History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution/Chapter XVIII

We have already seen the double disappointments experience by the United States occasioned by the capture of one army in South Carolina under General Lincoln, and the defeat of another commanded by General Gates in North Carolina, who was sent forward with the highest expectations of retrieving affairs in that quarter... We have seen the complicated embarrassments of the United States relative to raising, paying, and supporting a permanent army... We have seen the pernicious effects of a depreciating currency and the beginning of a spirit of peculation and regard to private interest that was not expected from the former habits and professions of Americans... We have seen the disappointments and delay relative to foreign negotiations... We have seen both the patient sufferings of the American army under this greatest necessity and the rising restlessness that soon pervaded nearly the whole body of the soldiery; and we have also seen the desertion of a general officer, in whom confidence had been placed as a man of courage. We left Arnold stigmatized as a traitor and in all the pride and insolence of a British general, newly vested with command in reward of villainy, beginning under the British standard his career of ravage and depredation in Virginia.

In addition to the alarming circumstances already recapitulated at the close of the preceding year, the most dangerous symptoms were exhibited in the conduct of a part of the army which broke out in revolt; and the secession of the whole Pennsylvania line spread a temporary dismay.

On January 1, 1781, upwards of a thousand men belonging to that line marched in a body from the camp; others, equally disaffected, soon followed them. They took an advantageous ground, chose for their leader a sergeant major, a British deserter, and saluted him as their major general. On the third day of their revolt, a message was sent from the officers of the American camp. This they refused to receive. But to a flag which followed, requesting to know their complaints and intentions, they replied that "they had served three years; that they had engaged to serve no longer; nor would they return or disperse until their grievances were redressed and their arrearages paid."

General Wayne, who commanded the line, had been greatly beloved and respected by the soldiery, nor did he at first himself doubt but that his influence would soon bring them back to their duty. He did everything in the power of a spirited and judicious office to dissipate their murmurs and to quiet their clamors in the beginning of the insurrection. But many of them pointed their bayonets at his breast; told him to be on his guard; that they were determined to march to Congress to obtain a redress of grievances; and that, though they respected him as an officer, and loved his person, yet, if he attempted to fire on them, "he as a dead man."

Sir Henry Clinton soon gained intelligence of the confusion and danger into which the Americans were plunged. He improved the advantageous moment and made the revolters every tempting offer to increase and fix their defection. He sent several persons to offer in his name a pardon for all past offenses, an immediate payment of their full demands on Congress, and protection from the British government. He desired them to send proper persons to Amboy to treat farther and engaged that a body of British troops was ready for their escort. [See Sir Henry Clinton's letter to Lord George Germaine, January, 1781.]

How far the conduct of Sir Henry Clinton is to be justified by the laws of war, we leave to the decision of military characters; but to the impartial spectator, though so often practiced by officers of consideration and name, it appears an underhand interference, beneath the character of a brave and generous commander, to stimulate by those secret methods a discontented class of soldiers to turn the points of their swords against their country and their former friends.

But the intrigues of the British officers and the measures of their commander in chief had not the smallest influence. The revolted line, though dissatisfied and disgusted, appeared to have no inclination to join the British army. They declared with one general voice that was there an immediate necessity to call out the American forces, they would still fight under the orders of the congressional officers. Several British spies were detected, subtly employed in endeavoring to increase the ferment, who were tried and executed with little ceremony.

The prudent conduct of the commander in chief and the disposition which appeared in government to do justice to their troops subdued the spirit of mutiny. A respectable committee was sent from Congress to hear their complains and as far as possible to relive their sufferings. Those whose term of enlistment was expired were paid off and discharged; the reasonable demands of other satisfied; and a general pardon granted to the offenders, who returned cheerfully to their duty.

The discontented and mutinous spirit of the troops was not, however, entirely eradicated. The sources of disquietude in an army situated like the present, were too many to suppress at once. They were without pay, without clothing sufficient for the calls of nature; and not satisfied with the assurances of future compensation, their murmurs were too general, and their complaints loud and pressing.

