Washington’s Great Campaign of 1776
by John Fiske
Throughout a considerable portion of the country the news of the Declaration of Independence was accompanied by the news of a brilliant success at the South. After the defeat of Macdonald at Moore’s Creek, and the sudden arming of North Carolina, Clinton did not venture to land, but cruised about in the neighborhood, awaiting the arrival of Sir Peter Parker’s squadron from Ireland. Harassed by violent and contrary winds, Parker was three months in making the voyage, and it was not until May that he arrived, bringing with him Lord Cornwallis. As North Carolina had given such unmistakable evidence of its real temper, it was decided not to land upon that coast for the present, but to go South and capture Charleston and Savannah. Lord William Campbell, refugee governor of South Carolina, urged that there was a great loyalist party in that colony, which would declare itself as soon as the chief city should be in the hands of the king’s troops. That there would be any serious difficulty in taking Charleston occurred to no one. But Colonel Moultrie had thrown up on Sullivan’s Island, commanding the harbor, a fortress of palmetto logs strengthened by heavy banks of sand, and now held it wiht a force of twelve hundred men, while five thousand militia were gathered about the town, under command of General Charles Lee, who had been sent down to meet the emergency, but did little more than to meddle and hinder. In his character of trained European officer, Lee laughed to scorn Moultrie’s palmetto stronghold, and would have ordered him to abandon it, but that he was positively overruled by Rutledge, president of the provincial congress, who knew Moultrie and relied upon his sound judgment. The British commanders, Clinton and Parker, wasted three weeks in discussing various plans of attack, while the Americans, with spade and hatchet, were rapidly barring every approach to Charleston, and fresh regiments came pouring in to man the new-built intrenchments. At last Clinton landed three thousand men on a naked sand-bank, divided form Sullivan’s Island by a short space of shallow sea, which he thought could be forded at low tide. At the proper time Sir Peter Parker was to open a furious fire from the fleet, which it was expected would knock down the fort in a few minutes, while Clinton, fording the shoals, would drive out the Americans at the point of the bayonet. The shoals, however, turned out to be seven feet deep at low water, and the task of the infantry was reduced to a desperate conflict with the swarms of mosquitoes, which nearly drove them frantic. The battle thus became a mere artillery duel between the fort and the fleet. The British fire was rapid and furious, but ineffective. Most of the shot passed harmlessly over the low fortress, and those which struck did no harm to its elastic structure. The American fire was very slow, and few shots were wasted. The cable of Parker’s flagship was cut by a well-aimed ball, and the ship, swinging around, received a raking fire which swept her deck with terrible slaughter. After the fight had lasted ten hours the British retreated out of range. The palmetto fort had suffered no serious injury, and only one gun had been silenced. The American loss in killed and wounded was thirty-seven. On the other hand, Sir Peter’s flagship had lost her main-mast and mizzen-mast, and had some twenty shots in her hull, so that she was little better than a wreck. The British loss in killed and wounded was two hundred and five. Of their ten sails, only one frigate remained seaworthy at the close of the action. After waiting three weeks to refit, the whole expedition sailed away from New York to cooperate with the Howes. Charleston was saved, and for more than two years the Southern States were freed from the invader. In commemoration of this brilliant victory, and of the novel stronghold which had so roused the mirth of the European soldier of fortune, the outpost on Sullivan’s Island has ever since been known by the name of Fort Moultrie.
It was with such tidings of good omen that the Declaration of Independence was sent forth to he world. But it was the last news of victory that for the next six months was to cheer the anxious statesmen assembled at Philadelphia. During the rest of the summer and autumn disaster followed upon disaster, until it might well seem as if fickle fortune had ceased to smile upon the cause of liberty. The issue of the contest was now centred in New York. By conquering and holding the line of the Hudson River, the British hoped to cut the United Colonies in two, after which it was thought that Virginia and New England, isolated from each other, might be induced to consider the error of their ways and repent. Accordingly, General Howe was to capture the city of New York, while General Carleton was to descend from Canada, recapture Ticonderoga, and take possession of the upper waters of the Hudson, together with the Mohawk valley. Great hopes were built upon the cooperation of the loyalists, of whom there was a greater number in New York than in any other State, except perhaps South Carolina. It was partly for this reason, as we shall hereafter see, that these two States suffered more actual misery from the war than all the others put together. The horrors of civil war were to be added to the attack of the invader. Throughout the Mohawk valley the influence of Sir John Johnson, the Tory son of the famous baronet of the Seven Years’ War was thought to be supreme; and it turned out to be very powerful both with the white population and with the Indians. At the other end of the line, in New York city, the Tory element was strong, for reasons already set forth. On Long Island, the people of Kings and Queens counties, of Dutch descent, were Tories almost to a man, while the English population of Suffolk was solidly in favor of independence. And this instance of Long Island was typical. From one end of the United States to the other, the Tory sentiment was strongest with the non-English element in the population.
