Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department, Volume One
Henry Lee

CHAPTER VIII.

HOWE’S abandonment of the field, and the of the season, induced the American general to prepare for winter quarters. Comparing the various plans suggested by his own comprehensive mind, and by the assisting care of those around him, he adopted a novel experiment, the issue of which gave increase of fame to his already highly honored name. He determined to hold his main force in one compact body, and to place some light troops, horse and foot, with corps of militia in his front, contiguous to the enemy, for the double purpose of defending the farmer from the outrages of marauders, and of securing to himself quick information of any material movement in the enemy’s camp. He selected for his winter position Valley-Forge, which lies on the western side of the Schuylkill, convenient to the rich country of Lancaster and Reading, and in the first step of the ascent of hills, which reach to the North Mountain or Blue Ridge. It possessed every advantage which strength of ground or salubrity of climate could bestow. Here, by the hands of his soldiers, he erected a town of huts, which afforded a comfortable shelter from the inclemency of the season, and strengthened his position by all the help of art and industry. This work, of his selection, soon evinced its preference to the common mode of cantonment in contiguous towns and villages.

Close under the eye of the officer, and far from the scenes of delight, the hardy character of the troops did not degenerate by effeminate indulgences, but was rather confirmed by unremitting attention to the acquirement of military knowledge, and the manly exertions proper for a camp. Intent upon bringing his army to a thorough knowledge of the most approved system of tactics, the American general adopted the means most likely to produce this essential effect, watching and encouraging with care and indulgence his beloved troops in their progress, always tenderly mindful of the preservation of their health; as on their fidelity, skill, and courage, his oppressed country rested for relief and safety. He not only enforced rigid attention to all those regulations and usages generally adopted to keep off disease, but determined to risk the critical and effectual measure of extinguishing the smallpox in his army; whose pestilential rage had already too often thinned its ranks, and defeated the most important enterprises. Preparations to accomplish this wise resolution having been made with all possible secrecy, the period of the winter, most opposed to military operations, was selected for its introduction in succession to the several divisions of the army; and, what is really surprising, nearly one half of the troops had gone through the disease, before the enemy became apprised of its commencement.

While Washington was engaged, without cessation, to perfect his army in the art of war, and to place it out of the reach of that contagious malady so fatal to man. Sir William was indulging, with his brave troops, in all the sweets of luxury and pleasure to be drawn from the wealthy and populous city of Philadelphia; nor did he once attempt to disturb that repose, now so essential to the American general. Thus passed the winter; and the approaching spring brought with it the recall of the commander of the British army; who was succeeded by sir Henry Clinton, heretofore his second.[note 26]

It is impossible to pass over this period of the American war without giving vent to some of those reflections which it necessarily excites. Sir William Howe was considered one of the best soldiers in England, when charged with the important trust of subduing the revolted colonies. Never did a British general, in any period of that nation, command an army better fitted to insure success than the one submitted to his direction, whether we regard its comparative strength with that opposed to it, the skill of the officers, the discipline and courage of the soldiers, the adequacy of all the implements and munitions of war, and the abundance of the best supplies of every sort. In addition, his brother lord Howe commanded a powerful fleet on our coast, for the purpose of subserving the views, and supporting the measures, of the commander in chief. Passing over the criminal supineness which marked his conduct after the battle of Long Island, and the fatal mistake of the plan of the campaign in 1777, (the first and leading feature of which ought to have been junction with Burgoyne and the undisturbed possession of the North river) we must be permitted to look at him with scrutinous though impartial eyes, when pursuing his own object, and directed by his own judgment, after his disembarkation at the head of the Chesapeak.

We find him continuing to omit pressing the various advantages he dearly gained, from time to time. He was ever ready to appeal to the sword, and but once retired from his enemy. But he does not seem to have known, that to win a victory was but the first step in the actions of a great captain. To improve it, is as essential; and unless the first is followed by the second, the conqueror ill requites those brave companions of his toils and perils, to whose disregard of difficulties and contempt of death, he is so much indebted for the laurel which entwines his brow; and basely neglects his duty to his country, whose confidence in his zeal for her good, had induced her to commit to his keeping, her fame and interest.

