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

CHAPTER XXI.

GENERAL GREENE, after employing a few days in preparing for his journey, relinquished, with reluctance, his inferior station to take upon himself the honorable though weighty command to which he had been called. He passed through the states of Maryland and Delaware, for the purpose of ascertaining the extent of the assistance to be obtained from that quarter.

Here he was informed that brigadier Gest had been indefatigably engaged in executing the trust reposed in him; but such was the difficulty at this period of procuring recruits as to forbid the expectation of filling up the regiments without the substitution of some new mode. On this, and all other subjects, connected with his duty, he held full and free conferences with the state governments; and having made his final arrangements, pursued his journey to Richmond, the capital of Virginia.

This state was properly considered the fountain of southern resistance. Her relative antiquity, the stock of loyalty for which she had been always distinguished, her well known obedience to law and hatred of change, had convinced the wavering and the doubting, that our resistance was just, and consistent with the great charter of British liberty. Thus, by the sanction of her authority, she had stripped resistance of its imaginary horrors. The extent of her domain, the value of her products, the vigor of her councils, and the political fame she had acquired in the first congress by a happy selection of delegates, placed her high in the respect and confidence of her sister states.[note 84] The uniform sample of wisdom, exhibited by her deputies in that body, inspired the nation with exalted sentiments of the place of their nativity. To the hand of one of her sons had been committed the sword of defence, and from the lips of another, in obedience to the commands of his constituents, was proposed our independence. Although the most ancient and loyal of the colonies, she had, in our just war, been uniformly decisive and active; and though not particularly injured by the first hostile acts of parliament, she nevertheless kept pace with Massachusetts, the devoted object of ministerial vengeance, in the incipient steps of resistance. Thus distinguished, she was marked as a peculiar victim by the common enemy. Happily for herself, as well as for the Union, few of her inhabitants had taken side with the mother country; and most of those few in the first stage of the revolution, had left the state. Thus her undivided ability was employed in the firm maintenance of the war.

As soon as sir Henry Clinton took the command of the British army, the humbling of Virginia became a leading object of his plans. For, by maiming her strength, he lessened her ability to give support and countenance to that section of the states which he had then selected as the principal theatre of the war. A devastating expedition had been successfully prosecuted under general Matthews; and as soon as the defeat of general Gates was known at New York, Leslie, as has been mentioned, was detached with three thousand men to the Chesapcak, for the purpose of cooperating with lord Cornwallis, then expected to have been considerably advanced in completing the conquest of North Carolina.

When Greene reached Richmond, he found the government engaged in preparing means of defence against Leslie, who had established himself at Portsmouth. Relying upon this state for his principal support in men and stores, he was sensibly affected by the difficulties in which he found her. But active and intelligent, penetrating and laborious, he persevered in his exertions. Having brought his arrangements to a satisfactory conclusion, he proceeded south, leaving major general Baron Steuben[note 85] to direct the defence of Virginia, and to superintend the reinforcements preparing for the southern army. From Richmond he hastened to Hillsborough, the seat of government of North Carolina. Here he found the executive, apprised of the dangers by which the state was threatened, well disposed to exert their authority in preparing means to resist the advancing enemy. This state very much resembles Virginia in the manners and habits of the people, so much so as to induce the conclusion of its being settled principally by emigrants from that state. Its population, though double that of South Carolina, was very disproportionate to the extent of its territory.

North Carolina is watered by many rivers; few of which are navigable for ships. Cape Fear is the most considerable; and that only navigable to Wilmington, situated not very distant from the sea. In a state of war, when naval superiority is conclusively in favor of the enemy, as was the case in our contest, this privation of nature was replete with advantage to us, though extremely incommodious in peace. This state is only to be assailed with effect through Virginia or South Carolina, through each of which her foreign commerce passes. At present it was threatened on both sides, as Leslie still continued in Virginia, waiting, as was presumed, for the advance of lord Cornwallis. Although in this state, horses, bacon, Indian corn and beef, which constitute the most essential supplies of an army, could be found in abundance, yet, from the thinness of population, the collection of them was inconvenient.

