General Washington, by Bradley T. Johnson, Chapter 9

Washington and Lee University

General Washington

By General Bradley T. Johnson



THE conditions which confronted Washington, then, were the necessity of saving New England and covering Philadelphia at the same time with an army demoralized by defeat and retreat, starvation and physical want, reduced by the expiration of enlistments, and without hope or expectation of final success. A new expedition, under Sir John Burgoyne, was being prepared in Canada to move on the old French line of invasion by Lake Champlain. Lord Cornwallis was placed in command of a flying column, to operate in New Jersey by a move on Philadelphia, while Sir William Howe was collecting a fleet at New York for an object as yet unrevealed. It was so clear that he ought to have moved a land force up the Hudson, convoyed and supported by his fleet, and joined Burgoyne, who was marching south, that Washington could not persuade himself that he was not about to do so. His observation of General Howe during the campaign on Long Island, and the subsequent operations on Throg’s Neck, White plains, and Fort Washington, had convinced him that the British general was quite as likely to make an improper move as a proper one, and he was therefore much puzzled to divine his intentions.

Burgoyne captured Ticonderoga without a struggle, and the northern line was opened. On November 21st Howe crossed his infantry over the Hudson, and then had the shorter line to Philadelphia. He started Cornwallis toward that place, and nothing could be done but to interpose the American army between the attack and the objective. Washington fell back until, on December 8, 1776, he crossed the Delaware into Pennsylvania with three thousand starved, naked, and badly armed men—the remnant of the army of Boston and New York, but with all his ammunition intact. He destroyed all the boats on the river for miles up and down. When Cornwallis came up, the evening of the crossing, he was for pushing on at once; but Howe, who had joined him, thought it not worth while, as the contest was virtually ended, and it was useless to expend unnecessary energy in pursuit of an enemy whose army had nearly dissolved in the preceding twenty days of pursuit and retreat.

Congress fled to Baltimore, where they passed a resolution making Washington dictator, and then waited, panic-stricken, for what might happen. At this time an incident occurred which might have been disastrous, but was rather fortunate to the American cause. Lee followed Cornwallis, on his flank, through New Jersey. He would not help Washington. He could not desert openly, for that would have destroyed his value, and he would have commanded no price for his treachery. An interview with the British commander in chief was absolutely necessary to arrange the terms of what was to be sold and what to be paid. A conference under a flag of truce would have attracted attention and required explanation. Written communications were tedious and dangerous, as was afterward proved in the case of André and Arnold.

So Lee, with that profuse versatility of resource and that wide experience of expedients which service under many flags and divers religions and in various countries had given him, resorted to the simple one of camping outside his picket lines and sending word to the nearest British picket where he was. He was, of course, gobbled up by the cavalry, and the second in command of the Continental army became a prisoner. He had his conference and arranged his terms. What they were has not yet been discovered, but Time, the inexorable foe to secrets and concealments of state matters, will surely reveal his entire turpitude. Within this generation there has been discovered among the family papers of Sir Henry Strachey, General Howe’s secretary from 1775 to 1778, a document in Lee’s handwriting and indorsed by Sir Henry—“Mr. Lee’s plan, March 29, 1777.”*

In this paper Lee shows that, if Maryland could be overawed and the people of Virginia prevented from sending, aid to Pennsylvania, then Philadelphia might be taken and held, and the operations of the “rebel government” paralyzed. The Tory party was known to be strong in Pennsylvania, and the hesitation and tardiness of Maryland in acquiescing in the move for independence seemed to prove that the loyalist feeling was very strong there. Lee asserted, of his own personal knowledge—he owned a plantation on the upper Potomac, in Virginia, on the Maryland border—that the people of Maryland and Pennsylvania were nearly all loyalists, who only awaited a British army to declare themselves for the Government and King George.

He therefore recommended that fourteen thousand men should drive Washington out of New Jersey and capture Philadelphia, while the remainder of Howe’s army, four thousand in number, should go by sea to the Chesapeake and occupy Alexandria and Annapolis. Four days after the date of this remarkable document Howe wrote to Lord George Germaine that he had another expedition in mind, which might modify the plan of the campaign of the Hudson. With this paper in the hands of the British commander in chief, Lee was exchanged, and received in the American army with distinguished honors. All the general officers went out to meet him and escort him to headquarters, and the entire body of troops was paraded to salute him; and he in the pay of the enemy, with the commission of second in command of the American army in his pocket!

Whatever judgment posterity and the world may pass on the motives or the conduct of the actors in the great war between the States of 1861–’65, Americans at all times will be proud of the great pregnant fact, that when the men conspicuous on each side in that Titanic struggle had once taken sides not one ever faltered in his faith, but all were firm to the end. Among the million of Americans in that war, arrayed in arms, not one Charles Lee or Benedict Arnold ever lived or died. This proves that the American has, in the intervening century, developed a higher standard of duty, a nobler ideal of fidelity to honor, than prevailed with the generation that made and fought the War of the Revolution.