After his victory at Brandywine, he was, by his own official statement, less injured than his adversary; yet with many of his corps, entire and fresh, we find him wasting three precious days, with the sole ostensible object of sending his wounded to Wilmington. Surely the detachment, charged with this service, was as adequate to their protection on the field of battle, as afterwards on the march; and certainly it required no great exertion of mind to have made this arrangement in the course of one hour, and to have pursued his beaten foe, after the refreshments and repose enjoyed in one night. This was omitted. He adhered to the same course of conduct after the battle of Germantown, when the ill-boding tidings, from the northern warfare, emphatically called upon him to press his victory, in order to compensate for the heavy loss likely to be sustained by the captivity of Burgoyne and his army. But what is most surprising, after the Delaware was restored to his use, and the communication with the fleet completely enjoyed, that he should have relinquished his resolution of fighting Washington at White Marsh, having ascertained by his personal observation, that no material difficulty presented itself on the old York road; by which route he could, with facility, have turned Washington’s left, and have compelled him to a change of position with battle, or to a perilous retreat. And last, though not least in magnitude, knowing, as sir William ought to have known, the sufferings and wants of every kind to which Washington was exposed at Valley Forge, as well as that his army was under inoculation for the smallpox, while he himself was so abundantly supplied with every article requisite to give warmth and comfort to his troops, it is wonderful how he could omit venturing a winter campaign, to him promising every advantage, and to his antagonist, menacing every ill—this too, when the fate of Burgoyne was no longer doubtful, and its adverse influence on foreign powers unquestionable, unless balanced by some grand and daring stroke on his part. The only plan practicable was that above suggested; an experiment urged by all the considerations which ever can command high-spirited enterprise.

These are undeniable truths; and they involve an inquisitive mind in a perplexity, not easy to be untangled. It would be absurd to impute this conduct to a want of courage in sir William Howe; for all acknowledge that he eminently possessed that quality. Nor can it be justly ascribed to either indolence of disposition, or a habit of sacrificing his duties to self care; for he possessed a robust body, with an active mind, and, although a man of pleasure, subdued, when necessary, its captivating allurements with facility. To explain it, as some have done, by supposing him friendlly to the revolution, and therefore to connive at its success, would be equally stupid and unjust; for no part of sir William’s life is stained with a single departure from the line of honor. Moreover, traitors are not to be found among British generals; whose fidelity is secured by education, by their grade and importance in society, and by the magnificent rewards of government sure to follow distinguished efforts. The severe admonition, which sir William had received from the disastrous battle of Bunker’s, or rather Breed’s, Hill, furnishes the most probable explanation of this mysterious inertness. On that occasion, he commanded a body of chosen troops, inured to discipline, and nearly double in number to his foe; possessing artillery in abundance, prepared in the best manner; with an army at hand ready to reinforce him, and led by officers, many of whom had seen service, all of whom had been bred to arms. His enemy was a corps of countrymen, who, for the first time, were unsheathing their swords; without artillery; defectively armed with fowling pieces, and muskets without bayonets; destitute of that cheering comfort, with which experience animates the soldier; with no other works than a slight redoubt, and a slighter trench, terminating in a yet slighter breast-work.

Sir William found this feeble enemy posted on the margin, and along the acclivity of the hill, commanded by colonel Prescot,[note 27] then unknown to fame: yet sir William beheld these brave yeomen—while the conflagration of a town was blazing in their faces, while their flanks were exposed to maritime annoyance, and their front was assailed by regulars in proud array under the protection of cannon in full discharge—receive the terrible shock with firmness, coolly await his near approach, and then resolutely pour in a charge, which disciplined courage could not sustain. He saw his gallant troops fly—afterwards brought to rally with their colors, and, indignant at the repulse, return with redoubled fury. Sir William again saw these daring countrymen, unappalled in heart, unbroken in line, true to their generous leader and their inbred valor, calmly reserving themselves for the fatal moment, when his close advance presented an opportunity of winging every ball with death. Again the British soldiers, with the pupil of the immortal Wolfe at their head, sought safety in flight. Restoring his troops to order, sir William Howe advanced the third time, supported by naval cooperation, and a large battery on the side of Boston, which had now nearly demolished our slender defences. Notwithstanding this tremendous combination, sir William saw his gallant enemy maintain their ground, without prospect of succor, until their ammunition was nearly expended: then, abandoning their works as the British entered them, they took the only route open to their escape with decision and celerity.

The sad and impressive experience of this murderous day sunk deep into the mind of sir William Howe; and it seems to have had its influence, on all his subsequent operations, with decisive control. In one instance only did he ever after depart from the most pointed circumspection; and that was, in the assault on Red Bank, from his solicitude to restore the navigation of the Delaware deemed essential to the safety of his army. The doleful issue of this single departure renewed the solemn advice inculcated at Breed’s Hill, and extinguished his spirit of enterprise. This is the only way in which, it seems to me, the mysterious inertness which marked the conduct of the British general, so fatal in its effect to the British cause, can be intelligibly solved.

The military annals of the world rarely furnish an achievement which equals the firmness and courage displayed on that proud day by the gallant band of Americans; and it certainly stands first in the brilliant events of our war.

When future generations shall inquire, where are the men who gained the highest prize of glory in the arduous contest which ushered in our nation’s birth—Upon Prescot and his companions in arms will the eye of history beam.

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