The contagion of the mutinous example of the Pennsylvania line had spread in some degree its dangerous influence over other parts of the army. It operated more particularly on a part of the Jersey troops, soon after the pacification of the disorderly Pennsylvania soldiers, though not with equal success and impunity to themselves. They were unexpectedly surrounded by a detachment from the main body of the army and ordered to parade without their arms. On discovering some reluctance to obey, Colonel Sprout of the Massachusetts Division, as directed to advance with a party and demand their compliance within five minutes. As their numbers were not sufficient for resistance, they submitted without opposition. A few of the principal leaders of the revolt were tried by a court martial and adjudge guilty. As a second general pardon, without any penal inflictions, would have had a fatal effect on the army, two of them suffered death for their mutinous conduct.

This example of severity put a period to every symptom of open revolt, though not to the silent murmurs of the American army. They still felt heavily the immediate inconveniences of the deficiency of almost every article necessary to life. They had little subsistence and seldom any covering, except what was forced from the adjacent inhabitants by military power. These circumstances were aggravated by the little prospect there still appeared of filling their battalions and establishing a permanent army. Every evil had been enhanced and every pleasing anticipation darkened by the general stagnation of paper money, previous to the absolute death of such a ruinous medium of intercourse between man and man. It had created suspicions and apprehension in every mind and led everyone reluctantly to part with their specie before they new the fate of a currency agonizing in the last pangs of dissolution.

The successes at the northward had indeed given a spring to expectation and action; but the gloomy appearances of affairs at the southward, the ineffective movements in the central states, and the perseverance of the King and the Parliament of Britain in their measures against the colonies notwithstanding their recent connection with a potent foreign power, wrapped in clouds of uncertainty the final termination of the present conflict.

These were discouragement's that in theory might be thought insurmountable. But American Independence was an object of too great magnitude to sink under the temporary evils or the adventitious circumstances of war.

That great source of moral turpitude, the circulating paper, which had languished the last year until without sinew or never for any effective purpose, died of itself in the present, without any visible wound, except from the immense quantity counterfeited in New York, and elsewhere under British influence. In a confidential letter to Lord George Germaine about this time, General Clinton observed that "the experiments suggested by Your Lordship have been tried. No assistances that could be drawn from the power of gold or the arts of counterfeiting have been left unattempted. But still the currency, like the widow's cruise of oil, has not failed."

It is true, indeed, that he currency answered most of the purposes of Congress, for some time after the date of the letter from which the above extract is taken. When the paper ceased to circulate, no one mourned or seemed to feel its loss; nor was it succeeded in any stagnation of business or derangement of order. Everyone rejoiced at the annihilation of such a deceptive medium, in full hope that confidence between neighbor and neighbor, which this had destroyed, would again be restored.

The immense heaps of paper trash, denominated money, which had been ushered into existence from necessity, were from equal necessity locked up in darkness, there to wait some renovating day to reinstamp some degree of value, on what had deceived many into an ideal opinion that they possessed property. It was not long after this paper intercourse ceased before silver and gold appeared in circulation, sufficient for a medium of trade and other purposes of life. Much of it was brought from the hoarded bags of the miser, who had concealed it in vaults instead of lending it to his distressed countrymen; and much more of the precious metals were put into circulation by the sums sent from Europe to support a British army in captivity and for the pay of the fleets and troops of France, which were sent forward to the assistance of the Americans.

Notwithstanding all the baneful evils of a currency of only a nominal value, that fluctuates from day to day, it would have been impossible for the colonies to have carried on a war in opposition to the power of Great Britain without this paper substitute for real specie. They were not opulent, though a competence had generally followed their industry. There were few among themselves wealthy enough to loan money for public purposes. Foreigners were long shy; and appeared evidently reluctant at the idea of depositing their moneys in the hands of a government with whom they had but recently commenced an acquaintance.

France, indeed, after the Declaration of Independence, generously lent of her treasures to support the claims of liberty and of the United States against the strong hand of Britain. But Spain kept her fingers on the strings of her purse, though, as observed above, America had sent several agents to the Court of Madrid to solicit aid. Nor was it until the year 1782 that even Holland opened hers to any effective purpose, for the pecuniary calls that accumulated beneath the waste of war, in which their sister republic was involved.