The capture of Lee was a great surprise to, and made a profound impression on, the Americans. He was a showy, noisy swash-buckler, and his loud voice and blatant braggadocio had imposed on the public. He had been a lieutenant colonel in the British army, had served under kings and emperors, and was decorated with sundry ribbons and brummagem stars and crosses, and the simple-minded country folk thought he must of necessity be a great soldier. This provincial admiration for the ways and habits and manners and morals of the aristocracy is not yet extinct among Americans, and may still be observed flourishing on Manhattan Island, or at Newport, Rhode Island.

Washington was absolutely destitute of it. His experience in the Braddock campaign had obliterated the sentiment of reverence and admiration for home people and home ways in which he had been bred, and he believed and knew that Americans were in heart, brain, muscle, fidelity—in every intellectual and moral attribute—the peers of any race who ever lived. He considered Arnold, Morgan, and Greene as good soldiers and as qualified generals as Sir John Burgoyne, or Lord Cornwallis, or Sir Henry Clinton. Rank and titles did not confuse his mind in the least, and he looked straight through all embellishments into the very hearts of men and of things. Lee was, however, second in command, and the cause would lose prestige, and the army morale, if its second officer were permitted to remain a prisoner of war. He therefore exchanged Lee, not because he considered him of value, but in loyal discharge of his duty to his comrade and the cause.

By the middle of December, Howe, believing that the rebellion was crushed, withdrew to New York, leaving strong detachments at Trenton and Burlington. Cornwallis accompanied him, with the intention of carrying the news of the great achievement to England. After the capture of Lee, Sullivan and Gates promptly reported with his command to Washington, who was thus re-enforced to about six thousand men. But he dare not remain idle. Congress had dispersed, and the army was dissolving. He determined on an aggressive movement, the daring of which would greatly increase the chance of success. He arranged a plan of attack—for Gates to cross the river and attack Donop at Burlington; Ewing to cross directly on Trenton; while he, with twenty-four hundred men, was to pass the river nine miles above and move down to support Ewing in his attack on Rahl and his Hessians. Gates begged for a leave of absence, and left his command in charge of John Cadwalader, while he posted to Baltimore to intrigue for promotion into Congress.

Washington proposed to move on Christmas Day, 1776; but the weather became very cold, the river filled with floating ice. Cadwalader tried in vain to get over, but the ice prevented. Ewing, deterred by the weather, did not attempt to move, and by evening the commander in chief knew that the attack must be abandoned unless he attempted it unsupported either on his right or his left. It was a condition which required the greatest risk; for to do nothing was defeat, and to fail was nothing less. During the night of the 25th he crossed in a blinding storm of sleet and snow, and led his forlorn hope in person. He reached the other bank, nine miles above Trenton, and pressed swiftly down by two roads on the point of attack. Sullivan led one column down the river road, and Greene the other on the road to the left, accompanied by General Washington himself.

About daylight Sullivan reported that his muskets had been rendered useless by the wet. The reply was, “Tell the general to give them the bayonet. The town must be carried.” At daylight they struck the enemy’s pickets, and went into the town with them. The surprise was complete. Washington’s guns commanded the streets of the town before the garrison could be formed; the commanding officer, Rahl, was killed; a small force of Yagers and light dragoons escaped, and the rest were captured; one thousand prisoners, with their arms, equipage, and wagons, were taken. Washington immediately withdrew across the river with his spoils. By noon of the 27th Cadwalader crossed at Burlington, but Donop fell back to Princeton, leaving his sick and wounded and all his heavy arms and baggage. Washington reoccupied Trenton on the 29th. When the news of the catastrophe reached New York, Cornwallis countermanded his luggage from the packet which was about to convey him to England, and rode in a gallop to Princeton, where he found Colonel Donop intrenching.

On January 2, 1777, Cornwallis, with eight thousand men, moved on Trenton, where he found Washington strongly posted behind the Assunpink, a small stream which flows into the Delaware just south of Trenton. Cornwallis’s men were worn down by the day’s march, but he made several attempts to force the bridge over the creek, and was easily repulsed. He therefore went into camp, and sent back to Princeton for the two thousand men left there with Donop. He proposed, the next morning, with this re-enforcement to turn the American right flank, roll him back on the river, and capture the whole force—“to bag the old fox,” as he said. The position was plain to the American commander. Donop would be up the next day, and then he would have another Long Island retreat over a wide river. Instead of waiting for Donop, it might be best to meet him half way. He summoned a council of war; but a council of war never fights. He proposed to leave his camp-fires burning, and move around Cornwallis so as to strike Princeton by daybreak. It had been snowing, sleeting, and raining for several days. The chief of artillery reported that guns could not be moved; the quartermaster general that no horses could pull the wagons. Everybody agreed that the roads had no bottom. Washington held on to his opinion with his usual patience and pertinacity, explaining what immense advantages would accrue from the movement, and persistently urged that it be made. By ten o’clock the change occurred that he expected and was waiting for. He opened the door, looked out into the night starless and moonless, and turned to the council. “Gentlemen,” said he, “Providence has decided for us—the wind has shifted; the army will move in two hours.” In two hours the roads were frozen as hard as if macadamized, and the troops marched over the firm ground, the wheels muffled and as noiseless as the march of the dead.