Before beginning his attack on New York, General Howe had to await the arrival of his brother; for the ministry had resolved to try the effect of what seemed to them a “conciliatory policy.” On the 12th of July Lord Howe arrived at Staten Island, bringing with him the “olive-branch” which Lord North had promised to send along with the sword. This curious specimen of political botany turned out to consist of a gracious declaration that all persons who should desist from rebellion and lend their “aid in restoring tranquillity” would receive full and free pardon from their sovereign lord the king. As it would not do to recognize the existence of Congress, Lord Howe inclosed this declaration in a letter addressed to “George Washington, Esq.,” and sent it up the harbor with a flag of truce. But as George Washington, in his capacity of Virginian landholder and American citizen, had no authority for dealing with a royal commissioner, he refused to receive the letter. Colonel Reed informed Lord Howe’s messenger that there was no person in the army with that address. The British officer reluctantly rowed away, but suddenly, putting his barge about, he came back and inquired by what title Washington should be properly addressed. Colonel Reed replied, “You are aware, sir, of the rank of General Washington in our army?” “Yes, sir, we are,” answered the officer; “I am sure my Lord Howe will lament exceedingly this affair, as the letter is of a civil, and not of a military nature. He greatly laments that he was not here a little sooner.” This remark was understood by Colonel Reed to refer to the Declaration of Independence, which was then but eight days old. A week later Lord Howe sent Colonel Patterson, the British adjutant-general, with a document now addressed to “George Washington, Esq., etc. etc.” Colonel Patterson begged for a personal interview, which was granted. He was introduced to Washington, whom he describes as a gentleman of magnificent presence and very handsomely dressed. Somewhat overawed, and beginning his remarks with “May it please your Excellency,” Patterson explained that the etceteras on the letter meant everything. “Indeed,” said Washington, with a pleasant smile, “they might mean anything.” He declined to take the letter, but listened to Patterson’s explanations, and then replied that he was not authorized to deal with the matter, and could not give his lordship any encouragement, as he seemed empowered only to grant pardons, whereas those who had committed no fault needed no pardons. As Patterson got up to go, he asked if his Excellency had no message to send to Lord Howe. “Nothing,” answered Washington “but my particular compliments.” Thus foiled in his attempt to negotiate with the American commander, Lord Howe next inclosed his declaration in a circular letter addressed to the royal governors of the Middle and Southern colonies; but as most of these dignitaries were either in jail or on board the British fleet, not much was to be expected from such a mode of publication. The precious document was captured and sent to Congress, which derisively published it for the amusement and instruction of the people. It was everywhere greeted with jeers. “No doubt we all need pardon from Heaven,” said Governor Trumbull, of Connecticut, “for our manifold sins and transgressions; but the American who needs the pardon of his Britannic Majesty is yet to be found.” The only serious effect produced was the weakening of the loyalist party. Many who had thus far been held back by the hope that Lord Howe’s intercession might settle all the difficulties now came forward as warm supporter of independence as soon as it became apparent that the king had really nothing to offer.
The olive-branch having proved ineffectual, nothing was left but to unsheathe the sword, and a most interesting campaign now began, of which the primary object was to capture the city of New York and compel Washington’s army to surrender. The British army was heavily reinforced by the return of Clinton’s expedition and the arrival of 11,000 fresh troops from England and Germany. General Howe had now more than 25,000 men at his disposal, fully equipped and disciplined; while to oppose him Washington had but 18,000, many of them raw levies which had just come in. If the American army had consisted of such veterans as Washington afterwards led at Monmouth, the disparity of numbers would still have told powerfully in favor of the British. As it was, in view of the crudeness of his material, Washington could hardly hope to do more with his army than to make it play the part of a detaining force. To keep the field in the face of overwhelming odds is one of the most arduous of military problems, and often calls for a higher order of intelligence than that which is displayed in the mere wining of battles. Upon this problem Washington was now to be employed for six months without respite, and it was not long before he gave evidence of military genius such as has seldom been surpassed in the history of modern warfare. At the outset the city of New York furnished the kernel of the problem. Without control of the water it would be well-nigh impossible to hold the city. Still there was a chance, and it was the part of a good general to take this chance, and cut out as much work as possible for the enemy. The shore of Manhattan Island was girded with small forts and redoubts, which Lee had erected in the spring before his departure for South Carolina. The lower end of the island, along the line of Wall Street, was then but little more than half its present width, as several lines of the street have since been added upon both sides. From Corlandt Street across to Paulus Hook, the width of the Hudson River was not less than two miles, while the East River near Fulton Ferry was nearly a mile in width. The city reached only from the Battery as far as Chatham Street, whence the Bowery Lane ran northwestwardly to Bloomingdale through a country smiling with orchards and gardens. Many of the streets were now barricaded, and a strong line of redoubts ran across from river to river below the side of Canal Street. At the upper end of the island, and on the Jersey shore, were other fortresses, with which we shall shortly have to deal, and out in the harbor, as a sort of watch-tower from which to inspect the enemy’s fleet, a redoubt had been raised on Governor’s Island, and was commanded by Colonel Prescott, with a party of the men of Bunker Hill.
In order to garrison such various positions, it was necessary for Washington to scatter his 18,000 men; and this added much to the difficulty of his task, for Howe could at any moment strike at almost any one of these points with his whole force. From the nature of the case the immense advantage of the initiative belonged entirely to Howe. But in one quarter, the most important of all, Washington had effected as much concentration of his troops as was possible. The position on Brooklyn Heights was dangerously exposed, but it was absolutely necessary for the Americans to occupy it if they were to keep their hold upon New York. This eminence commanded New York exactly as Bunker Hill and Dorchester Heights commanded Boston. Green had, accordingly, spent the summer in fortifying it, and there 9000 men–one half of the army–were now concentrated under command of Putnam. Upon this exposed position General Howe determined to throw nearly the whole of his force. He felt confident that the capture or destruction of half the American army would so discourage the rebels as to make them lend a readier ear to the overtures of that excellent peacemaker, his brother. Accordingly, on the 22d of August, General Howe landed 20,000 men at Gravesend Bay. From this point the American position was approachable by four roads, two of which crossed a range of densely wooded hills, and continued through the villages of Bedford and Flatbush. To the left of these the Gowanus road followed the shore about the western base of the hills, while on the right the Jamaica road curved inland and turned their eastern base.