The mountainous region of North Carolina was inhabited by a race of hardy men, who were familiar with the use of the horse and rifle, were stout, active, patient under privation, and brave. Irregular in their movements, and unaccustomed to restraint, they delighted in the fury of action, but pined under the servitude and inactivity of camp. True to the American cause, they displayed an impetuous zeal, whenever their wild and ardent temper prompted the contribution of their aid. In the middle and Atlantic sections lived a race, less capable of labor, and less willing to endure it; who were much divided in political opinions, and incumbered with that dreadful evil,[note 86] which the cruel policy of preceding times had introduced.[note 87] The prospect of efficient aid from a state so situated, was not encouraging. But the fertile genius of Greene, deriving new influence from his conciliating manners, soon laid the foundation of a support, which would have been completely adequate to his purpose, had the quality of the troops corresponded with their number. Having finished his preparatory measures, he hastened to Charlotte, pleased with the hope of rescuing the state from the impending calamities. On the 2d of December, he reached the army, and was received by general Gates with the most cordial respect. The translation of the command was announced in general orders on the ensuing day. After devoting a short time to those communications, which were essential to the information of his successor. Gates took leave of the army, and proceeded to meet the inquiry into his conduct, which had been ordered by congress. His progress was slow, his manners were grave, his demeanor was condescending, his conversation reserved. On his long road, no countenance shed the balm of condolence; all were gloomy, all scowling. The fatal loss on the 16th of August was acutely remembered; but the important victory of Saratoga was forgotten. The unfortunate general at length reached Richmond, where the general assembly of Virginia was in session.[note 88] Great and good men then governed the state. Instructed by history, guided by the dictates of virtue, and grateful for eminent services, they saw a wide difference between mibfortune and criminality, and weighed the exploits in the North against the disasters in the South. These fathers of the commonwealth appointed a committee of their body to wait on the vanquished general, and “to assure him of their high regard and esteem: that their remembrance of his former glorious services was never to be obliterated by any reverse of fortune; but, ever mindful of his great merit, they would omit no opportunity of testifying to the world the gratitude which Virginia, as a member of the American Union, owed to him in his military character.”

General Gates had supported his fall from splendid elevation to obscurity, with apparent fortitude and complacency. He was sensibly affected, and comforted by this knid reception, and retired to his farm in the county of Berkeley, where the keen regrets of disappointment and misfortune were softened by the soothing occupations of agriculture, and the condolence of the state in which he resided.[note 89]

The dignified and wise policy of the Virginia legislature was highly honorable to that body, and furnishes an instructive lesson to sovereigns. Amiable and enlightened as is such conduct, it is, nevertheless, uncommon; and our revolutionary records furnish no similar instance. Washington, indeed, uniformly experienced the gratitude of congress, and of the slate assemblies; and their resolves of approbation sometimes followed his defeats. But the judgment and circumspection displayed by the commander in chief, even in his most severe disasters, manifested the propriety of his conduct, and the necessity of the risk he incurred. Never did this general precipitately seek action; but when it became unavoidable, he prepared himself, in the best practicable manner, for the conflict. Limiting, by his foresight, the extent of his loss, guarding, by his disposition, security of retreat, and repairing with celerity the injury sustained,[note 90] his relative condition was often meliorated, although victory-adorned the brow of his adversary. Very different had been the conduct of general Gates in Carolina, and very different was the result on the 16th of August.

Washington rivalled the magnaninnity which the general assembly of Virginia had displayed. Although he remembered the dilatory advance of a portion of the northern army to his succor, when that succor was indispensable and expected; although he remembered that its commander had dared to trifle with his mandate; and was not insensible that this conduct had proceeded from a settled design to supplant him in his high station; yet he repressed the feelings which such recollections would naturally have excited in most breasts, and with all the delicacy of superior virtue extended his condolence, to assuage the asperity which clings to misfortune. With a hope that the speedy termination of the war might preclude the necessity of an investigation, so mortifying to a soldier still proud of his former fame, though fallen in public estimation, general Washington compassionately deferred the assembling of the court. The war soon afterwards closed, and the prosecution of the inquiry necessarily ceased.[note 91]

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