At daylight Cornwallis’s pickets reported that something unusual had taken place in the American camp, and his scouts soon brought him word that it was empty. He was dazed. “Where had the old fox gone to earth? Where was his hiding-place?” were the astounding questions he was to solve, when away off to the northeast the opening guns at Princeton sounded his sharp reveille. He had been surprised as Rahl had been, and outwitted as Sir William at Long Island.

About sunrise Washington’s advance came in contact with Donop’s leading brigade marching on Trenton to help Cornwallis. General Hugh Mercer, the aid to Prince Charlie at Culloden, and the comrade of the commander in chief at the Monongahela, was in command of the right brigade, and he attacked at once. The British resistance was vigorous, and they pressed Mercer firmly. He was killed at the outset, and his lines were going back before the British bayonet, when Washington galloped up, took charge of the field, rallied his troops within forty yards of the British line, brought the whole of his command into action on the double quick, and in twenty minutes had the enemy on the run. The British lost two hundred in killed and wounded, and three hundred prisoners. The firing to the northeast stirred Cornwallis up, and he pushed out to get to Princeton as soon as possible. But a thaw had set in, the bridges were broken, the roads and streams impassable, and by the time he reached Princeton “the old fox” had disappeared with his plunder.

It was Washington’s intention to swoop down on New Brunswick, where there was a depot of provisions, arms, and supplies; but by the time the affair at Princeton was over the men were too tired for further exertion. They had had no sleep the night before, and the cold night march and the sharp affair of the morning had taken the spring out of them. They must have refreshment and rest. Instead, therefore, of making a dash on New Brunswick, the American general moved off to Morristown, where he occupied a strong position on a range of hills. Cornwallis pressed on to New Brunswick, intent on saving that post. In a few days Putnam moved from Philadelphia to Princeton.

By the middle of January, 1777, this then was the position: the American right wing under Putnam, at Princeton; the center under Washington, at Morristown; the left under Heath, on the Hudson. The British retained only New Brunswick, Amboy, and Paulus Hook (Jersey City). The occupation of Jersey had failed, the attempt on the “rebel Capital” had been frustrated, and, after two years of struggle “to retake, reoccupy, and repossess,” and to reduce to loyalty the rebellious colonies, the three posts in New Jersey above named were all that remained to show for results.

This campaign was the most brilliant one of the War of the Revolution. Stonewall Jackson’s valley campaign, in 1862, reminds the military student of it. Cornwallis—the ablest soldier that Britain furnished—gentleman and knight as he was, generously expressed his admiration for it. Stedman, his historian and comrade, considers that Washington’s most remarkable and strongest marked characteristic was his supreme and unfaltering courage. To cross a wide and rapid river in winter, by night, with an inferior, half-clad and half-fed force, surprise and capture a veteran command of regulars, to make off with his booty, and then reoccupy his position in front of Cornwallis with thrice his numbers, fight him, hold him back, elude him and strike his rear, and make him give up all the territory won by the preceding campaign, was an achievement of tactics and of strategy, of endurance and of courage, which nothing but supreme audacity, pugnacity, and courage could accomplish.

The same characteristics were afterward observed in Robert E. Lee, son of “Light Horse Harry” Lee, of the Legion, no kin to the vain braggart, coward, and traitor who tried to lose the Battle of Monmouth and to sell the American army. Robert Lee’s friends were wont to criticise his pugnacity and daring. They said he would run any risk for a fight. The courage displayed by Washington in this short campaign, not the physical courage of the fighter but the intellectual intrepidity of the thinker, at once won him the respect of military men and military nations all over the world, and, what was of equal importance, the confidence of the people at home. There is no doubt that there was a widespread dissatisfaction with his caution and his slowness. The gentlemen who sit at a safe distance studying the map, unshaken by responsibility, always know more about war than the generals who are fighting it, and are liberal with their advice—after the event. The debaters are the most impatient for action by others.

The dispersion of the debating society at Philadelphia had silenced them for a time, and panic had made them shift all responsibility from themselves, by conferring on Washington the powers of dictatorship. But this was no proof of confidence. On the contrary, it was intended by very many as a trap, to prove the utter incompetence of the commander in chief, and make way for superseding him in command. Charles Lee and Gates were both intriguing, and undermining and depreciating the ability of their chief. But the New Jersey campaign settled all that, and public confidence arose to support Washington to such an extent that, when subsequently a wretched cabal in the army was formed to depose him, publicity was the only punishment required to overwhelm the parties to it with shame, confusion, and ignominy. Confidence at home and reputation abroad were the consequences to Washington and the cause. But reputation and confidence did not furnish meat, rations, breeches, or shoes.

