General Washington, by Bradley T. Johnson, Chapter 10

Washington and Lee University

General Washington

By General Bradley T. Johnson



WHEN Howe, on September 26, 1777, occupied Philadelphia, the fortunes of America were at their lowest ebb. Burgoyne had opened the way from Canada by the capture of Ticonderoga, which St. Clair had abandoned after his assurance to the commander in chief that it could and should be held. After the evacuation he had disappeared in the wilderness with his troops, and for days there were no tidings of him. Sir Henry Clinton had forced the Hudson and was pressing on to Albany with every prospect of a junction with Burgoyne. That union insured the conquest of New England.

Gates, by his own intrigues and the influence of the New England members of Congress, had procured the command of the Northern Department, displacing Schuyler, who, by his family connection, his political influence, his services, the confidence the country reposed in him, and his patriotic devotion, was entitled to and best fitted for the command. Washington at once dispatched Gates to his command, well instructed as to the strategy of his campaign. If New England was to be saved, she must be saved by her own exertions. He proposed to give him a nucleus of veteran Continental troops around which the country could rally. He sent Morgan and his Virginia riflemen with him, and wrote urgent letters to the Governors of Massachusetts and Connecticut, pressing them to hurry their militia to the support of Gates and the defense of the New England line, and impressing on them the vital importance of preventing the junction between Burgoyne and Sir Henry Clinton.

The moral effect of his exhortations, aided by the imminent peril, was prodigious. New England rose en masse, and its militia, including many soldiers of the last war, of the capture of Louisburg, and of Indian fights, rushed to the camp at Albany, bringing their own arms and rations, No more stalwart and determined re-enforcements ever came up in time of need. Burgoyne, as he wended his tedious and devious way down Lake Champlain, saw the tempest rising. He wrote to the ministry at home that the New Hampshire grants, which had been a wilderness at the time of the last war, were now peopled by the most hardy, daring, and rebellious race in America, “who hang like a gathering storm on my left.” He reached the southern end of Lake George and crossed the Hudson, keeping up a casual and uncertain communication with Sir Henry Clinton.

Around him gathered the yeomanry of New England—front, flanks, and rear—as they had enveloped Lord Percy on that retreat from Lexington. They were everywhere. They were untiring. By the middle of October Burgoyne sent word to Sir Henry that he would hold on for five days; that he could not be responsible after that: His position and condition were better understood at the American headquarters than at his own, and no effort wm left untried to force the fighting and to terminate the campaign before Clinton could possibly get up. Arnold was with Gates, with the rank of brigadier general, but had come into collision with his commanding officer, who had deprived him of his command, and in effect had ordered him to the rear by directing him to report to headquarters. To be sent to the rear in the presence of the enemy is an unpardonable affront, an outrage, or an extreme duty, as the case may be, but it is the decision of the commanding officer that that particular soldier is unfit for duty in that battle.

Arnold’s fiery, insubordinate temper could never brook such an insult, and on his troops becoming engaged, he dashed off, without rank, command, or orders, and led them. On the field his personality was so great that his directions were obeyed as orders, and the best fighting against Burgoyne was done by Arnold. At last the British general was forced to capitulate, and on the 17th of October, 1777, surrendered five thousand seven hundred and fifty-two men to Gates, who had, regulars and militia, ten thousand five hundred and fifty-four men on duty. Gates was so much elated by his success that his head—a weak, light member—was turned. He had been assigned to his command by Congress, therefore he argued that he held an independent command, ignoring the fact that Congress had appointed a commander in chief of all the armies raised and to be raised for the defense of American liberty. He reported the result to the President of Congress, and Washington was left for weeks with no official information from Gates of the capitulation and of its substantial results.

Gates had captured seven thousand stand of small arms, with great quantities of artillery, ammunition, clothes, tents, and supplies, which would have been of immense importance to the army before Philadelphia. Washington went straight on in the execution of his grand strategy. He occupied the interior lines, and, by concentrating against isolated attacks of the enemy, could, to an extent, equalize the enormous disparity of force. He had fortified the Delaware; and, could it be held, Sir William Howe, surrounded in Philadelphia by the rising of Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, could be destroyed as Burgoyne had been.

