General Washington, by Bradley T. Johnson, Chapter 16

Washington and Lee University

General Washington

By General Bradley T. Johnson



WASHINGTON had no doubt but that the capitulation of Cornwallis’s army was conclusive of the struggle, and that the administration of Lord North would not be able to put another army in the field for the reduction of the rebellious colonies. But it was quite uncertain how far Washington would be able to stimulate the States to renewed resistance. Georgia was subdued; South Carolina pinioned, though fiercely struggling by Marion and Sumter, to get loose, greatly aided and encouraged by the genius, the daring, and the intelligence of Greene.

The Congress was tired of the war; the States were worn out; the people, behind all, had nearly given up. If it had not been for the French, Congress would have dispersed, the State governments dissolved, and Lord Dunmore and Tryon would have been re-established in enlarged proconsulships, and confiscation and hanging would have been the order of the day. The suppression of the rising of 1745 in England had given the rebels of America warning of what was to be expected by them if they failed. Public credit did not exist, and, as a matter of fact, gold and silver coin was almost entirely absent. A little of it was hoarded, but most of it had permeated, evaporated, percolated through the lines, as money always does from places of danger to places of safety. All the gold and silver had gone into British hands for British security.

When Washington proposed to move his eastern regiments South, to complete the operations on Cornwallis, it was absolutely necessary to get some money to give them a portion of pay, for the families they were to leave behind. His private fortune and estate of Mount Vernon had been mortgaged before to keep troops in the field, in the terrible stress of 1777–’78. He had not money enough to pay an express to take a letter from his camp on the Hudson to the French minister in Philadelphia, but was obliged to trust it to the ordinary post. So, when he prepared to move, he called on Robert Morris, his unfailing and unfaltering support, for cash, and Morris started to hunt it among the Quakers. They had none; and he actually went to the Count de Rochambeau, without Washington’s knowledge, and borrowed from him twenty thousand hard dollars, which Morris promised to return by October 1st.

Relying on luck—which never deserts those who rely on themselves—Morris, who when he obtained the money had not the faintest idea of where he could find it to return it according to promise, was supplied by Henry Laurens, who arrived in Boston on August 25th, with two and a half million livres in cash, part of the six million granted, given, or loaned by the King of France. So French gold actually paid the American troops to go to Yorktown. There were seven thousand French there, and fifty-five hundred American Continentals. The French fleet held the water, and without it there would have been no Yorktown, as there would also have been none without De Rochambeau. The country in October, 1781, wanted peace. It wanted to stop fighting, and peace was the very worst thing it could have.

The danger was that the French might agree to a general peace on the basis of the uti possidetis, and this would leave all Georgia, Charleston, and the low country of South Carolina, Wilmington on the Cape Fear, New York city, and, substantially, Rhode Island, in the possession of the English—the Tories, the loyalists—perpetual exasperating wounds, like broken spearheads thrust into the side of the Union, to irritate and harass and destroy forever until removed by heroic surgery. Amid the universal delirium of self-congratulation and exaggeration of achievement—the necessary and natural consequence of success—the great labor was to keep somebody’s head straight and cool. “We are great men, great statesmen, great soldiers! See our magnificent strategy! We have swept the British flag from the seas and penned it into three or four posts on land!” Such was the feeling in the Congress, in the States, among the people. But Washington knew that there was not a word of truth in it; that if it had not been for De Rochambeau’s arrival, the Congress would have made terms with the British commissioners, and have swiftly taken Lord North’s pardon on their knees; and he knew that now, unless the French were firm, the Congress would make peace on the basis of the uti possidetis without the slightest hesitation.

As soon, therefore, as he had marched his paroled prisoners from Yorktown, he sent Greene everything he could spare to support him in South Carolina, and started Wayne for Georgia. To the Congress and to the leading men in the States he wrote, as was his custom, at great length, explaining the situation, and making clear the very great danger by which the cause of American independence and liberty was threatened. Peace now, he said, would be disaster, second only to absolute subjugation. It would inevitably lead to future incessant war, intestine struggle, and subjugation by some foreign power, even if the mother country abandoned us.

These admonitions, exhortations, and explanations were begun at Yorktown, and he never ceased them until the definitive treaty of peace recognized by name the thirteen free, sovereign, and independent States, who had declared their independence on July 4 1776, and for whom he had struggled and fought. On his return to the army of the North he found great dissatisfaction and deep-seated discontent. The war was over. Everybody had got rich, and what they wanted, except the soldiers; nothing was done for them, and they were to be turned out on the roadside to beg, or starve, or rob. What justice was there in that? What right had Congress to put honest men in such a dilemma, or to present to them such an alternative? These were hard questions to answer. Washington rode from Yorktown through Fredericksburg, Alexandria, and Annapolis to Philadelphia. Everywhere he was received with the most intense enthusiasm and warmest devotion.