The Christmas gift by Washington to the Congress saved the Revolution. The terms of enlistment of a majority of his troops expired on the 1st of January; but with provisions abundant, the plunder of the Hessian quarters and knapsacks in hand, and the glorious enthusiasm of victory thrilling every nerve, the soldiers were induced to stay a few weeks longer. Washington made himself personally liable for their pay, and pledged his entire estate to secure it. John Stark and others followed his example, and the army was held together on a halt before final dissolution.

Washington was untiring in his petitions to Congress and to the States. He appealed to Governor Johnson, of Maryland, his associate in the Ohio and in the Potomac companies, who had nominated him in Congress to be commander in chief, for immediate and prompt re-enforcements. “I have no army,” he said. “The men with me are too few to fight, and not enough to run away with.” He urged Patrick Henry, Governor of Virginia, and Jonathan Trumbull, Governor of Connecticut, in the same terms. On March 6th he wrote to Governor Trumbull from Morristown: “I tell you in confidence that after the 15th of this month, when the time of General Lincoln’s militia expires, I shall be left with the remains of five Virginia regiments, not amounting to more than as many hundred men, and parts of two or three other Continental battalions, all very weak. The remainder of the army will be composed of small parties of militia from this State (New Jersey) and Pennsylvania, on which little dependence can be put, as they come and go when they please.”

On March 14th, also from Morristown, Washington wrote to the President of Congress: “From the most accurate estimate I can now form, the whole of our numbers in Jersey fit for duty at this time is under three thousand. These, nine hundred and eighty-one excepted, are militia, and stand engaged only until the last of this month.” Thus he had, as the sole remnant of the Continental military strength, about five hundred Virginians and four hundred and eighty-one Marylanders. That was almost all that remained of the rebellion. New England was quiet, New York and New Jersey nearly hostile, and Pennsylvania utterly indifferent.

When Captain Morris’s troop of Philadelphia Light Horse tour of duty as escort at headquarters had expired, they were relieved with a complimentary order they and their descendants may well be proud of. “I take this opportunity,” said the order of the commander in chief, “of returning my most sincere thanks to the captain and to the gentlemen who compose the troop for the many essential services which they have rendered to their country, and to me personally, during the course of this severe campaign. Though composed of gentlemen of fortune, they have shown a noble example of discipline and subordination, and in several actions have displayed a spirit of bravery which will ever do honor to them, and will ever be gratefully remembered by me.”

And with the Light Horse went the brightest spark of chivalry from Pennsylvania in the army. The philosophy of Penn had taught that thrift, energy, and the accumulation of material means, with peace, order, and prosperity, are the main objects of life and the chief end of man; and the consequence was the commonwealth could not understand why such imaginary, remote, iridescent, impalpable things as justice, right, and liberty could be worth the sacrifice of present comfort, of fat beeves, of well-fed swine, and even risk of bodily hurt. The idea did not penetrate the bucolic mind during the whole war, and the Philadelphia troop is the most picturesque, chivalric exhibition of sentiment, devotion, and courage made from that State during all those trying times. That troop proved time and again, as Lee’s and Washington’s Legion subsequently proved in the Carolinas, that there is room in society for the order of gentlemen, and that in time of stress it is well for the State to have a class to call on who will die as gayly as they dance, and will pour out their blood, as they were wont to do their fortunes, for faith and honor, for sentiment and ideals. Three battalions of Associators were raised in Philadelphia, officered by Colonels John Bayard, John Cadwalader, and Jacob Morgan, knightly gentlemen, and did gallant service. They and the Light Horse are the most brilliant contributions of Pennsylvania to the cause.

To Washington, with his nine hundred, Johnson brought seventeen hundred from Maryland. They were not very effective, but they were courage and sympathy, hearts as well as hands, like a torch to the lost traveler in the desert. They upheld the spirit of resistance until the country along the Chesapeake could rally; for it had come to be that the chief resistance was henceforth to be made by the English on the Chesapeake. New England stood ready, prepared to repel invasion and expel intruders. John Stark did the first at Bennington, Benedict Arnold the last for a British raid on Danbury, Connecticut.

Washington remained in winter quarters at Morristown, watching his enemy at New York. The junction of Howe with Burgoyne in upper New York was of prime importance, but the occupation of the “rebel capital” at Philadelphia, the permanent dispersion of the rebel Congress, and the separation of the Eastern and Middle States from the Southern, was of equal value. New England paralyzed, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania indifferent, Georgia “restored” to loyalty; the Tories of North and South Carolina gave full occupation to the Whigs of those States, so that they were unable to re-enforce the nucleus of opposition, the Continental Army. Sir William Howe may well have argued that a division of the rebellion on the line of the Delaware was infinitely more pregnant of results than that on the Hudson.

