General Washington, by Bradley T. Johnson, Chapter 6

Washington and Lee University

General Washington

By General Bradley T. Johnson



ON September 4, 1774 the first Continental Congress assembled at Philadelphia. Eleven colonies were there, North Carolina delegates not arriving until the 16th, and Georgia was not represented at all. Peyton Randolph, of Virginia, was chosen president, and their first resolution was to reassert and indorse the Massachusetts declaration that a king who violates the chartered rights of his people forfeits their allegiance; that an act of Parliament contrary to the common right was void, and ought to be disregarded. This was another way of asserting the duty of the people to resist invasion of their rights by arms. It was the first act of nullification in America. The Congress agreed upon and passed a declaration of rights which claimed for each colony the exclusive right of control over its police, its taxation, and its expenditure, echoing the sentiment of the Fairfax resolves, and sent out addresses to the King, to the people of Great Britain, and to the other British colonies in America.

With the English race the appeal to reason has always preceded the appeal to force, but time and again in its history, resolves, remonstrances, and declarations have been backed by the sword in manly hands. There was not unanimity in the desire for the accession of the Canadas, for twenty generations of struggle with the Roman Catholic and the Frenchman at home or in America had left feelings not to be obliterated at once.

But the desire for the purely English colonies of the Bermudas was strong, and it was not until long after, when experience had demonstrated that control of the sea guaranteed possession of the islands to Great Britain, that the statesmen of the Continent gave up all hopes of their joining the Confederacy. In fact, the address to the people of Great Britain enumerated as one of the grievances for repair of which they appealed to their fellow-subjects at home, that the Quebec Act, regulating the government of Canada, guaranteed security to the Roman Catholic Church, its priests and property, and protected them in the free exercise of their religion. Of course, when the Congress afterward sent commissioners to Canada to solicit co-operation and union, with John Carroll, Provincial of the Society of Jesus in North America, at their head, the commissioners were met by the solid opposition of the Roman Catholic Church, clergy and laity, and made an utter failure.

Nothing further was done, but this meeting still further mingled the spirits of the different colonies into a medium which prepared crystallization. The personal association between John Adams, of Massachusetts, Patrick Henry and Edmund Randolph, of Virginia, Thomas Johnson and Mathew Tilghman, of Maryland, and Christopher Gadsden, of South Carolina, in the daily intercourse of a month gave them better appreciation of the personalities which would be united in their undertaking of resistance, than correspondence of a year would have afforded.

By the written word, ideas are expressed and imparted; by the spoken language, force, intelligence, sympathy, directness, manliness, are understood, and the controlling powers of life lie much more in personal qualities than in intellectual ones. The faculty of expression lessens the power of force of will. No great orator or philosopher ever was a great soldier, and a great soldier rarely is a great thinker. The sphere of physical action and intellectual effort lie in different planes. These are unlikely to cross. When they do, a phenomenon like Moses, or Alexander, or Napoleon Bonaparte is produced.

Leaders of revolutions do not create them. They express in words, or in action, the common feeling, and are successful just in proportion as they faithfully, accurately express the emotions which stir all hearts. Samuel Adams may have foreseen the necessity for separation, Patrick Henry may have declared the duty of resistance by force, but neither created the idea of independence, nor originated that of revolution.

The sentiment was in the hearts of the English in America. They felt that they had grown up; that they were men, and had the right and duty to control their own destinies, and the logic of Nature marched with irresistible and inevitable steps to resistance and separation. General Gage had occupied Boston and sought to intimidate Massachusetts since the previous April, 1774 when he had been appointed military Governor of the colony, turned into a military district, just as Virginia was in 1867–1870.

During the summer the colony nullified the act of Parliament known as the Regulating Act, which assumed to control the legislative power of the colony by vesting in the Governor appointed by the Crown the power to appoint councilors to the Governor, to hold during the pleasure of the appointing power and to be paid by it.

Committees of correspondence were organized throughout the colony and with all other colonies, and careful provision of gunpowder and lead began to be made. On every village green the young men and boys began to be drilled by the old soldiers of Pepperell, Wolfe, and Prescott. During the winter Washington occupied himself in arranging his affairs for a long absence. He committed the Mount Vernon estate to the care of Battaille Muse, his old adjutant of Fort Necessity. In April, 1775, he attended the second Congress at Philadelphia.

