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During the summer of 1776, the largest expeditionary force of the 18th century, 32,000 British troops (9,000 of whom were German mercenaries) gathered on Staten Island under the command of William Howe. The British plan was to take New York and thereby cut off troublesome New England from the other colonies. It was the classic strategy of divide and conquer. Congress gave Washington the assignment of defending New York. With 18,000 men, he was heavily outnumbered. Moveover, most of his troops consisted of militia, enrolled only for short terms, and as such were unreliable. Washington moved his army to Long Island and fortified Brooklyn Heights in the hope of closing the East River.
Washington expected Howe to attack from Staten Island. But Howe had deftly moved his troops in boats to Long Island, from which he could attack to the south and east. Washington, having gathered a force at Manhattan, left command of Brooklyn to Major General John Sullivan. Foolishly, Sullivan moved his troops out of their fortifications to an open plain to the south. The British seized on this opportunity to launch their attack. Howe had the Americans exactly where he wanted them, in an open field where the British had the clear advantage. The New England militia panicked in the face of overwhelming firepower, and the result was 1,000 Americans dead and 1,000 more taken prisoner, including General Sullivan. Washington watched through field glasses from Manhattan Island in disbelief as Howe's forces surrounded 8,000 Patriot troops in Brooklyn, and was about to tighten the noose. He had the Continental Army at his mercy, pinned against the East River. It appeared that the American Revolution was about to conclude in abrupt fashion. Only a miracle could save the American cause, something akin to the parting of the Red Sea.
The miracle came in two parts. First, Howe hesitated. No one knows why. Perhaps he wanted reinforcements; perhaps he felt he needed better information on Patriot troop strength. In his mind, time seemed to be on the British side. Better to move slowly and precisely than hastily and risk making costly errors. But when Howe was ready to move, a violent storm erupted, making it impossible for the British fleet to sail into the necessary position on the East River, thus causing more delays. This gave Washington time to organize a rescue from Manhattan Island. He collected every vessel he could find: fishing boats, row boats, rafts, anything that would float.
Then a replay of Dorchester Heights occurred. As historian John Fiske reports, "The Americans had been remarkably favored by the sudden rise of a fog which covered the East River." Every man who kept a journal described the phenomenon. "At this time a very dense fog began to rise," wrote Major Ben Talimadge. "It seemed to settle in a particular manner over both encampments. I recollect this peculiar providential occurrence perfectly well, and so very dense was the atmosphere that I could scarcely discern a man six yards distant."
This enabled Washington to rescue his 8,000 troops, in addition to moving artillery, horses, and wagons across the river on the flotilla, completely unseen by Howe. The evacuation took 13 hours, after which the fog lifted. To Howe's astonishment, the entire Continental Army had vanished, as if into thin air. If Howe had captured Washington's forces, as he should have, the American cause would have died on Brooklyn Heights.
Washington suffered another defeat at White Plains on October 28. Howe then began mobilizing to take the American capital of Philadelphia. So far, about all Washington had been able to do was survive. By Christmas, Patriot morale was probably at its lowest ebb. Washington was short of supplies, had almost no gunpowder; most of his militia had temporary commissions and were continuously leaving to tend to matters on their farms. Congress was becoming impatient, and Washington had a disgruntled general in his midst, Charles Lee, who believed he should be the Commander in Chief. Lee had been spending much energy running down Washington's reputation behind his back with members of Congress. Howe had only to cross the Delaware River, and Philadelphia would be his. Washington badly needed a victory.
He got that victory in a brilliant coup in Trenton, New Jersey, on Christmas night, when he made his fabled crossing of the half-frozen Delaware River. The Patriot forces had to endure a terrible storm. But, once again, the operation could not have succeeded without help from the weather. The storm actually was a godsend. The British forces encamped in Trenton, mainly German mercenaries, did not believe any army could function under such conditions and so ignored reports that Washington was planning an attack. In sub-freezing and blizzard conditions, Washington packed onto a fleet of 40-feet long boats 2,400 troops, in addition to horses, artillery, ammunition, and supplies. Soldiers who got wet found themselves encased in frozen clothing; floating ice chunks in the river threatened to smash the boats; and progress was slow. Washington hoped to attack at night. But it became clear that it would be broad daylight by the time they reached enemy encampments.