The Southern States subdued, the Eastern and Middle States cut off and neutralized, the rebellion on the Chesapeake and the gallant three counties on the Delaware would have been easily crushed under the guns of the British fleet. The great bays, the wide and deep rivers, gave the command of the water entire control over the land. So Washington watched and waited. Howe might move up the North River, or up the Delaware, or up the Chesapeake. Either move might be disastrous to the American cause. Each must be met and defeated.

The county committees in lower New Jersey, in lower Delaware, on the eastern shore of Maryland and Virginia, were notified to keep a sharp lookout might and day for the fleet, and to report its appearance and progress as soon as it was identified. Lines of couriers were provided from county to county to transmit the news to headquarters.

On April 15th, Washington wrote from Morristown to Landon Carter: “The designs of the enemy are not yet clearly unfolded, but Philadelphia is the object in view; however, this may or may not be the case, as the North River must also be the object of very great importance to them, while they have an army in Canada and are desirous of a junction with it.” On May 28th, he moved from Morristown to Middlebrook, fifteen miles south, on the Raritan River. The army then consisted of forty-three regiments in ten brigades and five divisions, under Major Generals Nathanael Greene, Adam Stephen, John Sullivan, Benjamin Lincoln, and Lord Stirling. The artillery was under Henry Knox. They mustered about seven thousand men, mostly militia, from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. The New York and Eastern troops were guarding the line of the Hudson and Lake Champlain chiefly at Peekskill and Ticonderoga.

On July 1st, Washington wrote to Putnam from Middlebrook, and on the 4th to Governor Trumbull, that Howe was in motion, and “that, upon the whole, there is the strongest reason to conclude that he will push up the river immediately to co-operate with the army from Canada, which it appears certainly has in view an attack on Ticonderoga and the several dependent posts.” At the same time he moved back to Morristown, to be in position for “succoring the Eastern States, and to be near enough to oppose any design upon Philadelphia.” In a week news arrived from Schuyler, in command on the upper Hudson, of the evacuation of Ticonderoga and its occupation by Burgoyne. Washington moved out of Morristown to Pompton Plains, and then farther on toward the Hudson. It had then, in his opinion, become so plainly the policy of Howe to co-operate with Burgoyne that he prepared to support the force at Peekskill on the Hudson.

Howe had collected a fleet of one hundred and twenty vessels at New York. By the last of July he put to sea. At the same time Putnam captured a dispatch from Howe to Burgoyne, advising him that the fleet was to go eastward to Boston. Putnam sent the captured dispatch to headquarters. Washington understood the ruse at once. The dispatch was intended to deceive and to be captured. It said the enemy was to move northeast—that meant was really to move southwest. Without a moment’s hesitation he ordered Sullivan’s and Heath’s divisions to cross the Hudson and march to Philadelphia. Howe appeared at the Capes of the Delaware. Washington moved over to that river, but it was so clearly the interest of Howe to join hands with Burgoyne, that, as he wrote to Gates, he “could not help casting his eyes continually behind him.”

Washington pressed on and took position at Chester, fifteen miles below Philadelphia. But on August 1st he received news by express that on the day before the enemy had sailed out of the Capes in an easterly course. After a week’s delay, and not hearing of Howe, he started the army back toward the Hudson. He camped for a few days at Schuylkill Falls, five miles north of Philadelphia, and hearing nothing of Howe’s fleet, on August 8th the whole army started back for the East, with about eleven thousand men, mostly militia, “badly armed and worse clothed,” as Lafayette, who then joined for the first time, recorded in his journal. On August 10th, at night, a dispatch was received from the President of Congress that the fleet had been seen off Sinepuxent, on the ocean side of the eastern shore of Maryland, on the 7th instant.

The army was then at Neshaminy camp, twenty miles north of Philadelphia, on the Old York road, where it halted until further information should be obtained of Howe. From here he sent Morgan and his riflemen to Gates, who had been assigned to the Northern army, then being assembled about Albany, to intercept Burgoyne. Washington was of opinion that Howe’s object was Charleston, “though for what sufficient reason, unless he expected to drag this army after him, by appearing at different places, and thereby leave the country open for General Clinton to march out and endeavor to form a junction with General Burgoyne, I am at a loss to determine,” as he wrote to Gates on August 20th.

The next day a council of war decided that, as the enemy’s fleet had most probably sailed for Charleston, it was not expedient for the army to march southward, and that it should move immediately toward the North River. The next day the fleet was reported sailing up the Chesapeake. Sullivan was ordered to rejoin with his division as promptly as possible, and the next morning everything was put on the march for Philadelphia and onward. He informed the troops, in a general order, of Stark’s brilliant victory at Bennington on the 16th of August.