It has been remarked that he wore to the sessions of this Congress his uniform of a Virginia colonel of blue and buff, as significant that in his opinion the time for action had arrived. The uniform he did wear was of blue coat and scarlet waistcoat and breeches, as proved by Peale’s portrait, and the reason he wore it is probably that it was the best suit he had. It had been made by a London tailor. The Articles of Nonimportation which he had signed, and of which he was a conscientious observer, had cut off supplies of appropriate dress from home, and the uniform of a man’s rank was considered the dress suit for occasions of ceremony in the society to which he had been accustomed.

The military preparations in Massachusetts had occasioned discussion as to the organization of a Continental army, and it was the clearest policy to commit Virginia fully and completely to the movement of force. Consultations by correspondence were going on through the winter between the leaders in all the provinces as to the proper person to be placed in command. The only ones who could furnish soldiers of experience and reputation for command were Massachusetts and Virginia. While Massachusetts had Ward and Prescott, who had served against the French, Virginia had Andrew Lewis and Washington.

Lewis, at the battle of Point Pleasant, with Virginia militia alone—the veteran and seasoned rangers of the border—had defeated the allied forces of the Indians, shattered their power, and driven the demoralized fugitives beyond the Ohio. But Thomas Johnson, of Maryland, was the neighbor and friend of Washington. He had been associated with him since 1762 in the Ohio Company, and in the great enterprise to secure a free water way from the head of tide on the Potomac, where Washington now stands, by the Potomac, the Monongahela, the Ohio, and the Wabash, to Lake Erie. Johnson, better than any man of his cotemporaries, knew the broadness of view, the grasp of mind, the tenacity of purpose, united with self-control, concentration, and physical fortitude and endurance of Colonel Washington. It may well have been, as John Adams claims, that he indicated the choice of Washington as commander in chief on account of his conspicuous position and the considerations of policy. Johnson, however, took the initiative, and on June 15, 1775, moved in the Congress that that body assume the responsibility for the army which the affair of Lexington had assembled before Boston, and that Colonel George Washington, of Virginia, be appointed to the command in chief.

Johnson says that on going into the hall, on the morning of the 15th, he met Adams and proposed to him the nomination of Colonel Washington for the supreme command, and that Adams turned off impatiently, as if the subject were distasteful to him. Therefore the deputy from Maryland proceeded to make the motion which had been agreed upon. As soon as Colonel Washington’s name was mentioned he withdrew from the hall, as was decorous and proper, and upon being informed of the passage of the resolution he resumed his place, where he was informed by the President of the action of the body.

He at once arose and thanked his colleagues for the confidence they had reposed in him, assured them of his unfeigned diffidence as to his ability to justify their action, for he thought that there was another gentleman better qualified and more worthy of the great responsibility, and stated that, as no pecuniary inducement controlled him in the matter, he would receive no pay or allowances as attached to his place, but would keep an exact account of his expenses, which he would rely on the justice of Congress to reimburse.

The habit of the Plantation Book, and the attention to detail of every kind, stood him in good stead in the business of governing an army of ten thousand men in the field, as it had done a detachment of five hundred inferiors on a plantation; and after the war was over the account of Washington’s expenses, kept in his own handwriting, was submitted to Congress and the sum total reimbursed him. These autograph accounts may still be seen among the archives of the United States at Washington. He never received a shilling of pay. Immediately on his appointment, without a moment’s delay, he began to prepare for the field. He sent home to Mount Vernon for money and horses, and supplied his wardrobe for the campaign. He bought five saddle-horses, and sent his carriage and its horses back to Virginia. On June 23d he left Philadelphia on horseback to ride to Boston. He was escorted by the First City Troop—a troop of cavalry well mounted, well drilled, well equipped, and well officered, consisting of the jeunesse doré of Philadelphia. He was accompanied by Generals Charles Lee and Philip Schuyler. Lee was a lieutenant colonel in the British army, but this did not prevent him from accepting the rank of major general in the Continental army, third in rank to the commander in chief, Ward, of Massachusetts, being second.

Twenty miles from Philadelphia they met the courier bringing the news of Bunker Hill. “Did the militia fight?” was the Virginian’s first inquiry; and when it was made clear to him that they had held on to their rude earthworks with rifles and shotguns against the British bayonet, until their last cartridge was fired, and had been pushed out only after inflicting a loss of thirty-three per cent on the regulars and suffering a loss of twenty-five per cent in their own ranks, he rode on, perfectly satisfied that latitude and climate had not modified or lessened that solid English pluck that had saved the routed, frenized fragments of the regulars on the Monongahela. He was everywhere welcomed with cordiality and distinction, for he represented chivalrous aid to kith and kin in a cause in which they had not so close material interests.