When the final march actually began, the storm was at its worst. Two Americans dropped and froze to death during the march. But the blizzard and howling winds also concealed American troop movements, allowing Washington to take the enemy encampments by surprise. The battle was actually an anti-climax in comparison to the horrific conditions of the journey. The German (Hessian) mercenary forces were surprised and completely overwhelmed. Henry Knox's artillery lit up the streets. Blinded by the snow and unable even to discern from which direction Patriot shots were being fired, 1,500 Hessians surrendered. In addition, Washington captured six brass cannons and 1,200 small arms. Total American casualties: two men had frozen to death on the march, and three more were wounded during the battle. This was a staggering victory for Washington, and greatly boosted American spirits.
A week later, Washington repeated the feat, this time in the Battle of Princeton. He crossed the Delaware again and was almost trapped by Lord Cornwallis' forces. In well-ordered fashion, the British formed their customary battle lines and were about to slice the Patriots to ribbons. Washington, seeing confusion among his ranks, galloped to the front in an attempt to steady the nerves of his wavering recruits. On his huge white horse, with his 6-foot 3-inch frame, he was a conspicuous target. He stopped only 30 yards from the first British line, and directed his men to take aim. Miraculously, he survived the first volley. As historian J. T. Flexner recounts the episode: "When the two forces came in range, both fired; Washington was between them. An aide, Colonel Richard Fitzgerald, covered his face with his hat to keep from seeing the Commander in Chief killed. When Fitzgerald lowered the hat, he saw many men dead and dying, but the General was sitting untouched on his horse."
The British lines retreated to Princeton, where one regiment barricaded itself in Nassau Hall. After a few cannon balls were fired from Knox's field pieces, the British surrendered. It was the first time American forces had defeated lines of redcoats in a face-to-face battle on open territory.
Meanwhile, far to the north, Benedict Arnold had brilliantly foiled British attempts to retake Fort Ticonderoga. He had thrown together a flotilla of boats, small vessels, and rafts, and battled British ships as brilliantly on the lake as he fought in the forest. Arnold was relentless, fearless, and brilliant in guerrilla warfare, and proved definitively that the British could not win a war in the interior of the American continent. The best England could hope for was the holding of the major ports and cities. He repeatedly ambushed General Burgoyne's army at every turn with a growing army of New England militia. On October 17, 1777, General Burgoyne offered to surrender in Saratoga, promising that he and his 6,000 troops would go home to England and never again return to American soil. Arnold was badly wounded in one battle and his superior, General Horatio Gates, claimed and received credit for the victory. No doubt, this got Arnold thinking that his skills would be better appreciated by the British King than the American Congress.
Arnold would later betray his country, which was tragic because he may have been America's best warrior. His defection to the British side was the worst wound George Washington ever received. Arnold was very similar to Judas in that he appeared to be the strongest and most loyal soldier (apostle). Treason is especially tragic because it usually involves the very people we love and trust most. It was a decision he would later regret. On his deathbed in England, Arnold's final request was to be buried in an American uniform.
Howe easily captured Philadelphia, but this was really a Pyrrhic victory. America was not like Europe, heavily dependent on its cities. If Paris or London fell to an invading army, this would signal the end for France or England. But America was a vast continent; its composition was rural. Ninety-three percent of the population lived on farms. Philadelphia, the capital, was still little more than a large town by European standards. To lose ports and cities to British occupation was bad symbolically for the American cause, but by no means disastrous militarily. This was a guerrilla war, a contest of wills, a fact the British never fully understood.
Valley Forge has come to represent, through the ages, the price America was willing to pay for freedom. Washington chose the site to quarter his army during the ferocious winter of 1777-78 because it was only 15 miles from British occupied Philadelphia and easily defensible. Like the Pilgrims and Puritans of the first settlements, the Patriots would have to endure their starving time. The Continental Congress, stationed in York, Pennsylvania, had been ineffective at procuring supplies and troops from the states and had been financing the war mostly by printing large quantities of paper money. This caused rampant inflation, at times as much as 50 percent a day. Washington's army was in dreadful straits. Pay for soldiers was five months behind. The able-bodied succeeded in building 700 makeshift huts in the first four weeks. But, during those four weeks without shelter, the Americans encountered the worst weather of the winter. One in four died of exposure or fever during that period and the ensuing months when the men were without proper clothing. Bloody footprints were left in the snow from soldiers who had no shoes.
America's greatest enemy was not the British, or lack of desire on the part of the militia, it was a vacillating Congress which often could not make up its mind about how it wanted to proceed with the war. There was still substantial sectarian feeling among Southerners about the predominantly New England composition of the Army's rank and file. "Was this a New England-or an American-war for independence?" some asked. "What kind of disaster had Separatist Protestant opinions in flicted on our poor people?" others wondered. Alexander Graydon of Philadelphia noted in his journal that New Englanders were viewed with contempt by the more aristocratic and episcopal Southerners. But Washington, a Southerner him-self, had a different opinion of them. Of the New Englanders he wrote: "It is painful for me to hear such illiberal reflections upon the eastern states. . .I have always and always shall say that I do not believe any of the states produce better men, or persons capable of making better soldiers . . . no people fly to arms readier than they do, or come better equipped, or with more regularity into the field than they do."
