History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution/Chapter X
In the beginning of the year 1777, the spirits of the Americans were generally re- animated by fresh hopes, in consequence of the measures taken by Congress to establish a permanent army until the conclusion of the war, and still more by their sanguine expectations of success from the negotiations and prospects of an alliance with France.
A solemn confederation, consisting of a number of articles by which the United States should in future be governed had been drafted, discussed, and unanimously signed by all the delegates in Congress, in October 1776. This instrument was sent to each legislature in the thirteen states and approved and afterwards ratified by the individual governments. After this, the Congress of the United States thought proper to appoint commissioners to the Court of France, when fortunately a load of money was negotiated on the faith of the United States, and permission obtained for the reception of American ships of war and the sale of prizes that might be captured by them and carried into any of the ports of France. They were also encouraged to hope for still further assistance from the generosity of that nation.
The growth of the infant marine of the United States had been so rapid and so successful had been the adventurers in this early stage of the war that it was rationally concluded it could not be many years before the navy of America might make a respectable figure among the nations.
It was not expected in Great Britain that the colonies could thus early have acquired a naval force of the least consideration. In consequence of this idea, a great number of British ships and transports that went out slightly armed or not armed at all were this year captured on their way to America. So bold and adventurous were the American privateers and their public ships that the domestic trade of Britain was rendered insecure; and a convoy became necessary to protect the linen ships from Dublin to Newry: a circumstance that never took place. [British Annual Register, 1777.] The successful depredations also on the British West India trade were felt through Great Britain in an alarming degrees, and shocked their commerce so far as to occasion sudden and frequent bankruptcies in London, Bristol, and almost all the great marts of the nation.
Thus the colonies were filled with everything necessary for carrying on a war, or that furnished them the luxuries of life. But the sudden acquisition of wealth, which in consequence of unexpected success flowed into the lap of individuals, so much beyond their former fortune or ideas, was not indeed very favorable to the virtue or manners of the possessors. It had a tendency to contract the mind, and led it to shrink into selfish views and indulgences, totally inconsistent with genuine republicanism. The coffers of the rich were not unlocked for the public benefit, but their contents were liberally squandered in pursuit of frivolous enjoyments, to which most of them had heretofore been strangers.
This avaricious spirit, indeed, somewhat retarded the measures contemplated by Congress, who had determined that the army in future should stand on a more stable footing. They had directed that 88 battalions should be raised and kept in full pay until the close of the war; and as an encouragement to enlist, they promised a certain allotment of lands to both officers and soldiers, at the commencement of peace. Yet the recruiting service went on heavily for a time, and at an immense expense to the United States. But among a people whose personal liberty had been their proudest boast, the above was not the sole cause of the difficulty of raising a permanent army. The novelty of being enchained to a standing army was disgusting. They generally revolted at the idea of enlisting for an indefinite term. Thus the army still remained incomplete, and the militia were again called out as before. In that mode there was no want of zeal and alacrity. Great numbers always appeared ready for any temporary service.
During the winter of this year, the British commander did not attempt anything of greater magnitude than the destruction of the American magazines. He effected his purpose at Peekskill, at Courtland Manor; and about the middle of April, he sent on a detachment under the command of Governor Tryon to the little town of Danbury, on the borders of Connecticut, where a considerable quantity of provisions and other articles had been deposited for the use of the American army. He considered it of great importance to cut off these resources before the opening of the spring campaign.
In conjunction with Sir William Erskine and Brigadier General Agnew, Governor Tryon, who had embodied near 2000 royalists, was vested with the principal command, on the trivial expedition to Danbury. He executed his orders with alacrity. They destroyed a few hogsheads of rum and sugar, a considerable quantity of grain and other provisions, about 1700 tents, and plundered and burnt a number of houses in the town of Danbury. But their retreat to their shipping was intercepted by the militia of the country, drawn out by the Generals Wooster and Silliman. A small detachment of continental troops commanded by General Arnold, with a party of recruiting officers, joined them, an a encounter ensued, when much bravery was exhibited on both sides. General Wooster, an aged and experienced officer, and a very worthy man, was mortally wounded. General Arnold had his horse shot out under him at the moment a soldier had his bayonet lifted for his destruction; but with surprising agility, he disengaged himself from his horse, and drew a pistol that laid his enemy dead at his feet. On the third day after his landing, Governor Tryon again reached the shipping and re-embarked his troops with inconsiderable loss, though exceedingly fatigued by a march of 30 miles, harassed the whole time by an enemy arranged on each hand, and pressed in the rear by recruits hourly coming in to the assistance of his opponents. [It has been acknowledge by some British historians that their loss more than counterbalanced the advantages gained in this expedition to Danbury.]
Within a few days, reprisals were made for this successful feat of Tryon, by the more brilliant enterprise of Colonel Meiggs, show, with only 170 men, landed on the southern part of Long Island, surprised the enemy lying at Sag Harbor, burnt 12 armed vessels, captured the sailors, destroyed the forage and stores on the east part of the island, and returned to Guilford, about 90 miles distance, within 30 hours from the time of his departure from thence. He brought with him the trophies of his success, without the loss of a man. As no action of importance was exhibited for several months, these smaller depredations and inconsiderable skirmishes served only to keep the spirits in play, and preserve the mind from that lethargic state, which inaction or want of object creates.
