General Washington, by Bradley T. Johnson, Chapter 14

Washington and Lee University

General Washington

By General Bradley T. Johnson



THE failure of the combined land and naval operations against New York and Newport did not discourage Washington, or impair his determination to use the French power on the sea, with that of the States on the land, to strike a decisive blow. He h[ad] succeeded in the strategic move against Burgoyne in the North, owing to the active and zealous support of New England. He had failed in his plan to capture Sir William Howe and his army in Philadelphia, owing to the treachery of Charles Lee, who withheld re-enforcements in time to hold the Delaware, and the failure of New Jersey and Pennsylvania to rise in the enemy’s rear and on his flanks, as New England had done at Bennington, at Stillwater, and at Saratoga.

But thenceforward his main effort was first to get his enemy in the South into such a position that he could isolate him, by the use of the French fleet, from his base of supplies, for the open sea was the British base; and, second, raise the country on him, surround him, capture him, end the war, and achieve liberty and independence. He impressed on Lincoln, commanding in South Carolina, that the defense of posts, positions, and lines was impracticable. The Americans held the interior line of defense. The British must move on exterior lines of attack, and by keeping the American defense foot free it could be moved from point to point as necessity required, and always confront its adversary, extended on the circumference of a circle, with superior force moving on the interior. The attempt to hold positions and lines would give the enemy the initiative, and he would thus select his own time and place of attack. Lincoln, in any and every event, was to save his army, Posts and ports, towns and cities, might all be surrendered and retaken. An army taken captive was an army destroyed. Its esprit, its morale could never be resurrected, even if its men and material could be completely replaced.

Washington was forced by necessity to hold the line of the Hudson. That and the Chesapeake were the only two absolutely requisite strategic conditions to be maintained; all others might be given up, as he had abandoned Boston and New York and Philadelphia But local populations have an intense horror of the enemy. The feeling is somewhat a sentimental one, for the rules of war in modern times forbid the outrages of earlier states of society. Therefore, when Sir Henry Clinton and Cornwallis approached Charleston, S.C., in February, 1780, there was a unanimous and vociferous outcry among the South Carolinians that Charleston should not be abandoned, and Lincoln allowed himself to be cooped up there.

Sir Henry Clinton, finding he could not loosen Washington’s hold on the North River by forays along the Sound and raids up the Hudson, determined to force his hand by a move in another quarter. He embarked eight thousand men at New York, and after Christmas, 1779, sailed for Savannah, with Cornwallis second in command. He was soon followed by Lord Rawdon, afterward Earl of Moira and Marquis of Hastings, with three thousand more. This move forced Washington to dispatch all his Carolina and Virginia troops to the assistance of Lincoln, together with Pulaski and his legion of the odds and ends of nations and races.

Clinton landed in South Carolina, moved to the rear of Charleston, cut the city off from the country, and on May 12, 1780, Lincoln surrendered three thousand Continentals, with a large supply of munitions of war. The strategic points in the interior were at once occupied, and in June, Clinton returned to New York, leaving Lord Cornwallis with five thousand regulars to consolidate the conquest and restore the unhappy country to its allegiance.

Georgia, before then, had been subdued, and Pulaski lost his life in a futile attempt, by French and Americans, to retake Savannah. Marion and Sumter alone kept the flag of rebellion flying among the palmettoes. It seemed as if the rebellion was to be destroyed from the edges, and not by cutting it into pieces. Georgia and South Carolina quiet, it only remained to advance into North Carolina and Virginia to arouse, rally, and protect the Union sentiment there, just as, eighty years after, Sherman marched by the same routes to extinguish the rebellion and revive the Union sentiment among the grandsons of the people who had known Lord Cornwallis and Colonel Banastre Tarleton.

The anti-Washington feeling in Congress, the sectional sentiment, sought this occasion to mortify him and to make another move toward displacing him. Gates, with the Army of the North, had captured one British army; with an army in the South he would capture another, and then there would be no doubt that he was the general for the war, the destined saviour of the liberties of the continent, and all would agree that he was the Moses selected by Providence to lead us through the Red Sea of rebellion, and to command the army on its march to the promised land.

As in the assignment of Gates to the command at Albany, Washington did not agree to this estimate by the Board of War and the New England influence, nor assent to his being intrusted with great responsible command. But his opinion was disregarded, and Genera1 Gates was sent South to redeem the Carolinas. Charles Lee, who knew him well—knew his ignorance, his self-conceit, his weakness of will, his intellectual incapacity—sent him word, by a mutual friend, to “take heed lest his Northern laurels turn to Southern willows.”