The elaborate caution with which the British commander now proceeded stands out in striking contrast with the temerity of his advance upon Bunker Hill in the preceding year. He spent four days in reconnoitring, and then he sent his brother, with part of the fleet, to make a feint upon New York, and occupy Washington’s attention. Before daybreak of the 27th, under the cover of this feint, the British advance had been nearly completed. General Grant, with the Highlands regiments, advanced along the coast road, where the American outposts were held by William Alexander, of New Jersey, commonly known as Lord Stirling, from a lapsed Scotch earldom to which he had claimed the title. The Hessians, under General von Heister, proceeded along the Bedford and Flatbush roads, which were defended by Sullivan; while more than half of the army, under Howe in person, accompanied by Clinton, Percy and Cornwallis, accomplished a long night march by the Jamaica road, in order to take the Americans in flank. This long flanking march was completed in perfect secrecy because the people of the neighborhood were in sympathy with the British, and it encountered no obstacles because the American force was simply incapable of covering so much territory. The divisions of Stirling and Sullivan contained the 5000 men which were all that Putnam could afford to send forward from his works. A patrol which watched the Jamaica road was captured early in the morning, but it would not in any case have been possible to send any force there which could materially have hindered the British advance. Overwhelming superiority in numbers enabled the British to go where they pleased, and the battle was already virtually won when they appeared on the Jamaica road in the rear of the village of Bedford. Scarcely had the fight begun on the crest of the hill between Sullivan and the Hessians in his front when he found himself assaulted in the rear. Thrown into confusion, and driven back and forth through the woods between two galling fires, his division was quickly routed, and nearly all were taken prisoners, including the general himself. On the coast road the fight between Stirling and Grant was the first in which Americans had ever met British troops in open field and in regular line of battle. Against the sturdy Highland regiments Stirling held his ground gallantly for four hours, until he was in turn assaulted in the rear by Lord Cornwallis, after the rout of Sullivan. It now became, with Stirling, simply a question of saving his division from capture, and after a desperate fight his end was accomplished, and the men got back to Brooklyn Heights, though the brave Stirling himself was taken prisoner. In this noble struggle the highest honors were won by the brigade of Maryland men commanded by Smallwood, and throughout the war we shall find this honorable distinction of Maryland for the personal gallantry of her troops fully maintained, until in the last pitched battle, at Eutaw Springs, we see them driving the finest infantry of England at the point of the bayonet.
The defeat of Sullivan and Stirling enabled Howe to bring up his whole army in front of the works at Brooklyn Heights toward the close of the day. To complete the victory it would be necessary to storm these works, but Howe’s men were tired with marching, if not with fighting, and so the incident known as the battle of Long Island came to an end. A swift ship was at once dispatched to England with the news of the victory, which was somewhat highly colored. It was for a while supposed that there had been a terrible slaughter, but careful research has shown that this was not the case. About 400 had been killed and wounded on each side, and this loss had been incurred mainly in the fight between Stirling and Grant. On other parts of the field the British triumph had consisted chiefly in the scooping up of prisoners, of whom at least 1000 were taken. The stories of a wholesale butcher by the Hessians which once were current have been completely disproved. Washington gave a detailed account of the affair a few days afterward, and the most careful investigation has shown that he was correct in every particular. But to the American public the blow was none the less terrible, while in England the exultation served as an offset to the chagrin felt after the loss of Boston and the defeat at Fort Moultrie, and it was naturally long before facts could be seen in their true proportions.
Heavy as was the blow, however, General Howe’s object was still but half attained. He had neither captured nor destroyed the American forces on Long Island, but had only driven them into their works. He was still confronted by 8000 men on Brooklyn Heights, and the problem was how to dislodge them. In the evening Washington came over from New York, and made everything ready to resist a storm. To this end, on the next day, he brought over reinforcements, raising his total force within the works to 10,000 men. Under such circumstances, if the British had attempted a storm, they would probably have been repulsed with great slaughter. But Howe had not forgotten Bunker Hill, and he thought it best to proceed by way of siege. As soon as Washington perceived this intention of his adversary, he saw that he must withdraw his army. He would have courted a storm, in which he was almost sure to be victorious, but he shrank from a siege, in which he was quite sure to lose his whole force. The British troops now invested him in a semicircle, and their ships might at any moment close in behind and cut off his only retreat. Accordingly, sending trusty messengers across the river, Washington collected every sloop, yacht, fishing-smack, yawl, scow, or row-boat that could be found in either water from the Battery to King’s Bridge or Hell-Gate; and after nightfall of the 29th, these craft were all assembled at the Brooklyn ferry, and wisely manned by the fishermen of Marblehead and Gloucester from Glover’s Essex regiment, experts, every one of them, whether at oar or sail. All through the night the American troops were ferried across the broad river, as quietly as possible and in excellent order, while Washington superintended the details of the embarkation, and was himself the last man to leave the ground. At seven o’clock in the morning the whole American army had landed on the New York side, and had brought with them all their cannon, small arms, ammunition, tools, and horses, and all their larder besides, so that when the bewildered British climbed into the empty works they did not find so much as a biscuit or a glass of rum wherewith to console themselves.
This retreat has always been regarded as one of the most brilliant incidents in Washington’s career, and it would certainly be hard to find a more striking example of vigilance. Had Washington allowed himself to be cooped up on Brooklyn Heights he would have been forced to surrender; and whatever was left of the war would have been a game played without queen, rook, or bishop. For this very reason it is hardly creditable to Howe that he should have let his adversary get away so easily. At daybreak, indeed, the Americans had been remarkably favored by the sudden rise of a fog which covered the East River, but during the night the moon had shone brightly, and one can only wonder that the multitudinous plash of oars and the unavoidable murmur of ten thousand men embarking, with their heavy guns and stores, would not have attracted the attention of some wakeful sentinel, either on shore or on the fleet. A storming party of British, at the right moment, would at least have disturbed the proceedings. So rare a chance of ending the war at a blow was never again to be offered to the British commanders. Washington now stationed the bulk of his army along the line of the Harlem River, leaving a strong detachment in the city under Putnam; and presently, with the same extraordinary skill which he had just displayed in sending boats under the very eyes of the fleet, he withdrew Colonel Prescott and his troops from their exposed position on Governor’s Island, which there was no longer any reason for holding.
Hoping that the stroke just given by the British sword might have weakened the obstinacy of the Americans, Lord Howe again had recourse to the olive-branch. The captured General Sullivan was sent to Congress to hold out hopes that Lord Howe would use his influence to get all the obnoxious acts of Parliament repealed, only he would first like to confer with some of the members of Congress informally and as with mere private gentlemen. A lively debate ensued upon this proposal, in which some saw an insult to Congress, while all quite needlessly suspected treachery. John Adams, about whom there was so much less of the suaviter in modo that of the fortiter in re, alluded to Sullivan, very unjustly, as a “decoy duck,” who had better have been shot in the battle than employed on such a business. It was finally voted that no proposals of peace from Great Britain should receive notice, unless they should be conveyed in writing, and should explicitly recognize Congress as the legal representative of the American States. For this once, however out of personal regard for Lord Howe, and that nothing might be disdained which really looked toward a peaceful settlement, they would send a committee to Staten Island to confer with his lordship, who might regard this committee in whatever light he pleased. In this shrewd, half-humorous method of getting rid of the diplomatic difficulty, one is forcibly reminded of President Lincoln’s famous proclamation addressed “To whom it may concern.” The committee, consisting of Franklin, Rutledge, and John Adams, were hospitably entertained by Lord Howe, but their conference came to nothing, because the Americans now demanded a recognition of their independence as a condition which must precede all negotiation. There is no doubt that Lord Howe, who was a warm friend to the Americans and a most energetic opponent of the king’s policy, was bitterly grieved at this result. As a last resort he published a proclamation announcing the intention of the British government to reconsider the various acts and instructions by which the Americans had been annoyed, and appealing to all right-minded people to decide for themselves whether it were not wise to rely on a solemn promise like this, rather than commit themselves to the dangerous chances of an unequal and unrighteous war.