The plan digested for the summer campaign among the British officers was to gain possession of Philadelphia, to command the central colonies, and to drive the Americans from all their posts in the province of Canada. Some circumstances had taken place that seemed to favor these designs. Confident of his success from his superior numbers in the field, General Howe, for a time, exercised all the artifices of an experienced commander to bring General Washington to a decisive engagement. But, from a perfect command of his temper, and a judicious arrangement of the few continental troops and the militia he had in aid, the American chieftain defeated every measure practiced to bring him to a general action. He placed about 2000 men in Princeton, and with the main body of his army took his stand on the high and advantageous grounds in the neighborhood, and made all possible preparation for defense. This determined line of conduct in General Washington gave a new turn to British operations. On June 19, General Howe decamped from Brunswick and removed to Amboy, with every appearance of a speedy embarkation. His troops as usual committed every outrage on their way, and as if instigated by despair of becoming masters of the country, and envious of the progress of arts and sciences in America, the colleges and public libraries were burnt, all public buildings and places of worship swept away, and nothing that had the appearance of distinguished elegance escaped. But the mind and the pen weary of the detail of destruction. It is enough to observe that the British army in their retreat left every trait of desolation and barbarism behind them.
The maneuvers of the British commander led to the belief, and everything wore the strongest appearance that he was about to take a final leave of the Jerseys. The illusion succeeded so far as to induce General Washington to send a body of 3000 men, commanded by Generals Maxwell, Conway, and Lord Stirling, with the design to attack the rear of the march. General Howe, apprised of this movement, hastily returned to the charge. He dispatched Lord Cornwallis on a circuitous route, who soon came up with Lord Stirling, strongly posted in a wood.
The Americans determined to dispute the ground with Cornwallis; but the ardor of the British troops and the rivalry of the Hessians obliged them soon to quit their advantageous post and retreat with precipitation. The loss the Americans sustained was not inconsiderable; they suffered greatly, both from the extreme heat of the season and the valor of their antagonists. From this and some other circumstances, it was for a time generally believed that the late movement of General Howe and his army was but a feint to draw General Washington to an action, rather than from a fixed design immediately to evacuate the state of New Jersey. Convinced of this, Washington drew in his lines and recovered his camp on the hills, determined to persevere in his defensive system, until some more advantageous opportunity should justify the hazard of a general engagement.
It would undoubtedly have been highly imprudent for General Howe at this time to have persisted in pushing his way to the Delaware through a country disgusted and alienated by the barbarity of his troops. Most of the inhabitants of this state were now armed for defense. Inflamed by resentment from the suffering of the last year, impelled by necessity from the impediments in the way of all private occupations, and fired by a love of glory, they were now ardent for action, in proportion as they had been heretofore remiss; and came to the field prepared to conquer or die in defense of their country. At the same time, General Washington was daily gaining strength by the arrival of fresh troops from various other quarters.
The British commander accordingly thought proper, about midsummer, to decamp in earnest. He drew off his whole force as privately as possible to New York; thence embarked and sailed from Sandy Hook July 23. The destination of the fleet and army was kept so profoundly secret that for some time after their embarkation every capital on the continent was apprehensive that they should be the object of the next visit from a potent armament that seemed at a loss where to direct their operations. This expectation occasioned a general anxiety until the latter part of August, when the fleet appeared in the Chesapeake, and the army soon after landed at the head of the River Elk. On his arrival there, General Howe immediately published a proclamation in which he assured the inhabitants everywhere of safety and protection, provided they were not found in arms, and promised pardon to all officers and soldiers who should surrender to the royal army.
Indeed, his disposition to clemency appeared so conspicuous on this first arrival that it prevented the entire depopulation of the adjacent parts of Maryland, Pennsylvania, and the lower counties of Delaware; the inhabitants of which, on the first appearance of so formidable a foe in their neighborhood, were struck with consternation, and on the point of abandoning their habitations.
It was now obvious that the possession of the city of Philadelphia was the stake for which both armies played. General Washington had moved with the greatest part of his troops for the defense of that elegant city and had by detached parties embarrassed the march of the British army from the River Elk to the Brandywine. In the neighborhood of the last, the two armies met, and on September 11 came to a general engagement. The battle was fought with bravery, and sustained with spirit on both sides; but the fortune of the day declared against the Americans, yet not so decidedly as the sanguine expectations of their antagonists had led them to hope from such an event. But it gave them an astonishing advantage in the minds of the people through all the district of Pennsylvania; and enabled General Howe with more facility to complete his enterprise. Many officers of high rank on both sides suffered much in the spirited action at the Brandywine. A few days after this affair, General Wayne, who had concealed himself in a wood with 1500 men, in order to harass the rear of the British, was discovered and attacked by Brigadier General Grey, who had given orders that no alarm should be made by the use of fire- arms. He made the onset about one o'clock in the morning; and by more cruel exercise of the bayonet, several hundred Americans were killed and wounded. The remainder, with difficulty, escaped by flight.
Among others who suffered in the Battle of Brandywine, the Marquis de la Fayette, a young nobleman of France, was dangerously wounded. Warmed by an enthusiastic love of liberty, and animated by a laudable ambition, this amiable young gentleman had left the Court of France without leave of the King. Quitting the pleasures of domestic felicity, he embarked at his own expense, and engaged in the service of the United States at an early period of the war, when the affairs of America wore the darkest aspect. His zeal and his heroism to the conclusion of the contest placed the well-earned laurel on his brow, and procured him the love, respect, and best wishes of the people throughout America. Indeed, all the French officers in the continental army, among whom were many of high consideration, acquitted themselves with distinguished gallantry on this and many other occasions, where the courage of the soldier, and the humanity of the officer, were called into exercise.
