General Washington, by Bradley T. Johnson, Chapter 8

Washington and Lee University

General Washington

By General Bradley T. Johnson



WHEN Washington arrived at New York his situation was still most unsatisfactory. He was to hold a position on deep water, without ships, without heavy artillery, without scientific or skilled engineers. Though his own genius and experience showed him the points to occupy and fortify in order to control the waters around New York, he was utterly unable to accomplish what was absolutely necessary for success.

The British vessels could anchor within easy gunshot of New York, and with the means at his command the occupation of Long Island afforded the only chance for delaying them. Delay was the only thing possible for the Americans. The war was greatly opposed at home. The Continental nations were slowly awakening to the fact that a tremendous blow impended over Great Britain, and that a wound was threatened which would seriously impair her prestige, inflict great loss of material resources, and, by the creation of a great maritime nation such as the Americans of the seaboard—with their bays, their rivers, and their fisheries, must of necessity become in course of time—would neutralize her supremacy on the high seas. The French had seen this from the first, and industriously fanned the flame of discontent by emissaries in the colonies, by sympathy in Paris, and by secret and adroit subventions of money. It was the counter move of the French Minister in retaliation for the loss of Canada.

Washington understood, as few Americans of his day did understand, that the way to win respect is to compel it, and that his first duty was to show the world that the Americans could fight, that he could lead them, and that their resistance would be long and obstinate. The control of the deep sea gave Great Britain absolute control of the coast from Halifax to Florida, and largely that of commerce on the high sea. It made the occupation by the Americans of any position within reach of the guns of the fleet precarious. The strategy of the war, therefore, must of necessity be defensive. Allies and re-enforcements were sure to come from the ambition, the necessities, and the antipathies of Continental Europe. They would certainly embrace this opportunity to humble the mistress of the seas, if it was an opportunity. But to secure allies, the colonists must prove that they could furnish a solid basis for alliance; to draw re-enforcements, they must show armies to re-enforce.

Therefore Washington’s business was to fight enough, but not too much; to retreat when he could not help it, but not too far or too often; to keep his troops encouraged by enough taste of blood to brace them up; and to satisfy Europe that there was a prospect of success. To do this required an army, ordnance, arms, ammunition, men, rations, wagons, horses, and forage. Some of these requisites were furnished by the colonies to their own troops. The Maryland Convention, for instance, appointed a committee to inquire, report, and contract for as many rifles, muskets, and bayonets, with belts and cartridge-boxes, as could be furnished by the mechanics of the colony. They reported the name of every gunsmith, and the number of guns, bayonets, cartridge-boxes, and belts that each could furnish per month, and contracted with every man who could wield a hammer or a file, from Penn’s line to the Potomac and from the Susquehanna to the Pocomoke, for all the guns and accoutrements they could supply. This system was pursued through the whole war. The Maryland line thus was kept armed whenever it was possible to manufacture arms. But the energy of the rebellion was in the army and in the colonial congresses or conventions.

The Congress at Philadelphia did not attract the best men. It had no power; it could do nothing. The places where work was done were Annapolis, or Williamsburg, or Halifax, or Charleston, or at Salem. It could and did issue at times promises to pay, which were promptly repudiated by the general sense of the community, but in the whole course of the war the Continental Congress never raised a man for the army nor a dollar by taxation of the people. It was a league of independent colonies differing widely from each other in race, affinities, and traditions, in political institutions, and in religious faith. The Puritan of New England was permeated with an intense conviction of the solemnity of life—a “little space of time between two eternities”—and was impressed with a profound sense of the duty of preparing himself, his family, his friends, and everybody he could make do as he thought proper, for this eternity of torture and suffering.

This theological creed or subjective training has made the Puritan type a distinct one in the evolution of races. His super-abnormal conscience, added to severe rigors of climate, have produced a character which, for self-reliance, endurance, courage, and perseverance, is unequaled in history, though it may lack the graces and decorations which alleviate the troubles of life. The Cavalier population, on the other hand, on the Chesapeake, on Pamlico and Albemarle sounds, and on the Cape Fear, the Ashley, and the Cooper rivers, regarded life not as a gloomy preparation for a future state—the terrors of which could only be escaped by skillful avoidance of the decrees of Providence, or by constant and stern adherence to duty—but as a bright and beautiful garden, full of lovely flowers, delightful odors, fragrant herbs; where the rose, when plucked too roughly, avenged the indignity with its thorns; and the bee, when robbed of his honey, punished the marauder with his sting; where the pleasure of living justified “life”; where every sensation was a delight and every sentiment a gratification.

Love, charity, gratitude, friendship, were the cardinal virtues. Revenge, malice, hatred—ignoble vices. They lived to live; they loved to love; they enjoyed being friends. Between these two civilizations there could never be sympathy entire and cordial. It was the feeling of family, blood, race, that first drew the Cavalier to the side of the Puritan to defend him and his rights from aggression; and once there, it was contrary to every theory of his life ever to leave it. Loving ease and pleasure, self-indulgent to a degree, they sacrifice everything they have for kin or friends, and stake everything on the side they espouse. These two diametrically discordant societies could not possibly be welded into a perfect union. They were jealous of each other, and each was too suspicious to trust any neighbor with any influence over its destinies.