A few observations on the eventful transactions which took place among the nations of Europe this year may here be properly introduced, before a farther continuance of the narrative of the war. This is necessary to give a clearer idea of the connection brought forward between America and several foreign nations, besides France and Spain, before the pride of Great Britain could condescend to acknowledge the independence of the United Sates.

Previous to Lord Cornwallis's last campaign in America, most of the belligerent powers in Europe had stood aloof, in a posture of expectation, rather than immediate action, as waiting the events of time to avail themselves of cooperation when convenient, with that side that might offer the greatest advantage when weighed in the political scale by which the interest of all nations is generally balanced.

France had long since acknowledged the independence of America; and the whole House of Bourbon now supported the claim of the United States, though there had yet been no direct treaty between America and Spain. It had been the general expectation for some time before it took place that Spain would finally unite with France in support of the American cause. From this expectation, the Spaniards in South America had prepared themselves for a rupture, a considerable time before any formal declaration of war had taken place, between the Courts of Madrid and St. James. They were in readiness to take the earliest advantage of such an event. They had accordingly seized Pensacola in West Florida, and several British posts on the Mississippi before the troops stationed there had any intimation that hostilities were denounced in the usual style between the Crowns of England and Spain.

Don Bernard de Galvez, Governor of Louisiana, had proclaimed the independence of America at New Orleans a the head of all the forces he could collect as early as August 19, 1779, and had proceeded immediately to surprise and conquer wherever he could the unguarded settlements claimed by the Crown of Britain. The British navy, generally masters of the ocean, had, early after hostilities commenced, beaten some of the Spanish ships, intercepted the convoys, and captured or destroyed several of the homeward-bound fleets of merchantmen. But by the time we are upon, the arms of Spain had been successful in several enterprises by sea. At the Bay of Honduras and in the West Indies, they also soon after gained several other advantages of some moment.

Don Bernard de Galvez had concerted a plan with the governor of Havana to surprise Mobile. He encountered storms, dangers, disappointments, difficulties almost innumerable. This enterprising Spaniard recovered, however, in some measure, his losses; and receiving a reinforcement from Havana, with a part of the regiment of Navarre, and some other auxiliaries, he repaired to, and landed near Mobile. He summoned the garrison to surrender, who, after a short defense, hung out a white flag, and a capitulation took place by which he English garrison surrendered themselves prisoners of war.

In Europe, the war had been opened on the side of Spain, by the siege of Gibraltar. This strong fortress had been closely invested by a powerful fleet and army for some time. The piratical states of Barbary, who, to the disgrace of Europe, were permitted to war upon, or to make tributary all the nations, had been recently disgusted with Great Britain; and such a defection had taken place that no relief could be expected from that quarter, or any supplies of provisions obtained from them for the garrison, which was reduced to such distress that they were several weeks without bread, except a few worm-eaten biscuits, sold at an enormous price: a guinea was refused for a calf's head, a chicken sold for 9 shillings sterling, and everything else proportionately scarce and dear; until the hardy British veterans found they could subsist on the scanty allowance of a jill or two or rice per day.

But by the unexampled intrepidity of General Elliot and the equal bravery of Boyd, the second in command; by the courage and perseverance of many gallant British officers and the spirit and constitutional valor of their troops, the garrison was enabled to resist and to hold out amid the distresses of famine and against the most tremendous attack and bombardment that perhaps ever took place. A prodigious number of cannon of the heaviest size, and a vast apparatus of mortars, at once spouted their torrents of fire and brimstone on that barren rock. With equal horror and sublimity, the blaze was poured back by the besieged, with little intermission.

The sheets of flame were spread over the adjacent seas and the shipping for three or four weeks; when the magnanimous officers in the garrison, who had been for four days together without provisions of any kind, except a few kernels of rice and a small quantity of moldy bread, were relieved by the arrival of Admiral Rodney, on his way to the West Indies. He was accompanied by a British fleet under the command of Admiral Digby, who continued there with a number of ships sufficient for defense and for the security of a large number of Spanish prizes taken by Admiral Rodney. He had fallen in with a fleet of 11 heavy ships of the line, commanded by Don Juan Langara, who, after being dangerously wounded and his ship reduced to a wreck, yielded to the superiority of the British flag, as did the San Julien, commanded by the Marquis Modena, and indeed nearly the whole of the Spanish fleet.