General Washington, obliged to retreat in disorder and closely pursed after the action, retired to Chester. He soon after, with his army, reached Philadelphia. But the British commanders directed their operations with so much judgment and success that before September 26 Washington thought proper to evacuate the city. Lord Cornwallis with the British grenadiers and two battalions of Hessians on that day made a triumphal entry and took possession of the capital of the United States.
The era was truly critical. Congress again found it necessary, a second time, to desert the city, and now repaired to York Town for safety. Dissensions ran high among the inhabitants of Philadelphia. Some of the most opulent families were disaffected, and renounced all adherence to the union; and several persons of different descriptions, emboldened by the absence of Congress and the success of the British arms, took this opportunity to declare in favor of the royal cause. One of principal consideration among them went out and conducted the King's troops into the city. Others declared themselves zealously attached to the measures of administration and equally disgusted with the opposition of the colonies. Among these was Joseph Galloway, a member of Congress and Speaker of the House of Representatives in Pennsylvania. He soon after repaired to England, where he indefatigably exerted his abilities and influence against his native country, on all occasions.
Besides those individual apostates, the Quaker interest had long embarrassed every public measure in that colony. They were a large and powerful body in the state of Pennsylvania; and, notwithstanding their pacific principles, though not actually in arms, they at this time took a decided part against the American cause. Their previous conduct had drawn upon themselves many severities. Several of the principal leaders had been imprisoned, and others sent out of the city of Philadelphia, on the approach of the British army. Yet still they refused the smallest submission to the present government and appealed to the laws by which they claimed personal safety. But whether from a consideration of the necessity of a temporary suspension of law, in times of public and imminent danger, or whether from the sanguine resolutions which operate on all parties when their favorite system totters on the brink of ruin, little regard was paid even to the legal claims of this body of citizens. Several persons of the first distinction and character among them, notwithstanding their just and sensible remonstrances, were sent off to Virginia to prevent the influence they might have through a state, then the principal seat of war.
From these political dissensions, the partial defeats, the loss of Philadelphia, the slowness of recruits for permanent service, the difficulty of obtaining supplies for the army from various causes, and particularly from the monopolizing and avaricious spirit that was fast gaining ground in America, and from delay, "the betrayer of all confederations," a lowering aspect was cast over the operations of America on every side. On the contrary, the British government, the army, and their adherents, had much reasons to flatter themselves with an idea of the speedy completion of their designs against the United States. They were now in possession of the first city in the union; General Clinton was in force at New York; General Vaughan on the North River, with troops sufficient to sweep away the inhabitants on both sides and to keep the adjacent country in awe. A large detachment of the British army still held the possession of Newport. Colonel Losbourg with a Hessian brigade in conjunction with them was piratically plundering the neighboring coasts and burning the scattered villages of the state of Rhode Island.
It is proper here to observe that soon after the British troops had taken possession of Rhode Island, some animosities had arisen between General How and Lord Percy, who commanded there. This was occasioned by a requisition from Sir William Howe to His Lordship to send him on 1500 men for the better defense of New York, and to aid his operations in that quarter.
Lord Percy declined a compliance with this order, alleging as a reason for this refusal that the Americans were rapidly collecting and strengthening themselves in the town of Providence; that the number of troops already there gave them reason to be apprehensive for the safety of Newport. General Howe resented the refusal; threatened Earl Percy with a trial for disobedience of orders, and reprimanded him in language which the Earl thought derogatory to an officer of his rank, character, and consequence. On this usage, which Lord Percy considered very affrontive, he immediately wrote to his father the Duke of Northumberland, requesting him, without delay, to obtain his recall from the American service. Soon after this, he embarked for England, having resigned his command to General Prescott.
His advance to the chief command of the troops on Rhode Island was not long enjoyed by General Prescott, before a circumstance took place which was sufficiently mortifying to himself and the British. In the beginning of July 1777, Colon Barton, a provincial officer, and several others, accompanied by only 38 men, embarked in several boats from Warwick Neck, eluding the vigilance of the British ships and guard boats, he and his party passed them in the dark and landed on Rhode Island about 12 o'clock at night.
Colonel Barton had received some intelligence of the insecure situation in which the British commander frequently lodged on the island. On this information, he formed the bold design of surprising and seizing him. This he effected with a facility beyond his own most sanguine expectations. Having first secured the sentinel at the door, he surprised General Prescott in his bed. One of his aids leaped from a window in hopes of escape, but was prevented. Their design accomplished, the little party hastened to their boats with all possible expedition. Signals were made for an alarm on shore; but it was too late. Baron and his party were out of danger. When they reached the spot from whence they had set out on this adventure, a chariot was prepared for the reception of General Prescott, in which he was escorted safely from Warwick to Providence.
Colonel Barton received great applause from his countrymen for his spirited and well executed enterprise. It was not indeed an objected of much magnitude, but the previous circumstances of General Prescott's conduct had been such as to render his capture a subject of much exultation to the Americans. He had, while in command at Newport, insulted and abused the inhabitants, ridiculed the American officers, and set a price on some of their heads, particularly on that of General Arnold, which Arnold retaliated with the advertisement of a small price for the head of General Prescott.
The similarity of circumstances that attended the captures of generals Prescott and Lee and their rank in the armies to which they respectively belonged rendered it highly proper that an exchange should have taken place immediately. It was, however, for a time delayed; but finally, General Lee obtained his liberty in consequence of this business.