But government, meaning Congress, was almost as inept then as it is today. After much debate and sectarian squabbling, Congress finally sent a committee to inspect conditions and was shocked at what it saw. Dr. Albigence Waldo wrote of the situation in his journal: "There comes a soldier, his bare feet are seen through his worn out shoes, his legs nearly naked from tattered remains of an old pair of stockings; his breeches are not suffi- cient to cover his nakedness, his shirt hanging in strings, his hair disheveled, his face meager. His whole appearance pictures a person forsaken and discouraged. He comes and cries with an air of wretchedness and despair: ‘I am sick, my feet lame, my legs are sore, my body covered with this tormenting itch."'
The miracle of Valley Forge was that they stayed. That Washington endured with them lifted their spirits. Washington wrote about the admiration he had for his men: "Naked and starving as they are, we cannot enough admire the incomparable patience and fidelity of these soldiers." More and more, sermons (particularly Congregationalist, Presbyterian, and Baptist) began drawing analogies between Washington and Moses. And despite the hardships, Washington found time to tend to the spiritual Hves of his men: "To the distinguished character of a Patriot," he told them, "it should be our highest glory to add the more distinguished character of Christian." And the Reverend Henry Muhlenberg had the opportunity to observe Washington's conduct from his nearby Lutheran Church: "Washington rode around among his army yesterday and admonished each and every one to fear God," Muhlenberg recounted. "This gentleman does not belong to the so-called world of society, for he respects God's word, believes in atonement through Christ, and bears himself in humility and gentleness." It appears, concluded Muhlenberg, that "the Lord God has also singularly, yea marvelously, preserved him from harm in the midst of countless perils. . and hath hitherto graciously held him in His hand as His chosen vessel."
Valley Forge seemed to serve a purpose in testing Patriot resolve. How much, really, did freedom mean to them? While the British Army basked in the high life and comfort of Philadelphia, Washington's army was becoming a hardened core of veterans. The congressional committee sent back its report, and after more discussion and debate, supplies in February began to trickle in.
Meanwhile, important negotiations were taking place in France. Roundly trounced in the Seven Years War, France thought that if it could not own North America, at least England could be prevented from owning it. What France needed was evidence that the Patriots had a chance of winning. Benjamin Franklin was the American minister in Paris, where both he and the American cause had attained celebrity status. Burgoyne's surrender to Benedict Arnold was the evidence France needed of Patriot seriousness. A treaty of friendship and commerce, which recognized American independence, was signed on February 6. This treaty caused yet another war to break out between France and Great Britain. France then informed the Americans that a condition of peace between Paris and London was contingent on America's independence. The new alliance encouraged Congress, gave America's legislators reason for optimism, and supplies poured into Valley Forge in comparative abundance.
In addition, the American cause began to attract volunteers from foreign lands. Some were genuine idealists; others were mercenaries looking for employment. Most caused more problems than they were worth. But there were some notable exceptions, one of which was the Marquis de Lafayette from France. He arrived in 1777, before the formation of the FrancoAmerican alliance. A true freedom fighter and only 19 years old, he made the journey on a ship equipped at his own expense. Congress made him a Major General, and he became one of the most flamboyant and effective leaders of the American cause. He was revered by the Patriot ranks, and Washington gave him an independent command. Most important, his political ties at home enabled him to convince France to devote substantial resources and firepower to the American theater. Washington saw Lafayette as akin to a son, and they became life-long friends.
Developments in France were augmented by the arrival of a Prussian volunteer, who called himself Lieutenant General Friedrich Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard Augustin Baron von Steuben. He claimed to have held a high rank in the army of Frederick the Great. It was discovered later that he had not held the rank; nor was he a baron. Nevertheless, he turned out to be a great drillmaster. The troops loved his sense of humor as well as his tough Prussian style. He would arrive at the training ground at 3 a.m. to make preparations for drills to begin at sunrise. He organized competitions where the losers would have to sacrifice such luxuries as tobacco and brandy. He taught the Patriots how to march, how to use bayonets, and how to function like a professional fighting force.