On Sunday, August 24th, part of the army, amounting to ten thousand men, with Washington at its head, marched through Philadelphia, down Front Street to Chestnut to the Common, and crossed the Schuylkill at the Middle Ferry, Market Street. They were followed next day by General Francis Nash’s North Carolina Brigade and Colonel Proctor’s Brigade of Artillery. They made a fine impression with their solid marching and seasoned appearance and with green leaves in their hats, though they were dirty and ragged, and were a revelation to the fainthearted Whigs and jubilant Tories, who had no idea that the rebels could muster such a force of fighting men. He pressed on through Wilmington, where he heard that Howe was landing eighteen thousand men at the head of the bay. Washington proceeded with all his cavalry up to the enemy’s lines, to reconnoitre his position and his force, and employed the next three days in acquiring personal knowledge of the roads and topography.

Howe landed on August 25th, and by September 7th had moved only seven miles. The American army fell back to Chadd’s Ford, over the Brandywine, a small stream thirteen miles north of Wilmington, where it awaited the British attack. The position on the north side overlooked that on the south, and during the day it became apparent that the skirmish at the ford opposite the American center was a feint to cover some ulterior purpose. The British army numbered eighteen thousand men, the American about eleven thousand. Wayne, with the artillery, held the center, and Greene was in reserve, with Sullivan on the right and Armstrong on the left. During the morning it got to be understood that the body of troops in front of the ford in plain sight was Knyphausen with his Hessians, and after a time reports began to come in from scouts that a heavy column was moving round the right toward the upper forks of the Brandywine. The enemy had therefore divided his force while within striking distance, and Washington promptly gave orders to Greene to cross and attack, supported by Wayne.

The movement was precisely that of McDowell at First Manassas, and of Jackson at Chancellorsville. Beauregard’s countermove to his adversary was to cross Bull Run and attack his reserve and trains at Centerville. This would have been successful, but was not made on account of an inexplicable accident. There is no record of Hooker’s intention or attempt to countercheck Lee’s move with Jackson at Chancellorsville. When troops are in actual contact—when men see each other and are firing at each other—it is difficult to disengage and perform military evolutions. None but disciplined, and veteran troops can “change front under fire.”

By the time, then, the formations were being made to cross the creek and attack, news came that there was no British column moving round the right flank, and the order to advance was countermanded. In an hour another report of the flank march would come in, and preparation be made for an advance, and then another contradiction. There’ was no American cavalry to scout or to carry information—only a headquarter escort of mounted men.

In some countries—in every country where people are alert, enthusiastic, hot-blooded—tidings of an invading enemy would be spread on the wings of the wind. In Virginia, long afterward, farmers’ sons and daughters would ride thirty miles in a dark night to give information to Lee or Jackson or Stuart of some move of the enemy; and no important move was ever made by any Federal general without being promptly and accurately reported to his adversary in ample time to prepare. And McClellan, Hooker, or Meade, in Maryland and Pennsylvania, were always kept thoroughly posted as to the movements of their Southern enemies by the country people through whose farms and along whose lanes and roads they were marching.

But at Brandywine not a syllable was ever uttered to the American commander from the population among whom operations were taking place for the capture of their capital city and the subjugation of their country. Cornwallis marched seventeen miles through the open country by daylight, to get in the rear, surround, and capture the American army, and not a soul in all that thickly settled country raised hand or voice to save it.

The first positive and accurate knowledge the Americans had of the British movement was when, late in the afternoon, Cornwallis appeared in their rear. Sullivan tried to change front and check him, but that was impossible with his green troops, and they broke, pouring back over the reserve. Washington rode in among them in a tempest of fury, but nothing could stop them. Greene held his command well in hand and moved back in good order and perfect deliberation, and saved the wreck the rout had left. Washington fell back to his old position behind the Schuylkill, and for two weeks was engaged in manœuvring to defend the fords. At last Howe and his army crossed.

Washington wrote to the President of Congress, on September 33d: “The enemy, by a variety of perplexing manœuvers through a country from which I could not derive the least intelligence (being to a man disaffected), contrived to pass the Schuylkill last night at the Fatland (half a mile below Valley Forge), and other fords in the neighborhood of it. . . . At least a thousand men are barefoot, and have performed the marches in that condition.”

At 10 A.M. on September a6th, Lord Cornwallis, with two battalions of British and Hessian grenadiers, two squadrons of the Sixteenth Dragoons, and the artillery, with the chief engineer, Captain John Montresor, the commanding officer of artillery, the quartermaster, and the adjutant general, marched in and took possession of the city of Philadelphia, amid the acclamations of some thousands of the inhabitants, mostly women and children. The men would not appear. So, at last, the rebel capital was taken, their Congress dispersed, and their army nearly routed and driven in disorder from the field. Howe camped his army at Germantown, near Philadelphia, occupying the city with a few picked troops and fixing general headquarters there.