The discouraging circumstances above related with regard to the arrangements, military posts, and operations of the British from Newport to New York, and from New York to Philadelphia gave very promising prospects of success to the British in that part of America. At the same time, General Burgoyne, with the flower of the British army, the Canadian provincial, and hordes of savages that poured down from beyond the lakes, was making advances, and in the language of bombast and self-confidence, threatened destruction and vengeance to any who should have hardihood enough to endeavor to stop his progress or to oppose the authority under which he acted. But notwithstanding the general wayward appearance of the affairs of the United States, the legislatures, as we shall see, lost not their magnanimity, the people their ardor, nor the army their valor. Not disheartened by the circumstances o the late action at the Brandywine or the loss of Philadelphia, General Washington, with his brave troops, in numbers comparatively inconsiderable, kept the British army in play, until the setting in of winter. Within a few days after the surrender of Philadelphia, the Americans attacked the royal camp at Germantown, situated about six miles from the city, where the main body of the British army had taken their stand.
This was a very unexpected maneuver. The attempt was bold, and the defense brave. The Americans for a time seemed to have greatly the advantage; but the enterprise finally failed. They were obliged to retreat in great confusion, after the heavy loss of many officers and men. The disappointment of the Americans was in consequence of the address and ability of Colonel Musgrove, who judiciously stood on the defensive and check the progress of the continental troops until General Grey and Brigadier General Agnew, with a large detachment, came to his relief. A warm, but short action ensued; when the Americans were totally routed and driven out of the field of action.
General Lee, who had not the highest opinion of General Washington's military abilities, observed on this occasion "that by a single stroke of the bathos, the partial victory at Germantown was corrupted into a defeat. [General Lee's letters.] This was, however, too severe a censure. A number of circumstances operated to blast the hopes of the Americans, after the early promise of success. The Britons themselves have given testimony to the bravery and good conduct of Washington and his army on this occasion. One of their writers had attested "in this action the Americans acted upon the offensive; and though repulsed with loss showed themselves a formidable adversary, capable of charging with resolution, and retreating with order The hope therefore entertained from the effect of any fair action with them, as decisive, and likely to put a speedy termination to the war, was exceedingly abated."
The highest expectation had been formed on the reduction of Philadelphia both by the foreign and internal foes of America. Though both armies were fired with equal ardor and on all occasions were equally ready for action, yet the repeated skirmishes for several weeks in the neighborhood of the city, were not productive of any very important consequences, except the loss of many brave men, and several officers of great merit. None of these were more distinguished and lamented than General Nash on the American side and Brigadier General Agnew and Colonel Bird on the British line, who lost their lives in the Battle of Germantown.
It was very important to the British commander after the above transactions to open a free passage to Philadelphia by the Delaware, in order to obtain supplies of provisions by water for their army. this was impeded by the American shipping, and by several strong posts held by the Americans on the river; the principal of which was Red Bank. Here they had an opportunity of retrieving the recent disgrace of their arms at Germantown. the Hessians under the command of Colonel Donop, had the principal hand in this business. He crossed the Delaware, with 1500 men, at Cooper's Ferry opposite Philadelphia, and marched to attack the redoubts at Red Bank.
A cannonade was opened: the camp was attacked with spirit and defended with equal gallantry by Colonel Greene of Rhode Island; who replied to the summons of Count Donop to surrender, "that he should defend the place to the last extremity." On this, the Hessians attempted to storm the redoubts; but the assailants were obliged to retreat in their turn. One Hessian brigade was nearly cut to pieces in the action, and Count Donop mortally wounded and taken prisoner, as were several other officers of consideration. The remainder retreated with great precipitation through the night, leaving one half of their party dead, wounded, or prisoners to the Americans; crossed the river the next morning; and in this mortified situation, the remnant who escaped entered Philadelphia. This important pass was a key to the other posts on the river; and for its rave defense the officers and soldiers were justly applauded, and Colonel Greene complimented by Congress, with the present of an elegant sword.
After the action at Red Bank, the vigilance and caution of General Washington could not be overcome by the valor and advantages of his foes, so far as to induce him to hazard any action of consequence. [For this, General Washington was very severely censured by some; and even the legislature of the state of Pennsylvania remonstrated to Congress and expressed their uneasiness that the American commander should leave the capital in possession of the enemy and retire to winter quarters. But his little army, destitute of every necessary, without the possibility of a supply at that season, as a sufficient apology.] The design of opening the Delaware as not the principal object of the British commander. This was effected without much difficulty, after the reduction of Mud Island. From this strong post, the American's were obliged to retreat, after a very manly resistance. They did not evacuate their works until reduced to despair by some British ships advantageously playing upon them. From the very superior advantages of their enemies in many respects they were induced to set fire to everything within reach; and after great slaughter they abandoned a place which had already cost them too much in its defense.
In the struggle to open the Delaware, the Augusta and the Merlin, on the part of Britain were lost; but the losses to the Americans were far beyond those of the British. The Delaware frigate and some others were captured, and several ships burnt by themselves to prevent their falling into the hands of their enemies.
Nothing more decided than the above transactions took place this season. The Delaware River thus cleared, and eligible winter quarters secured for the King's troops, and the cold season fast advancing, General Howe gave up the pursuit of the cautious and wary Washington. He found it impossible with all his efforts to bring him to another general action, while his own judgment, and that of the most judicious of his officers, forbade it, and common prudence dictated the probable disadvantages of such a movement. His numbers were too small, and the wants of the army too many, to hazard anything. The most prudent defense was the only line of conduct left to the American commander.