Meanwhile, General Howe was coming to the understanding that occupying Philadelphia meant little in this war. He and his troops had become something akin to prisoners in the city. Every time a regiment of redcoats ventured beyond town boundaries, they would be swarmed by Patriot militia coming from every direction. So unsatisfactory were developments from the British perspective that Howe was relieved of his duties and replaced by Sir Henry Clinton, whose performance proved even less satisfactory than Howe's.
Clinton moved out of Philadelphia on June 18, 1778; when he reached New York it was not on the attack, but in retreat. Many redcoats were either killed or wounded along the way. Clinton would have been finished off completely at the battle of Monmouth, New Jersey, except that Patriot General Charles Lce bungled the attack and missed an opportunity for total victory. Lee, a disagreeable braggart who spent most of his energy criticizing his Commander in Chief, was relieved of his duties by a furious Washington, who suspected him of treason. Washington's armies went on to recapture White Plains and then chased the British almost into the harbor. "After two years of maneuvering," Washington observed, "both armies are brought back to the very point they set out from." And with prospects of French military assistance, the Patriot forces had every reason to be jubilant.
One of the seldom mentioned results of the French alliance was the unprecedented prestige it brought to the Catholic Church in Patriot eyes. American Catholics had not fared well in colonial America. They had been persecuted more than any other religious group, including Quakers and Jews. But Americans began to rethink their position on the papists. Perhaps they really were "brothers in Christ." On July 4, 1779, members of the Continental Congress, on invitation from the French diplomatic mission, attended Mass at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Philadelphia. In his sermon, the Reverend Seraphin Bandol said that victory in this "glorious revolution" would come under the protection of God's providence:
"It is that God, that all powerful God who hath directed your steps when you knew not where to apply for counsel; who when you were without arms, fought for you with the sword of justice; who, when you were in adversity, poured into your hearts the spirit of courage, of wisdom and of fortitude . . . We have nothing now to apprehend but the anger of heaven, or that the measure of our guilt should exceed His mercy. Let us then prostrate ourselves at the feet of the immortal God who holds the fate of empires in His hands and raises them up at His pleasure, or breaks them down to dust. Let us conjure Him to enlighten our enemies, and to dispose their hearts to enjoy that tranquility and happiness which the revolution we now celebrate has established for a great part of the human race. Let us implore Him to conduct us by the way which His providence has marked for union at so desirable an end. Let us offer unto Him hearts imbued with sentiments of respect, consecrated by religion, by humanity, and by patriotism."
By this time, the Northeast, except for the ports, had been retaken by Patriot forces. In fact, the British had given up on the Northeast, and tried to redirect their efforts against the weaker and more thinly populated South. They did this to some effect by maintaining their ports in New York and Newport and skirting the coast with their navy, picking their locations to launch raids against coastal towns, rebel encampments and munitions stores. The British hoped they could take advantage of lingering Anglican/Tory sentiment in the South and perhaps intimidate the uncommitted to oppose independence. Indeed, there was plenty of anti-New England bigotry in lazy Anglican Virginia, Carolina, and Georgia, where the spirit of liberty was not as strong. The British conceded that New England and the middle colonies had won independence, but hoped for a Southern secession. A union of North and South, London saw, would eliminate Great Britain as a player in the American theater, while simultaneously ensuring America's position as a future world power. But London was competing against the clock, as France was poised to enter the war.
Throughout the war, Washington's problem was that he had no navy to compete with the British. The British could move men and supplies over water much faster than Washington could over land. Because of their naval supremacy, the British could hold the ports and supply their army indefinitely. The entrance of the French Navy would begin to change the balance.
The French Admiral D'Estaing arrived with a fleet off New York in July 1778. But when he saw the size of the British force, he decided that it would be imprudent to attack. He sailed up to Newport, and again decided against engaging the British Navy. He then departed without explanation for the West Indies to the great disappointment of Washington. D'Estaing would not return for more than a year, at which point he launched a dis- astrous campaign in the South. He, with about 4,500 French troops and some continental militia, failed in an effort to recapture Savannah, Georgia, which had been taken by the British. After suffering heavy casualties, D'Estaing and his fleet returned to France and the alliance again proved a disappointment.
A significant French force did not arrive until spring 1780, when the compte de Rochambeau and 5,000 troops landed in Newport, Rhode Island, which the British had abandoned in order to intensify their efforts in the South. But Rochambeau, without a navy, was ineffective from the standpoint of mounting any threat to British coastal domination. Nor was his positioning (marooned in Rhode Island) of much use in challenging Britain's major Southern offensive.