North Carolina and South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, New York and New Hampshire, had bitter boundary disputes, and all were watchful, lest alliances might sacrifice some of their charter rights instead of strengthening them. Therefore the Continental Congress lacked coherence, force, power, and enthusiasm. It had the jealousy of small men against military dictatorship, such as was subsequently felt against McClellan, Grant, and Sherman by the Congress of the United States. It passed resolutions calling upon the colonies to furnish men and means. It had no power to enforce its own requisitions. It left to the colonies the power to appoint regimental officers, and assumed to itself that of selecting general officers. It appointed generals, but it could not enlist a man. It selected commissaries, but could not provide a barrel of beef. It sent out quartermaster generals, but had not a wagon or a horse of its own.

Therefore the war and the strategy of the war was to be devised and executed by Washington, and this labor was far more arduous than the marches, the bivouacs, the battles of the ensuing five years. It is a fact that the Continental Congress was a hindrance and not a help. Many members were ardent patriots; they risked their lives and their fortunes for the cause. But not a few were time-servers, patriots for the present, to avoid risk to person and property, but prudent as well to keep up a secret tie with the mother country and its friends in this. With such a body behind him, utterly useless to help but quite efficient to hinder, Washington was forced to rely on himself. He was one of the greatest letter-writers that ever lived. The last collection of his letters contains six or seven thousand in fourteen good-sized volumes, and still it is very incomplete, having left out hundreds as yet unpublished.

But from the day Washington left the Congress, on June 22, 1775, to December 23, 1783, when he resigned his commission at Annapolis, not a day passed without his addressing a long letter to the Congress, to the Governor of one of the States, or to one of the leading men in the respective States, pointing out the means by which the common cause could be furthered, and urging persistently, with never-failing patience and courage, that these means and measures be utilized to the last degree. When, therefore, the army was collected at New York, everyone knew that the position was untenable. Sir William Howe had gone to Halifax with the great body of the garrison of Boston, and Sir Henry Clinton had sailed south with another part of it, to reduce the Carolinas. Georgia gave no trouble.

The affair at Moore’s Creek had warned Sir Henry out of the Cape Fear, and he proceeded to Charleston, where he lay until the fleet of Sir Peter Parker, from Ireland, re-enforced him. On June 28, 1776, the Palmetto Fort on Sullivan’s Island, commanded by Moultrie, colonel of State troops under direction of John Rutledge, President of South Carolina, drove off the British fleet and British troops landed by Clinton, to carry it by assault. Therefore early in July Washington knew that the inevitable was about to take place. Sir Guy Carleton, Governor of Canada, would move down Lake Champlain, Sir William Howe and Sir Henry Clinton, re-enforced by Sir Peter Parker, would concentrate in New York harbor, sail up the East River, cut off the Long Island garrison, and then proceed up the North River, communicate with General Carleton at Lake George, and cut the rebellion in half.

It was the business of the American general to checkmate this game, and to do it without fighting, for a pitched battle would have been swift, certain ruin; but to do it also without fleeing, for that would have been equally disastrous. He was to handle green troops so as to blood them sufficiently, and then get them out without destructive loss. Therefore when his army reached New York, on April 23, 1776, he placed half of it—nine thousand men—under command of Putnam, on Brooklyn Heights, on Long Island, which dominated New York city and bay, just as Dorchester Heights had controlled Boston. But the position on Long Island was surrounded by deep water. Sir William Howe, the British commander in chief, had more than twenty-five thousand veteran troops, and an efficient fleet carrying as heavy guns as were then used in maritime war. The East River, between Long Island and New York, is a mile wide, and navigable for the heaviest ships. It is approached from the lower bay of New York through the Narrows, or from Long Island Sound through Hell Gate.

On August 33, 1776, Sir William Howe, landed twenty thousand men at Gravesend Bay. On the 26th he sent the fleet under command of his brother, Admiral Lord Howe, to make a feint on New York. On the 27th he moved on the American position, which he had flanked in the night. General Grant, with the Highland Regiments, advanced on the coast road, the outposts of which were held by the Maryland line under command of Major-General William Alexander, of New Jersey, who called himself Lord Stirling, after a Scotch earldom of James I’s creation which had lapsed, and was claimed by the New Jersey Alexanders, and the claim disallowed by the scotch courts. The Marylanders were the first Americans who ever met the British in line of battle in the open field. Handled skillfully, and gallantly led by Alexander, Smallwood, and their regimental and line officers, the Marylanders, by reiterated charges, checked pursuit until nightfall.

Washington saw the engagement from the Brooklyn side. The result was anticipated and provided for, and two nights afterward the whole American army was safely ferried over the East River and at once marched north, clear of the town. This movement was going on all night on the water, where sound travels easily and far. The British man-of-war Roebuck lay off Red Hook, just below Governor’s Island, and why her lookout or watch did not hear this movement of nine thousand men, their artillery and their transportation, is one of the unexplained mysteries of the time. Howe pushed into the city of New York. Washington withdrew to the line of the Harlem River, the northern boundary of Manhattan Island, and the movements were so rapid on both sides, that Putnam, with a detachment of four thousand men, was isolated in the lower part of the town.