Four days after this futile interview General Howe took possession of New York. After the loss of Brooklyn Heights, Washington and Greene were already aware that the city could not be held. Its capture was very easily effected. Several ships-of-the-line ascended the Hudson as far as Bloomingdale, and the East River as far as Blackwell’s Island; and while thus from either side these vessels swept the northern part of Manhattan with a furious fire, General Howe brought his army across from Brooklyn in boats and landed at Kipp’s Bay, near the present site of East Thirty-Fourth Street. Washington came promptly down, with two New England brigades, to reinforce the men whom he had stationed at that point, and to hinder the landing of the enemy until Putnam should have time to evacuate the city. To Washington’s wrath and disgust, these men were seized with panic, and suddenly turned and fled without firing a shot. Had Howe now thrown his men promptly forward across the line of Thirty-Fourth Street, he would have cut off Putnam’s retreat from the city. But what the New England brigades failed to do a bright woman succeeded in accomplishing. When Howe had reached the spot known as Murray Hill, now the centre of much brownstone magnificence in Park and Madison and Fifth avenues, at that time a noble country farmstead, Mrs. Lindley Murray, mother of the famous grammarian, well knowing the easy temper of the British commander, sent out a servant to invite him to stop and take luncheon. A general halt was ordered; and while Howe and his officers were gracefully entertained for more than two hour by their accomplished and subtle hostess, Putnam hastily marched his 4000 men up the shore of the Hudson, until, passing Bloomingdale, he touched the right wing of the main army, and was safe, though his tents, blankets, and heavy guns had been left behind. The American lines now extended from the mouth of Harlem River across the island, and on the following day the British attempted to break through their centre at Harlem Heights; but the attack was repulsed, with a loss of sixty Americans and three hundred British, and the lines just formed remained, with very little change, for nearly four weeks.
General Howe had thus got possession of the city of New York, but the conquest availed him little so long as the American army stood across the island, in the attitude of blockading him. If this campaign was to decide the war, as the ministry hoped, nothing short of the capture or dispersal of Washington’s army would suffice. But the problem was now much harder than it had been at Brooklyn. For as the land above Manhattan Island widens rapidly to the north and east, it would not be easy to hem Washington in by sending forces to his rear. As soon as he should find his position imperiled, he would posses the shorter line by which to draw his battalions together and force an escape, and so the event proved. Still, with Howe’s superior force and with his fleet, if he could get up the Hudson to the rear of the American right, and at the same time land troops from the Sound in the rear of the American left, it was possible that Washington might be compelled to surrender. There was nothing to bar Howe’s passage up the East River to the sound; but at the northern extremity of Manhattan Island the ascent of the Hudson was guarded on the east by Fort Washington, under command of Putnam, and on the west by Fort Lee, standing on the summit of the lofty cliffs known as the palisades, and commanded by Greene. It was still doubtful, however, whether these two strongholds could effectually bar the ascent of so broad a river, and for further security Putnam undertook to place obstructions in the bed of the stream itself. Both the continental Congress and the State Convention of New York were extremely unwilling that these two fortresses should in any event be given up, for in no case must the Hudson River be abandoned. Putnam and Greene thought that the forts could be held, but by the 9th of October it was proved that they could not bar the passage of the river, for on that day two frigates ran safely between them, and captured some small American craft a short distance above. This point having been ascertained, General Howe, on the 12th, leaving Percy in command before Harlem Heights, moved the greater part of his army nine miles up the East River to Throg’s Neck, a peninsula in the Sound, separated from the mainland by a narrow creek and a marsh that was overflowed at high tide. By landing here suddenly, Howe hoped to get in Washington’s rear and cut him off from his base of supply in Connecticut. But Washington had foreseen the move and forestalled it. When Howe arrived a Throg’s Neck, he found the bridge over the creek destroyed, and the main shore occupied by a force which it would be dangerous to try to dislodge by wading across the marsh. While Howe was thus detained six days on the peninsula, Washington moved his base to White Plains, and concentrated his whole army at that point, abandoning everything on Manhattan Island except Fort Washington. Sullivan, Stirling, and Morgan, who had just been exchanged, now rejoined the army, and Lee also arrived from South Carolina.
By this movement to White Plains, Washington had foiled Howe’s attempt to get in his rear, and the British general decided to try the effect of an attack in front. On the 28th of October he succeeded in storming an outpost at Chatterton Hill, losing 229 lives, while the Americans lost 140. But this affair, which is sometimes known as the battle of white Plains, seems to have discouraged Howe. Before renewing the attack he waited three days, thinking perhaps of Bunker Hill; and on the last night of October, Washington fell back upon North Castle, where he took a position so strong that it was useless to think of assailing him. Howe then changed his plans entirely, and moved down the east bank of the Hudson to Dobb’s Ferry, whence he could either attack Fort Washington, or cross into New Jersey and advance upon Philadelphia, the “rebel capital.” The purpose of this change was to entice Washington from his unassailable position.