Notwithstanding the reduction of Gibraltar was suspended, we shall see the object was not relinquished. More formidable exertions were made the next year by the combined forces of France and Spain, for the completion of this favorite project.

It was indeed some time after the accession of Spain before any other European power explicitly acknowledged the independence of the United States. But Mr. Izard, who was sent to Tuscany, and Mr. William Lee to the Court of Vienna in 1778, inspired with that lively assurance which is sometimes the pledge of success, had met with no discouraging circumstances.

Holland had a still more difficult part to act than France, Spain, or perhaps any other European power, who actually had adhered to or appeared inclined to favor the cause of America. Her embarrassments arose in part from existing treaties with Great Britain, by which the latter claimed the Dutch Republic as their ally, reproached her with ingratitude, and intimated that by former engagements that republic was bound in all cases to act offensively and defensively with the Court of Great Britain. Thus the measures of the Batavian provinces were long impeded by the intrigues of the British minister and the English faction at the Hague, before their high mightinesses acceded to the acknowledgment of American Independence.

We have seen above that the friendly disposition of the Batavians towards America was such in the particular situation of both republics as to render it at once rational and expedient for the American Congress to send a public minister to reside at the Hague. Mr. Laurens, as already related, was appointed, sent forward, captured on his way, and detained for some time at Newfoundland. The unfortunate capture of the American envoy prevented for a time all public negotiations with Holland. He had been vested with discretionary powers and had suitable instruction given him to enter into private contracts and negotiations, as exigencies might offer, for the interest of his country, until events were ripened for his full admission as ambassador from the United Sates of America.

Mr. Laurens was captured at some leagues distance from Newfoundland. When he found his own fate was inevitable, he neglected no precaution to prevent the public papers in his possession from falling into the hands of his enemies. The British commander knew not the rank of his prisoner until the packages seasonably thrown overboard by Mr. Laurens were recovered by a British sailor who had the courage to plunge into the sea with so much celerity as to prevent them from sinking.

By these papers a full discovery was made not only of the nature of Mr. Laurens's commission, but of the dispositions of the Batavians to aid the exertions beyond the Atlantic for the liberties of mankind. Their own freedom was a prize for which their ancestors had struggled for more than 70 years against the strong hand of despotism, before they obtained the independence of their country.

In Mr. Laurens's trunk, thus recovered, was found a plan of a treaty of alliance between the States of Holland and the United States of America; also, letters from the pensioner of Amsterdam with many communications and letters from the principal gentlemen and merchants in that and many other cities in the Dutch provinces.

Admiral Edwards considered the capture of Mr. Laurens as so important that he immediately ordered a frigate to England for the conveyance of this gentleman, and the evidence of the commission on which he had been sent out. These important papers received in England, Sir Joseph Yorke, the British minister resident at the Hague, was directed by the king his master to lay the whole of these transactions before their high mightinesses the states-general of the United Provinces.

The British minister complained loudly and in terms of high resentment of the injuries and insults offered to Great Britain by the ungrateful conduct of the Republic of Holland. He urged that secretly supplying the rebellious colonies with the accouterments of war was a step not to be forgiven; that what had been suspected before now appeared clearly; and that he had the evidences in his hand and the names of the principal conspirators; that the Belgian provinces were countenancing public negotiations and on the point of executing treaties of amity and commerce with the revolted Americans. He informed the states-general that the King of England demanded prompt satisfaction for these offenses; that as a proof of their disavowal of these measures, he required immediate and exemplary punishment to be inflicted on the pensioner Van Berkel and his accomplices, as disturbers of the public peace and violators of the law of nations.

