General Washington, by Bradley T. Johnson, Chapter 11

Washington and Lee University

General Washington

By General Bradley T. Johnson

CHAPTER XI.

THE FRENCH ALLIANCE.

FROM the day of the Declaration of Independence Washington perfectly appreciated the situation, that independence could not be achieved by the colonies alone. With the command of the water, the British would occupy all the ports and control all foreign commerce and intercourse with the world. The colonists could retire to the mountains, and could not be subjugated, but they never could be an independent people as long as they were cut off from the world and blockaded from the ocean. When he presided at the Fairfax meeting, and voted to memorialize the King—that from the King in council there was but one appeal—he understood that to mean an appeal to the God of battles, and that appeal the Virginians were ready and willing to make, unaided by any other arm and unsupported from any quarter. They had done so under the lead of Nathaniel Bacon against Sir William Berkley—unsuccessfully, indeed, so far as the overthrow of his government was concerned, but with entire success so far as demanded reforms were obtained. Resistance to the King might be made unaided; independence of the kingdom could only be fully attained by foreign assistance.

Washington was brought to favor independence as a war necessary to carry on successful war; he was forced to favor the French alliance as the only means of securing independence. But independence and the French alliance were both entirely distasteful steps to many earnest and determined patriots. To resist the Government with arms was an inherited right; to dissolve the Union was an offense against the law of Nature; to fight our kin, our own blood and our brothers, was the natural order; but to join the –???? Frenchmant— in fighting them was entirely inconceivable. The great struggle therir ancestors had made was to expect New France from, and establish New England on the American continent; and it was contrary to the traditions, the sentiments, and the motivations of the English in America to aid in re-establishing the French in the position from which they had dislodged and expelled them twenty years before.

These objections weighed heavily on the mind and heart of Washington. He had spent a score of the years of his life in fighting the French; he was not willing to purchase independence from his blood and kin at home for the purpsoe of restoring their hereditary and natural enemy to the position in America from which they had been expelled. But Washington’s mind worked with mathematical and inexorable logic. If we were subjugated, we would lose every right that freemen cherish and every muniment of liberty on which they rely, and with which alone it can be perpeturated. We would become serfs of an insolent, brutal, overbearing set of masters, who, arrogating to themselves Norman blood, would introduce Norman customs of confiscation, conviction, and forfeitures into America. We could achieve independence and escape subjugation solely by means of a French alliance. The alliance might restore Canada to France, but it were better to achieve independence first, and then control as best we could the consequences of the alliance.

Therefore, when the news came that the treaty, offensive and defensive, had been signed on the 6th of February, 1778, at Paris, between His Most Christian Majesty and the United States of America, it was considered the beginning of the end. It was certain that Spain must soon join France in this attack on their hereditary enemy. Great Britain promptly declared war on France, on March 13,1778. Lord George Germaine shifted the responsibility for the disasters of the American campaign from his own shoulders to that of the generals in the field. Burgoyne, who had gone home on parole at once, took his seat in the House of Commons and defended himself with vigor.

As soon as Sir William Howe heard of it he insisted upon his right to face his accusers and meet the charges against his conduct in person. He resigned, turned over the command to Sir Henry Clinton, and sailed for home. The war with France had put a new complexion on the occupation of Philadelphia. Instead of perfectly secure communications by sea, with his base at New York and England, the approach of a great French fleet rendered them exceedingly hazardous. Consequently, on June 18, 1778, the British army marched out of Philadelphia, with a trail of wagons and Tory refugees twelve miles long. Before sundown the American advance took possession of the city.

The American army was now about numerically equal to the British. It was better than it ever had been in drill, equipment, and morale. During the winter it had been under the isntruction of Von Steuben, inspector general, and the troops were anxious to put in practice some of the movements of the great Frederick—which their drill master, the Baron, had told them a thousand times were the
means by which he achieved victory. Sir Henry Clinton was pushing for deep water and an open port. He apprehended being cooped up in Philadelphia, the Delaware blockaded, and the militia of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and New Jersey rising like a storm in his rear, both flanks and front, as the Green Mountain Boys and the Massachusetts and Connecticut militia had swept around Burgoyne.