The surrender of the British general at Saratoga had released the Continentals in the army of the North. With them to re-enforce him, he could hold the Delaware, and the militia of the three States could close the gap behind Howe to the Chesapeake. He sent a peremptory order to Gates to dispatch all his Continentals to him. Gates did not do it. He sent another order, and then dispatched Colonel Alexander Hamilton, his aid-de-camp, to see that his commands were promptly obeyed. Hamilton started, expecting to meet the troops en route; but, riding across the country, it was not until he reached Peekskill, on the Hudson, that he met Morgan laboring on the way to Philadelphia.

Finding Putnam on the east side of the Hudson, he dispatched two Continental brigades from his command to headquarters, and on reaching Gates prevailed on him to send on two other brigades. These re-enforcements reached the Delaware ten days too late—after Howe had captured the forts, opened the Delaware, and made secure his communications with the open sea and his base of supplies in New York. The probability of repeating in Pennsylvania the achievement of Saratoga was gone, and the only thing left to do was to protract the war, wear out his antagonist, and wait for re-enforcements, which, in the opinion of the American commander in chief, were sure to come. His anticipations of the rising of the country were not met. The militia of Maryland came in from the mountains to the sea. The counties on the Delaware—now the State of Delaware—responded with that chivalry, spirit, and generosity for which those people have always been distinguished.

New Jersey was divided in sentiment, torn by internal broils, harried by continual raids by Hessian, Tory, and regular, and could not rise; she was tied. But Pennsylvania, the invaded State, stood as placid as her own fat oxen. On the 17th of October Washington wrote to Wharton, the President of Pennsylvania, appealing to him to keep up the quota of troops demanded of the State by Congress. “I assure you, sir,” he writes, “it is a matter of astonishment on every part of the Continent to hear that Pennsylvania, the most populous and opulent of all the States, has but twelve hundred militia in the field, at a time when the enemy are endeavoring to make themselves completely masters of, and to fix their quarters in, her capital.”

Yet, a month afterward, when the American army, “starved, naked, without shoes, clothes, or provisions, three days successively without bread, two days without meat,” writes Varnum, of Rhode Island, the Legislature of Pennsylvania addressed a remonstrance to Congress against Washington’s going into winter quarters instead of keeping the open field. This drop overflowed the full cup of his patience, and he broke out in a letter to Congress which did full justice to the subject, to himself, and to them. He told them: “With truth I can declare that no man, in my opinion, ever had his measures more impeded than I have by every department of the army. Since the month of July we have had no assistance from the quartermaster general, and to want of assistance from this department the commissary charges a great part of his deficiency.

“To this I may add, that notwithstanding it is a standing order, and often repeated, that the troops shall always have two days’ provisions by them, that they might be ready on any sudden call, yet an opportunity has scarcely ever offered of taking advantage of the enemy that it has not been either totally obstructed or greatly impeded on this account. . . .By a field return this day made, besides the men in hospital and farmers’ houses for want of shoes, we have two thousand eight hundred and ninety-eight men now in camp, unfit for duty because they are barefoot and otherwise naked. . . .

“By the same return it appears that our whole strength in Continental troops, including the Eastern brigades, which have joined us since the surrender of General Burgoyne, exclusive of the Maryland troops sent to Wilmington, amounts to no more than eight thousand two hundred in camp fit for duty. . . . I can assure gentlemen, that it is a much easier and less distressing thing to draw remonstrances in a comfortable room by a good fireside than to occupy a cold, bleak hill, and sleep under frost and snow without clothes or blankets. However, although they seem to have little feeling for the naked and distressed soldiers, I feel abundantly for them, and from my soul I pity those miseries which it is neither in my power to relieve nor prevent.”

To keep the field was impossible. The commanding general might have kept the field, but he could not keep the army. It would have died out, starved out, frozen out, straggled out. In thirty days he would not have had enough men for camp guard; so, in the face of the remonstrances of the Congress and of the Pennsylvania Legislature, he went into winter quarters at Valley Forge, twenty miles from Philadelphia, on the west side of the Schuylkill, on the 17th of December 1777. The Congress had become ambulatory, and was steadily deteriorating in material The best men were in the army or in the State governments. Johnson had been made Governor of Maryland, and was organizing that new State and utilizing her resources to support Washington, for he thoroughly understood that Washington was the Revolution. Patrick Henry was Governor of Virginia, and had declined to accept .the position of deputy to Congress, as George Mason also had done from the beginning. George Clinton was Governor of New York, and Schuyler was with the army.