Washington arrived in Boston on July 2, 1775, and the next day assumed command of the army, displaying for the first time the Continental flag bearing the scarlet and white bars from the Washington arms, thirteen in number for the thirteen colonies, and in the union the red cross of England and of Scotland, of St. George and of St. Andrew, forming the Union Jack of Great Britain. Under this flag, emblematic of the united colonies and of their relation to the mother country, General Washington asserted the right of war in defense of hereditary rights and ancestral liberty.

The army at Boston consisted of eleven thousand five hundred men from Massachusetts, two thousand three hundred from Connecticut, one thousand two hundred from New Hampshire, and one thousand from Rhode Island—sixteen thousand in all. They were the levy en masse of New England in response to the guns of Lexington, of farmers’ sons, of city and town clerks, of the enthusiasm and ardor of the English of New England. They were sent by county committees, and town meetings, on all sorts of terms of enlistment, and on all kinds of promises of pay, They were armed with the old weapons of the Indian and French wars, and clothed with the products of their fathers’ farms and their mothers’ looms and fingers. In an outburst of enthusiasm, when aspiration and devotion to duty absorbs every energy and overwhelms egotism, selfishness, vanity, and self-assertion, push themselves to the front, assert control, and require to be repressed, as they always are repressed, by the stern reality of action.

In the radical democratic society of New England, where social distinctions had for generations been resented as remains of aristocracy, and where universal equality was recognized as the only rule of life, the military organization necessarily reflected the conditions from which it arose. The men elected their officers, from colonel to junior lieutenant, and in the inexperience of men, the result of youth and a country life, frequently made great mistakes in their selections. The Virginia soldier, accustomed to the discipline of the border, the campaign, and the plantation, found his army a mob, courageous, earnest, and ignorant. Very many of the officers of the line were utterly worthless.

Cowardly, thieving braggarts, they were peculating in the provisions and clothes sent from home to the boys in the field, and defrauding them of their pay. The commander in chief at once inspected his command, organized a staff, and made himself master of details. He broke two captains for cowardly behavior in the action at Bunker Hill, two captains for drawing more pay and provisions than they had men in their companies, and one for having been absent from his post when the enemy appeared and burned a house just by it. In addition, he put under arrest and sent before a court-martial under charges, one colonel, one major, one captain, and two subalterns. He set himself to stamp out selfishness and self-seeking, and to imbue his command with a high sense of patriotism, a love of liberty and of country, and devotion to duty, as the vital forces which should control and direct every member of it, from the highest to the lowest. But among the officers were some of the highest merit.

Israel Putnam, Benedict Arnold, Nathanael Greene, Henry Knox, and John Stark were all there, whose names were afterward to become illustrious from great and distinguished service, the second unhappily infamous by an unparalleled act of treachery. During July Congress re-enforced him by the addition of three thousand Virginian and Maryland troops under Morgan and Cresap—that Indian fighter who has come down to us unjustly branded with the murder of Logan’s family, a crime with which he had absolutely no connection, and of which he was entirely guiltless.

The summer was passed in drilling and organizing the troops, and collecting ammunition. He sent a swift vessel to Bermuda to capture a cargo of powder there, which was done. He strengthened his lines around Boston. The lesson of Fort Necessity had been beneficial, and experience had taught him what immense advantage topographical position gives in war. Here he began to develop those great conceptions of conditions in which he excelled all men in America. From his youth accustomed to great distances, and to appreciate the advantage of grand operations as manager of the Ohio Company, he had, by personal observation and constant intercourse with scouts and traders for twenty years, arrived at Continental ideas of the strength and the importance of the “back country,” the Western lands.

The Quebec Act had added the valley of the Ohio to Canada, and Washington was the first American thoroughly imbued with the fatalism of “manifest destiny.” He understood, as no man else in America did understand, that civilization seeks and will obtain the nearest, easiest access to the sea—the common highway of communication among nations in all ages—and that the people who in time must dominate the shores of the Great Lakes and banks of the rivers would seek their outlet to the sea by the flowing water, the St. Lawrence or the Mississippi, unless they were bound to the English on the Atlantic by short and easy means of access.

New York was the vulnerable point of the confederation. The capture of the line of Lake Champlain and the Hudson would separate New England and the South, and leave each section an easy victim to the British arms. The military instinct of the people had sent Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen to capture Ticonderoga and Crown Point before the Congress at Philadelphia had moved in the direction of a Continental army, and the New Englanders had secured their communications with the South by seizing the line of New York.