Washington intended and hoped to accomplish this, but the treason of Lee and the vanity of Gates lost the chance. As soon, however, as Sir Henry set his face toward the sea the American commander’s drums beat the assembly, and he pushed out to cut him off. The news of the evacuation reached the American headquarters at ten A.M. By two P.M. six brigades were on the march pushing out into Jersey,
followed by the whole army next morning at daylight. This prompt action was extraordinary. The troops had been in huts for exactly six months. In that time an army accumulates an incredible amount of trash—clocks, feather beds, large iron ovens,
bedsteads, boxes, trunks, etc. It is impossible to shake them off in a few hours. Soldiers will load
themselves with every conceivable inconvenience rather than throw it away. When the army of northern Virginia evacuated Manassas, in March, 1862, its wagons were broken down with Saratoga trunks—unwieldy, cumbrous affairs, the contribution of devoted sisters and mothers—and it took three days’ stalling of wagons and breaking down of four and six mule teams to clear out the “things” piled in and on them.

When the Germans, in 1871, invested Paris, the Teutonic mind seemed to run by a law of Nature to horology, and the files of the marching columns were picturesque and ridiculous with every variety of clock—big clocks, little clocks, square clocks, round clocks, long clocks, short clocks—on their backs, in their arms, stuffed in their haversacks, and protruding from their knapsacks; and after a day or two the route was strewn with every variety of product of French skill and of German vexation. Cæsar called this “impedimenta.”

That Washington should have got in motion in four hours after receiving notice proves, first, that he had been preparing for the move; second, that his troops, officers and men, were well in hand; and third, that the general in chief had a prompt, quick, positive mind. He knew that Sir Henry must evacuate; that he must move by land to New York; that his column must be long and attenuated, choked with the débris of winter quarters, and stretched out with the plunder of officers and the impedimenta of refugees. With such an army guarding such a train, there must occur opportunity to strike some point weaker than the other, and to cut it off. If the amputated portion should be the artillery and the reserve ammunition, so much the better; but the opportunity must occur; it was a certainty that it would occur. It was his duty to be prepared to take advantage of it; for the great difference between soldiers is, that one knows an opportunity when he sees it, and embraces it on sight, while the other never understands that an opportunity has been within his reach until after it has passed irreclaimably beyond.

The American appreciated the conditions, and knew what would happen. He had his troops stripped ready for the race, and the moment Sir Henry started he gave the word, and six brigades moved out promptly and took the route, Charles Lee in command. He crossed the Delaware at Coryell’s Ferry, now Lambertville, N.J., on the 20th, the army following over the same crossing, and pressed on toward Princeton. Washington had the interior and shorter line to New York. By the 27th of June his advance interposed between the British and Amboy, and Sir Henry turned off to the right and marched for Sandy Hook.

The most incomprehensible line of Washington’s policy during the whole war was his constant appeal to councils of war. He had councils to determine whether he should attack General Gage at Boston or Sir William Howe at New York or in Philadelphia, or whether he should make the dash on Princeton; and, what is still more impossible to understand, he always permitted his council to decide.

It may have been that, appreciating his own inexperience, he really desired advice; or it may have been that, having made up his mind, he took this means of impressing his views on his subordinates; or he may have taken this means to bring his officers in close and confidential relations to each other, just as he always expected all his general officers to dine with him every day. Whatever may have been the reason for the councils of war, they are not discernible now. But this council decided to attack. The commander in chief had intended and had been preparing for this move for the preceding four weeks. Lee, therefore, was directed to push on with his five thousand men and cut off the British rear guard at Monmouth Court-House, and hold it while Washington brought up the main body of the army.