These circumstances induced General Howe, about the middle of December, to draw the main body of his army into the city of Philadelphia. They were indeed unable longer to keep the field, being very destitute of tents and other equipage necessary for the army in a cold climate, at this inclement season.
Thus after the proud vaunts of victory and conquest, and the loss of many gallant officers and brave men, the British commander had little to boast at the conclusion of the campaign, but the possession of a city abandoned by the best of its inhabitants, and the command of the adjacent country, circumscribed within the narrow limits of 20 miles. This was but a small compensation for the waste of life and treasure. it was a gloomy picture of the termination of a campaign for Sir William Howe to convey to his master and to his countrymen, after the exultation for some partial successes had flattered them with the highest hopes of speedy and complete victory. Yet, notwithstanding these vauntings over a people, among whom there did not yet appear a probability of complete subjugation by the sword, nor the smallest traces of a disposition among the people of America, to yield obedience to the laws and requisitions which the government of Great Britain were attempting thus to enforce at the point of the bayonet.
After Sir William Howe had retired and taken winter quarters in the city, a novel scene, considering the weakness of the continental army, was exhibited without. To the surprise and wonder of their foes, and to the admiration of all mankind acquainted with the circumstances, the Americans, nearly destitute of tents, poorly supplied with provisions, almost without shoes, stockings, blankets, or other clothing, cheerfully erected themselves huts of timber and brush, and encamped for the winter at a place called Valley Forge, within 25 miles of the city of Philadelphia. Thus in the neighborhood of a powerful British army, fearless of its numbers and strength, a striking proof of their intrepidity in suffering, sand their defiance of danger, was exhibited by a kind of challenge bidden to their enemies, not very usual in similar situations. The commander in chief, and several of the principal officers of the American army, in defiance of danger, either to themselves or to such tender connections, sent for their ladies from the different states to which they belonged, to pass the remainder of the winter, and by their presence to enliven the gloomy appearance of a hutted village in the woods, inhabited only by a hungry and half-naked soldiery. [Nothing but the inexperience of the American ladies and their confidence in the judgment of their husbands could justify this hazard to their persons, and to their feelings of delicacy.]
The resolution and patience of this little army surmounted every difficulty. They waited long, amid penury, hunger, and cold, for the necessary supplies which, in spite of the utmost exertions of the several states, came in but too slowly. Such was the deficiency of horses and wagons for the ordinary as well as extraordinary occasions of the army, that the men in many instances cheerfully yoked themselves to little carriages of their own construction. Others loaded the wood and provisions on their backs for present supply, in their extreme necessity. General Washington informed a committee sent from Congress to inquire into the state of the army that some brigades had been some days without meat, and that the common soldiers had frequently been at his quarters to make known their distresses. Unprovided with materials to raise their cold lodgment from the ground, the dampness of the situation, and the wet earth on which they lay occasioned sickness and mortality to rage among them to an astonishing degree. "Indeed nothing could surpass their suffering except the patience and fortitude with which it was endured by the faithful part of the army. Those of a different character deserted in great numbers." [See a letter from the committee sent from Congress to Mr. Laurens, the president.]
In this weak and dangerous situation, the American army continued encamped at Valley Forge from December until May, while the British troops in high health and spirits lay in Philadelphia, without once attempting to molest them. For this want of vigor and enterprise, General Howe was severely and justly censured in Britain, blamed by those interested in his success in America, and ridiculed by the impartial observer in every quarter. By his negligence this winter, he again undoubtedly lost the fairest opportunity of executing the designs of his master and acquiring to himself much military fame. But by wasting his time in effeminate and reprehensible pleasures, he sunk his character as an officer; and few scrupled to assert that the man of honor and valor was lost for a time, in the arms of a handsome adulteress. Many of his officers followed his example, and abandoned themselves to idleness and debauchery; while the soldiers were left to indulge their own licentious habits.
At this period, though not attacked by a foreign foe, the situation of the American commander in chief was really not very enviable. It required the utmost prudence and address to keep together the appearance of an army, under the complicated miseries they must feel in the depth of winder, hungry and barefooted, whose fatiguing, circuitous marches over the snowy path had been marked by their bleeding feet, before they, in such a destitute predicament, pitched their tents in the valley. The dilatory spirit of some, and the peculating dispositions of other officers in the various public departments, increased every difficulty with regard to clothing and subsistence. The deplorable state of the sick, the corrupt conduct in some of the hospitals, the want of discipline among the soldiers, the inexperience of officers, the slowness of recruits, and the diminution of the old army from various causes, were circumstances discouraging indeed; and might have been considered, if not a balance, at least a weight in the scale against the advantages and pride of high station. Yet these were not all the embarrassments which the commander in chief had to encounter. General Washington had his personal enemies to combat: nor was he without his rivals for power and fame. [Both the conduct and letters of General Lee had in several instances confirmed the opinion that he was ambitious of obtaining the chief command of the army of the United States; and doubtless he had a party that for a short time flattered these expectations. AT this time, indeed, he was a prisoner, but his correspondences were extensive.]
In all communities there are some restless minds, who create jealousies and foment divisions, that often injure the best cause, and the most unimpeachable character. And it may be observed that there is every a spirit of intrigue and circumvention that runs parallel with the passions of men. Thus the fortune of war is frequently changed by dangerous emulations, and the beset systems of social and political happiness overthrown, by the envy and resentment of little minds, or the boundless ambition of more exalted souls. Nor was it many years before American discovered she had in he bosom her Caesars and her Catalines, as well as her Brutuses and her Catos.