As soon as his command was in any condition to work, Washington sent Montgomery by Ticonderoga to Montreal, and Arnold by the forests of Maine to Quebec, to force co-operation between Canada and the confederation, thereby relieving “the Western lands” from the pressure of Indian domination and Canadian influence. The conception was a grand one. Montgomery captured Montreal, and the campaign would have been a success save for one of those accidents which so often in war determine the event of a battle and the fate of a government. Montgomery was killed and Arnold wounded at the head of their respective storming parties at Quebec, and by these chances Canada was saved to Great Britain.

Had Quebec been captured, Canadian deputies would have been sent to the Continental Congress, and Canada would have been the fourteenth “free sovereign, and independent State” acknowledged by the treaty of 1783. As it was, Canada sent two regiments to the Continental army, which were mustered into service as “Congress’s Own.” The death of Montgomery saved Canada to the British, and changed the course of history; but the campaign originated by Washington will be carried out by some future generation of Americans, who will not permit the flanks of the great republic to be threatened forever. As the army became more soldierly and manageable, the commander in chief became more impatient for action. Armies are made for fighting, and soldiers to be killed, and long periods of inaction seriously disorganize the one and destroy the other.

The debating society at Philadelphia was constantly urging an attack on Boston. Gage had twelve veteran regiments, supported by a well-armed fleet in the harbor, and an attack on the city would have resulted probably in the loss of the attacking force, and certainly in the destruction of the town. But “On to Boston!” was the cry in Philadelphia, just as “On to Richmond!” was the cry in Washington in the other rebellion. The Virginian commander in chief of 1775 was made of stronger material than the Virginian of 1861, and no urgency or appeals could make him move until his judgment decided that the time was propitious. He could not neutralize the British fleet without heavy artillery. The only heavy guns within the control of the Continentals were at Ticonderoga, from which there were neither roads nor transportation. When the snows came and the ground froze hard, ox-teams could drag them on sledges over the fields to the camp, and then something could be done.

Washington also had knowledge the Congress could not have. He knew Gage. He had served with him in the Braddock campaign, where he commanded the Forty-fourth Regiment as lieutenant colonel, Colonel Sir Peter Halkett being in command of the brigade. He had seen Gage at mess, at drill, on the march, in camp, and in battle, and had measured every faculty and quality. He understood how much intelligence, fortitude, pertinacity, and patience he had, and how much he had not. He knew Gage’s hand, and he played his own accordingly, just as Lee afterward played his against McClellan, Pope, and Grant. But while the weather was open, sledges were prepared in the woods of Vermont, and animals collected at convenient depots. Of this no one knew but the commander in chief. To communicate it to the Congress would have been to inform Gage, and bring on an attack before he was prepared. Congress was very leaky, and several members were inclined to make things easy by hedging, and by keeping open the door of reconciliation.

In August he was called upon to define the relations the two armies should occupy to each other, and to settle the question once for all whether the conflict should be war, regulated by the rules of civilized warfare, or whether the one side should treat it as an insurrection, to be suppressed by any means the loyal side deemed necessary. The solid sense of the English had long before settled all questions growing out of the right of armed resistance to illegal laws and wrongful usurpations of authority, for an act of Richard II had declared that adherence to the King de facto should not be considered to be treason.

But Gage, with that fine contempt for the rights of others which has always distinguished a dominating race, decided that all Englishmen taken in arms against their lawful King were rebels, and were to be treated as criminals, imprisoned in jails, tried by loyal juries, sentenced by loyal judges, and hung by loyal sheriffs. Acting on this plain proposition and simple axiom, he had confined in the common jail of Boston some officers of the Continental army who had fallen into his hands, and treated them with great indignity. The commander in chief at once called General Gage’s attention to this conduct as contrary to the rules which controlled officers and gentlemen, in war.

The ex-lieutenant colonel of the Forty-fourth took occasion to read his ex-provincial militia comrade a lecture on the iniquity of rebellion and the impiety of treason, and to suggest that the halter was the only logical, just, and necessary way of dealing with such conduct. Washington first put his British prisoners in jail, and then gave Gage a little lesson in manners by showing him that gentlemen do not scold nor vituperate, but that they act. The act of retaliation settled the question. The status of war was conceded and acknowledged, and there was never thereafter any question of rebel or traitor, treason or rebellion, between the British and the Continental authorities.

The Continental line extended around the west, south, and northwest sides, of Boston, about sixteen miles in length, and was defended by a series of forts, redoubts, and earthworks, held by sixteen thousand men—a man to every six feet. It was vulnerable at several points. It was pierced about the center by the Charles River, a navigable stream, practicable for General Gage’s fleet.