The expulsion of Congress, the seizure of the capital, and the rout at Brandywine, had depressed the morale of the country to its lowest point. It seemed utterly impossible that the militia could be braced up to meet, much less to attack, the invincible regulars, who had driven them whenever and wherever they could get at them. A victory over the British would be of inestimable value. A gallant trial of strength would restore confidence, at least, to troops and to the country. The exposed position of Howe invited enterprise similar to that at Trenton, and the American commander promptly took advantage of his opportunity. He divided his army into three columns of attack, and at 7 P.M., October 3d, moved out of his camp to strike the British just before day next morning. The camp was about twelve miles from the enemy. The attacking force was eight thousand Continentals and three thousand militia.

The attack was to be made by the right wing under Sullivan, accompanied by the commander in chief, moving down the road on which the village was built, with his division of Maryland troops supported by the division of Wayne. His reserve was under Lord Stirling, of Nash’s North Carolina and Maxwell’s Virginia brigades. Sullivan was to attack the left wing, while General Armstrong, with the Pennsylvania militia, was to pass to the left of the enemy and attack in the rear. Greene, with the left wing, was to move to the right of the enemy and march upon the Market House, about the center of the camp; while McDougall, with his division, was to attack in flank, and Smallwood’s division of Maryland militia, and Forman’s New Jersey brigade, making a circuit by the Old York road, were to attack in the rear.

The plan was fatally defective. It proposed to march green troops twelve miles in the night. None but veterans can make such a movement. The darkness disorganizes the command, and destroys the control of field and company officers over the troops. File-closers become powerless. And after such a march with such troops, four separate attacks in front, both flanks and rear to be made by four separate commands at the same instant of time, were impossible. It was impracticable, as the result showed. But Washington, knowing the value of vigor and enterprise in war, that surprise and the unexpected are wonderful forces in attack, hoped to repeat the exploit of Trenton. And the way in the darkness was long and weary. An unprecedented fog obscured the stars by night and the sun by day. It was after daybreak when Sullivan came in touch with the enemy. He attacked at once, and drove them down the road in rout. Neither the right nor left attacks were up, and Sullivan had to do all the fighting.

Colonel Musgrave, of the Fortieth Regiment of the Line of the British army, with six of his companies, threw himself into a strong stone house belonging to Chew, right in the line of attack, and held on to it, firing on the Americans as they passed. Sullivan stopped to take it, lost half an hour, and then pressed on a mile farther and broke the enemy’s left. Everything was now in retreat, and Washington’s audacity about to be crowned with magnificent success. The line in front pursuing and pressing the enemy saw the attack on Chew’s house in the rear, and faced about to go to the assistance of their comrades. The enemy supposed it was a retreat and immediately advanced, and the whole army broke into rout. They were within ten minutes of victory, if it had not been for the stone house. Washington rode to the head of the fugitives, rallied fragments, and with them charged the advancing line and was driven back, again and again to rally, charge, and be repulsed. The gallant and warm-hearted Sullivan, knightly gentleman as he was, said: “I saw with great concern our brave commander in chief exposing himself to the hottest fire of the enemy in such a manner that regard for my country obliged me to ride to him and beg him to retire. He, to gratify me and some others, withdrew to a short distance, but his intense anxiety for the fate of the day soon brought him up again, where he remained until our troops had retreated.”

Washington and all the principal officers were deeply mortified at the result. They always believed that the victory was lost by an accident, and that the panic of the troops was unaccountable. It is difficult now to get at the hidden influences which produced results long past, but a cotemporary, who commanded troops at Germantown, has left a recorded statement that “there was too much drinking at Germantown”; and General Stephens, of the Virginia Division, was cashiered for drunkenness at this battle. To the darkness of the night, the complicated detail of movements, the obstacle of Chew’s house, and Musgrave’s six companies, may have been added the incapacity of superior officers paralyzed by drink. That would account for every misfortune.

Though the daring enterprise failed and he lost the hazard, the moral effect of the movement was enormous at home and abroad. That an army that had been retreating for a year, and been beaten within thirty days, could have been brought to face and attack regulars and come within an ace of routing them, produced a profound impression on the soldiers and statesmen on the Continent.

Frederick the Great said that the dash on Trenton was worthy of the greatest general; and the Count de Vergennes told the American Commissioner at Paris that nothing struck him so much as General Washington attacking Howe at Germantown; that to bring an army raised within a year to such a pass, promised everything. It reminds us of McClellan’s attack on Lee at Sharpsburg or Antietam; not that McClellan got such magnificent fighting out of his troops—for they did fight superbly—but that he got them to fight at all; men who for the preceding year had never fought their enemy but to be beaten, and had never faced him but to retreat. The fighting at Germantown, as at Sharpsburg, was a phenomenon of will and courage in the commander.

When the army was about dissolving, and the Congress itself, paralyzed by inherent imbecility and secret treason, was fleeing from town to town, wherever it could find temporary shelter, it found itself at Christmas time, 1776, in brief security at Baltimore. It met at a hall in the building on the corner of Liberty and Baltimore Streets, then the building farthest west on the road which led from the Western country to tide water.