No event has occurred in American history which has ever elicited so much feeling as the surrender at Yorktown, and the subsequent triumphant march of Washington through the country. He was absolutely in control of everything. He was omnipotent as far as mortal power could be, for he could do whatever Congress or the States could do; but he could not revive dead credit or reinvigorate paralyzed currency. At the raising of a finger he would have been intrusted with all authority on just such terms as he chose to mark out, and could have been Protector, President, Dictator, or King, as he pleased. It is certain that no such wish ever sullied his soul. The question was discussed in many circles, and of necessity the discussion must more or less have reached his ears. He spent the winter of 1781–’81 with the Congress at Philadelphia, and did not join the army at Newburg until April of the latter year. There he found the discontent of the army, officers and men, rank and file, worse than ever.

Colonel Lewis Nicola, a fussy character who had commanded an invalid battalion about Philadelphia, wrote him a letter, explaining at great length that the cause of the lack of provision for the soldiers was the form of government, or no-government, under which every one was suffering; that the only relief that could be secured by the country was in the setting up a king, and that he was the man selected by Providence for the place, He did not say, but the inference was unavoidable, that Providence had also sagaciously chosen him, Nicola, to announce the choice, and to superintend the arrangements for carrying that choice into effect. The proposition was absurd. Notwithstanding the gush of the Middle and Northern States, the climate of the Chesapeake was exceedingly unpropitious for a new growth of kings. They might have tolerated James III, or one of the heirs of the Charleses, but they certainly would never have submitted to any upstart, pinchbeck royalty. The house of Hanover was too parvenu for them. Notwithstanding Washington must have understood the feather-headed and irresponsible character of Nicola, he embraced the opportunity to put himself on record on a subject which he knew was the topic of grave discussion among responsible people. He wrote: “With a mixture of great surprise and astonishment I have read with attention the sentiments you have submitted for my approval. . . . I am much at a loss to conceive what part of my conduct could have given encouragement to an address which to me seems big with the greatest mischiefs that can befall my country. If I am not deceived in knowledge of myself, you could not have found a person to whom your schemes are more disagreeable.” It may be unjust to suspect that this letter was more the result of careful deliberation than an indignant outburst of outraged civic virtue, but it certainly will bear that interpretation. Washington knew Nicola, and was aware that nothing from him merited serious attention; but he also knew that loose talk of the kind was floating about, and he considered it wise to stop it at once. The Northern States might have tolerated a king, the Southern never would. The French army rejoined him at Verplanck’s Point, on the Hudson, and his task was thenceforward to bring the war to a conclusion. Sir Guy Carleton, who had succeeded Sir Henry Clinton in command at New York, and Admiral Digby, in charge of the fleet, officially informed him of the movements in Parliament looking to a recognition of the States and a cessation of hostilities. But Washington insisted to his correspondents, the Governors of States, and to the Congress, that the only sure reliance for independence was preparation for war—active, aggressive war. He found a paper circulating in the army, signed by general and field officers, setting forth the grievances of the soldiers, and calling for a general meeting of officers. He issued a general order censuring the temper of the call, and appointing the time and place for a meeting to be held on Saturday, March 15, 1783.

The meeting was held, and General Gates called to the chair, when the commander in chief appeared, He apologized for being present, which he had not intended, he said, when he issued the order directing the meeting. The diligence, however, which had been exhibited in circulating anonymous writings rendered it necessary that he should give his sentiments to the army on the nature and tendency of them. He then read a carefully considered address, in which he showed the great danger of exasperating the feelings of the army, which, he admitted, had great cause for complaint, and he said: “For myself, a recollection of the cheerful assistance and prompt obedience I have experienced from you under every vicissitude of fortune, and the sincere affection I feel for an army I have so long had the honor to command, will oblige me to declare, in this public and solemn manner, that for the attainment of complete justice for all your toils and dangers, and the gratification of every wish, so far as may be done consistently with the great duty I owe my country and those powers we are bound to respect, you may fully command my services to the utmost extent of my abilities.