To meet this new movement, Washington threw his advance of 5000 men, under Putnam, into New Jersey, where they encamped near Hackensack; he sent Heath up to Peekskill, with 3000 men, to guard the entrance to the Highlands; and he left Lee at North Castle, with 7000 men, and ordered him to cooperate with him promptly in whatever direction, as soon as the nature of Howe’s plans should become apparent. As Forts Washington and Lee detained a large force in garrison, while they had shown themselves unable to prevent ships from passing up the river, there was no longer any use in holding them. Nay, they had now become dangerous, as traps in which the garrisons and stores might be suddenly surrounded and captured. Washington accordingly resolved to evacuate them both, while, to allay the fears of Congress in the event of a descent from Canada, he ordered Heath to fortify that much more important position at West Point.
Had Washington’s orders been obeyed and his plans carried out, history might still have recorded a retreat through “the Jerseys,” but how different a retreat from that which was now about to take place! The officious interference of Congress, a venial error of judgment on the part of Greene, and gross insubordination on the part of Lee, occurring all together at this critical moment, brought about the greatest disaster of the war, and came within an ace of overwhelming the American cause in total and irretrievable ruin. Washington instructed Greene, who now commanded both fortresses, to withdraw the garrison and stores from Fort Washington, and to make arrangements for evacuating Fort Lee also. At the same time he did not give a positive order, but left the matter somewhat within Greene’s discretion, in case military circumstances of an unforeseen kind should arise. Then, while Washington had gone up to reconnoitre the site for the new fortress at West point, there came a special order from Congress that Fort Washington should not be abandoned save under direst extremity. If Greene had thoroughly grasped Washington’s view of the case, he would have disregarded this conditional order, for there could hardly be worse extremity than that which the sudden capture of the fortress would entail. But Greene’s mind was not quite clear; he believed that the fort could be held, and he did not like to take the responsibility of disregarding a message from Congress. In this dilemma, he did the worst thing possible: he reinforced the doomed garrison, and awaited Washington’s return.
When the commander-in-chief returned, on the 14th, he learned with dismay that nothing had been done. But it was now too late to mend matters, for that very night several British vessels passed up between the forts, and the next day Howe appeared before Fort Washington with an overwhelming force and told Colonel Magaw, the officer in charge, that if he did not immediately surrender the whole garrison would be put to the sword. Magaw replied that he would fight as long as breath was left in his body, and if Howe wanted his fort he must come and take it. On the 16th, after a sharp struggle, in which the Americans fought with desperate gallantry, though they were outnumbered more than five to one, the works were carried, and the whole garrison was captured. The victory cost the British more than 500 men in killed and wounded. The Americans, fighting behind their works, lost but 150; but they surrendered 3000 of the best troops in their half-trained army, together with an immense quantity of artillery and small arms. It was not in General Howe’s kindly nature to carry out his savage threat of the day before; but some of the Hessians, maddened with the stubborn resistance they had encountered, began murdering their prisoners in cold blood, until they were sharply called to order. From fort Lee, on the opposite bank of the river, Washington surveyed this woeful surrender with his usual iron composure: but when it came to seeing his brave men thrown down and stabbed to death by the cruel Hessian bayonets, his overwrought heart could bear it no longer and he cried and sobbed like a child.
This capture of the garrison of Fort Washington was one of the most crushing blows that befell the American arms during the whole course of the war. Washington’s retreat seemed now likely to be converted into a mere flight, and a most terrible gloom overspread the whole country. The disaster was primarily due to the interference of Congress. It might have been averted by prompt and decisive action on the part of Greene. But Washington, whose clear judgment made due allowance for all the circumstances, never for a moment cast any blame upon his subordinate. The lesson was never forgotten by Greene, whose intelligence was of that high order which may indeed make a first mistake, but never makes a second. The friendship between the two generals became warmer than ever. Washington, by a sympathetic instinct, had divined from the outset the military genius that was by and by to prove scarcely inferior to his own.
Yet worse remained behind. Washington had but 6000 men on the Jersey side of the river, and it was now high time for Lee to come over from North Castle and join him, with the force of 7000 that had been left under his command. On the 17th, Washington sent a positive order for him to cross the river at once; but Lee dissembled, pretended to regard the order in the light of mere advice, and stayed where he was. He occupied an utterly impregnable position: why should he leave it, and imperil a force with which he might accomplish something memorable on his own account? By the resignation of General Ward, Lee had become the senior major-general of the Continental army, and in the event of disaster to Washington he would almost certainly become commander-in-chief. He had returned from South Carolina more arrogant and loud-voiced than ever. The Northern people knew little of Moultrie, while they supposed Lee to be a great military light; and the charlatan accordingly got the whole credit of the victory, which, if his precious advice had been taken, would never have been won. Lee was called the hero of Charleston, and people began to contrast the victory of Sullivan’s island with the recent defeats, and to draw conclusions very disparaging to Washington. From the beginning Lee had felt personally aggrieved at not being appointed to the chief command, and now he seemed to see a fair chance of ruining his hated rival. Should he come to the head of the army in a moment of dire disaster to the Americans, it would be so much the better, for it would be likely to open negotiations with Lord Howe, and Lee loved to chaffer and intrigue much better than to fight. So he spent his time in endeavoring, by insidious letters and lying whispers, to nourish the feeling of affection toward Washington, while he refused to send a single regiment to his assistance. Thus, through the villainy of this traitor in the camp, Washington actually lost more men, so far as their present use was concerned at this most critical moment, than he had been deprived of by all the blows which the enemy had dealt him since the beginning of the campaign.
On the night of the 19th, Howe threw 5000 men across the river, about five miles above Fort Lee, and with this force Lord Cornwallis marched rapidly down upon that stronghold. The place had become untenable and it was with some difficulty that a repetition of the catastrophe of Fort Washington was avoided. Greene had barely time, with his 2000 men, to gain the bridge over the Hackensack and join the main army, leaving behind all his cannon, tents, blankets, and eatables. The position now occupied by the main army, between the Hackensack and Passaic rivers, was an unsafe one, in view of the great superiority of the enemy in numbers. A strong British force, coming down upon Washington from the north, might compel him to surrender or to fight at a great disadvantage. To avoid this danger, on the 21st, he crossed the Passaic and marched southwestward to Newark, where he stayed five days; and every day he sent a messenger to Lee, urging him to make all possible haste in brining over his half of the army, that they might be able to confront the enemy on something like equal terms. Nothing could have been more explicit or more peremptory than Washington’s orders; but Lee affected to misunderstand them, set excuses, raised objections, paltered, argued, prevaricated, and lied, and so contrived to stay where he was until the first of December. To Washington he pretended that his moving was beset by “obstacles,” the nature of which he would explain as soon as they should meet. But to James Bowdoin, president of the executive council of Massachusetts, he wrote at the same time declaring that his own army and that under Washington “must rest each on its own bottom.” He assumed command over Heath, who had been left to guard the Highlands, and ordered him to send 2000 troops to reinforce the main army; but that officer very properly refused to depart from the instructions which the commander-in-chief had left with him. To various members of Congress Lee told the falsehood that if HIS advice had only been heeded, Fort Washington would have been evacuated ere it was too late; and he wrote to Dr. Rush, wondering whether any of the members of Congress had ever studied Roman history, and suggesting that he might do great things if he could only be made Dictator for one week.