Notwithstanding the resentment of the British envoy, the conduct of the Dutch Court remained for some time so equivocal that neither Great Britain nor America was fully satisfied with their determinations. It is true, a treaty with the United States was for some time postponed; but the answer of their high mightinesses to the memorial and remonstrances of Sir Joseph Yorke not being sufficiently condescending and decided, he disgust daily increased. He informed his Court in very disadvantageous terms of the effect of his repeated memorials, of the conduct of their high mightinesses, and of that of the principal characters of the Batavian provinces at large.

Great Britain soon after, in the recess of Parliament, amid all her other difficulties, at war with France, Spain, and America, and left alone by all the other powers of Europe to decide her own quarrels, announced hostilities against the Netherlands; and a long manifesto from the King was sent abroad in the latter part of December 1780.

A declaration of war against the Republic of Holland by the King of Great Britain was very unpleasing to most of the northern powers. The Baron Nolken, the Swedish ambassador resident at the Court of London, remonstrated against it in a state paper in which he observed "that the flame of war, kindled in another hemisphere, had communicated to Europe. But the King of Sweden still flattered himself that this conflagration would not extend beyond its first founds; and particularly that a nation entirely commercial, which had made neutrality the invariable foundation of its conduct, would not have been enveloped in it; and yet, nevertheless, this has happened, almost in the very moment when that power had entered in to the most inoffensive engagements with the King and his two northern allies.

"If the most exact impartiality that was ever observed could not exempt the King from immediately feeling the inconveniences of war by the considerable losses sustained by his commercial subjects, he had much greater reason to apprehend the consequences when those troubles were going to be extended; when an open war between Great Britain and the Republic of Holland multiplied them; and to conclude, when neutral commerce was about to endure new shackles, by the hostilities committed between those two powers." He added "The king could not but wish sincerely that the measures taken by the Empress of Russia for extinguishing this new war in its beginning might be crowned with the most perfect success."

But, indifferent to the remonstrances and memorials of the potentates of Europe, Great Britain, hostile, wealthy, powerful, and proud, appeared regardless of their resentment and ready to bid defiance, and spread the waste of war among all nations.

The capture of Mr. Laurens was, however, no small embarrassment to the British ministry. Their pride would not suffer them to recognize his public character. They dared not condemn him as a rebel. The independence of America was too far advanced, and there were too many captured noblemen and officers in the United States to think of such a step, lest immediate retaliation should be made. And his business was found too consequential to admit of his release. He was confined in the Tower, forbidden the use of pen, ink, and paper, and all social intercourse with anyone; and was even interdicted any converse with a young son, who had been several years in England for his education.

There he suffered a long imprisonment at his own expense, until many months had elapsed and many unexpected events had taken place, that made it expedient to offer him his liberty without any equivalent. This he refused to accept, from the feelings of honor, as Congress at that time had offered General Burgoyne in exchange for Mr. Laurens.

The integrity of Mr. Laurens could not be warped either by flatteries or menaces, though his health was much impaired by his severe and incommodious confinement. It was intimated to him at a certain period of his imprisonment that it might operate in his favor if he would advise his son, Colonel John Laurens, to withdraw himself from the Court of France, where he was then executing with success a commission from Congress to negotiate a loan of money and solicit farther aid both by sea and land in behalf of the American States.

The firmness of Mr. Laurens was not shaken by the proposal. He replied with equal confidence, both in the affection of his son and the delicacy of his honor. He observed that "such as the filial regard of his son that he knew he would not hesitate to forfeit his life for his father; but that no consideration would induce Colonel Laurens to relinquish his honor, even were it possible for any circumstance to prevail on his father to make the improper request."

Immediately after the new of Mr. Laurens's capture, imprisonment and detention in England, the American Congress directed John Adams, Esquire, who had a second time been sent to Europe in a public character, to leave France and repair to Holland, there to transact affairs with the states-general, which had before been entrusted to the fidelity of Mr. Laurens. Mr. Adams's commission was enlarged. From his confidence in his talents and integrity, he was vested with ample powers for negotiation, for forming treaties of alliance, commerce, or loan of moneys, for the United States of America. Not fettered by instructions, we shall see he exercised his discretionary powers with judgment and ability.

