who demanded that the raiding party release her son, Michael. By haranguing Lieutenant Houghton, Handy won her son’s release and the freedom of several other youngsters held by the Indians.

The story - brilliantly told by Neil Goodwin in We Go As Captives - continues with the capture in Randolph of Zadock Steele, who quickly becomes the book’s central figure. Steele is marched off to Canada, where he is ultimately imprisoned by the British on an island in the St. Lawrence River. The tale of his capture and escape makes up most of the book.

But by placing Steele’s narrative and the story of the Royalton raid in its larger context, Goodwin gives us an understanding of what the Revolutionary War in the north must have been like - the grinding anxiety of life on the edges of a wild continent during a hard-fought war against a foe willing to plunder, maim, terrorize and kill to win.

In addition to being good history, the book is a page-turner. It tells a captivating story in vigorous prose and provides a new sense of the significance of the shadowy guerilla war in the wild northern reaches of the Northeast during the Revolution - and what it meant for the people living there.
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