Many persons were disgusted with the dictatorial powers vested in General Washington, after the action at Trenton, which they alleged were at his own request. These were ample indeed. He was empowered by Congress "to reform and new model the military arrangements, in such manner as he judged best of the public service." He was also vested with several other discretionary powers [See resolves of Congress.] Congress had indeed limited his power to six months; but exigencies of the highest necessity had urged him sometimes to exercise it in a manner too arbitrary for the principles and dispositions of Americans, unused to the impressment of their property or the use of armies.
In this state of affairs, the commander was attacked by anonymous letters fictitious signatures, and incendiary suggestion. He was censured for his cool operations, defensive movements, and Fabian slowness. Disadvantageous impressions were made on the minds of some, and others were led to believe that General Washington as not without his weaknesses and his foibles. It was observed by one of his principal officers [See a letter from General Reed to General Lee, afterwards published], "That decision is often wanting in minds other ways valuable; that an indecisive mind in a commander, is one of the greatest misfortunes that could befall an army; that he had often lamented this circumstance through the campaign; that they were in a very awful situation, in an alarming state, that required the utmost wisdom and firmness of mind."
A wish at this time undoubtedly prevailed among some distinguished characters, [Samuel Adams of Boston, General Mifflin, and several other characters of distinction were suspected of unfriendly designs towards the commander in chief. But there never were sufficient grounds to suppose that Mr. Adams ever harbored an disaffection to the person of General Washington. On the contrary, he respected and esteemed his character and loved the man. But zealous and ardent in the defense of his injured country, he was startled at everything that appeared to retard the operations of war, or impede the success of the revolution; a revolution for which posterity is as much indebted to the talents and exertions of Mr. Adams, as to those of anyone in the United States. General Mifflin was a young gentleman of a warm and sanguine disposition. Active and zealous, he engaged early in opposition to the measures of the British Parliament. He took arms, and was among the first officers commissioned on the organization of a continental army. For this he was read out of the Society of Quakers, to which himself and his family had belonged. But Mr. Mifflin's principles led him to consider himself under a moral obligation to act offensively as well as defensively and vigorously to oppose the enemies of his country; and from his character and principle, he undoubtedly wished o see a commander in chief of the united armies who would admit of no delay in the acceleration of the object in which they were engaged.] for a supercedence of his command. But Washington, cool, cautious, and more popular than any man, his good genius was ever at hand to preserve his character invulnerable. Yet, several circumstances confirmed the opinion that even some members of Congress at this period were intriguing for his removal. It might indeed at this time have had a fatal effect on American affairs had General Washington fallen beneath a popular disgust or the intrigues of his enemy.
Perhaps few other men could have kept together the shadow of an army under such a combination of difficulties as the young republic had to encounter, both in the field and the cabinet. many men of a more active and enterprising spirit, might have put a period to the war in a shorter space of time; yet perhaps not ultimately so much in favor of America, as the slow, defensive movements of the officer then vested with the chief command.
This line of conduct was thought by some to be not so much owing to his superior sagacity and penetration, as to a constitutional want of ardency, at times when energy appeared most necessary to many persons. A predilection in favor of a connection with Britain seems united to this disposition. It had appeared clearly by many circumstance sin conversation with this confidential friends that he was not in the beginning of opposition, fond of a final separation from the parent state; and that he wished to move defensively until some events might take place that would bring back, and with honor and dignity re-unite the revolted colonies to the bosom of their ancient parent. [In the early period of the war, many very worthy characters opposed to the British system, besides General Washington, wished for a reconciliation with great Britain, if it could be procured consistently with honor, and with sufficient pledges of security to the just claims to the colonies rather than an irrevocable separation. But time convinced all that nothing but independence and a total dismemberment could secure the liberties of the United States.
But the public opinion always in his favor, with a happy talent to secure the confidence of the people, he commanded in a remarkable manner, their affections, their resources, and their attachment to the end of the war; and had the good fortune to parry every charge brought against him, with the firmness of the soldier, though not without the sensibility of the man who found his reputation at stake. He complained heavily to his private friends, yet took no public notice of the vague imputations of slander, that fell from the pen of a French officer of distinction, under the signature De Lisle.
These letters were fraught with the most severe strictures on the general's military character and abilities. Some other letters in the same style and manner, without a name, were directed to gentlemen of character and consideration in several of the states. Some addressed to Patrick Henry, Governor of the State of Virginia, he immediately transmitted to Congress, and to the General himself. However boldly some of the charges were urged they made little impression on the public mind. The transient tale of a day passed as the pathless, without leaving trace behind. His enemies shrunk from the charge; and General Washington, by the current of applause that always set in his favor, became more than ever the idol of the army an the people.
General Conway, the reputed author of the letters signed De Lisle, was a gentleman of great military talents and experience, with an ambition equal to his abilities. He had left France with high expectations of rank in the service of the United States. Not satisfied with the appointment of Inspector General of the American army, his pride wounded, and disappointed that he did not sustain a higher grade in office, which he had been led to flatter himself with before he left his country, and disgusted by the suspicions that fell on him after the publication of De Lisle's letters, he resigned his commission and returned to Europe.