Meanwhile, British behavior during their campaign through the Carolinas in terms of looting, vandalism, and barbarism made General Sherman's bloody march through Georgia during the Civil War seem mild by comparison. A British force of 1,700, now under the command of Benedict Arnold, easily captured Virginia, which failed to mount serious opposition because of incompetent administration on the part of Governor Thomas Jefferson. Arnold harried Jefferson out of Richmond, and then proceeded to burn Virginia's tobacco crops as part of a program to destroy the state's economy.
In the summer of 1781, General Cornwallis moved his entire force from North Carolina to Yorktown, which is below Williamsburg near the tip of the Virginia peninsula. There he established a major naval base. The British then controlled every important seaport along the East Coast with the exception of Boston and Newport.
Louis XVI finally decided to get serious about the American cause and dispatched 21 battle ships under the command of the great fighting Admiral compte Francois de Grasse. It had been more than three years since the Franco-American alliance was formed. De Grasse's fleet arrived in Chesapeake Bay on August 12, 1781, and outmaneuvered the British fleet which, under the command of Graves, was forced to retreat to New York. General Cornwallis suddenly found himself cut off from the sea and surrounded by hostile ships. Meanwhile, Rochambeau and his 5,000 troops had joined Washington's army in White Plains, where they made preparations to converge on Cornwallis, who was trapped in Yorktown. Everything hinged on de Grasse's ability to keep the British fleet out of the Chesapeake Bay long enough to enable Washington and Rochambeau to finish off an isolated Cornwallis.
Not only did de Grasse hold the line against Graves, he defeated Graves decisively. For two hours on September 5, it was "fire away." The British suffered severe casualties, and two of their ships were on the verge of sinking. The French vessels emerged relatively unscathed.
After de Grasse's victory, Cornwallis' fate was sealed. De Grasse continued his blockade of the Chesapeake Bay, cutting off all supplies and reinforcements to Cornwallis who was then left to face an allied army of some 16,000, twice the size of his own. On October 19, Cornwallis, before casualties grew too large, surrendered his entire force to Washington. Cornwallis' sword was turned over in customary fashion, the ammunition of his troops stacked in neat piles, and the British band played "The World Turned Upside Down."
Though the war, in official terms, would drag on for another two years, everyone knew that the American victory at Yorktown signaled the end. A preliminary peace treaty was signed on November 30, 1782. The final treaty, known as the Peace of Paris, was signed on September 3, 1783. Washington summed up his thoughts on the war in a letter to James McHenry: "Providence has done much for us in this contest, but we must do something for ourselves." Washington knew that the real danger lay ahead. What kind of a regime would be established? Was it really such a good idea to sever political ties with Great Britain which, despite its faults, still had the freest form of government ever established? These were the kinds of questions many Americans were asking.
On December 4, 1783, Washington called together his troops for a meeting at the Fraunces Tavern in lower Manhattan to bid them farewell. Raising a wine glass, he said: "With heart full of love and gratitude, I now take my leave of you. I most devoutly wish that your later days be as prosperous and as happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable." Tears welled up in his eyes when he said goodbye to his favorite general, artilleryman Henry Knox. After seven years of war, Knox no longer resembled the portly Boston bookseller who had commanded the New England militia at the Battle of Bunker Hill. He was now a war-hardened veteran. Washington loved Knox, be cause Knox in eight years of fighting had never once complained of the hardships. Washington embraced his officers one by one, and then walked past a row of soldiers standing at perfect attention. How far they had come since he first took command in Cambridge in July 1775, when they did not know how to march and when they often quit to go home and plant a crop. But they had shown the world that they were an army now. For they had driven the world's most feared war machine off of American soil. Washington loved these men, especially the New Englanders, who had fought most bravely under the gravest of circumstances. He saluted them and tears streamed down their cheeks.
He then turned and passed through a mob of cheering citizens to a wharf on the North River where a boat took him to the New Jersey shore. There he mounted his horse and rode to Annapolis, the temporary seat of the continental government, to inform Congress that he was resigning his command. His address was a moving spectacle, and was related in a letter by James McHenry to his fiancee Peggy Caldwell: "The spectators all wept... The General's hand which held the address shook as he read it. When he spoke of the officers who had composed his family, and recommended those who had continued in it to the present moment to the favorable notice of Congress, he was obliged to support the paper with both hands. But when he commanded the interests of his dearest country to Almighty God... his voice faltered and sunk . . . After a pause, which was necessary for him to recover himself, he proceeded to say in the utmost penetrating manner, "Having now finished the work assigned to me I retire from the great theater of action."
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Published by the Christian Defense Fund.
© Copyright 1997 by the Christian Defense Fund. All rights reserved.
© Copyright 1988, Benjamin Hart