Gates arrived at Hillsborough, N.C., July 19, 1780, where he found the Maryland and Delaware lines, of about two thousand men, under Major General the Baron de Kalb, who while on the march from the North had reached that point on June 20th, when the news of Lincoln’s surrender reached them. De Kalb halted until he could secure some co-operation from Richard Caswell, Governor of North Carolina. The arrival of Gates, with orders to assume command of the army and of the States, relieved De Kalb of responsibility, and he calmly awaited orders. The British held no positions in North Carolina except a depot on the Cape Fear, the present city of Wilmington. They held Camden, under command of Lord Rawdon, in the center of South Carolina, where roads from east, west, north, and south converged, and the possession of Camden would cut the communications of all posts, east, west, and north, with headquarters, at Charleston. Therefore General Gates proposed the brilliant strategic feat of the capture of Camden before Lord Cornwallis could reach it from Charleston.

He moved by the shortest line, and arrived at Camden before Cornwallis, but by indecision and delay lost his advantage and opportunity, for Cornwallis came before he could make up his mind to attack Rawdon. He did so at last on August 16, 1780, with three thousand men, of whom fourteen hundred were veterans of the Maryland line, against two thousand regulars under Cornwallis, and in a few hours was utterly routed, dispersed, destroyed. The only ray of light on that black field is the chivalry of the First Regiment of the Maryland line, which by repeated and reiterated bayonet charges stayed the onward sweep of the British line, and the heroic death of their commander, De Kalb, who died on the field from many wounds. Gates fled ignominiously, and never drew rein until he reached Hillsborough, two hundred, miles off, in four days. Cornwallis halted a month at Camden before he moved north into North Carolina,

The destruction of the army of the South, the submission of Georgia, the conquest of South Carolina, and the impending subjugation of North Carolina, threatened the most tremendous consequences. War had been waged for five years; independence had been declared four years; the alliance with France had been accomplished two years, and there was still no apparent end to the struggle. Florida Blanca, the Spanish Prime Minister, urged Vergennes, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, to make peace between the revolted colonies and their home Government on the basis of the retention of New York and Rhode Island by the latter, and the acknowledgment of the independence of the rest. The wily Spaniard argued that such a settlement would leave the English Protestants in America so divided that they would exhaust themselves and the mother county in internecine fraternal struggle, and leave the dominion of the sea again to Spain, as it had been before the failure of the Grand Armada.

The Frenchman, with a wider view and farther sight, believed that the way to break Great Britain’s supremacy was by force, not diplomacy, and that a great, prosperous, energetic, aggressive, Anglo-Norman, Scandinavian, Celtic, Gothic, Saxon race in America would more certainly overcome Great Britain by the arts of peace, than the trite device of undermining the adversary by encouraging internal broils and intestine struggles. Quarrels may be composed and strife may be stilled, but power produced and supported by industrial development will overcome and outlast conditions created by and resting on cunning, adroitness, and the manifestations of passions, religious, racial, or national.

Therefore the French statesman elected to create a great power on the Western continent, instead of trying to involve it in ruin. The French alliance had amounted to nothing in the field. It supplied some money and arms and munitions, and a superabundance of military adventurers and soldiers of fortune like Conway, but it was really disadvantageous, in that it weakened the self-reliance of the States, and tended to turn their eyes toward France for success, instead of relying on their own hearts and arms alone, The finances of the confederacy were absolutely nil. There was no courage, no brains, no experience in their management.

The Articles of Confederation still hung on between the States unratified. There was no authority in the Congress. It could not enlist a man or raise a dollar by taxation. It could and did issue promises to pay, and flooded the country with currency which was estimated at the value of the expectation it represented. Virginia maintained a post at Fort Pitt, the former Fort Duquesne, and constructed a chain of forts from the head waters of the Ohio along the Alleghany range to the North Carolina line, while she claimed the county of Kentucky from the mouth of the Kanawha to the Mississippi, and the county of Illinois, comprising all the territory west of the Ohio, to the same river.