Conway was not the only officer of his country that suffered similar mortifications. The credulity of men of talents, family, and merit had been imposed on by the indiscretion of one [Silas Deane, the first agent sent by Congress to France.] of the American agents, and their imaginations fired by ideas of rank and preferment in America, to which no foreigner was entitled. Thus chagrined from the same cause, it was thought the valiant Coudray, an officer of distinguished name and merit, who was a brigadier general and chief engineer in the French service, leaped voluntarily to his watery grave. His death indeed was attributed to the fleetness of his horse which it was said he could not command. Having occasion to cross the Schuylkill, in company with some other officers, he entered a boat on horseback. The career was swift; the catastrophe fatal. He leaped in on one side of the boat, and with equal celerity out on the other. Thus both horse and rider were irretrievably lost. Coudray was beloved and lamented by all who knew him; and the loss of Conway was regretted by many who esteemed him for his literary abilities and his military talents.
The important office of inspector general relinquished from necessity by General Conway was immediately conferred on the Baron de Steuben, an officer with the best credentials, who had recently arrived from Germany. The essential services of this celebrated disciplinarian were in a very short time felt throughout the army. New regulations took place, and new arrangements were made in the hospitals, in the commissary's, the quartermaster's, and other departments, which had been shamefully abused, not from a want to capacity or integrity in the preceding inspectors, but from the ignorance, inexperience, or peculation of many of the subordinate officers. From the date of the Baron's advancement, a more thorough knowledge of tactics was acquired by the officers; more system, discipline, and order appeared in the army; more equitable and permanent regulations, and a stricter adherence to the rules and laws of war took place than had been observed at any period before. The merits of this officer, universally acknowledged, were afterwards generously rewarded by the Congress of the United States.
It may not however be improper to observe before we pass on to the subsequent circumstances of the war that though the Baron von Steuben had been promoted to the rank of inspector general by the approbation of Congress and the army, yet General Conway had a considerable party attached to him among the military officers. Many persons thought that his dismissal from office and permission to return to France under the degradation of character which fell upon him, without any specified charges of delinquency in office, or any solid proofs that he really had been the author of the anonymous reproaches thrown on the character of General Washington, was at once affrontive both to himself and his nation. These ideas are more clearly exhibited in a sketch of the life of Conway by another hand. [See Note 20 at the end of this chapter].
We shall only further observe that the French nation was not disposed to resent individual slights, or even public neglects at this interesting period; a nation who viewed the resistance of the American colonies to the overbearing power of Britain, on a broad scale. They considered their opposition, if successful, as at once redounding to their own interest, and to the promotion of the liberties of mankind in general.
It had for many years been a primary object with the House of Bourbon to humble the pride and power of Britain. No contingencies that had arisen among the nations for near a century appeared so likely to produce this effect, as an alienation from and a total loss of their colonies. This consideration heightened the natural ardor, and quickened the constitutional energies of every Frenchman to lend his hand to the work. Their characteristic impetuosity always appeared conspicuous in politics and war, as well as in the intrigues of love and gallantry. They were ever restless under any appearance of slowness that might retard the execution of their object: but the critical situation of the American army at this period rendered an attempt to lessen the influence and the character of the commander in chief dangerous and inexcusable.
Notwithstanding the freedom of opinion and the license of the press, which should never be too much restrained in a free country, there are times and circumstances which require silence; and however disposed anyone might be to censure the conduct of General Washington, either for the want of enterprise, alacrity, or military skill, yet perhaps no man in the United States, under the pressure of so many difficulties, would have conducted with more discretion and judgment.
If there was any error in the dismissal of General Conway, it might be in not observing a due degree of delicacy, or furnishing any testimonials of his having acquitted himself well in his military capacity, a point on which all in that line are very tenacious. The displacing of a single officer of any rank is not sufficiently important to dwell upon long; and the apology for having done it at all must be the danger at this time of disgusting a foreign corps belonging to a court whose assistance was necessary, and whose aid had been courted, though their faith was not yet absolutely pledged to promote the emancipation of the United States.
France, however, was looking with too eager an steady an eye on the operations and success of the resistance of the colonies to the measures and mandates of the Crown and Parliament of England to be moved by any partial considerations from the line of political conduct which they had adopted. This was to embrace the first favorable opportunity when contingent circumstances might promise success to support the claim of independence, and render the breach complete and durable, between the united States and Great Britain; and thereby deprive that rival nation of the immense advantages they had already reaped, and might again recover by a revival and continuance of the connection.
That part of the American army immediately under the command of General Washington must now be left encamped at Valley Forge for the winter. Their situation impels the mind to throw over them that veil of compassion which a season of perplexity, though not of absolute despair, requires. We must now look over and survey with an anxious eye and in the succeeding pages view the humiliating events which for a time attended the fortune of war in the northern department; and trace the footsteps of the soldier through the forlorn desert which was ultimately the path to victory and glory.
Extracts of a short account of the treatment of major General Conway, late in the service of America, from General Lee's letters.