The movement was too assured of success to suit Lee’s plans. It would certainly be accomplished if pressed, and, if accomplished, disastrous consequences to Sir Henry Clinton might ensue. He might be surrounded and captured, as Burgoyne had been, and then “good-by” to Lee’s dukedom and pension. He therefore asked to be relieved from the command of the advance, on the ground of his disapproval of the military movement. Lafayette was thus left in charge, and his fidelity, energy, and courage insured a vigorous execution of the plan of the commander in chief. During the night Lee concluded that there was too much chance of success with Lafayette, and that he alone could insure disaster.

With a rout of the army and a probable capture of its commander, the Board of War would be revived, the command would devolve on him, and, in conjunction with the mercenary traitors in Congress, the débris of resistance could be surrendered, the terms of the British commissioners accepted, the Union restored, and he secure his dukedom, with vast possessions from the confiscated estates of the rebels. Of his own personal knowledge he knew what a princely estate Mount Vernon was, for he had been entertained there; and it would furnish a delightful haven for an old soldier battered by many wars and buffeted by various fortunes.

Lafayette was pressing on to make the movement which would bring on a general engagement. Lee thereupon represented to the general that a movement of such moment and responsibility ought to be intrusted to the second in command, and that it was his duty to execute it. Washington agreed with him; said that that had been his intention, and that Lee himself had frustrated it by declining the command, and that now no change could be made which would appear to reflect on Lafayette by sending a senior officer to rank him and take his command away from him in the presence of the enemy. But Washington, with a consideration for Lee’s feelings which does no credit to his judgment of men, at length sent Lee forward with Scott’s and Varnum’s brigades to re-enforce Lafayette. Upon reporting his arrival to the latter, his rank gave him command of the whole, and the opportunity to produce disaster, which he sought. He was within five miles of the British left wing, which was separated from its right, convoying the trains, by an interval of several miles.

The next day (June 28th) was one of the hottest of the season. Lee did not get into action until after eight o’clock—he ought to have struck his blow at daylight—and as soon as he appeared, Cornwallis, who commanded the British left, turned sharply on him and pressed him with vigor. Washington, with his main body, was three miles back, comfortably enjoying the sound of the firing which assured him of substantial results. All at once a countryman rode up with an exclamation that the Americans were retreating. The general, with emphasis, said that the man was a fool; but before half a dozen phrases could have been uttered the road, the woods, the fields, the air became full of indications of rout and panic. A drummer boy ran up with his tongue hanging out, who was promptly cuffed into decency and quiet. Soldiers could be seen dodging about in the woods, flanking the group in the road, which they understood at once consisted of generals, who were not good company at that time for a skulking private.

The general up to that time had been standing in the road with his arm on his horse’s neck, taking in everything that transpired, cool and quiet, only opening his mouth to damn the countryman and to scold the drummer boy, when at once he mounted and struck off in a gallop to the front, with the staff straggling on as best they could behind him. Some distance toward the fighting he met Grayson’s and Patton’s regiments running as fast as fatigue, the hot weather, and the crowd would let them. The Virginians on the run! No living man had ever seen that sight before, and the general demanded of them whether the whole advance corps was retreating. They said it was. Soon Shreeve, at the head of his regiment, came along in good order. “What’s the reason of all this?” “I do not know,” said Colonel Shreeve; “I retreated by order.” He directed Shreeve to halt, form a line, and rally what he could on it. Meeting Colonel Nathaniel Ramsay, of the Maryland Line, struggling and straggling back, he said, “Colonel Ramsay, if you can stop this advance for fifteen minutes you will save this army.” “I will do it,” said Ramsay, “or die;” and he did it, and did not die either. Every officer who came by was dissatisfied with the retreat. No one could explain it. They were driving the enemy when they were called off. That was the universal feeling. General Lafayette sent word that the presence of the commander in chief was imperatively needed on the field.