Meanwhile Washington, unable to risk a battle, was rapidly retreating through New Jersey. On the 28th of November Cornwallis advanced upon Newark, and Washington fell back upon New Brunswick. On the 1st of December, as Cornwallis reached the latter place, Washington broke down the bridge over the Raritan, and continued his retreat to Princeton. The terms of service for which his troops had been enlisted were now beginning to expire, and so great was the discouragement wrought by the accumulation of disasters which had befallen the army since the battle of Long Island that many of the soldiers lost heart in their work. Homesickness began to prevail, especially among the New England troops, and as their terms expired it was difficult to persuade them to re-enlist. Under these circumstances the army dwindled fast, until by the time he reached Princeton, Washington had but 3000 men remaining at his disposal. The only thing to be done was to put the broad stream of the Delaware between himself and the enemy, and this he accomplished by the 8th, carrying over all his guns and stores, and seizing or destroying every boat that could be found on that great river for many miles in either direction. when the British arrived, on the evening of the same day, they found it impossible to cross. Cornwallis was eager to collect a flotilla of boats as soon as practicable, and push on to Philadelphia, but Howe, who had just joined him, thought it hardly worth while to take so much trouble, as the river would be sure to freeze over before many days. So the army was posted in detachments along the east bank, with its centre at Trenton, under Colonel Rahl; and while they waited for that “snap” of intensely cold weather, which in this climate seldom fails to come on within a few days of Christmas, Howe and Cornwallis both went back to New York.
Meanwhile, on the 2d of December, Lee had at last crossed the Hudson with a force diminished to 4000 men, and had proceeded by slow marches as far as Morristown. Further reinforcements were at hand. General Schuyler, in command of the army which had retreated the last summer from Canada, was guarding the forts on Lake Champlain; and as these appeared to be safe for the present, he detached seven regiments to go to the aid of Washington. As soon as Lee heard of the arrival of three of these regiments at Peekskill, he ordered them to join him at Morristown. As the other four, under General Gates, were making their way through northern New Jersey, doubts arose as to where they should find Washington in the course of his swift retreat. Gates sent his aid, Major Wilkinson, forward for instructions, and he, learning that Washington had withdrawn into Pennsylvania, reported to Lee at Morristown, as second in command.
Lee had left his army in charge of Sullivan, and had foolishly taken up his quarters at an unguarded tavern about four miles from the town, and here Wilkinson found him in bed on the morning of the 13th. After breakfast Lee wrote a confidential letter to Gates, as to a kindred spirit from whom he might expect to get sympathy. Terrible had been the consequences of the disaster at Fort Washington. “There never was so damned a stroke,” said the letter. “Entre nous, a certain great man is most damnably deficient. He has thrown me into a situation where I have my choice of difficulties. If I stay in this province I risk myself and army, and if I do not stay the province is lost forever…..Our counsels have been weak to the last degree. As to yourself, if you think you can be in time to aid the general, I would have you by all means go. You will at least save your army….Adieu, my dear friend. God bless you.” Hardly had he signed his name to this scandalous document when Wilkinson, who was standing at the window, exclaimed that the British were upon them. Sure enough. A Tory in the neighborhood, discerning the golden opportunity, had galloped eighteen miles to the British lines, and returned with a party of thirty dragoons, who surrounded the house and captured the vainglorious schemer before he had time to collect his senses. Bareheaded and dressed only in a flannel gown and slippers, he was mounted on Wilkinson’s horse, which stood waiting at the door, and was carried off, amid much mirth and exultation, to the British camp. Crestfallen and bewildered, he expressed a craven hope that his life might be spared, but was playfully reminded that he would very likely be summarily dealt with as a deserter from the British army; and with this scant comfort he was fain to content himself for some weeks to come.
The capture of General Lee was reckoned by the people as one more in a list of dire catastrophes which made the present season the darkest moment in the whole course of the war. Had they known all that we know now, they would have seen that the army was well rid of a worthless mischief-maker, while the history of the war had gained a curiously picturesque episode. Apart from this incident there was cause enough for the gloom which now overspread the whole country. Washington had been forced to seek shelter behind the Delaware with a handful of men whose terms of service were soon to expire, and another fortnight might easily witness the utter dispersal of this poor little army. At Philadelphia, where Putnam was now in command, there was a general panic, and people began hiding their valuables and moving their wives and children out into the country. Congress took fright, and retired to Baltimore. At the beginning of December, Lord Howe and his brother had issued a proclamation offering pardon and protection to all citizens who within sixty days should take the oath of allegiance to the British Crown; and in the course of ten days nearly three thousand persons, many of them wealthy and of high standing in society, had availed themselves of this promise. The British soldiers and the Tories considered the contest virtually ended. General Howe was compared with Caesar, who came, and saw, and conquered. For his brilliant successes he had been made a Knight Commander of the Bath, and New York was to become the scene of merry Christmas festivities on the occasion of his receiving the famous red ribbon. In his confidence that Washington’s strength was quite exhausted, he detached a considerable force from the army in New Jersey, and sent it, under Lord Percy, to take possession of Newport as a convenient station for British ships entering the Sound. Donop and Rahl with their Hessians and Grant with his hardy Scotchmen would not quite suffice to destroy the remnant of Washington’s army; and Cornwallis accordingly packed his portmanteaus and sent them aboard ship, intending to sail for England as soon as the fumes of the Christmas punch should be duly slept off.