Thus in strict amity with France and Spain on the point of a treaty of alliance with the Batavian Republic, Sweden and Denmark balancing, and nearly determined on a connection with America, her foreign relations, in general, wore a very favorable aspect.

The Empress of Russia only, among the European nations where an intercourse was opened, refused peremptorily to receive any minister at her court, under the authority of the Congress of the United States of America. Overtures were made to the haughty sovereign of the Russian Empire early enough to evince the high consideration in which her arms and her character were viewed in America, as well as in Europe; but without the least shadow of success. Determined to maintain her independent dignity, and hold the neutral position she had chosen, she did not even deign to see the person sent on by Congress to act as agent at the Court of Petersburg; but she concluded the business with the policy of the statesman, the address of her sex, and the superiority of the Empress Catherine.

It was indeed doubted by many at time, whether Mr. Dana was qualified to act as envoy at the Court of Russia, and negotiate with such a potent state. He was undoubtedly a man of understanding, with due share of professional knowledge, having been for several years an attorney of eminence. But it was thought that he had not either the address, the penetration, the knowledge of courts, or of the human character necessary for a negotiator at the court of a despotic female at the head of a nation of machines, under the absolute control of herself and her favorites.

It requires equanimity of temper, as well as true greatness of soul, to command or retain the respect of great statesmen and politicians. Distinguished talents and a pleasing address were peculiarly necessary for a negotiator at the Court of Russia, both from the character of the nation and the monarch. The Russians were sanguine and revengeful, and ready by their precipitate counsels to aid their arbitrary mistress in their bold designs and despotic mandates; while she, as the dictatress of Europe, determined the ruin of princes, and the annihilation of kingdoms.

On the earliest notice of an application from the Congress of the United States, the Empress, after several expressions of civility, containing a respectful regard to the interests of the American states, made all proper acknowledgments to them for the attention paid to herself. She had before granted them the free navigation of the Baltic, in spite of the remonstrances of the British minister resident at Petersburg against it.

She, however, ordered her minister to inform the American envoy that "as mediatrix with the Emperor of Germany and the King of Prussia relative to the disputes subsisting between France, Spain, and Great Britain, she thought it improper for her to acknowledge the independence of America until the result of the mediation was known; because the provisional articles depended on the definitive treaty." That "when the latter was completed, she should be ready to proceed in the business; but that it would be highly improper for her to treat with America as an independent state, by virtue of powers or credentials issued previous to the acknowledgment of American independence by the King of Great Britain." That "her delicacy was a law to her, not to take before that time a step which might not be considered as corresponding with those which have characterized her strict neutrality, during the course of the late war; notwithstanding which the Empress repeats that you may enjoy not only for your own honor, but also for your countrymen, who may come into her Empire on commercial business, or otherwise, the most favorable reception and the protection of the laws of nations."

This declaration placed the American agent in a very unpleasant predicament; totally at a loss what further steps to take, not able to obtain even an audience of the empress, he soon returned to America. [It was a singular circumstance at the Court of the Empress Catherine for any foreign minister or agent to be refused an interview with Her Majesty. She had always, from pride, curiosity, or policy, condescended to converse herself with strangers who visited her court on public business.]

The failure of this negotiation might not be entirely owing to a want of diplomatic skill or experience in the agent employed at the Court of Russia. Though the choice of the congressional minister was perhaps not so judicious as it might have been, many concurring circumstances prevented his success. The intrigues of Britain, the arts of France, and the profound policy of the Court of Petersburg probably all combined to defeat a measure which, from the situation of some of the belligerent powers, and the known character of the Empress, could not rationally have been expected at that time to meet the wishes of Congress. It was also suggested that the double-dealings of some Americans of consideration had their weight in frustrating the negotiation, and preventing a treaty between one of the most distinguished and influential powers in Europe and the United States of America.

The above is a summary sketch of the views, the dispositions, and connections of the most important European powers, while the maneuvers in Virginia and the other southern states were ripening events which brought forward accommodations that no long after terminated in a general pacification, among the nations at war. The narration of naval transactions connected with or influential on American affairs, both in the West Indies and in the European seas, is postponed to a subsequent part of this work; while we proceed on some further detail of military operations by land.