“While I give you these assurances, and pledge myself in the most unequivocal manner to exert whatever abilities I am possessed of in your favor, let me entreat you, gentlemen, on your part, not to take any measures which, viewed in the calm light of reason, will lessen the dignity and sully the glory you have hitherto maintained. Let me request you to rely on the plighted faith of your country, and place full confidence in the purity of the intentions of Congress; that previous to your dissolution as an army they will cause all your accounts to be fairly liquidated, as directed in the resolutions which were published to you two days ago; and that they will adopt the most effectual measures in their power to render ample justice to you for your faithful and meritorious services.

“And let me conjure you, in the name of our common country, as you value your own sacred honor, as you respect the rights of humanity, and as you regard the military and national character of America, to express your utmost horror and detestation of the man who wishes, under any specious pretenses, to overturn the liberties of our country, and who wickedly attempts to open the floodgates of civil discord and deluge our rising empire in blood.

“By thus determining and thus acting, you will pursue the plain and direct road to the attainment of your wishes; you will defeat the insidious designs of our enemies, who are compelled to resort from open force to secret artifice; you will give one more distinguished proof of unexampled patriotism and patient virtue rising superior to the pressure of the most complicated sufferings; and you will, by the dignity of your conduct, afford occasion for posterity to say, when speaking of the glorious example you have exhibited to mankind, ‘Had this day been wanting, the world had never seen the last stage of perfection to which human nature is capable of attaining’.”

Washington then bowed and withdrew, and Knox at once offered resolutions, seconded by Putnam, reciprocating his expressions of confidence and affection, and asserting that no circumstances of distress would ever induce the army to sully the glory acquired by so much blood and eight years’ faithful services. They reiterated their confidence in Congress and their country, and requested the commander in chief to write the President of Congress, earnestly requesting a speedy decision on the late address forwarded by a committee of the army. He did so, and Congress speedily passed a resolution providing for five years’ full pay to be given officers and men on their discharge.

The general treaty of peace acknowledging the independence of the States by name was signed at Paris, January 20, 1783. On March 23d, a French vessel of D’Estaing’s fleet arrived at Philadelphia, bringing a letter from Lafayette, and the official announcement of the execution of the treaty. In a few days Sir Guy Carleton informed Washington of the fact, and that he was ordered to proclaim a general cessation of hostilities by land and sea, which he did. A similar proclamation was issued by Congress on the 17th of April. Peace was announced in general orders on the 19th day of April, on the eighth anniversary of the battle of Lexington. The men were freely furloughed, and allowed to take with them their arms and accoutrements.

While the main army thus dissolved without disorder, some incidents occurred not equally creditable. About eighty new recruits of the Pennsylvania line, stationed at Lancaster, suddenly mutinied, and marched to Philadelphia, where they were joined by about two hundred soldiers from the barracks, surrounded Congress and the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania, and demanded justice, with threats of violence if their demands were not complied with in twenty minutes. Congress adjourned to Princeton, and Washington dispatched General Howe with fifteen hundred veterans to quell the mutiny. Several of the mutineers were tried by court-martial, two condemned to death, but pardoned, and four received corporal punishment By a proclamation of Congress of October 18th, all furloughed officers and men were discharged, and all others were to be discharged on November 3d. Sir Guy Carleton evacuated New York on the 25th of November, and American troops took possession of the city.

On December 4th, Washington took leave of his officers at Fraunce’s tavern, in the city of New York, and started on his long ride to Annapolis, where Congress was then in session, to resign his commission and thence to Mount Vernon and home to Virginia. He stopped at Philadelphia to adjust with the Controller of the Treasury the accounts of his personal expenditures from the day he left Philadelphia in 1775 down to December 13, 1783. These accounts were kept in his own handwriting with the utmost exactness, and included money expended for secret service and various incidental charges, with vouchers for all payments. The gross amount was fourteen thousand five hundred pounds sterling, for money actually expended; no pay was charged or received. His account was paid.

He arrived at Annapolis on December 20th, where elaborate and ceremonious preparations were made for his reception. On his arrival he addressed a letter to the President of Congress, requesting to know in what manner it would be most proper to offer his resignation—whether in writing or at an audience. The latter mode was adopted, and the Hall of Congress—the Senate Chamber of the General Assembly of Maryland—appointed for the ceremonial; the day, Tuesday, December 23, 1783. A committee was appointed by Congress to arrange the ceremonial for this proceeding, for it was felt to be an important historical event, which must be celebrated with due order and proper solemnity.