The other States refused to accede to the confederation until Virginia agreed that these territories should be considered the common property of all the States. She, on the other hand, insisted that, as they had been conquered by Virginian arms and paid for by Virginian blood and money, they belonged to her; and that the objections to her title were based not on the common interest, but on selfish considerations to save the speculative rights of men prominent in the States, and who had been conspicuous in the colonial governments—among them Lord Dunmore, of Virginia, and Governor Tryon, of North Carolina and New York. With this wrangle of jarring interests, the general depreciation of public morals, always accompanying war, with a fluctuating, uncertain medium of exchange, steadily debauched the public virtue.

Washington was more concerned with the social degeneration than even the gloomy military outlook. Speculators, engrossers, blockade runners overshadowed society, and easy and rapid gains produced easier and more rapid expenditure, until the luxury of a few only accentuated the sufferings of the many, and the aspirations of all were rapidly tending toward the accumulation of money more than to the acquisition of liberty. He wrote, he urged, he entreated leading men of the States to apply their whole energies toward correcting this fast-growing corruption, demonstrating to them the fact that, if it could not be cured, there would be nothing left worth contending for.

Looking to Virginia, as ever, for support and example, he impressed George Mason with the sense of the immense danger, and urged him to rouse the General Assembly to action. He knew nothing of the intrigue of the Spaniards for peace with a divided continent, but his phenomenal political sagacity warned him of the danger; and while Florida Blanca was writing to Vergennes to secure peace, he was writing to Mason that the highest duty and most pressing necessity was the continuance of the war. To the General Assembly he set forth at length, through a letter to Mason, the actual conditions, and demonstrated that peace now could only result in untold disaster, and that their only safety lay in vigorous preparation for, and defense against, Cornwallis’s invasion, now impending.

Thomas Jefferson had become Governor, and the State, aroused, proceeded to put herself in position for what fortune might send. One difficulty about the French alliance had been that the troops and fleets sent were allies, and not part of the military and naval force of the confederacy. The French commanders co-operated in good faith, it is true, in the strategy of the American commander in chief, but they took no orders from him. In February, 1779, Washington sent Lafayette to France, ostensibly to see his family, but really to secure from the ministry the detachment of a substantial body of trained troops to report to Washington, and to form part of his command. In April he returned, and informed Washington that France would soon send the desired re-enforcement.

On July 10th the French fleet arrived at Newport with five thousand veteran soldiers, the élite of the armies of his Most Christian Majesty, under command of General the Count de Rochambeau. The fleet consisted of eight ships of the line, two frigates, and two bombs. As soon as Sir Henry heard of this arrival he moved an army against it. Embarking a large force on his fleet and transports in New York harbor, on July 31st he sailed up the Sound eastward. Without a moment’s hesitation Washington headed everything he had on foot, on horse, and on wheels for Kingsbridge, intending to “swap queens” with the British general and capture New York while he was struggling with Rochambeau at Newport. This countermove promptly recalled the expedition eastward, and by August 4th it was safely back in New York.

On September 21st Washington had an interview with De Rochambeau, at Hartford, Conn. The commander in chief was attended with more state and ceremony than the French marquis general. M. de Rochambeau was accompanied by six officers—the admiral, his chief of engineers, his son the Viscomte de Rochambeau, and two aids-de-camp, of whom Count de Fersen was one. Washington had with him Major General the Marquis de Lafayette, General Knox, Chief of Artillery, M, de Gouvion, Chief of Engineers, and six aids-de-camp, and an escort of twenty-two dragoons.

Says the Count de Fersen, in his diary written that very day: “M. de Rochambeau sent me in advance to announce his arrival, and I had time to see this man, illustrious if not unique in this century. He is handsome and majestic, while at the same time his mild and open countenance perfectly reflects his moral qualities; he looks the hero; he is very cold; speaks little, but is courteous and frank. A shade of sadness overshadows his countenance, which is not unbecoming, and gives him an interesting air.”

This pen picture by the bright young Frenchman accurately portrays the appearance and describes the manners of a Virginian gentleman of the epoch, of estate, reputation, and weight in his province. Gravity, decorum, stately deportment, were characteristic of that society, and the description would have done as well for George Mason, of Gunston Hall, or Colonel Thomas Ludwell Lee, of Berry Hill, or Daniel Carroll Brent, of Richlands, or Thomas Fitzhugh, of Boscobel, or William Fitzhugh, of Ravensworth, or Colonel McCarty, of Marmion, or many more of his kinsmen and friends on both sides of the Potomac. Washington was no phenomenon of deportment, but was the type of his class—the very highest and best type of the Virginian country gentleman of his period.