The feeble, incapable body known as the Congress was no longer the body that at risk of life and fortune had shown the way to liberty by the Declaration of Independence, but was composed of obscure men, without force of character or consideration in the communities they represented. This was particularly so among the deputies from New England. The Adamses were there, firm, faithful, brave, and true; they never faltered or hesitated; but the great mass were attorneys or preachers or traders, without high ideas of duty, with no idea of devotion or self-sacrifice. John Jay, long after the Revolution, said to his son: “No one but John Adams and I know the history of the Continental Congress. It will never be written.” Its corruptions, its intrigues, its unscrupulous undermining of Washington and the common cause will never be revealed. The sectional line had appeared at an early day.

The Adamses had endeavored to obliterate it by cordial support of Virginian influence in the selection of a Virginia colonel for commander in chief. He was nominated by Johnson, of Maryland, but Adams brought New England to his formal support. This left a feeling of soreness in New England. Artemas Ward, their own commander in chief of their own army, which they had raised, was superseded by a Virginian aristocrat, with his liveries, his coat of arms, his coach and four, and his outriders. He was an abomination to the nostrils of the faithful. John Hancock, President of the Congress, was affronted that he had not been selected to command the army. So the feeling grew. Small men, without pedigree, manners, or fortune, hate those who are their antipodes in character, conduct, and general estimation. The dignified deportment of the Virginian gentleman was exaggerated into ponderous pomposity, and his style of dress and of living resented as an assumption of superiority.

Whenever the troops were in cantonments, or camps, the commander in chief expected all general and field officers to dine with him every day at three o’clock. The etiquette at dinner was, that every officer should appear dressed as a gentleman should be; and the meal, whether of the scantiest or most abundant, was served by the general’s own cooks and trained servants he had brought from Virginia. They were not unaccompanied with a glass of good rum or sound Madeira from the cellar of Mount Vernon. This simple social rite served a great and useful purpose. It brought all the officers under the constant supervision, inspection, and examination of their chief, who thus became acquainted with the character, ability, and capacity of each man; while it brought them all into that close contact which so largely creates the comradeship of arms, and makes soldiers the more serviceable, as they have confidence in each other. This form of entertainment had been commenced by the commander in chief as soon as he assumed command at Cambridge, and was continued by him during the entire war. This formal state was offensive to the democratic mind, and was the source of criticism, carping, and ill-will in Congress. How much and how far British gold was used in that body to foment discontent and to create dissension and purchase treason, we do not as yet know. It is certain that John Jay and others believed that such influences were at work.

We now know that Charles Lee had made his terms, and was exchanged and sent back to the army to carry out the scheme agreed on at the British headquarters in New York. At the same time appeared in London a number of letters of Washington to his brother Lund Washington and to Lieutenant Battaille Muse, his manager at Mount Vernon, depreciating the movement for independence, and the motives of the movers for it and the characters of the leaders. These letters contained many domestic allusions and family details, which seemed to establish their genuineness. If true, they showed that the writer was a traitor to his cause, a hypocrite to his friends, and a maligner of his comrades. They were, in fact, forged by Sir John Randolph, Royal Attorney-General of Virginia, who had taken the Tory side, gone to London, and made this contribution toward the destruction of kin and country, though he never struck a blow in the field in defense of his opinions.

These letters were republished in New York and distributed through the country by the hands of envy and the breath of slander. Everywhere the air was full of suspicions of “our modem Fabius,” as the New England members derisively dubbed the Virginian colonel. Even brusque, prompt, positive John Adams wrote his wife, that he was thankful that the capture of Burgoyne had been made by the Northern army. “If it had been accomplished by the Southern army,” said the New Englander, “its commander would have been deified. It is bad enough as it is.” A deep-laid plan then began to be put in execution, not alone to displace Washington—though that would have been fatal to the cause, for it would not have brought such prompt returns to the operators. It was intended, in Congress, to force Washington out; Lee to take command, as next in rank, and then the latter was to carry out his agreement with Sir Henry Clinton of restoring the Union and peace to a distracted people. The first step was to paralyze the commander in chief. That was done by reorganizing the Board of War, vested with general direction of operations, on which was placed Thomas Mifflin, the discredited quartermaster general, whom Washington had just reported to Congress for incompetency, Joseph Trumbull, ex-Commissary-General Richard Peters, Colonel Timothy Pickering, and General Horatio Gates. This board organized by making Gates president, and Wilkinson, his chief of staff, secretary. It was thus organized to convict. Its plan was to snub Washington, to ignore his rank, to send orders over his head, and to make it impossible for him to command the army.