He had been re-enforced up to twenty veteran regiments, and could at any time, from July until November, have moved a force up the river, pierced the center, and rolled back the left wing, under Major-General Charles Lee, or the right wing, under Major-General Artemus Ward, on itself, and destroyed Washington’s army. But the lieutenant colonel of the Forty-fourth had had a lesson on the Monongahela, and another one at Breed’s Hill, of the fighting qualities of the militia, and was disinclined to risk an enterprise against them. He was roundly denounced in England for his inaction and cowardice, as they stigmatized it, and in October was relieved by General Sir William Howe, the brother of Lord Howe commanding the fleet. The Howes were grandsons of George II by Miss Kilmansegg, commemorated by Hood, and nephews of the king, and connection, not merit, gave them these important commands, the most responsible at that time in the British army and navy.

The Congress chafed greatly under the delay, but made no impression on Washington. In September he proposed an attack on Boston by means of boats, in co-operation with an attempt on the British lines at Roxbury, but the council of war unanimously agreed “that it was not expedient to make the attempt at present at least.” Washington wrote to Congress communicating this decision, and said, “I can-not say that I have wholly laid it [the attack] aside; but new events may occasion new measures.”

The pugnacious disposition of the man was not satisfied with the inaction of a council of war, and as soon as the Charles River froze over he proposed to cross on the ice and attack. The council of war again thwarted him. But he was determined to get at the enemy by water if he could not reach them by land. He fitted out and commissioned six armed vessels to operate in their rear on their transports and storeships. The militia of Marblehead and the fishermen on the coast of New England supplied the bravest, most daring sailors that ever flew a flag since the British buccaneer of the Spanish main, and for a time the commander in chief of the army was also lord high admiral of the sea force, just as his British ancestors had been a thousand years before, to defend their homes and altars from the Saxon and the Dane. He was chief judge in admiralty as well, and decided all questions of prizes and contraband of war, and distribution of prize money. His ships were called pirates, but they were not treated as such.

During the winter the accumulation of ammunition and collection of siege guns continued, until early in March, 1776, he was ready to strike. Dorchester Heights is an elevated piece of ground to the south of Boston, and commands the harbor and south side of the city. The possession of it is absolutely essential to the security of the port and it passes comprehension why Gage did not occupy and fortify it during the six months he was penned up in Boston. Washington had seen its dominating importance on his first ride along his lines. Its possession was of no use to him without heavy artillery. Held with long-range guns, it made Boston and Boston harbor untenable. It neutralized both army and navy at one move, and for months the resources of the quartermaster and commissary’s department were taxed to their utmost to supply means for this checkmate.

By March the guns of Ticonderoga had arrived, hauled over the snow and ice and frozen ground by oxen, and some ammunition had been collected and prepared. There was not enough to carry on a prolonged cannonade, but Washington knew his man, and judged rightly that the moral effect of the exhibition of force would be sufficient. Consequently, on the night of the 4th of March all his guns from Roxbury to East Cambridge, everything north of Charles River, opened on the redoubts and forts opposite them, and kept up a noisy demonstration all through the night.

The British commander concentrated his troops behind the expected point of attack at the place of firing, and Washington placed two thousand men with proper intrenching tools on Dorchester Heights, where before day they had covered themselves with sufficient intrenchments and the heavy guns of Ticonderoga. As daylight disclosed the disaster, the commander of the fleet in the harbor sent word to the commander of the troops on land, that if the Americans stayed where they were he could not stay where he was.

General Howe prepared at once to storm the threatening intrenchment, and ordered out Lord Percy with three thousand men to take the works. A storm came up, the assault was abandoned, and Howe decided to evacuate his untenable position. He informed some of the principal inhabitants of his determination; they conveyed the information to the camp at Cambridge, and Washington, acting on the maxim of a bridge of gold for a flying enemy, forbore to molest or hinder the movement.

On March 17, 1776, the British general embarked his troops on the fleet of transports in the harbor, and, carrying with him nine hundred of the principal inhabitants, sailed to Halifax. Sir Henry Clinton in the preceding January had carried off a part of the force to subjugate North Carolina. In the abandoned town Washington secured two hundred cannon of various calibers, and an immense quantity of small arms, ammunition, and military stores of every kind. The British army was liberal in the supplies furnished to equip its adversary, and the ammunition captured in Boston was larger in amount than all that had been collected and used by the Americans in the process of their expulsion.

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