During the war the Congress was constantly struggling with the apprehension of a dictatorship, and among them the fear of Washington grew, as his reputation and influence enlarged. They always claimed and asserted the superiority of the civil over the military power, and even in the very crisis of their fate bore themselves as ambassadors of sovereign States, to whom the army and its commander in chief were subordinate. “On Monday and Tuesday, September 3 and 4, 1781,” says the contemporary record, “the French army, under command of his Excellency Count de Rochambeau, passed in review before his Excellency the President, and the Honorable the Congress of the United States, at the State House in this city (Philadelphia). The President was covered; his Excellency General Washington, commander in chief, the Count de Rochambeau, etc., stood on his left hand, uncovered.” The army was on the march for Virginia, York, and Cornwallis. The committee of Congress on the reception reported the details of the ceremony with great minuteness. General Mifflin, Washington’s old quartermaster general, was president. Nine States were present. The reception was by the ambassadors of sovereign States to their victorious general and the country’s most distinguished citizen; illustrious, but citizen only—nothing more.

When General Washington, escorted by his staff, entered the Chamber, the members of the Congress remained seated and covered; the general was shown by the Secretary of Congress to his seat specially provided for him; his staff remained standing. The President informed him that the Congress is ready to receive his communication. The general then arose and read his address: “Mr. President: The great events on which my resignation depended having at length taken place, I now have the honor of offering my sincere congratulations to Congress, and of presenting myself before them to surrender into their hands the trust committed to me, and to claim the indulgence of retiring from the service of my country.

“Happy in the confirmation of our independence and sovereignty, and pleased with the opportunity afforded the United States of becoming a respectable nation, I resign, with satisfaction, the appointment I accepted with diffidence—a diffidence in my abilities to accomplish so arduous a task, which, however, was superseded by a confidence in the rectitude of our cause, the support of the supreme power of the Union and the patronage of Heaven. The successful termination of the war has verified the most sanguine expectations; and my gratitude for the interposition of Providence, and the assistance I have received from my countrymen, increases with every review of the momentous contest.

“While I repeat my obligations to the army in general, I should do injustice to my own feelings not to acknowledge in this place the peculiar services and distinguished merits of the gentlemen who have been attached to my person during the war. It was impossible that the choice of confidential officers to compose my family should have been more fortunate. Permit me, sir, to recommend in particular those who have continued in the service to the present moment as worthy of the favorable notice and patronage of Congress.

“I consider it as an indispensable duty to close this last act of my official life by commending the interests of our dearest country to the protection of Almighty God, and those who have the superintendence of them to his holy keeping.

“Having now finished the work assigned me, I retire from the great theater of action, and, bidding an affectionate farewell to this august body, under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my commission, and take my leave of all the employments of public life.”

After advancing to the chair and delivering his commission and a copy of his address to the President, he returned to his place and received, standing, the answer of Congress delivered by the President, sitting:

SIR: The United States in Congress assembled receive with emotions too affecting for utterance the solemn resignation of the authorities under which you have led their troops with success through a perilous and doubtful war. Called upon by your country to defend its invaded rights, you accepted the sacred charge before it had formed alliances, and while it was without funds or a government to support you.

You have conducted the great military contest with wisdom and fortitude, invariably regarding the rights of the civil power through all disasters and changes. You have, by the love and confidence of your fellow-citizens, enabled them to display their martial genius, and transmit their fame to posterity. You have persevered until these United States, aided by a magnanimous King and nation, have been enabled, under a just Providence, to close the war in freedom, safety, and independence; on which happy event we sincerely join you in congratulations.

Having defended the standard of liberty in this New World, having taught a lesson useful to those who inflict and to those who feel oppression, you retire from the great theater of action with the blessings of your fellow-citizens. But the glory of your virtues will not terminate with your military command; it will continue to animate remotest ages. We feel, with you, our obligations to the army in general, and will particularly charge ourselves with the interests of those confidential officers who hare attended your person to this affecting moment.

We join you in commending the interests of our dearest country to the protection of Almighty God, beseeching him to dispose the hearts and minds of its citizens to improve the opportunity afforded them of becoming a happy and respectable nation. And for you we address to him our earnest prayers, that a life so beloved may be fostered with all his care; that your days may be happy as they have been illustrious; and that he will finally give you the reward which this world can not give.

The Secretary then delivered a copy of the President’s address to the general, who then took his leave. When he rose to deliver his address, and also when he retired, he bowed to the Congress, which they returned by uncovering uncovering without bowing. He left Annapolis at sunrise the next morning, and reached Mount Vernon the same night—Christmas eve. As he wrote George Clinton: “The scene is at last closed. I feel myself eased of a load of public care. I hope to spend the remainder of my days in cultivating the affections of good men, and in the practice of the domestic virtues.” This is the last scene in the life of George Washington, soldier, by his own fireside, with his wife and friends, at home at Mount Vernon, in Virginia.

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