When he resigned, Gates assumed that he would succeed to the vacant scepter. We can not believe that Gates was a party to the Lee plot, and there is no evidence now known pointing that way; but it is more probable that Gates was the cat’s-paw of the conspirators. If Washington were out of the way, the command, by operation of law, devolved upon Lee; and it would require an entire reorganization of the army to put Gates at the head of it, and that would be impossible.

Gates had been a sergeant in the British army, and the victory of Arnold and Morgan at Saratoga, for which he had received the plaudits of the public, had so addled him, that he failed to see the game that was being played inside of the one in which he had taken a part. He was playing to make Gates commander in chief. The real managers of the movement intended Lee to take charge—play the Monk act over again—and they would all gain rank, honors, and much wealth. Of course the first step was to blind Gates by flattery; and he was plied with that day after day. The conspiracy exploded in the most accidental manner, and hoisted its engineers as other petards have done, before and since.

On Gates’s staff, at Saratoga, was a young Marylander as adjutant general—James Wilkinson by name—with the proverbial modesty, diffidence, and self-depreciation of the ichthyophagi—of those nurtured on oysters and fish. Gates dispatched him with his report of Burgoyne’s surrender to Congress, at York, in Pennsylvania. It took him eighteen days to make the ride; he ought to have done it in five. But then a bright, handsome, well-dressed young staff officer, carrying the news of victory through the country, was a great man at every village and at every gentleman’s country seat where he stopped to bait and rest.

The girls of the house hung over him, and ran over each other in their eagerness to wait on this new Othello—how he marked with the bread the British fortifications, and with the salt the rifle-pits of the Americans; what the general said to him, and what he said to the general; and how by happy coincidence his suggestions—though he would not presume to insinuate that the general accepted and followed them, but the fact was, nevertheless, that when the line of action happened to correspond with the views he had confidentially imparted to the general, success invariably attended the operation.

All this over and over, for days and nights, as the gay gallant galloped from country house to country house. As he approached the army he would from time to time light on some post of soldiers or quarters of officers. Passing through Reading, he spent the evening at the headquarters of Lord Stirling, and of course began sounding his trumpet. The staff sized him up in five minutes, filled his glass again and again, and kept it full and also kept him talking. They chaffed him about his great influence at headquarters with their tongues in their cheeks, and intimated that in the Southern army the adjutant general did not know and control everything. Knowledge and control were reserved to the general in chief alone.

Wilkinson, eager to impress these incredulous aids-de-camp, told them that they had no idea of what was going on; that the Board of War was about to supersede Washington with Gates, and that then they would have an opportunity to win some of the laurels of which he had secured such a plentiful crop. “In fact,” said the garrulous and bibulous chief of staff, “I have read a letter from General Conway, the brilliant and distinguished and experienced French officer, lately joined, to my own chief, General Gates, in which he says: ‘Heaven has determined to save your country, or a weak general and bad counsellors would have ruined it.’ So you see,” said Wilkinson, “that your hero is only a clay hero at last; my hero is the only genuine one, who alone can save the country.”

Wilkinson proceeded to York, where he delivered his dispatches with a flourish and a bow, like a rustic beau, and waited until Congress should reward, with some signal recognition, his distinguished services in taking eighteen days to carry a message which any ordinary rider would have delivered in five. He demanded a major general’s commission, a vote of thanks, a horse, and a sword—any one, either or all—until Dr. Witherspoon, of Princeton, said, “I think ye’d better give the lad a pair of spurs.” They did give him a brevet brigadiership, and he went off swelling and happy. Stirling’s adjutant, McWilliams, of course immediately reported Wilkinson’s statement to his chief, who informed General Washington of it.