Then, while Washington was moving back after the surprise at Trenton, and was securing his prisoners and his booty by the retrograde over the Delaware, on the 27th of December, 1776, the Congress passed this resolution: “This Congress, having maturely considered the present crisis, having perfect confidence in the wisdom, vigor, and uprightness of General Washington, do hereby resolve, that General Washington shall be, and he is hereby, vested with full, ample, and complete powers to raise and collect together, in the most speedy and effectual manner, from any or all of these United States, sixteen battalions of infantry in addition to those already voted by Congress; to appoint officers for the said battalions of infantry; to raise, officer, and equip three thousand light horse and three regiments of cavalry, and a corps of engineers, and to establish their pay; to apply to any of the States for such aid of the militia as he shall judge necessary; to form such magazines of provisions, and in such places, as he shall think proper; to displace and appoint all officers under the rank of brigadier general, and to fill all vacancies in every department in the American army; to take, wherever he may be, whatsoever he may want for the use of the army, if the inhabitants will not sell it, allowing a reasonable price for the same; to arrest and confine all persons who refuse to take Continental currency or are otherwise disaffected to the American cause, and to return to the State of which they are citizens their names and the nature of their offenses, together with the witnesses to prove them. That the foregoing powers be vested in General Washington for and during the term of six months from this date, unless sooner determined by Congress.”

On December 30th the Congress sent a circular letter to the Governor of each State, explaining the necessity of this extraordinary action, and urging that “the fullest influence of your State may be exerted to aid such levies as the general shall direct in consequence of the power now given him.” They also appointed a committee, consisting of Robert Morris, George Clymer, and George Walton, to convey to General Washington a copy of their resolutions appointing him dictator, who inclosed it to him on December 31, 1776.

On January I, 1777, he wrote to the committee from Trenton, where he then was, with Cornwallis moving on him from Princeton with the flower of the British regulars. He said: “Yours of the 31st of last month inclosed to me sundry resolves of Congress, by which I find they have done me the honor to intrust me with powers, in my military capacity, of the highest nature, and almost unlimited in extent. Instead of thinking myself freed from all civil obligations by this mark of their confidence, I shall constantly bear in mind, that as the sword was the last resort for the preservation of our liberties, so it ought to be the first thing laid aside when those liberties are firmly established.”

Whether this resolution was passed in the enthusiasm of the receipt of the news of the victory at Trenton on the preceding morning, or whether it was passed in despair at the desperate condition of the Revolution, it was clearly an abandonment by Congress of the struggle, and a confession of its own incapacity to do anything. It meant that, “experience having proved that we have neither the capacity nor the power to direct or conduct the rebellion, we hereby invest you, general, with all the power intrusted to us by our States, or whatever you can obtain from them or from anywhere, by hook or by crook, to do the best you can under the circumstances. If you can conduct the war, conduct it; if you must make peace, make it; if you are obliged to disperse, take to the woods. We are at the end of our rope; we can do nothing further; we give it up, and turn the whole matter over to you.”

To be sure, they pretended to limit the duration of the dictatorship to six months or the pleasure of the Congress; but the only limit to the power of a dictator is the pleasure of the dictator himself. He ends it when he thinks public necessity—which is another term for his personal opinion—requires that it should terminate. The prestige of the attack at Trenton and Princeton conferred vastly more authority on the commander in chief than the transitory resolves of the ambulatory Congress.

The people felt, and the States knew, that the government of the country was at the headquarters of the army, and that its counsels and debates were conducted under the chapeau of the general in chief. The power of public opinion furnished recruits, sustained the currency, and supplied provisions, as far as anything in that direction was done. The resolution of Congress effected nothing, and, whether intended or not when it was passed, its utter failure to accomplish anything or to strengthen the arm of the general in the field was made the excuse, the reason, and the justification for the intrigue of the following winter, when it was intended by the Board of War to drive him out of the army, and thus accomplish a surrender of the struggle.

Washington’s correspondence during this period is the most remarkable display of ability ever made by any soldier or any statesman. His task was, first, to keep an army together so as to furnish a nucleus for armed resistance; second, and equally difficult, to hold the Congress and prevent its dispersing to the woods and the mountains to escape the wrath of the victorious officers of the law; third, to hold up the States to the spirit of resistance, so that, whatever happened to the Continental organization, armed or civic, military or congressional, the seeds of rebellion should be preserved and cherished, and the struggle against irresponsible and unlimited power should never be abandoned. He, more than any man, knew the limitless resources of the Western country—West Augusta he once called it—with its plains and its mountains, its forests and its valleys, its great rivers and its grand unsalted seas. He knew that “montani semper liberi”; and with the British occupying every port and garrisoning every capital and patrolling every town on tide water, the trackless forest and illimitable desert could never be subdued when held by men of the race he represented.


* Vide Appendix A.

Return to General Washington