Well might Thomas Paine declare, in the first of the series of pamphlets entitled The Crisis, which he now began to publish, that “these are the times that try men’s souls.” But in the midst of the general despondency there were a few brave hearts that had not yet begun to despair, and the bravest of these was Washington’s. At this awful moment the whole future of America, and of all that America signifies to the world, rested upon that single Titanic will. Cruel defeat and yet more cruel treachery, enough to have crushed the strongest, could not crush Washington. All the lion in him was aroused, and his powerful nature was aglow with passionate resolve. His keen eye already saw the elements of weakness in Howe’s too careless disposition of his forces on the east bank of the Delaware, and he had already planned for his antagonist such a Christmas greeting as he little expected. Just at this moment Washington was opportunely reinforced by Sullivan and Gates, with the troops lately under Lee’s command; and with his little army thus raised to 6000 men, he meditated such a bold stroke as might revive the drooping spirits of his countrymen, and confound the enemy in the very moment of his fancied triumph.
Washington’s plan was, by a sudden attack, to overwhelm the British centre at Trenton, and thus force the army to retreat upon New York. The Delaware was to be crossed in three divisions. The right wing, of 2000 men, under Gates was to attack Count Donop at Burlington; Ewing, with the centre, was to cross directly opposite Trenton; while Washington himself, with the left wing, was to cross nine miles above, and march down upon Trenton from the north. On Christmas Day all was ready, but the beginnings of the enterprise were not auspicious. Gates, who preferred to go and intrigue in Congress, succeeded in begging off, and started for Baltimore. Cadwalader, who took his place, tried hard to get his men and artillery across the river, but was baffled by the huge masses of floating ice, and reluctantly gave up the attempt. Ewing was so discouraged that he did not even try to cross, and both officers took it for granted that Washington must be foiled in like manner. But Washington was desperately in earnest; and although at sunset, just as he had reached his crossing-place, he was informed by special messenger of the failure of Ewing and Cadwalader, he determined to go on and make the attack with the 2500 men whom he had with him. The great blocks of ice, borne swiftly along by the powerful current, made the passage extremely dangerous, but Glover, with his skillful fishermen of Marblehead, succeeded in ferrying the little army across without the loss of a man or a gun. More than ten hours were consumed in the passage, and then there was a march of nine miles to be made in a blinding storm of snow and sleet. They pushed rapidly on in two columns, led by Greene and Sullivan respectively, drove in the enemy’s pickets at the point of the bayonet, and entered the town by different roads soon after sunrise. Washington’s guns were at once planted so as to sweep the streets, and after Colonel Rahl and seventeen of his men had been slain, the whole body of Hessians, 1000 in number, surrendered at discretion. Of the Americans, two were frozen to death on the march, and two were killed in the action. By noon of the next day Cadwalader had crossed the river to Burlington, but no sooner had Donop heard what had happened at Trenton than he retreated by a circuitous road to Princeton, leaving behind all his sick and wounded soldiers, and all his heavy arms and baggage. Washington recrossed into Pennsylvania with his prisoners, but again advanced, and occupied Trenton on the 29th.
When the news of the catastrophe reached New York, the holiday feasting was rudely disturbed. Instead of embarking for England, Cornwallis rode post-haste to Princeton, where he found Donop throwing up earthworks. On the morning of January 2d Cornwallis advanced, with 8000 men, upon Trenton, but his march was slow and painful. He was exposed during most of the day to a galling fire from parties of riflemen hidden in the woods by the roadside, and Greene, with a force of 600 men and two field-pieces, contrived so to harass and delay him that he did not reach Trenton till late in the afternoon. By that time Washington had withdrawn his whole force beyond the Assunpink, a small river which flows into the Delaware just south of Trenton, and had guarded the bridge and the fords by batteries admirably placed. The British made several attempts to cross, but were repulsed with some slaughter; and as their day’s work had sorely fatigued them, Cornwallis thought best to wait until to-morrow, while he went his messenger post-haste back to Princeton to bring up a force of nearly 2000 men which he had left behind there. With this added strength he felt sure that he could force the passage of the stream above the American position, when by turning Washington’s right flank he could fold him back against the Delaware, and thus compel him to surrender. Cornwallis accordingly went to bed in high spirits. “At last we have run down the old fox,” said he, “and we will bag him in the morning.”
This situation was indeed a very dangerous one; but when the British general called his antagonist an old fox, he did him no more than justice. In its union of slyness with audacity, the movement which Washington now executed strongly reminds one of “Stonewall” Jackson. He understood perfectly well what Cornwallis intended to do; but he knew at the same time that detachments of the British army must have been left behind at Princeton and New Brunswick to guard the stores. From the size of the army before him he rightly judged that these rear detachments must be too small to withstand his own force. By overwhelming one or both of them, he could compel Cornwallis to retreat upon New York, while he himself might take up an impregnable position on the heights about Morristown, from which he might threaten the British line and hold their whole army in check,–a most brilliant and daring scheme for a commander to entertain while in such a perilous position as Washington was that night! But the manner in which he began by extricating himself was not the least brilliant part of the manoeuvre. All night long the American camp-fires were kept burning brightly, and small parties were busily engaged in throwing up intrenchments so near the Assunpink that the British sentinels could plainly hear the murmur of their voices and the thud of the spade and pickaxe. While this was going on, the whole American army marched swiftly up the south bank of the little stream, passed around Cornwallis’s left wing to his rear, and gained the road to Princeton. Toward sunrise, as the British detachment was coming down the road from Princeton to Trenton, in obedience to Cornwallis’s order, its van, under Colonel Mawhood, met the foremost column of Americans approaching, under General Mercer. As he caught sight of the Americans, Mawhood thought that they must be a party of fugitives, and hastened to intercept them; but he was soon undeceived. The Americans attacked with vigor, and a sharp fight was sustained, with varying fortunes, until Mercer was pierced by a bayonet, and his men began to fall back in some confusion. Just at this critical moment Washington came galloping upon the field and rallied the troops, and as the entire forces on both sides had now come up the fight became general. In a few minutes the British were routed and their line was cut in two; one half fleeing toward Trenton, the other half toward New Brunswick. There was little slaughter, as the whole fight did not occupy more than twenty minutes. The British lost about 200 in killed and wounded, with 300 prisoners and their cannon; the American loss was less than 100.