The conference established perfectly cordial relations between the two commanders, but nothing was determined except the general strategy of their operations: to keep Sir Henry Clinton from re-enforcing Cornwallis by constant threats against him in New York, and to isolate Cornwallis within reach of the Northern Army, cut him off from the sea by the French fleet, and capture his whole force. To this end it was agreed to re-enforce the naval power by an addition to the fleet from that of the Count de Guichen in the West Indies. Washington sent to him a request for ships of the line, and De Ternay sent him an order to re-enforce the fleet in Newport harbor; but De Guichen sailed for France. A second division of French war ships and troops was prepared for America, but they were blockaded in the harbor of Brest, as Admiral de Ternay was in that of Newport by a superior British force, and never succeeded in getting out.

De Rochambeau marched his army across Connecticut and joined Washington, and then they threatened Sir Henry Clinton. In the meantime the steady insults by Congress had forced Morgan and Greene out of the service, as it was hoped would be the case with Washington. But Gates’s disaster at Camden required a new arrangement, and in great trouble the Congress appealed to the commander in chief for a commander for the Southern army. He selected Greene. The rank of major general was conferred on him, and he took command at Charlotte, N.C., of the fragments of Continentals that Gates had left and the militia that Caswell was able to embody. With General Greene he sent his corps d’ élite, the legion of Henry Lee, made lieutenant colonel for his brilliant surprise of Paulus Hook, and Kosciusko as engineer.

He appealed to Morgan, who promptly reported to Greene, and Congress tardily righted the wrong by conferring on him the appropriate rank. With Greene in the saddle in North Carolina, Washington knew that that part of the movement would be properly executed. He was to draw Cornwallis North. Steuben was sent to Virginia to keep Greene’s communications open with the army, and Lafayette was directed to take command of such Virginia militia as Governor Jefferson could raise for him, and to hang around Cornwallis as soon as he entered the State, keep him employed by constant threats, and worry him out of the open country back to tide water. Greene fell back through North Carolina with Cornwallis hot on his track, until at last he gave him battle at Guilford Court-House, for the purpose of crippling him and keeping him near the water. After the battle of Guilford, Cornwallis fell back to his base on the Cape Fear, and then marched on Sherman’s projected route of eighty years after, through the eastern part of the State to Petersburg, Va. There he was confronted with Lafayette, the major general of twenty-three years, who refused to fight, and who constantly eluded him. He crossed the James River to Malvern Hill, where McClellan fought in 1862, turned up the Pamunkey, following the Frenchman; by Hanover Town, where Grant crossed in 1864, and forced Lafayette across the North Anna, where Grant fought in 1864, back to Ely’s Ford on the Rappahannock, by a road which he cut through the country, known as “Marcus Road,” or the Marquis’s Road, to this day.

Thence Cornwallis dispatched Tarleton on a raid to Charlottesville where Governor Jefferson and the Virginia Legislature were assembled, and Lafayette moved up the river, and about Warrenton joined Wayne, who with one thousand Continentals was moving South to support him. With Wayne’s re-enforcement he cut Tarleton off from his command, and drove him to the Point of Fork, in Fluvanna County, on the upper James, sixty miles above Richmond. From the North Anna Cornwallis was obliged to march sixty or seventy miles west, three days’ march, to rescue his dashing raider, who had become enveloped in the toils set for him by the French general and his Virginians. As soon as his troops were reunited the British general marched down the north or left bank of the James by Richmond, across the Chickahominy, to York River. He was closely followed up by Lafayette.

In the meantime Washington had been pressing De Grasse, who commanded a great French fleet in the West Indies for the conquest of Jamaica, to unite with De Rochambeau and himself in a combined land and water attack on Sir Henry Clinton in New York, or on Cornwallis in Virginia. It was not until the summer that he had a definite reply from De Grasse that he elected to take the Chesapeake as the scene of his operations. The area was large and the water deep, and the bay suited the great vessels of his command better than the bar and contracted waters of New York harbor.

Sending Lafayette orders to hold Cornwallis until he got up, he set to work to persuade his own army and Sir Henry Clinton that he intended to attack the latter in New York. De Grasse’s fleet consisted of twenty-eight ships of the line and six frigates, carrying seventeen hundred guns and twenty thousand men. The presence of such a force would deprive the English of the command of the sea, cut them off from their base, and isolate Clinton or Cornwallis, whichever it was directed against De Grasse decided against whom the operation should be directed by selecting the Chesapeake.