Washington, in person, led two New England brigades down the streets to rescue Putnam, but on the appearance of fifteen or twenty red-coats, eight regiments ran like quarter horses; whereupon the commander in chief, failing to make the colonels stop stampeding, belabored them with much energy and profuse emphasis, with a cane he was riding with. Neither cane nor malediction stayed the courant colonels; but a lady—Mrs. Murray—with a fine residence on what is now known as Murray Hill, knowing the weakness that commanding officers have for the good things of the table, prepared an elegant and substantial lunch, and invited Sir William and his staff to alight and enjoy it. No soldier who ever rode a horse ever refused an invitation to eat, and the British general stopped to refresh while his enemy escaped. Putnam rejoined the army at Harlem, and Washington was extricated by the very difficult feat of withdrawing an inferior army from its environment by a superior army and fleet. Washington took position along the line of the Harlem River, across the upper end of the island, and the next day Howe attempted to storm the position. The attack was repulsed.

The Hudson River was defended at the Palisades above New York, on the east side, by Fort Washington, under command of Gen. Putnam, and on the west by Fort Lee, under Gen. Greene. Howe’s next move clearly was to force the two forts with the fleet, while at the same time he landed an infantry force by way of the East River and pushed it in Washington’s rear. He began on October 9, 1776, by driving two frigates over Putnam’s and Greene’s obstructions in the river and between their forts, and on the 12th he landed the larger part of his army at Throg’s Neck, to move in behind the American, and cut his line of supplies from Connecticut.

Washington, fully anticipating the movement, had destroyed the bridge across the creek at the place of landing, and posted a sufficient force behind the marsh across which the British must move to attack him. Howe wasted six days trying to get at him, and Washington moved back up the river to White Plains, abandoning the whole of Manhattan Island except Fort Washington. Howe pushed on after him, and on October 28th carried an outpost at Chatterton Hill. The Maryland line, which under Lord Stirling had won its spurs at Brooklyn Heights, gathered fresh laurels here. Attacked by the Hessians under Rahl, it held on until surrounded, and then forced its way out with clubbed rifles under Griffith. It fought six to one, and lost one hundred and forty, to two hundred and twenty-nine lost by the enemy. This affair is known as the battle of White Plains. The attack was not pressed, and Washington fell back to a strong position at North Castle, where it was useless to think of attacking him.

These movements and the resulting position made the two forts untenable, useless, and mere traps. The Congress and the New York Convention protested strongly against abandoning them, as local authorities always do against abandoning territory to invasion; but Washington ordered Putnam and Greene to get their troops and munitions away without delay, allowing Greene, in whom he had great confidence, a discretion as to the time and the necessity of evacuation. Congress sent Greene a peremptory order to hold on save on the direst extremity. Washington was absent, superintending the fortification of West Point, higher up the river. Greene believed that Fort Washington could be held, and so re-enforced it. Washington returned on the 14th, but that very night several British vessels passed up between the forts, and on the 15th Howe moved on the place with an overwhelming force. He carried it by assault on November 16th, after a gallant defense, when the British lost five hundred men, to the American loss of one hundred and fifty; but the British general captured three thousand of the best troops the Americans had in the field, and an immense quantity of artillery and small arms.

Washington was on the Jersey side of the river with six thousand men, and Lee on the east side with seven thousand. He ordered Lee to join him, but Lee, then senior major general and next in rank to the commander in chief, dallied, and lost time in obeying. His own ambition and his own promotion were the only motives for his conduct, and he was engaged in exaggerating his services in the Southern campaign and aggrandizing his reputation among the inefficient Congressmen at Philadelphia. He was a traitor in his heart then, as he was certainly a traitor in fact and deed soon after; but no proof has yet been discovered as to his treachery at this precise period. It seems as if he intended by his desertion of his commander in chief to secure his destruction in New Jersey, when he would have certainly succeeded to the chief command, and then might have enacted the rôle of General Monk and become the Duke of Manhattan, as that traitor became the Duke of Albemarle.

But neither “malice domestic,” nor treachery, nor cowardice in subordinates, nor incompetence in Congress, could shake the will, the patience, the fortitude, or the courage of the man who had spent four days and nights in the saddle in saving Braddock’s rout. The American forces were nearly disarmed by the losses at Fort Washington. It was almost dispersed by the capture of men there, and by Lee’s desertion. If Howe turned shortly across the river and pressed rapidly on Philadelphia, the rebel capital would be captured and the rebel Congress dispersed, and the nucleus of rebellion destroyed. It was impossible to save Philadelphia, but it was possible to interpose an army as a protection to Congress and as a rallying point for the country. Sir Guy Carleton had gone into winter quarters at St. John’s, on Lake Champlain. The campaign of division had failed.

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