Shortly before sunrise, the men who had been left in the camp on the Assunpink to feed the fires and make a noise beat a hasty retreat, and found their way to Princeton by circuitous paths. When Cornwallis got up, he could hardly believe his eyes. Here was nothing before him but an empty camp: the American army had vanished, and whither it had gone he could not imagine. But his perplexity was soon relieved by the booming of distant cannon on the Princeton road, and the game which the “old fox” had played him all at once became apparent. Nothing was to be done but to retreat upon New Brunswick with all possible haste, and save the stores there. His road led back through Princeton, and from fugitives he soon heard the story of the morning’s disaster. His march was hindered by various impediments. A thaw had set in, so that the little streams had swelled into roaring torrents, difficult to ford, and the American army, which had passed over the road before daybreak, had not forgotten to destroy the bridges. By the time that Cornwallis and his men reached Princeton, wet and weary, the Americans had already left it, but they had not gone on to New Brunswick. Washington had hoped to seize the stores there, but the distance was eighteen miles, his men were wretchedly shod and too tired to march rapidly, and it would not be prudent to risk a general engagement when his main purpose could be secured without one. For these reasons, Washington turned northward to the heights of Morristown, while Cornwallis continued his retreat to New Brunswick. A few days later, Putnam advanced from Philadelphia and occupied Princeton, thus forming the right wing of the American army, of which the main body lay at Morristown, while Heath’s division on the Hudson constituted the left wing. Various cantonments were established along this long line. On the 5th, George Clinton, coming down from Peekskill, drove the British out of Hackensack and occupied it, while on the same day a detachment of German mercenaries at Springfield was routed by a body of militia. Elizabethtown was then taken by General Maxwell, whereupon the British retired from Newark.
Thus in a brief campaign of three weeks Washington had rallied the fragments of a defeated and broken army, fought two successful battles, taken nearly 2000 prisoners, and recovered the State of New Jersey. He had canceled the disastrous effects of Lee’s treachery, and replaced things apparently in the condition in which the fall of Fort Washington had left them. Really he had done much more than this, for by assuming the offensive and winning victories through sheer force of genius, he had completely turned the tide of popular feeling. The British generals began to be afraid of him, while on the other hand his army began to grow by the accession of fresh recruits. In New Jersey the enemy retained nothing but New Brunswick, Amboy, and Paulus Hook.
On the 25th Washington issued a proclamation declaring that all persons who had accepted Lord Howe’s offer of protection must either retire within the British lines, or come forward and take the oath of allegiance to the United States. Many narrow-minded people, who did not look with favor upon a close federation of the States, commented severely upon the form of this proclamation: it was too national, they said. But it proved effective. However luke-warm may have been the interest which many of the Jersey people felt in the war when their soil was first invaded, the conduct of the British troops had been such that every one now looked upon them as foreign enemies. They had not only foraged indiscriminately upon friend and foe, but they had set fire to farmhouses, murdered peaceful citizens, and violated women. The wrath of the people, kindled by such outrages, had waxed so hot that it was not safe for the British to stir beyond their narrow lines except in considerable force. Their foraging parties were waylaid and cut off by bands of indignant yeomanry, and so sorely were they harassed in their advanced position at New Brunswick that they often suffered from want of food. Many of the German mercenaries, caring nothing for the cause in which they had been forcibly enlisted, began deserting; and in this they were encouraged by Congress, which issued a manifesto in German, making a liberal offer of land to any foreign soldier who should leave the British service. This little document was inclosed in the wrappers in which packages of tobacco were sold, and every now and then some canny smoker accepted the offer.
Washington’s position at Morristown was so strong that there was no hope of dislodging him, and the snow-blocked roads made the difficulties of a winter campaign so great that Howe thought best to wait for warm weather before doing anything more. While the British arms were thus held in check, the friends of America, both in England and on the continent of Europe, were greatly encouraged. From this moment Washington was regarded in Europe as a first-rate general. Military critics who were capable of understanding his movements compared his brilliant achievements with his slender resources, and discovered in him genius of a high order. Men began to call him “the American Fabius;” and this epithet was so pleasing to his fellow-countrymen, that it clung to him for the rest of his life, and was repeated in newspapers and speeches and pamphlets with wearisome iteration. Yet there was something more than Fabian in Washington’s generalship. For wariness he has never been surpassed; yet, as Colonel Stedman observed in his excellent contemporary history of the war, the most remarkable thing about Washington was his courage. It would be hard indeed to find more striking examples of audacity than he exhibited at Trenton and Princeton. Lord Cornwallis was no mean antagonist, and no one was a better judge of what a commander might be expected to do with a given stock of resources. His surprise at the Assunpink was so great that he never got over it. After the surrender at Yorktown, his lordship expressed to Washington his generous admiration for the wonderful skill which had suddenly hurled an army four hundred miles, from the Hudson River to the James, with such precision and such deadly effect. “But after all,” he added, “your Excellency’s achievements in New Jersey were such that nothing could surpass them. The man who had turned the tables on him at the Assunpink he could well believe to be capable of anything.
In England the effect of the campaign was very serious. Not long before, Edmund Burke had despondingly remarked that an army which was always obliged to refuse battle could never expel the invaders; but now the case wore a different aspect. Sir William Howe had not so much to show for his red ribbon, after all. He had taken New York, and dealt many heavy blows with his overwhelming force unexpectedly aided by foul play on the American side; but as for crushing Washington and ending the war, he seemed farther from it than ever. It would take another campaign to do this,–perhaps many. Lord North, who had little heart for the war at any time, was discouraged, while the king and Lord George Germaine were furious with disappointment. “It was that unhappy affair of Trenton,” observed the latter, “that blasted our hopes.”
“Washington’s Great Campaign of 1776” by John Fiske, The Atlantic Monthly; January, 1889; Volume 63, No. 375; pages 20-37.