On August 19, 1781, five days after receiving De Grasse’s dispatch, Washington’s army crossed the Hudson. He left Lord Stirling with a small force to watch the gate from Canada at Saratoga, and General Heath with four thousand Continentals to hold West Point. His army consisted of two thousand Continentals, composed of two regiments of New Jersey, the First Regiment of New York, Colonel Hazen’s Canadian regiment, Colonel Olney’s regiment of Rhode Island, Colonel Lamb’s regiment of artillery and the light troops under command of Colonel Scammel, and four thousand French troops under General de Rochambeau. “The Rhode Island regiment, among others, is extremely fine,” writes a French officer, the Baron Cromot du Bourg, at the time.

The French contingent contained the Regiments Bourbonnais, Deux Fonts and Saintonge, Soisonnois, and other corps d’ élite of the army of France. It was the only time that Continentals ever marched with French. They were afterward to be brought close together in the comradeship of arms and the noble rivalry of battle in the trenches and before the redoubts at Yorktown. The route was through New Jersey, and not until New Brunswick was passed did even the general officers dream that any other enterprise was in execution than the attack on New York. So closely had the secret been kept between Washington and De Rochambeau, that not until the army passed through Philadelphia, September 3d to 5th, did Sir Henry Clinton divine the object of the movement—that it was not against him, but was a concentration on the interior lines on the army in Virginia. Just below Philadelphia Washington received a dispatch by courier that De Grasse had arrived in the bay, and the news was communicated to the column. The tidings strung them up to the highest pitch of enthusiasm, and they swung along with the free stride and square-set shoulders that marches and bivouac and battle for six years had given them. Their uniforms were ragged, but their bayonets were bright; their shoes were tattered, but their hearts were light; and no hunger, no fatigue, no labor could depress the men marching to the fulfillment of their dream of six years—liberty and independence, glory and peace! The French, natty, clean, precise, followed, much pondering at the power which could give such looking men such spirits. They were reviewed by the Congress and the French minister as they passed down Chestnut Street by the State House.

On September 7th the head of the allied army reached the “Head of Elk,” and was pushed on board the bay craft there collected for its transportation to the James. Washington, with his staff, rode rapidly through the country, passing through Baltimore on the 8th, to Mount Vernon on the 9th, where he was joined by De Rochambeau on the 10th, and where he stayed until the 12th. Thence they rode by Fredericksburg and New Castle to Williamsburg, which place they reached on the 14th, to Lafayette’s infinite relief. They rode fifty miles a day.

As soon as De Grasse opened communications with the latter, he gave him three thousand French infantry, which made his position before Cornwallis perfectly secure. The transports with the troops proceeded down the bay, past York River and Old Point Comfort and turned up the James to Williamsburg, where the army debarked. Admiral de Barras, having escaped Graves’s blockade at Newport, joined the Count de Grasse with his ships and transports, and the latter having been sent to Baltimore for the remainder of the French army, which had marched there from the Head of Elk, arrived at Williamsburg on the 28th and the whole army was assembled.

The investment of Cornwallis was begun at once, and completed by the 30th—the Americans on the right, the French on the left, under the Marquis St. Simon and the Viscount de Vioménil. Cornwallis having seized and fortified Gloucester Point, on the opposite side of York River, the Americans and French under Generals de Choisé and Weedon and the Duke de Lauzun blockaded him there. Admiral Graves followed De Barras from Newport and attempted to force the entry to the Chesapeake, but the overwhelming force of De Grasse met him at the Capes, and after a severe engagement drove him off. Thus the grand movement which Washington had prepared for the last year was accomplished. He had left Sir Henry Clinton in New York. He had precipitated on Cornwallis, in Virginia, an over-whelming military force, while the enormous naval preponderance of his allies gave him absolute control of the sea. Clinton might evacuate New York and come with Graves to Cornwallis’s deliverance. But then Heath would occupy the strategic center of the war, and De Grasse would prevent the junction of the two British armies. Even if he succeeded in getting into York and uniting with Cornwallis, he would have abandoned the struggle, given up all the territory won by six years of war, and risk all in a final trial with the allies when their combinations rendered his destruction more than probable. The move was a perfect checkmate.

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