This message overflowed the cup of patience and broke the back of self-control. Just then Lee came along with his staff, cool and complacent. Washington rode at him as if he meant to ride him down. He was like a raging lion. “What is the meaning of all this?” he fiercely demanded of Lee. His manner was more nerve-shattering than his words, his voice than his actions, and Lee was utterly abashed. He stammered that misconception of orders made confusion, and confusion necessitated withdrawal, “for our troops can’t face the British infantry; they are the best troops in the world.” “Will you command here, sir, and hold this hill while I bring up the rest?” “It is perfectly indifferent to me where and what I command,” said Lee. “I expect you to take proper means for checking the enemy!” “Your orders shall be obeyed, and I shall not be the first to leave the ground.”

Washington galloped back and formed his line, with Lord Stirling on his left and Greene on his right. Cornwallis first attempted to turn the left flank, but was driven back by Stirling, and then tried the right with equal bad fortune, for he was checked by Greene. The British then fell back beyond Monmouth Court-House, and took a strong position with flanks well covered by woods and morass. The American general pressed his troops on to attack, but before the proper disposition could be made night fell, and the movement was abandoned on account of the darkness. During the night Washington and Lafayette occupied the same cloak on the ground, and passed the entire time discussing Lee. What passed has not been recorded, but Lafayette had seen the thing with his own eyes. It certainly was not cowardice, for Lee was beyond peradventure a brave man. But he had refused to fight, had declined to inflict a mortal blow on his enemy, and had thrown away victory when it was within his grasp. His mysterious capture outside of his lines, the talk about trying him by British court-martial as a deserter, his effort to have a committee of Congress visit him in his quarters while a prisoner of war, that he might make an important communication to them—all this, it may well be supposed, was brought up for review and criticism.

There is no evidence that either Washington or Lafayette had the faintest idea of the length and breadth and height and depth of Lee’s turpitude. They could not conceive that he was at that very moment in the pay of the British commander in chief, and that the British commander was acting on Lee’s well-matured plan to destroy his commander, his comrades, his country, his friends.

The army was halted the next day, and soon after was moved to a salubrious camping ground at New Brunswick for rest and refreshment. Sir Henry, on the 30th of June, crossed over to Sandy Hook, and thus again New Jersey was clear, and the enemy, after three years’ campaign, only held what his picket lines covered. Lee wrote to his chief, demanding an apology for his language and manner in the battle. He was at once ordered under arrest, and charges preferred, first, for disobedience of orders; second, misbehavior in the presence of the enemy— i.e., cowardice; third, disrespect to his commanding officer. A court-martial, with Lord Stirling as president, four brigadiers and eight colonels, was convened on July 4th, at New Brunswick. The trial lasted until August 12th, and resulted in the conviction of Lee on all three charges. He was sentenced to be suspended from all command for one year, subject to the approval of Congress. On December 5th the sentence was approved by that body—fifteen ayes and seven nays. If he was guilty as charged, he ought to have been shot, and his escape can only be attributed to the provincialism of the court that tried and sentenced him.

The respect for the British character, the British morals, statesmen, and soldier, was still the dominating and directing influence in the colonial breast; and the militia generals and colonels who sat on Lee’s trial would not have dreamed of shooting a real lieutenant colonel of the British army—a genuine soldier, who had seen war against the Infidel and been decorated with crosses by live kings and emperors. It required another generation and another war to eliminate that sentiment as one of the forces, and a strong force, of American society. But it has been eliminated, and the dregs of it, still exhibited on occasion, only prove the fad of weak-minded women and no-minded men.

Lee retired to a small plantation in Jefferson County, Va., not far from Charlestown, long afterward the scene of John Brown’s execution. Toward the end of his term of exclusion, hearing the Congress was going to drop him from the army, he wrote a very impertinent letter to the President of the Congress, which, without more ado, struck his name from the list of American soldiers. He fought with Colonel John Laurens, aid-de-camp of Washington, on account of some reflections on Laurens’s chief, and passed the rest of his life snarling and cynical, discreditable and discredited; and only the discovery of the Howe papers in this generation has resurrected the skeleton of the almost last survivor of the free lance and the soldier of fortune.

Return to General Washington