He had been well informed of the intrigues of Congress. He knew the efforts that were being made to undermine him in public opinion. Anonymous letters had been sent to Patrick Henry, Governor of Virginia, to Laurens, President of Congress, and to General Putnam, on the Hudson, carefully depreciating Washington’s abilities and services, and urging the necessity for an immediate change in the command of the army. Henry and Laurens sent their letters to Washington, who identified them as in the handwriting of Dr. Benjamin Rush, of Philadelphia. That to Putnam, still preserved among his papers, has since been identified as in the handwriting of James Lovell, deputy in Congress from Massachusetts. Such a swarm of buzzing insects, hiving in darkness, only required the light to be let in on it to disperse it, and Washington did this in the simplest, most direct way. On November 9, 1777, he wrote Conway this note:

SIR: A letter which I received last night contained the following paragraph: “In a letter from General Conway to General Gates, he says: ‘Heaven has determined to save your country, or a weak general and bad counsellors would have ruined it’.” I am, sir, your obedient servant,


Conway was overwhelmed. He was inspector general, with the rank of major general. He promptly resigned, but the Board of War very properly would not accept his resignation.

Mifflin and Gates were as confounded as Conway, but they all agreed to stand together as far as possible. The first thing to be done was to find out how much Washington knew. Hamilton had been some time at Gates’s headquarters, and mean-minded men suspect mean tricks, so the idea floated through what Gates took for his mind, that Hamilton had stolen his correspondence—in the name of Heaven, how much and what part! Gates therefore wrote to Washington, complaining of this theft from his letter book, and beseeching that the general would aid him in discovering the thief. Washington wrote him, explaining how the information had come to him through the babbling of Wilkinson, thus upsetting the theory of theft, but relieving the cabal with the knowledge that no written evidence of the statement was in the possession of the general. Gates therefore denied that there was any such expression in Conway’s letter to him, and at the same time returned the letter to Conway, so that he (Gates) could not be called upon to produce it. Conway denied that any such expression was in the letter, and refrained from exhibiting it. Washington coldly persisted in holding them both to the point, that the simplest, plainest, most perfect settlement of the existence or nonexistence of the obnoxious paragraph was the production of the paper itself, and without it the question would be left absolutely uncertain.

Stirling wrote Wilkinson that he had heard that the latter now asserted that there were no such words in the letter, and asked Wilkinson also for a copy of the letter. Wilkinson indignantly refused, repudiating the idea of such a betrayal of confidence as showing a private letter. But Wilkinson’s time was not a happy one—Stirling prodding him for a copy, Gates denouncing him for treachery, Conway damning him for a fool. He undertook, as many a man has, to brazen through it. He rode over to York, sent his friend Colonel Ball, of Virginia, to Gates with a letter demanding satisfaction. The terms of the duel were arranged, when Gates came around at night to Wilkinson’s quarters, made up, and they became friends. He went after Stirling, but Stirling was too ready with his right hand, and Wilkinson accepted in satisfaction a statement from Stirling that Wilkinson had said what he did about the letter in a convivial moment, but not in confidence. Wilkinson resigned his commission as inspector general and major general, retaining that of colonel, and retired to obscurity. After the war he was restored to the army, was in command at New Orleans on the cession of Louisiana to the United States, and was charged with complicity with Colonel Aaron Burr in his treasonable schemes.

Conway resigned, fought a duel with General John Cadwalader about this business, who shot him through the body, thought he was going to die, and wrote a contrite letter to General Washington, expressing the highest respect and admiration, and the deepest love for him. Gates was sent after a time to command the Southern army, and there his “Northern laurels turned to Southern willows,” as Charles Lee warned him they might. After defeat and disaster he was relieved, and retired to an obscure plantation in Virginia, where he died unnoticed and unknown. Every conspicuous, exposed member of the cabal came to an ignominious end. Not one survived Washington’s letter to Conway. The parties to it in and out of Congress have escaped, sheltered by their obscurity, but not a single member of that Congress ever won public confidence or achieved reputation, unless he had been at that time an avowed supporter of Washington. The exposure of this intrigue paralyzed the conspirators. The dictator ruled the Board of War, instead of the Board of War managing him. He made Nathanael Greene, of Rhode Island, quartermaster general, and Jeremiah Wadsworth, of Connecticut, commissary general; and very soon military matters began to improve.

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