"On Monday November 23, 1778, the honorable Major General Conway set out from Philadelphia on his return to France. The history of the treatment this gentleman has received is so singular that it must make a figure in the anecdotes of mankind. He was born in Ireland, but a the age of six was carried into France; was bred up from his infancy to the profession of arms; and it is universally allowed by the gentlemen of that nation that he has in their service the reputation of being what is called un tre brave major d'infanterie, which is no small character. It implies, if I comprehend the term aright, a man possessed of all the requisite qualities to fill the duties of a general officer in the secondary line, but by no means ranks him among those favored mortals to whom it has pleased God to give so large a portion of the ethereal sprit as to render reading, theory, and practice unnecessary. But with the spectacle of this phenomena, Heaven entertains the earth but very seldom. Greece, as historian report, had but one; Rome none; England and France, only one each. As to this hemisphere, I shall be silent on the subject, lest I should be suspected of not being serious. But be this as it may, it is past doubt that General Conway is a man of excellent understanding, quick and penetrating, that he has seen much service, has read a great deal, and digested well what he has read. It is not less certain that he embarked with the warmest zeal for the great American cause, and it has never been insinuated, unless by those who have the talent of confounding causes, that his zeal has diminished. His recompense has been, what? He has lost his commission. He has been refused the common certificate which every officer receives at the expiration of his services, unless his delinquencies have been very substantial indeed. And, who what crime? For none, by any law, or the most strained construction that can be put on any law. The reasons given are so far form being substantial that they really ought to reflect honor on his character. It seems he has been accused of writing a letter to a confidential friend, communicating an opinion that the commander in chief was not equal to the great task he was charged with. Is this a crime? The contrary. If it was really his opinion, it was decent, it was honest, it was laudable, it was his duty. Does it come under any article of war? I may venture to affirm that it does not. God help the community that should be absurd enough to frame a law which could be construed into such a sense; such a community could not long subsist. It ever has been and ever ought to be the custom in all armies, not absolutely barbarians, for the officers of high rank minutely to canvass the measures of their commander in chief; and if his fault or mistakes appear to them many and great, to communicate their sentiments to each other. It can be attended with no one bad consequence; for if the criticisms are unjust and impertinent, they only recoil on the authors, and the great man who is the subject of them shines with redoubled luster. But if they are well founded, they tend to open the eyes of the prince or state, who, form blind prejudice or some strange infatuation may have reposed their affairs in hands ruinously incapable. Does any man of sense, who is the least acquainted with history, imagine that the greatest generals in the world ever produced have escaped censure? Hannibal, Caesar, Turenne, Marlborough, have all been censured; and the only method they thought justifiable of stopping the mouths of their censors was by a fresh exertion of their talents and a perpetual series of victories. Indeed, it is observable that in proportion to the capacity or incapacity of the commander in chief, he countenances or discountenances the whole tribe of tale-bearers, informers, and pickthanks, who ever have been, and ever will be, the bane of those courts and armies where they are encouraged and even suffered. Allowing General Washington to be possessed of all the virtues and military talents of Epaminondas, and this is certainly allowing a great deal, for whether from our modern education or perhaps the modern state of human affairs, it is difficult to conceive that any mortal in these ages should arrive at such perfection; but allowing it to be so, he would still remain mortal, and of course subject to the infirmities of human nature; sickness, or other casualties, might impair his understanding, his memory or his courage; and in consequence of this failure, he might adopt measures apparently weak, ridiculous, and pernicious. Supposing this possible case, whether a law, the letter or spirit of which should absolutely seal up the lips, and restrain the pens of every witness of the defection, would it not in fact be denouncing vengeance against those who alone have the means in their power of saving the public from the ruin impending, if they should dare to make use of these means for its salvation. If there were such a law, its absurdity would be so monstrously glaring that we may hardly say it would be more honored in the reach than in the observance. In the English and French armies, the freedom with which the conduct and measures of commanders in chief are canvassed is notorious; nor does it appear that this freedom is attended with any bad consequences. It has never been once able to remove a real great officer from his command. Every action of the Duke of Marlborough (everybody who has read must know) was not only minutely criticized, but his whole conduct was dissected, in order to discover some crime, blunder, fault, or even trifling error. But all these impertinent pains and wicked industry were employed in vain. It was a court intrigue alone that subverted him.
"General Wolfe, with whom to be compared it can be no degradation to any mortal living, was not merely criticized, but grossly calumniated by some officers of high rank under him. But that great man never thought of having recourse to the letter or construction of any law in order to avenge himself. He was contented with informing his calumniators that he was not ignorant of their practices and that the only method he should take for their punishment would be an active perseverance in the performance of his duty, which, with the assistance of God, he made no doubt would place him beyond the reach of their malice. As to what liberties they had taken with him personally, he should wait until he was reduced to the rank of a private gentleman and then speak to them in that capacity.
"Upon the whole, it appears that it never was understood to be the meaning of the English article of war which enjoins respect towards the commander in chief; and, of course, it ought not to be understood that the meaning of that article of the American code (which is a servile copy from the English) is meant to prescribe the communication of our sentiments to one another, on the capacity or incapacity of the man on whom the misery or ruin of the state depends. Its intention was, without doubt, in part complimentary, and partly to lay some decent restrictions on the license of conversation and writing which otherwise might create a diffidence in the minds of the common soldiery, detrimental to the public service. But that it was meant to impose a dead, torpid silence, in all cases whatever, on men, who, from their rank, must be supposed to have eyes and understanding, nothing under the degree of an idiot, can persuade himself; but admitting, in opposition to common sense and all precedents, the proceeding to be criminal; admitting Mr. Conway guilty of it, to the extent represented, which he can demonstrate to be false; in the name of God, why inflict the highest, at least negative punishment, on a man untried, and unheard? The refusal of a certificate of having honestly served is considered as the greatest of negative punishments. Indeed, in the military idea, it is a positive one.
"And I sincerely hope, and do firmly believe (such is my opinion of the justice of Congress) that when they have coolly reflected on the merits and fortunes of this gentleman, they will do him that justice, which nothing but the hasty misconstruction of a law hastily copied form another law, never defined nor understood, has hitherto prevented."